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Lee Daniels is a Cannes veteran who has steadily worked his way up through the festival’s hierarchy.
The Woodsman, which he produced, played Directors’ Fortnight in 2004. Precious, which he directed, was featured in Un Certain Regard in 2009. And this year, Daniels graduates to the Competition with his newest film, The Paperboy, which receives its gala priemere on Thursday.
An adaptation of the 1995 novel by Pete Dexter, the film is set in 1960s South Florida, where a young man (Zac Efron) witnesses a series of events while his journalist older brother (Matthew McConaughey) is recruited by a death-row groupie (Nicole Kidman) to prove that a man convicted of murder (John Cusack) is innocent. Daniels spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about finally returning to work after the whirlwind that surrounded the release of Precious, how he assembled a cast and what it means to him to be summoned to walk the red carpet.
After Precious, you spent several years pursuing a movie called Selma, about the famous Civil Rights march. How did The Paperboy become your next movie instead?
I did. We got right to the altar, and the bride ran away. We had the money, but I needed more money. Looking at it in hindsight now, I should have figured out a way [to make Selma]. I think oftentimes filmmakers make that mistake. I know I did. You don’t realize the gift that you have making films. It’s so rare that you have the opportunity to do it. But it brought Paperboy into my lap. I had had the book, Pete’s book. I’d gotten it around the same time I’d gotten Precious, actually Push, by Sapphire. I enjoyed both of them very much. They are the types of books that are on my bed stand. When I got some money from investors, I had the choice and I decided to do Precious. After Precious, there were several movies that were floating around — Nights of Cabiria, Miss Saigon. Being courted by so many people because of the hype of Precious, you lose a sense of focus. But after the fairy dust settled and reality kicked back in, I became an unemployed director. I went back to what I knew, which was my passion for Paperboy.
What should audiences expect from the film?
I think that it’s a thriller that studies sex and race and the coming of age of a boy to manhood. Pete Dexter adapted his own novel, something that novelists aren’t always comfortable doing.
How did you work with him?
There was always Pete Dexter’s screenplay. Pedro Almodovar [who at one point was planning to direct the film] had written a draft also. But Pete’s was sort of the one I based my spin on. He wrote a script and I sort of rewrote, added on to what he wrote. He did a great job. I had my own take on it. I had a very specific take on race. Look, I had just left Selma, so I had that race issue in the ’60s bubbling up in me, waiting to explode. And I took a lot of that and laced it throughout Paperboy, which added another element to the story.
You’ve got a very high-profile cast. How did it come about?
Casting was a circus. It was crazy. We kept losing actors because we kept pushing the start date. We started out with one cast and ended up with another. We started out with Tobey Maguire and Sofia Vergara and Bradley Cooper, and we ended up with Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey and Nicole Kidman. Crazy. I think the universe plays it exactly as it’s supposed to. I couldn’t be prouder of each of the actors in the film. They serviced Pete’s characters magnificently.
Zac Efron is the relative newcomer in the cast. How did he hold his own?
Zac Efron, he is hungry. That is the best way to describe Zac. He is hungry and eager. He really gave it to me, man. He brought it home for me.
How did the invitation to come to Cannes come about?
They kept asking. I wasn’t even done. We were about six months pregnant with the film. It was almost there, but it wasn’t quite there yet. But the producers were like, “We’ve got to go to Cannes, we’ve got to commit to Cannes.” For me, I don’t do movies for festivals. I like to wait until the movie is finished and then figure out where the film is supposed to be placed. Cannes felt a little early. But I had no say because I don’t own this film like I did with my others. I was a director for hire. But it all worked out for the good.
You’ve been to Cannes many times before, both in the festival sidebars and last year selling rights to The Paperboy. What’s it mean for you to finally be in the Competition?
This one is an out-of-body experience because it’s in Competition. It sounds corny to say it, but I’m humbled. That’s the only way to describe it, but I’m still sort of in shock and humbled that I’m in the Competition.
You’ve already lined up your next film, The Butler, about Eugene Allen, who had a long career as the White House’s butler. IM Global is selling it here. How’s the film going?
I’m prepping it. I’ve been writing, writing, writing, trying to make the script work because I’m not going to have another Selma experience. I’m trying to adapt the script to the budget, so I’ve been in that world, working on the screenplay. I went three years not working after Precious, nothing really coming together. It took a minute to put Paperboy together. I was going to take a break, but I thought, “No, no, no, I’ve got to take work while I can get it.” So I’m thrilled to be working again. We start shooting in mid-July. Back to New Orleans.
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