'Lee Daniels' The Butler': Producer, Screenwriter Talk Film's Struggle, Inspirations for Story

1:51 PM PST 08/06/2013 by Hilary Lewis
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company
Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker at "The Butler" premiere

At the film's NY premiere, Laura Ziskin's producing partner told THR why multiple studios turned down the project while Danny Strong revealed how he made a historical film personal.

Lee Daniels' The Butler is one of the last films produced by the late Laura Ziskin, who passed away in 2011 after optioning the Washington Post article on which the film is based.

But for Ziskin's longtime producing partner Pam Williams, the movie kept her memory alive.

"When Laura passed away, this movie in many ways saved me," Williams tells The Hollywood Reporter at the movie's premiere Monday night in New York. "She was my best friend; she was my mentor; she was my world, and this movie became my mission. And as long as I've been working on the movie, she's been beside me, very much alive through every decision, so I'm not sure what I'm going to do when the movie's over. I'm going to have to deal with the fact that she's gone, but as long as I had this in my eyesight, she's been very much alive."

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For Williams and Ziskin, it was a struggle to get a studio to take a chance on their project.

All the major studios passed on it before The Weinstein Co. came on board, Williams explains, claiming the movie didn't fit their financial model.

"It didn't fit into the business model driven by international sales. It was a period piece that was about American politics. It was an African-American film. It seemed to have everything against what the studios are looking for in terms of the franchises, the big tentpoles," Williams tells THR.

In fact, Williams credits director Lee Daniels with convincing the more than 20 individual investors to finance the film.

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Although the movie is based on the true story of longtime White House butler Eugene Allen, screenwriter Danny Strong conceded that Forest Whitaker's fictional Cecil Gaines is actually an amalgam of multiple people.

"The character of Cecil Gaines is definitely a composite character," Strong says to THR. "So, he's based on many different stories from all of these people that I interviewed, but I would say that it's all inspired by Eugene Allen. It all began with Eugene Allen. And there's a certain essence to Cecil Gaines that I got from my interview with Eugene Allen."

In terms of preparation, Aml Ameen, who played the younger Gaines, also didn't solely research Allen.

"I read the article, and I spoke to Lee about it quite a bit, but in the end, Lee doesn't like all of that. He likes us to get the nitty-gritty in the truth of what we're doing at the moment," Ameen says. "So, I worked with Forest a bit on having a through line for our characteristics and language."

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The film also features a parallel storyline involving Gaines' son, who's involved with the civil rights movement, which Strong says was a way of giving the history depicted in the film a personal dimension.

"By having a son that was there when we're in the White House, seeing the president deal with the crisis of these events -- then the butler that's serving the president would know that his son is in the middle of the jeopardy that the president's having to deal with," Strong explains.

Although many castmembers were happy to talk about The Butler at Monday's premiere, David Oyelowo would not share any details about his upcoming movie, Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, indicating that he'd been sworn to a frightening level of secrecy.

"If I told you anything about it, I think the ground underneath me would open up, and I'd be swallowed up," Oyelowo jokes before adding that he is glad he got the chance to work with one of the filmmakers on his list.

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