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Lee Daniels Talks Transition from Film to Fox TV's Hip Hop Musical 'Empire' and HBO's Sammy Davis Jr. Biopic

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 29, 2014 at 2:46PM

In our in-depth interview, Lee Daniels explains why he's misunderstood, has stopped reading reviews, and has adapted King Lear as hip-hop musical "Empire" for network television--while not giving up on movies.
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Jane Fonda and Lee Daniels at the Outfest Legacy Awards
Jane Fonda and Lee Daniels at the Outfest Legacy Awards

Oh wow. He understood me. I am so misunderstood. I think people don't know what to make of me.

Where did you start out? 

I started in theater. That was the other thing-- I couldn't afford film school. I had a choice to sell drugs to stay in college or not cause I couldn't afford it. And so I chose to not. And I choose to pursue my dream out here and in New York I was directing off-off-off-off Broadway, like practically Harlem. I miss it. I haven't been home in four months. I am going crazy. From "Butler" to prepping the pilot to shooting the pilot to editing the pilot to now staffing and crewing it- I got to go home. My boyfriend is upset. My kids are upset.

Where is home? New York? 

I live in mid-town. It's a loft, it's a big space for New York. I am really happy to have it and I miss it. Anyways, I didn't come the conventional route. I went from off-off Broadway. I would direct plays in Baldwin Hills. Almost Tyler Perry like, really trying to express myself in that and not really knowing how to, knowing acting in story, but not really knowing how to technically hold a camera. So I started producing, you know, but I had that hustle in me growing up and from my experience in life. Which is a very unconventional back-door way of getting into this business. I was managing actors at one point while I was directing theater at night. Anyway, it lead to me producing which lead to, not that I don't want to produce, I want to find the right thing to do with someone. 

When I did direct, well my first movie was "Monster's Ball" as a producer. I knew that I wanted to direct a film. I just didn’t know how, so I studied and I watched everybody, the camera man and learned about what the AD does, etc. Then I get up the balls after The "Woodsman," the second movie I produced. We made two dollars. But we won Cannes. With "The Woodsman" too I was learning to hire. Like when I hired Marc Forster I had all of these African American and white directors who wanted to do it, but I wanted racism to be seen from a childlike perspective and so I knew that Marc would bring a very unique sort of slant on it. And I loved the cinematographer Roberto Schaefer which is the reason I hired both of them.

And which director did you hire on "The Woodsman?" 

Nicole Kassell. It was really important for me to hire a woman. Brilliant. Everybody was good. Anyways, so then I thought, "okay I got this down. I am ready to direct." I am loving it. I’ve got Wong Kar Wai’s editor, Vivienne Westwood doing design for the first time, and her career doing costumes, and I am having the time of my life. And it's fun. I am still having fun. I am making a movie. I am learning. I was reading the press at that time reading all the good stuff for "Monster’s Ball" reading all the good stuff for "The Woodsman." I just expected to be embraced for "Shadowboxer."

That must have hit you pretty hard. So you weren’t even anxious about it?

I knew it was a fabulous movie. Are you crazy? I thought it was everything.

When have you experienced the most intense anxiety in terms of performance anxiety? In terms of how you are going to be perceived. Or are you always confident?

I love every one of my movies, every one of them equally. Every one that I have produced. You can't let it out into the world unless you can be proud of it, it's your body of work. I have a preference for "The Paperboy" because I don't know that people have seen it, they just don't know it and so that's the child that I am upset about that people don't know and maybe will never know. Depression came from believing the press. If you believe the good then you got to believe the bad. I believe what my dad told me was true. He said, "you're never going to be anything, you're gay, it's hard enough being black." When you see it in print you think of what your dad said. So that's why I can't read anything. But I felt like I put my heart in it and I felt like I got great a performance from everyone and maybe the story is a little kooky.  

Now on "Precious" you were channeling this other world. Like the way Steve McQueen felt with "12 Years a Slave," you were lifting it up for the world. You were in service of a higher power.

I felt the same about "The Butler." I felt that that was that. I think that I knew nothing of the civil rights movement and that my kids didn't. My kids were taught more about Anne Frank than their own people at Dalton. 

How old are your twins now?

Eighteen. 

Are they going to college? 

Yeah. Well my son is staying back a year because he has to get his grades right for college, but my daughter is going to the University of Paris – Yeah I know, right?They are my brother's children and I've raised them since they were three days old and I am so proud of her. She wants to be a filmmaker and I am like, "you're crazy. What are you doing? Don't do it. Don't do it! It won't love you back. It won't love you back."


This article is related to: Lee Daniels, Lee Daniels' The Butler , Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire, TV, TV Interviews, TV Features, Television, Television, Interviews, Interviews, Interviews


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