'Empire': How Lee Daniels Made TV's "Black 'Dynasty' "

THR Lee Daniels Empire - H 2015
Miller Mobley

THR Lee Daniels Empire - H 2015

The 'Butler' filmmaker tackles such heavy subjects as homophobia and mortality in his 'King Lear'-meets-'Godfather' musical hip-hop drama

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Lee Daniels loved Danny Strong's pitch — King Lear meets The Godfather, set in the world of hip-hop — but he had one fairly significant tweak. "Let's do it for television," he recalls telling his collaborator. Daniels still was reeling from the grueling path that their Lee Daniels' The Butler took to get to screen, and, he added, "It'd be nice to make some money."

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So together, the two men hatched a fictional world in which a drug dealer turned music mogul, Lucious Lyon, is diagnosed with ALS, leaving his three sons — along with his fresh-out-of-prison ex-wife, Cookie — vying for his empire. Much of what later would appear onscreen was inspired by Daniels' life, including a harrowing flashback scene in which Lucious catches his effeminate 5-year-old son in Cookie's scarf and high heels and savagely hurls him into a trash can, as Daniels' father did to him decades earlier. When it became too difficult for Daniels to direct, his sister, an extra on set that day, stepped in and did it for him. "It was the one day Fox people decide to come to set, and I'm blubbering in the f—ing corner," says Daniels, 45, between bites of a vegan dish at his home in Manhattan.

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The series would feature original music, too, produced by hit-maker Timbaland, with the potential for success beyond traditional television that Glee delivered a few years before. With the backing of Imagine Television and 20th Century Fox TV, Daniels and Strong made the network rounds, yielding heavy interest and a subsequent bidding war. "Danny and I were hot, hot, hot after The Butler," says Daniels. Although his work, including Precious and Monster's Ball, tended to be rated R, it was important that his series debut be on a broadcast network. "Most of my relatives can't afford cable," he says, "but they can afford Fox." The choice of the latter? "Because Fox would let me be me as much as they could let me be me."<\p>

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Casting became key, and Daniels initially had his heart set on Wesley Snipes and Taraji P. Henson. Snipes' reps couldn't come to a deal, and Henson, 44, was eager to reteam with her Hustle & Flow co-star Terrence Howard, 45, who already had been talking to Daniels about a potential film project. Still, Daniels made the Oscar-nominated actors test for the parts. As the project, which Daniels has taken to calling "Black Dynasty," moved through the development process, it became a favorite of then-20th TV chairman Gary Newman, earning it the informal title of "Gary Newman's Empire," according to his partner, Dana Walden. The network, then run by Kevin Reilly, also was enthusiastic, vowing to offer an extensive marketing push and the slot behind American Idol on Wednesday nights (opposite ABC's Black-ish and procedurals from NBC and CBS).

Empire's Taraji P. Henson

But the series was not without risk. It delves into heavy subjects, from homophobia to mortality, and its almost exclusively African-American cast sings songs that viewers at home won't know. "It's much more challenging to manipulate emotion without the use of familiar music," acknowledges Walden, though she's hopeful the series will break new songs and new acts. The other wild card: Daniels, who's the first to admit the collaborative nature of TV, along with its scheduled grind, is an adjustment. Even more worrisome, however, is that he, like Strong, 40, was not able to remain intimately involved postpilot given his film schedule, though he weighs in on drafts and on notes calls, recruits guest stars such as Naomi Campbell and has been hugely active in promoting the series' Jan. 7 debut.<\p>

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Daniels also played a heavy hand in selecting the eight-person writing staff — four of them African-American — as well as the series' showrunner, The L Word's Ilene Chaiken, who hadn't been looking to run someone else's show until she screened the pilot. "I walked out, called my agent and said: 'What's the next step? I want this,' " recalls Chaiken, who had a few formal meetings with the producers before a final check-in with Daniels. Chaiken, like Daniels, is gay — an important qualifier for a project like this one: "She understands what it's like to be labeled different," he explains, a notion that made sense to Chaiken. "When one is writing about being disenfranchised in some way, I think that it's really important to know what that feels like," she says, "and though not impossible, it's harder for somebody who's always been a part of the dominant culture and never ever had to fight for representation."

Whether Empire, the first big foray of Newman's and Walden's tenure as network chairmen, becomes a much-needed hit for Fox is impossible to predict. Says producer Brian Grazer, "We're all giving this 100 percent of our effort. We're all jumping off a cliff."