Danny Strong on Why 'The Butler' Is an Original, Not Adapted, Screenplay (Video)
The Emmy-winning writer of the summer hit says the character of Cecil Gaines was "inspired by" Eugene Allen but not adapted from an article about his life.
At The Hollywood Reporter's recent Next Gen event, I had the opportunity to chat a bit with Danny Strong, the Emmy-winning writer (last year's Game Change) who penned the script of one of this year's most buzzed-about Oscar contenders, Lee Daniels' The Butler. I asked Strong to share his thoughts on what has proven to be one of this award season's more confusing matters: the categorization of The Butler's screenplay as an original screenplay contender rather than an adapted screenplay contender, even though it tells a story very similar to the one of Eugene Allen, a real person, that was recounted by Wil Haygood in "A Butler Well Served by This Election," a Nov. 7, 2008 article in the Washington Post.
As you can see by watching the video clip above or reading a transcribed excerpt below, Strong emphasizes that his script was partially "inspired by" but not directly "adapted from" the Haygood article, which is why the Writers Guild of America certified it as an original screenplay several months ago and why he and The Weinstein Co., which is distributing The Butler, feel that it should receive awards consideration in that category:
"The story is inspired by Eugene Allen, but the character in the film is not Eugene Allen. The character in the film is Cecil Gaines [played by Forest Whitaker], and his son in the film is Louis Gaines [played by David Oyelowo], and his wife in the film is Gloria Gaines [played by Oprah Winfrey], and that's a fictional family. They're composite characters inspired by real people -- many real people, not just Eugene Allen and his family. But the storyline is an original storyline and my goal, when writing the script, was to create this fictional family to tell the true story of the Civil Rights movement. So when we submitted the script to the Writers Guild, they just deemed it an original screenplay ... I saw someone saying I should be campaigning for adapted. I don't have a choice."
Among the major differences between the stories of the real Allen and the fictional Gaines: Allen served under every president from Truman through Reagan, whereas Gaines served under every president from Eisenhower through Reagan; Allen had only one son who became a state department investigator, whereas Gaines had two sons, one of whom was killed in Vietnam and the other of whom became a radical member of the Black Panther party and later ran for elected office; and Allen regarded Reagan as one of his favorite presidents to work for, even keeping a picture of Reagan in his living room, whereas Gaines leaves his job out of protest of Reagan's policy towards Apartheid-era South Africa. Also, there is no record of Allen ever meeting President Obama, although he did attend Obama's first inauguration; Gaines, on the other hand, is called to the White House for a one-on-one meeting with Obama shortly after Obama's first inauguration.
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