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When Lee Daniels was 8 years old, his dad threw him in a trash can.
The director of Precious and Lee Daniels’ The Butler was growing up in Philadelphia, the son of a cop, when his father saw him trying out his mother’s high heels. “I walked down the stairs with high heels on, and he put me in the trash can,” Daniels recalled. “I think that’s where Precious came from, because I remember the stench. I remember the dark, the cold, my mother trying to fight, and then me, thinking that I was Aladdin on a carpet escaping. And I think that’s why I so related to Precious. But that was just one of many times. And I have no hate in my heart for my father at all. I think that he didn’t understand [Daniels being gay]. He completely didn’t understand and he knew that it was hard enough being a black man, and thought that if he scared it out of me, in hindsight, I think he thought that if he scared it out of me, that I wouldn’t be gay, because he just couldn’t imagine what my life would be.”
By contrast, Daniels’ grandmother did understand. “She saw greatness, and she said that I was going to have greatness far beyond hers, which was incomprehensible to me at the time. My dad told me I was going to be nothing. [But] she says, ‘Listen, you know, you’re not like all the other guys around here. You are a faggot.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ And she says, ‘Don’t worry about it, but you’re going to get used to — people are going to call you that. But you have to remember, as long as you are strong, as long as you are fearless, as long as you are honest, you have nothing to worry about.'”
Daniels spoke March 22 at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV, where he took part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters. Later, after dropping out of college, he came to Los Angeles, “and then something called AIDS hit. All my friends were dying. … I was making an enormous amount of money [operating an agency for nurses]. I came from extreme poverty. I didn’t know what to do with the money, so what do you do? Houses, clothes, I don’t know. Drugs, parties, at 22, 23-ish. And still directing theater. And AIDS hit. And again, it wiped away all of my friends. I had no friends. And we were all together because their parents weren’t taking them in. And we were burying each other, because most parents, 90 percent of the parents, were not taking them in. And it hit the community hard. It was terrifying, because we never knew whether you could drink from glasses or what it was. It was the most terrifying thing ever. And I didn’t understand why it was that I wasn’t [dead], because there were far better souls than me that were going. I thought that I needed to go. And so I descended into drugs and into sexual bath houses to die. That I don’t have AIDS is a miracle from God. I don’t understand it. I really don’t understand it. Because I should have had HIV. Everybody else did.”
A full transcript follows.
You grew up in Philadelphia. When did you first fall in love with the entertainment world?
Did ya’ll see my Instagram live? I was Instagramming live. It was so exciting because, you know, I’ve learned how to do it now. And my publicist is so nervous about me doing it, because sometimes you do it drunk. (Laughter.) But I’m so excited. It’s a new gadget that I’m learning how to use. It’s like so exciting. So I Instagrammed, “Live at LMU.” I’m sorry, the question again?
When did you fall in love with film?
I don’t know that it was cinema, but rather television. I was eight years old, I was seven. Every year around Christmas and Thanksgiving, they had The Wizard of Oz and then they had Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. So as a kid in the projects, I remember just [being] mesmerized by The Wizard of Oz and Cinderella, and Lesley Ann Warren’s Cinderella. And then from there, the first book that I ever read outside of Dick and Jane, that I can remember reading as a child was, ironically, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I went to the library, and something just went, like, “Go to the theaters.” I don’t know what pointed me to the theater section. The book itself looked interesting. I thought it was going to be — I don’t know — I thought it was going to be like Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf. And I pulled it out, and I’ll never forget it. I read it cover to cover there, and then I took it out. It was my first book that I took out from the library. And then I had my cousins and my neighbors on the stoop of my front step and my sisters and brothers read all the characters, from Martha to George.
When you were growing up, how did you imagine your future life?
I thought I was going to end up like most of my friends, in jail. That was the way the world was for me. I didn’t think I was going to die, but I imagined myself in jail. And when you have to steal to eat, yeah, I thought I was definitely going to — I mean, that was just the norm.
One of your brothers was in jail for a while.
He still is.
Do you communicate with him?
And when you look at his life, how does it make you feel about your own?
I have mixed feelings, you know, about it all. We’re getting deep.
You can go shallow later.
No. It’s just that it, all of a sudden, I realize I’m in therapy or something.
Have you had therapy?
I do. I finally started taking therapy. They say it works.
“They” say, but not you?
I’ll find out, won’t I?
Yes. (Laughs.) Your parents, who had the greater influence on you, your dad, your mom?
The greater influence on me was not either my mother or my father, but rather my grandmother was the greater influence on me. I come from a family of five, of brothers and sisters. And my grandmother could pass for a white. And she migrated from North Carolina with her sister. And she was a very powerful woman. She married the blackest man possible. She was the first black woman to go to Duke University. She passed as white going in. But then she was like, “I’m out of here.” And she found this black guy, and they sort of migrated to Philadelphia. She was a politician. I don’t know how she got into politics. I don’t know. I don’t remember how she got into politics. But my early memories were that she would get people to come out to vote in the neighborhood that she lived in, which was similar to ours. And she had nine kids, and she was a crooked politician.
A crooked politician?
Yes. She also ran the numbers. She had, like, numbers. You know what numbers are?
Yeah, illegal numbers, they were illegal numbers.
Don’t be deceived by this English accent.
I won’t. I’m loving you already.
You run into me in the bathroom in our offices, so you know I don’t normally talk like this.
I know. He talks like he’s from Brooklyn. (Laughs.) Yeah, so she was this gangster. She was a gangster. And yet, she was very involved with politics. It was important for her to get African-Americans to come out. It was a first beginning, a first understanding for me to understand that life, that people aren’t good or people aren’t bad, that we all try to wake up in the morning to be the best person that we are. But we end up falling on our asses. No one’s perfect. And so my work has really been that gray area that we all — that murky area that we all live in.
And she spawned many women that were very much like her. And she had all of the judges in her hand, because she would get them into office. So, often, some of her sons would commit heinous crimes, and many of the people in the neighborhood would too. But they were paid off, and they never went to jail. And it was survival. It was just the way she did it. She was very much in — she very much wanted African-Americans to vote at a time when it was just legal to vote. It was important. She came from a place where she couldn’t vote. It was really about getting people to come out to vote. So my early memories were being in a convertible, a white convertible, with a speakerphone saying go out to vote for whoever it was. So voting was embedded in me and if you didn’t come out to vote, her kids with those guns would make you come out to vote. She was dragging people from the projects and in the streets out to vote for whomever it was that… And she was diabetic, and an amputee. She’s a very large woman, and she was diabetic. And she was simply brilliant. She could have easily been the president, I believe. Fearless. And I was around eight or nine — well, even before that, she was the first person to know that I was gay. And she was very clear. She says, “Listen, you know, you’re not like all the other guys around here. You are a faggot.” I said, “What’s that?” And she says, “Don’t worry about it, but you’re going to get used to — people are going to call you that. But you have to remember, as long as you are strong, as long as you are fearless, as long as you are honest, you have nothing to worry about.” I watched her be just all those things, all those things. Even in the crookedness, there was a street code that was very honest, very, lethally so. And I remember being impressed because Hubert Humphrey had come to the house, the Vice President of the United States. And it was like, what the hell?
He came to your house?
My grandmother’s house, yes, because she was that powerful at the time. And I remember a conversation, when she was on the phone at the height of [Philadelphia police chief and mayor Frank] Rizzo. Rizzo was very much a part of our family; all of the aunts and uncles worked for the City of Philadelphia. Because she had everybody, the judges, in her pocket — cops too. Queen Latifah and I share a similar story about our parents: our fathers being cops and what they had to do. You know what I mean?
What they had to do?
Just stuff, you know?
My father had to do stuff, which was, you know — we’ll get to him in a second. But my grandmother, Rizzo owed her money, Mayor Rizzo, at the time. And I’ll never forget her saying — because it was unheard of to talk to a white person like this — “Bring me my motherf—king money before I put a bullet in your ass. I will put a bullet in your head. Bring me my motherf—king money.” It just wasn’t done, you know?
But I loved her very much. And it was important. And then there was a big exposé going down, where I think The Philadelphia Inquirer — I wish I could read that article, if I could find it — microfiche, these days — exposed her for who she was. And I couldn’t go to school. I remember being embarrassed about going to school that day, where they had this big case and this woman that was just corrupt in every way. But what I learned was — she worked from her bed because she was an amputee — she never took no. I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. She’s a hero to me. And in the basement, listening to music was very important.
Listening to Motown songs with my aunts that were very similar to her. And they were colored people, meaning, she married a very dark man, and she looked white. So they were literally from your color to my color, maybe even darker, my aunts and uncles, and 27 grandkids, 30 grandkids. It was the best time of my life. And they’re running the streets, and witnessing some of the atrocities that I [witnessed], I didn’t really know what it was because it was all coming home to love and fun.
At what point did you decide, “I want to leave this world and do something else?”
The summers, my parents would work, and we would go to my grandmother’s. But in eighth grade it became very clear that I was gay. And my dad died, my dad was killed. He was murdered in the line of duty. He was a cop, and he was killed. And he lived a very violent life, and he died a very violent death.
He was violent with you?
There’s that great scene in Empire, where Lucious reacts to his son and throws him in a trash can. And that’s based on your own life, right?
That is correct.
I walked down the stairs with high heels on, and he put me in the trash can. I think that’s where Precious came from, because I remember the stench. I remember the dark, the cold, my mother trying to fight, and then me, thinking that I was Aladdin on a carpet escaping. And I think that’s why I so related to Precious. But that was just one of many times. And I have no hate in my heart for my father at all. I think that he didn’t understand [Daniels being gay]. He completely didn’t understand and he knew that it was hard enough being a black man, and thought that if he scared it out of me, in hindsight, I think he thought that if he scared it out of me, that I wouldn’t be gay, because he just couldn’t imagine what my life would be. Yet my grandmother could. And she saw greatness, and she said that I was going to have greatness far beyond hers, which was incomprehensible to me at the time. My dad told me I was going to be nothing.
Mm. My mom, I think, was where The Butler came from. Two doors down from us, there was a butler who worked for Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles. Anybody from Philadelphia out here? It’s getting so deep. Yo, let’s get to the light of this story. (Laughter.) Anyway, my neighbor, Mr. Crawford, was a butler. And he drove a Mercedes, and it had a phone in it. It was like Batman for me. And he worked in Radnor, which is a suburb by [Villanova] University.
I’ve actually been there, weirdly enough.
Have you? It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?
I went there for one afternoon.
Do you remember it? It’s gorgeous. Well, for me, it was. It was just like the most breathtaking thing I had ever seen. And so, after so many of my friends were getting shot, [my mother] knew that I couldn’t survive selling drugs. I knew that I just didn’t have it in me to sell drugs. I was scared. Maybe, that was part of the gay thing. I wasn’t quite sure.
Did you sell any?
I tried to sell nickel bags, but then I just couldn’t. I could not go through the process. But my mom said, “I want you to go to this school,” because the principal — once my dad was killed, it really exploded the family. And all these bad things started happening. My brother was in trouble. Everybody was in trouble. It was like the law was no longer there to protect us. And the law had been protecting us. Because at that point, we were just ordinary negroes. My grandmother, her fame was fading. And my dad was no longer a cop. That’s why I’m so fascinated by race relations today, because [at his funeral], there was nothing but white men crying, crying, over his casket. Though I was happy he was dead, because I knew that the beatings would stop, I was fascinated by white men crying over him.
You went to college and then dropped out.
And then came to L.A.
Well, let’s go back a little bit to my mom. So my mom put me in this white school in Radnor. And it was the first time I had really seen white people before. I was in eighth grade. And I was immersed in a place all white. And I was utterly fascinated by it all. It was like Mars or something. And I was one of three people that were African-American in this school of about 1,800, not even that, but anyway, a lot of people. And they just lived a different life. And it was just fascinating. Ed Snider let us use his home, his address, so I had a fake address. And I would take the train back and forth. And my mother knew that if I did not go away, something was going to happen to me. And it did, it happened to all of my family. They’d all gone to jail. That experience enabled me to seamlessly go back and forth between the white world and the black world — seamlessly, so that I understood the truth of the world and the white truth of the world. And I didn’t experience racism at all, oddly enough. And it was a great experience for me.
So when you came to L.A., you wanted to go into the entertainment business?
Let’s go back to college. So the college thing, so they saved up. When your dad dies in Philadelphia, they pass a plate around, and the cops give you, it’s a college fund that they give. And my aunts and uncles gave. But at the end of that year, a year and a half, the money was up and it was left for me to figure out how to do it. And I had a choice, the option. I knew how to sell drugs, certainly. But I just didn’t want to. My dad told me that he was going to kill me if I slept with a man. So in my head, he was coming back to kill me. And I had one girlfriend.
Her name was Laurie Ingram, and she was as beautiful as Halle Berry, or so I thought. But she said, “You’re gay, aren’t you?”
How old were you at that point?
Old enough to know that I was gay. (Laughter.) But sleeping with Laurie just to appease my dead dad. And so she gave me — I had a bus ticket and seven dollars. And I went to Los Angeles from Lindenwood College in St. Louis, Missouri.
It took you a long time to get started in the entertainment business. You made a lot of money by opening an agency for nurses.
Well, not that long, only two and a half years. [But] I was homeless.
You were homeless?
Yes. I lived in the back of a church. First, I lived on the streets. And then I found a church in Baldwin Hills. I lived in the back of a church in Baldwin Hills in the Crenshaw area. And they found out that I was living there, so I had to clean up. I didn’t have a problem with that. I was constantly looking in the L.A. Times for jobs, and I didn’t really quite know what to do. So I circled and found a [job as] receptionist at a nursing agency. And I was drawn to the theater there, by the way. I was drawn to the theater. There was a theater at the church. And I gathered some of the congregation that wanted to do theater, and we put on some of our plays. I took the work that I had done as an eight-year-old and applied it, homeless in my early 20s. Simultaneously, I began working for a nursing agency in Hollywood. And I was a receptionist. Let’s say your mom was sick or your aunt wasn’t feeling well and they wanted home healthcare, and they didn’t want to go to the hospital, or if your grandmother was dying, or if your wife was having a baby, they were nurses for homes. And I was on the phone, because I had my white voice, a real good sales voice.
Oh, you have your white voice?
Yeah, I don’t know what that is now, but I did have it then. I had a good voice, a good speaking voice. And it was a sales job: “Let’s talk you through what the problem is, da-da-da-da-da.” We get the nurses in. They would make X amount of dollars, and then we would pay the nurses X amount of dollars. And I excelled at it very quickly because most of the people that I grew up with were salesmen. They were drug dealers — and I knew very well how to sell — or pimps. I knew many pimps. So, you know, it was in me, the salesman was always there. And I excelled at it, and the manager made me a manager. I was managing nurses. Knew nothing of nursing, but I got my first apartment in Hollywood and Wilcox. Wilcox and Yucca was my first apartment, one-bedroom apartment. I was so excited about it. When you’re homeless, you really have an understanding of what it is. I had seen people die. I had seen people being born, but when you are homeless, you have a complete three-dimensional understanding of the human condition that is life-changing. I gave the impression to my mom that I was doing well, and I didn’t want her to worry about me, so I didn’t ask for money or anything. But I was determined to make it. I knew that I could make it on my own. My grandmother told me that I could, and so why couldn’t I? And then I got my apartment and I was still directing theater at the church. And so I’m selling nurses. Then I said, “Why am I doing this for this white man? I could do this for myself.” I was making enough money to move to a better apartment in West Hollywood, and I opened my own nursing agency. Again, knowing nothing of nursing, I opened an office on Wilshire and La Brea, and started off with five nurses at [the age of] 22, and ended up with 500 nurses. And I made an enormous amount of money. How you would get this sale would be by befriending the social worker at the hospital or the discharge planner at the hospital, who were ordinarily African-American women. And I would go in and I would talk to them and I would sell my agency. And they would refer these people to me. And I understood people. I can read people. I’m very good, I’m almost psychic at reading people. That we didn’t have a lawsuit is beyond my realm of comprehension. You know, that was just like crazy. And then something called AIDS hit. And we were the first agency — no one wanted to touch AIDS patients. I was the first agency under AIDS Project LA. And that’s where we made an enormous amount of money, taking care of a lot dying patients. Simultaneously, all my friends were dying again. It’s so exciting, the yin and the yang of it all. I was making an enormous amount of money. I came from extreme poverty. I didn’t know what to do with the money, so what do you do? Houses, clothes, I don’t know. Drugs, parties, at 22, 23-ish. And still directing theater. And AIDS hit. And again, it wiped away all of my friends. I had no friends. And we were all together because their parents weren’t taking them in. And we were burying each other, because most parents, 90 percent of the parents, were not taking them in. And it hit the community hard. It was terrifying, because we never knew whether you could drink from glasses or what it was. It was the most terrifying thing ever. And I didn’t understand why it was that I wasn’t [dead], because there were far better souls than me that were going. I thought that I needed to go. And so I descended into drugs and into sexual bath houses to die. That I don’t have AIDS is a miracle from God. I don’t understand it. I really don’t understand it. Because I should have had HIV. Everybody else did. Anyway, I had the nursing agency, and then the producer of a Prince film came in. It was Saturday, and he slipped a check under the door and said, “I’m here for Lee Daniels.” And he went, “You’re taking care of my mother?”
Yeah, I know.
This 21-year-old kid. And his mother was dying. And I had a nurse taking care of [her]. I was really good at the screening and the interviewing process. And so he said, “What do you really want to do?” And I didn’t know it was just pre-Spike Lee and post the black-exploitation era. I really didn’t know what it was that I wanted to do. I was drawn directly to the arts. And I said, “Well, I direct theater.” He said, “Do you want to be in show business?” I said, “Yeah.” (Laughter.) And then literally, within the week, I sold my nursing agency for a couple million, knowing nothing of taxes.
Oh. Oh wow. Yes.
And I drove on the lot of Warners, [to the Purple Rain set] with an Armani suit, a Porsche, and a Newport cigarette going in and just thinking I was the shit. And I was a PA.
(Laughs.) Don’t take this as advice, everybody.
No. Nor my kids. This is being taped, and my kids, poor kids.
I heard they kept wanting to fire you, and Prince kept hiring you back.
Yeah. Because he knew the truth. He knew the truth.
Did you get to know him?
Intimate. He knew that I knew. And I wasn’t going to be told by suits. And I had never — I was my own boss. I had never worked for anybody, so I didn’t know really how to, like, “Who are you? OK, that’s nice. But this is the way it is.” You know what I mean? And so I would get fired, and then he said, “No, bring him back.” I would get fired again. “Bring him back.” And I was like, “OK, I’m sick of this job,” you know what I mean? I had some money. I had sold a nursing agency. I was good. I could do theater down at the church. I’m good. And then he loved me, and we went on to do Under the Cherry Moon together.
Did you stay in touch with him? When he died, were you still close?
No, no, no, no, but we had so many friends together. Lenny Kravitz is my best friend. And he was friends with Lenny. Maxwell, he knew Maxwell. Chaka Khan’s a really good friend. Patti LaBelle. These were all friends. For some reason, I just, I don’t know. I don’t know what happened to his career as a filmmaker, because he was really talented in both films, I felt. But I don’t know what happened. I went my own way. We were in touch, but we weren’t in touch touch.
You went into casting …
Wait. Warners finally said, “OK, this kid’s onto something. We are going to make him head of minority talent.” Now again, pre-Spike Lee, post black exploitation, ain’t nothing happening with minority talent, you know? I knew it, they knew it. But they wanted to feel good, which was nice of them at the time, really good. And I think I did something with Shelley Duvall called Faerie Tale Theatre, at Lorimar or something. Other than that, there was really no work for me. I was just sitting there. But what they did do is, I was able to fly around the country to see plays, to see theater, which was so exciting. And I saw Morgan Freeman in Gospel at Colonus. Oh, also, I forgot to tell you something. Early on in my career, Dreamgirls came into my life.
When you were 15?
I stole my mom’s car, 17. I stole my mom’s car, and I took the El Dorado, and I drove to New York City. And I saw Dreamgirls, and that really changed my life. I knew that it was theater, that that was what I was supposed to do.
So you were in casting. You became a manager.
I was a casting director. Then I became a manager. And to learn — I hadn’t gone to film school, but I figured that I knew how to sell nurses. I had gone to watch all these black people that were incredible that simply weren’t working. I said, “I can do that. I can find you work.” “What are you talking about?” “Work is easy.” And I made some good money doing that, really good money doing that, especially in the TV days, because you could take 15 percent, sometimes 20 if I was a crook, you know, and put them on television shows.
Did you like that?
It was frustrating because, you know, I wanted to be the one on the red carpet! (Laughter.)
I’m holding somebody’s bag.
So what’s interesting is, you didn’t get that chance until you were, what, 41, when you made Monster’s Ball? And as a producer …
I managed for a while. I found that the real money was in white people, because everybody white was hired.
You had Wes Bentley.
Nastassja Kinski was really when I got a taste of it. Most of you guys are too young to —
Do you know Nastassja Kinski? No? Have you seen Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Thank God. Hooray.
And then Michael Shannon, I got him his SAG card.
You have a great eye for actors.
Well, because I’m aware. I’ve been through the human condition. I think that that’s been my saving grace. That was my school. And what I would do was, I learned on set what everybody’s job was. And I learned through management how to direct, because I lived on set. And then I got tired of telling actors that there weren’t any jobs for them. It was really embarrassing not telling actors, especially the African-American ones, that there were no jobs. One of the most profound actors in the world is a woman named Paula Kelly. She was in Women of Brewster Place. She was in Sweet Charity. She is one of the reasons that I’m here today. A tour de force, a Meryl Streep, and unaware that she was a Meryl Streep, and was offered nothing but maid roles, and she was like not having it at all. And it my determination to keep her working. And when I felt let down, I saw what was happening, injustice. I saw injustices. I never saw race. Because I had been protected in that school, where I’ had never experienced racism, so I never knew it existed. And if it did exist, I wasn’t aware of it. I mean, I knew it had to be. But that school protected me in some way because they looked at me like I was like, it was cool to be around me, the high school that was. And so I got tired of telling people no. I said, “I’m going to go out. I’m going to raise my own money. I’ll make my own movie.” And Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Sean Penn were attached to a movie that Sean was directing, I believe. I don’t know who was directing. And I think Queen Latifah [was] attached to a film called Monster’s Ball. The writers could not get it made because the studios all wanted the kid to live, the heavyset kid, Halle Berry’s kid. So I said, “OK, it’s time for a change.” And change is so hard. I remember being so nervous selling the nursing agency and just so nervous jumping from management into [producing]. It was so secure for me.
Change is hard for you?
Yeah, real hard.
Even though you’ve had such big changes in your life?
Mm-hmm. Its pain was like ripping that Band-Aid off. It’s like becoming a butterfly, leaving the cocoon. It’s scary. For me, it is. But I said, “OK, let me do this change. Let me see whether I can raise this money and do this movie.” And I knew the same theories applied to what I saw in the streets. I saw everybody, every studio, everybody passed. They looked at me like I was crazy. I had become friends with people, the Hollywood city game — it’s all a game. It’s all a game. It’s all a game. It’s bull. You know, it’s not real. And so I went into the streets to get the money. And the movie was made.
What do you mean you went into the streets? You weren’t going around in the streets of Hollywood?
No. No. I did what I had to do to get the movie made and I’m going to leave it at that. All right?
Give us a clue.
No, I ain’t giving you no clue. I’m on tape. But the movie was made.
Let’s watch a clip.
So why didn’t you direct this?
(Crying.) I don’t see my films after. I just step away. That’s the first time I saw that. So let me just take a moment sort of to embrace that one.
Get ready for the scene in Precious.
Come on, man. I’ll be back in therapy. That was a hard thing to watch because it was very real to me. I was very clear to all of them, to Heath [Ledger], to Puffy [Sean Combs], to Billy Bob [Thornton], to all of them: “I don’t care what anybody says, this is what it’s going to be.” But I didn’t really understand the technique and the stuff of directing. I have used the cinematographer several times after. And I am ashamed of the way that I behaved on the set, to be honest. And I haven’t shared that with anyone. I didn’t know what directing was. I didn’t know what producing was. I didn’t know what filmmaking was. I knew that this was in me and it had to be out.
What did you learn from making that?
That I could direct.
Were you not sure before then?
Well no. I knew that I knew a little bit about in a medium, in a medium with a camera. I studied even harder what everybody did, what the gaffer did. I was good in my head about being confident about directing, but still insecure about it. And cocky, too, you know. Really arrogant. Because when you’re from the streets, you have to put on this bravado that often so many of us do. And I had that in me that I’m ashamed of. Because it masked so much of the African-American man being treated like nothing. I brought that energy and I’m very embarrassed about it, about what I did. But I’m very happy about the performances that came from it and I’m very excited about the win that came out of it [Halle Berry’s Oscar]. It was historic. Oddly, you know, at the end of it, I was doing drugs, I was on the crack pipe, and Halle had won the Oscar and I was at the Chateau Marmont and she was like, “You coming?” She said, “Big Daddy, you coming to the Vanity Fair party?” I didn’t think that I was worthy of being there. I had two hookers on the side of me with a crack pipe. I said, “I’ll see you there, baby. I’ll be there.” And I had no intention of showing. I didn’t think I was worthy to show. My dad told me I wasn’t worthy to show. That’s that experience. So when I see that film, it brings back everything. But it brings back a high — I mean, not that kind of high. (Laughter.) It brings back a flood of memories, a learning experience. I don’t like the person that I was then.
Do you now?
I do. I do.
Ally Sheedy’s mother showed you Push —
— which became Precious.
How do you know this? Good for you.
I read a lot before, you know.
And you find things out that are amazing.
Isn’t it fascinating?
I didn’t even know she was Ally Sheedy’s mom.
At the time?
You’d made your first film as a director, Shadowboxer.
I’d done something before that. I’d done Woodsman.
Because I still didn’t feel that I — has anybody seen Woodsman? It’s good. It’s really good. Kevin Bacon. But after that one, I could not believe the stuff that I was offered. Leprechauns From the Hood. Who’s My Baby’s Momma Part 4. (Laughter.) I was like, “What the —?” I’m not joking. And so what the, you know? And so I wanted to do something even more. At that point, I had children and I wanted to do something. I was fascinated with pedophilia. So I went off and did this movie because I always learn; it’s about learning. What can I learn? What can I learn through the process? And I can sort of tell, you know, what are the characters like. I went off and did The Woodsman. It’s a learning process. Each process. But we were reviewed very, very well and I think we won [an award at] Cannes even, which is exciting. The first-time thing at Cannes. And then I thought I was the shit and I did a movie called Shadowboxer with Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr., Macy Gray. Still on drugs. It was so out-there that it was like crazy out-there. And that I have seen. I have seen it because I knew it was bad. But it’s not really that bad.
No, it wasn’t. It’s really not that bad. I went for it, you know.
It’s actually pretty interesting.
Yes, but they came for me. I wasn’t used to — I had been reading reviews until then. Because it was all about the review. Now I know if I even see my name, I run. You don’t even want to read it because you run. It stabs you hard.
I think the last review that you read called you a hack and you were very upset. But you’re not.
My dad told me I was. So it’s a reiteration. We are what you are. I have two kids and I’m just, “You’re so wonderful. Do you know how wonderful you are?” That’s what I tell them. “You’re great.” You’ve got to tell them, you know. I know the power of the word and what that can do to you and what it’s done to me. So I’m conscious about it, very conscious about it. So I did Shadowboxer and then I said, “I guess I can’t direct.”
Because I had read those reviews. I’d been reading reviews. I didn’t know not to read the reviews. I did not know not to read the reviews. Stupid ass. Because they can be wonderful, but it’s just one word. And it can be a glowing review. It just takes one word to knock you out. It’s like, I’m in a fetal position under the blanket with a bottle of tequila. It’s crazy. You know what I mean?
I do. So Ally Sheedy’s mom gives you a copy of the book.
Yes. I had that and a copy of a book called Iced by Ray Shell that I’m going to probably end up doing sooner or later. And they’re both tour de forces. They both made me feel the way I felt. Iced did because it was about the crack experience and a black man and it was told in vignettes. Brilliant, just brilliant. And Precious because it just reminded me of my family or it reminded me of my childhood. I wasn’t Precious, but I knew so many Preciouses; I was another form of Precious. I knew that this was something that I could do with my eyes closed.
There’s an amazing thing I read, which is when you were a child, a young girl arrived at your doorstep.
She’d just been horribly abused.
It was quite normal though. Here’s the thing. There wasn’t nothing abnormal about it. The girl lived at the very top of our street, she came down, she was butt-naked, her mother had beaten her. She was eight, nine, she was just growing boobs and she covered herself, but she was heavy. So it was really hard to cover herself. I remembered feeling very awkward because she was sort of overweight. And she’s covering herself and all you saw were the thick, thick [welts] — she had been beaten with an extension cord so deeply and my mother could not, my mother who had seen many such atrocities, she just couldn’t — it was unfathomable. And we wrapped her in sheets and stuff. And we literally, literally had to figure out who was going to take her back to her mother. It was just like, yeah. Her mother ended up shot. She was making biscuits and a man shot her in the head. It was crazy. It was just so crazy.
Let’s take a look at a clip from Precious. It’s the confrontation with Mariah Carey.
I didn’t cry.
Because it was a f—king party. It’s funny that that movie played at the Magic Johnson Theater. The first time we showed it was in Harlem for a test audience. And it played as, almost as a comedy, and it was all black people and I was like, this is not what it’s supposed to be. You all laugh.
I know some of it’s funny, but come the f— on, you know? And then it played at Sundance where it was art. It goes to show you. (Laughter.) And you could hear a pin drop. A pin. It was like that. And it really goes to show you what is the gray area that we all live in and what we understand. And even the reviews, that one will never ever see — some person behind that reviewer that’s doing the review on this movie — because I did not read any of them. Whatever they said about the film, [they] will never see the lens the way I see the lens. Because they ain’t lived in my shoes. Because anything I do is going to be real, is going to be from the [heart], because I done smelled it, I done ate it, I done tasted it, I done walked it. It’s me. And so yeah.
Thank you. I have great memories of that, because I just remember like, [Monster’s Ball] was a hard one. We sort of got emotional there, but for the most part, it was fun — even Precious — we all got that it was such a black experience that when Precious, in the first scene they threw her down on the floor and she flew, like she fell down — this is why I love her, I love everyone I work with — she flew down on the floor, they push her, the boys, bullies push her on the floor, she goes down under and she starts singing, ironically, “Give Me Body,” by Queen Latifah. The writer of [the book on which Precious was based], Sapphire, was with me. And she starts laughing. And I start laughing. And then Mo’Nique started laughing. And the white AD said, “Sir. What is so funny? This girl just got pushed on the floor.” And yet I couldn’t understand what was so funny. And then why are the writers laughing and why is Mo’Nique laughing? And so Gabby’s [actress Gabourey Sidibe] shoulders were hunching and he said, “I hope you’re happy, she’s crying.” I went down and said — you know, you feel guilty — “Now Gabby, you know we was just trying to, I’m trying to figure out …” And she starts laughing. And I go, “Why are you laughing?” She says, “I’m a fat bitch on the floor, what do you think?” (Laughter.) It was just a black thing. It was definitely a black thing. And when I think of Mariah Carey and having her — literally, her hands were shaking as I put her in the rayon — she was like, “What do you have me in? Where is my lighting? Where is my makeup? What wig is this?” I can’t stop laughing. And I think of Mo’Nique. I’m so comfortable because I’m able to do me and I’m able to have people that trust me to do me, that just give it and just give it.
But I think there are a lot —
It’s a sexual experience. I say that when I’m doing something and I’m doing it at my best, it is as erotic as it could be. Because we are one, we’re making love without the physical act of making love. We are so spiritually connected. It’s so powerful.
But there were crew members who were unhappy with you. You fired your DP, you fired your editor.
At least half a dozen more people.
Yes. But that was just once. I fired an entire crew. Because they had no respect for me in the beginning of the show. They had absolutely no respect for me. I would say, “This is what I want,” but some kids from NYU were telling me, “This is what they want.” I got, “OK, OK, well.” What I didn’t understand was that it’s not done. They thought that once the train starts running, it starts running. But what they didn’t know is who they was f—ing with. Because that train stopped. And I replaced everybody. You know what I mean?
(Laughs.) Because it was starting to look like an afterschool special. I said, “This don’t look right. Do it look right to you?” I go, “And these costumes or this production, what’s going on here?” Something was wrong. And each day would go by and I was getting nervous. I said, “No, stop the train.” And so I called the investors, I said, “Look, you want your money? We got to get [rid of them].” So I shut down for a week and a half. It cost us a couple million because of the cut-down, but it was worth it. We got our money back. They got their money back.
It was what, a $10 million film?
Mm-hmm. It should have been eight. But that’s right, they got their money back, OK? A lot of money back.
There are times when you have to make an incredibly bold decision that makes you unpopular. When you cast this, you scoured through schools, looked for hundreds of girls to play Precious. I think you chose 10 and put them in an actor’s boot camp.
And then you decided you wanted to start again. What happened? That’s an amazing decision to me.
Even with Precious, the only reason why I cast her was because I felt that she was smart and she was the one that was on the floor laughing, where the others I would have been taking advantage of [the moment]. At that point I was insightful enough to know that I don’t want to take advantage of it. I felt that karmically it would come back to haunt me. And Gabby was on another level. She understood the humor of it all. Because if you really look at it, if you really dissect it, especially as an African-American, you can laugh. If you’re not laughing and black, something’s wrong with you, because there’s some funny shit in there.
How do you direct someone like Mo’Nique?
Mo’Nique. That was the best experience of my life. It was just…
You’d already directed her in —
Shadowboxer. It was just so great, you know. I had her with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and they were love interests. It’s a fun, fun moment, if you see them together. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and she are lovers and it’s just beyond. I had them in bed having sex. It was great. (Laughs.) That skinny white boy and her, it was so hot. It was great.
Did you rehearse? Did you let her improvise?
No. Not at all. It’s very, very much what it is in the moment. I’ll say, “Now grab the lotion on the table, because you got to wash your hands, you got to dry your hands. Your hands are dry.” “Don’t shave your underarms.” “Put yellow on your teeth.” It’s written and then she’ll say something, I go, “OK.” I guess it is a bit of improv, too. I don’t know, it’s a little bit me adding lines in at the last minute, it’s her putting stuff in, it’s the script, it’s the set, it’s the other actors, I can’t articulate that.
Did she ever say no to anything?
Definitely. The baby. She did say no to the baby. [At one point in the film, she throws a toddler across the sofa.] Yeah. Oh my, God.
The baby is great.
They call the kid Mongo.
It was hard. It was so wrong. It was just wrong on every level.
And the kid looked so surprised.
But the kids was having fun because Mongo was mentally challenged and didn’t [understand], and Mo’Nique said, “Now listen, I can’t keep doing this, Lee. There’s just a limit to what it is. I’m not throwing the baby. I’m blowing cigarette on the baby.” Social services is off the set. We’ve got them, we paid them off. I learned from my grandmother how to play the game, you know what I mean? Because there she is blowing cigarette smoke in this baby’s [face]. It’s just terrible. I’m so mean, I don’t even know it. So the baby’s there, the cigarette’s there, the ashes are falling. She’s trying not to hit the baby in the face, she’s trying to blow the cigarette smoke the other way. And then I said, “Throw the baby.” And she goes, “What?” I said, “The baby don’t know. The baby’s Mongo.” I said, “I got a big fat cushion this big, it’s never going to [get hurt].” And she says, “Lee!” I said, “Throw the baby.” And she won the Academy Award. (Laughter.)
Let’s take a look at one more clip. This one’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
You had 41 producers on this movie.
That’s how much money it took me to get [it made]. I had to promise them all, you know. I told you I had to raise all my money. And so I had 41 this time.
Why do you think it was so difficult to get the money?
I would have thought at this point Hollywood, especially Lionsgate — I had just done Precious and won seven Academy Award nominations for them — that they would put a freaking fence around me or something. Like lock me in. Deal or something, right? But the answer was still no. It was, “They’re all flukes.” So the fighter in me was determined to go out and do it. And I did it. And I’m proud of the movie. I’m proud of the movie. My mom was like, “Dude, Precious, Monster’s Ball, like, Miss Jenkins down at the church is saying something’s wrong with you. Can you just do a movie that my church folks can come see?” And so that was that. That shut Miss Jenkins’ ass up. (Laughter.)
Some real challenges in this. You’ve got a film that goes over a very long period of time with different episodes, so it’s hard to keep a narrative going. And it’s based on a real guy’s story. What was your direction to Danny Strong as the writer?
He wrote it and then I did a pass. He knew the structure of it. He had a great structure, because it’s his story. He’d done a couple things for HBO that were just brilliant. Game Change and something else. He’s really a historian. A brilliant writer, brilliant historian. But again, just understanding the nuance of the African-American experience and understanding the gray area in everybody. And Gloria [Oprah Winfrey’s role] had not really been developed at all. To me, there’s always the matriarch that’s there. This country is built on black women. Getting Oprah to not be her and sort of become this other chick was deep and it was great. And I enjoy it. I enjoy having — you think you know somebody, but you really don’t know that person. And that’s something that really inspires me.
But it wasn’t easy getting her at that point. I mean she said at the time she gave you a lot of resistance.
She said it?
Or you may have said it.
Oh I did? I think there was a moment [when] it was hard for her to [do]. That’s why I would not take any of her money for [the production]. I refused, because I had to be in charge, and I knew that there was no way that I was going to be in charge if she were a producer or anything. She had to be an actor. She had to be one of the people. And she did. She really did. I mean everybody — when I do a movie, because I come from theater, everybody’s chipping in. If you ain’t putting on your own makeup, if you ain’t helping somebody else with their makeup or if you’re not helping them with their costumes, if you ain’t craft services, I’m not messing with you. Because the only ego, I have learned at this point, is the material. That is the only ego that’s at stake at this point. And so with Oprah it was, oh it was wonderful. I just loved taunting her. I became like, not a bully, but — I can’t explain it. There was a scene that’s cut [where] she was washing Cecil’s laundry and she couldn’t do the laundry. It was like a Lucy episode. It was like, “Put the soap in, then you put the bleach in, then you put your fabric softener in. Don’t you know how to separate the whites from the darks?” And then she finally screamed at me. She says, “I haven’t done laundry in 30 years.” (Laughter.) I said, “What do you mean, you haven’t done laundry in 30 years?” And I realized it was Oprah. And then I started screaming, “She ain’t done laundry in 30 years, you all! She ain’t done laundry in 30 years.” And she became sort of a surrogate big sister and it became fun. It just became fun. If we’re not a family on the set it really isn’t fun, it’s not worth it. It really isn’t, you know. The reason why you saw me cry so hard with Monster’s Ball was because it was painful: I knew what I wanted and it was painful to get. But all the other experiences have been just breathtaking. And even that Monster’s Ball was so fun. It was just different.
We haven’t even got to Empire Is there going to be a spinoff? You talked about there being a big shift at the end of this season.
Mm-hmm. There will be.
Does it have a title?
It’s going to take place in Vegas.
How involved in that are you going to be in the Empire spinoff.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, how much of me is there to go around? I got to do a movie.
You’ve got two series’ going.
Yeah. And I’m doing a film.
What’s the film?
I can’t say. But I’m doing a movie. I’m very excited about it. I’m very, very excited about it.
Give us a clue what it’s about or.
I really can’t. Because it’s too close to, it’s a news story. But there’s several movies that I’m developing.
Are you going to do the Richard Pryor film at some point?
I don’t know what’s happening with that.
And Terms of Endearment.
Terms of Endearment possibly. Again, with Oprah. But it takes place in the ’80s. I really want to explore — I’ve got to tell stories that are important to me, and during the ’80s, so many African-American women died, because so many black men — because the church says, because your father says, because your neighbors say, that you can’t be gay. And so you’re dealing with men on the DL that are infecting African-American women. This is no longer a gay disease, it’s about women that are dying. Black women are dying by the bushels here in the United States. So in the ’80s, so I want to make Flap gay, DL, infect the Debra Winger character, and then, you know. So we explore the ’80s in a different way through…
I would love to see you do that.
I think so. Don’t you think?
QUESTION: I was looking on your Instagram — great username, by the way.
The Original Big Daddy.
QUESTION: And I saw that you gave a shoutout to Moonlight and Issa Rae’s Insecure, and that got me wondering: you are very evidentially influenced by your own personal experience, but are you ever influenced by other contemporary films coming out today?
I am. And one of the films that have inspired me, too — a couple of them just gagged me — was the French film Elle. And then Arrival was breathtaking. Breathtaking. And there’s a Korean Film called Handmaiden that I simply was, I was blown away, simply blown away by it.
QUESTION: When it comes to creativity and the work you produce, do you find it more challenging to work within the deal at Fox or within major film studios?
I’ve never worked for a film studio. So that’s that. I guess I have. Television studios. [But that] really was jarring, because I was so used to calling the shots and then there’s so many executives that are there that it’s another part of my brain. I did it so that I could learn how to work with people, because it made me a better collaborator. I think you get so caught up in — it’s important to understand that it’s not just you or the actors. Because I only cared about the actors, the writer, and my crew. It was interesting to have people that don’t have nothing to do with [the creative part], but they have [money], the money people finally have something to say about it. So it was fascinating and it was a learning experience for me. What can I learn? That’s what I learned from working on Star and Empire.
QUESTION: I love how you implement the music industry into these two shows. So it makes me wonder what type of musical background you have that may have influenced the making of these shows, and also how you feel about new aspiring artists, what they can do to bring something to the table?
My children give me all the information about who. I don’t know. I didn’t know Puffy when I cast him in Monster’s Ball or Mos Def. [My knowledge] stops at Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, I guess. But my kids keep me current, and my partner, who’s younger than I, keeps me current about what’s happening in the streets. I mean, I know a good song when I hear one. I know what makes me tap my foot and what I think people will want to respond to.
QUESTION: What advice could you give to up and coming artists, because I’m one myself?
To be original. What I don’t like about artists today, the singers and stuff today, is that everything has to be perfect. And I find that everything’s so overproduced, everything is so, wind-machine and this all, and the originality [is rare], the Amy Winehouses are so rare. Back in the day, Aretha Franklin wasn’t afraid to show she had a tooth missing — no shade to Aretha because she’s the queen. But she had no problem sweating onstage and spitting onstage. She was giving you her gut. And that’s what I think is missing today in both cinema and also in singing.
QUESTION: I want to just thank you for coming and talking to us today. I feel that your works and your journey are very inspiring to me, especially as a young black filmmaker. What has been your biggest obstacle in the entertainment industry thus far?
Myself. Learning to love myself, learning to believe in myself. You know, I only did it as a vendetta to my dad, to show him that I was going to be something. I mean, it was about survival, showing him, but knowing deep down that I wasn’t worthy of it. So yeah, I think that myself would be, I am my worst enemy. But, I’m learning, that’s why I’m in therapy now. And I want to do something about that, because, you know, black people don’t believe in therapy. I was like, all of a sudden I’m 57 and I’m going to therapy. That’s some heavy stuff, you know?
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