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FIRST LOOK: How Ziskin Pushed Daniels' 'The Butler,' Starring Whitaker, Winfrey, Cusack and Williams

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 20, 2012 at 4:29PM

In 2008, as Barack Obama was on the cusp of being elected, Sony chairman Amy Pascal sent Sony producer Laura Ziskin ("Pretty Woman," "Spider-Man") Wil Haygood's Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who was a butler in the White House through eight presidents. Ziskin immediately saw "the potential for a personal and epic historic story," says her 11-year producing partner Pam Williams on the phone from the set of "The Butler," shooting in New Orleans with "Precious" director Lee Daniels and a cast led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
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The presidents are played by Robin Williams (Eisenhower), James Marsden (JFK), Liev Schreiber (LBJ), John Cusack (Nixon) and Alan Rickman (Reagan), with Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Melissa Leo as Mamie Eisenhower, and Minka Kelly as Jackie Kennedy.

Admittedly, this is an ambitious project in scope--recreating history in period detail-- to achieve on an independent budget. The film is in its third week of production in New Orleans, where they filmed in a Woolworth's counter bar where a famous sit-in actually took place.

For now there is no distributor; Sony will have the domestic first-look opportunity. Icon International and IM Global handled foreign sales at Cannes, where the response was upbeat around the world. "People who were concerned that period American politics and an African-American story would limit interest saw the opposite," says Williams.

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.