'The Butler' Director Lee Daniels: 'Thank God I Didn’t Kill Myself' (Q&A)

'The Paperboy' - Lee Daniels Thumbnail - Director - L 2012

Good luck trying to put Lee Daniels in a box.

The 54-year-old filmmaker is a gay black man who, as a child, was physically abused by his father (a cop who was killed in the line of duty when Lee was a teen) and then made a fortune as an in-home nursing entrepreneur during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Then he produced the film that resulted in the first best actress Oscar for an African-American woman, received some of the worst reviews of all-time for his directorial debut, became just the second black man to receive best picture and best director Oscar noms and directed a film that is best known for featuring Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron. And then, this past August, Daniels scored the biggest box office success of his career with a film that, thanks to the publicity genius of Harvey Weinstein, even includes his name in its title: Lee Daniels' The Butler.

Talk about a rollercoaster ride.

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I have to say that I like Daniels -- but I can also understand why others don't. He doesn't always think or care about how his words and actions may come across to others. But this, for better or worse, is who Daniels is, off set and on. Jane Fonda and Oprah Winfrey have both said that he yelled "Fake!" at them in the middle of filming takes for The Butler with which he was not happy. David Oyelowo, who worked with him on The Paperboy and The Butler, confirmed that he does this and that he often breaks into tears of joy or frustration on the set. But each of these people shared these remarks in the context of praising the filmmaker. (Oyelowo said that Daniels will also yell "Genius!" at actors after takes with which he is happy and emphasized, "He is as hard on himself as he is on his actors.")

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Regardless of how one feels about Daniels' unconventional behavior, one thing is beyond dispute: He bit off more with The Butler than with any film before it, in terms of its budget, scope and ambition. "Directing this film is the most important thing I've ever done in my career," he said earlier this year. Why? Because, he told me, he sees it as a tribute to his grandmother and mother ("They marched."); a lesson for his adopted son ("My kid didn't understand why he's being followed; this movie explains it."); a tribute to the late producer Laura Ziskin, who, he said, worked on the film from her deathbed as she lay dying of cancer ("She believed in me in a way that no one has in Hollywood."); a personal milestone ("It made me think that I could work on an even bigger canvas [and] gave me the confidence to know that maybe I could answer to the suits."); and a lesson for the next generation ("It's for kids. It's for white kids, it's for black kids, it's for kids to know what our history was.").

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The Hollywood Reporter: To begin with, I wanted to ask what kind of a kid were you? And were movies a big part of your life growing up?
I was always in trouble. I was mischievous. And movies were always a part of my world. Wizard of OzCinderella with Lesley Ann Warren. Oh, man, a lot of black exploitation films that were rated R that I shouldn't have seen but that I snuck into the back of the theaters to see -- Cleopatra Jones. [Laughs.] Yeah, they were very much a part of my life.

When did it first occur to you that you might be able to be a guy who could make movies? Was that something that you experimented with when you were a kid, or only later?
You know, I didn't know what it was that I wanted to do. I mean, I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn't articulate what it was that I wanted to do. And so my earliest experience was reading Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at 8, you know, with a bunch of kids on my steps -- on the stoops -- and knowing that I wanted to direct them saying the lines. I don't really know how to articulate that 'cause there wasn't someone to show me. There were no mentors. I had nobody to look up to, and so I didn't know what it was that I wanted to do. Which is why I'm trying to get this school [the Ghetto Film School] off the ground. Do you know anybody with money? [Laughs.]

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I think that you do -- man, this cast! You've got to recruit them for that. But what did your parents do?
My dad was a cop. My mom worked at various jobs -- she worked as a homemaker, a bank teller, a bartender.

From everything that I've read, it sounds like you took a pretty circuitous route to doing what you do now. Nursing--
No, first theater. Theater was always in the backdrop. Nursing was a way to pay the bills. I wasn't a nurse; I had a nursing agency. I knew nothing of nursing at all, but I started as a receptionist at a nursing agency and I was selling nurses, so if your mom gets sick or if your wife's having a baby, we would place nurses in the home -- in-home care -- as opposed to going to the hospital. It was pre-AIDS. Right as AIDS hit, nobody wanted to go into the homes to take care of AIDS patients, but I had women that did, and I made a lot of money knowing nothing of nursing. At the same time, I was writing and directing one-acts in Baldwin Hills. That led to someone working for Prince, which led to working for Warner Bros., which led to managing, which led to producing, which led me back to what it was that I wanted to do, which was directing. Everything else was just a means of support for me to write and to direct.

Your first producing credit was for Monster's Ball, which must have felt like a very huge deal for you -- not just to get it made, but to result in the first best actress Oscar for an African-American in history, for Halle Berry. Could you have imagined it turning out that well?
I couldn't dream to dream that; I couldn't dream to dream that. You know, the universe has been kind to me. I had a rough childhood growing up -- very rough. Oftentimes I wanted to kill myself as a kid. You know, I was bullied because I was gay. And then I was bullied because I was black going to an all-white school later on. Thank God I didn't kill myself, huh? I think that the universe took care and God took care of me. I am the product of that environment.

Just as an aside you mentioned being bullied for being gay. Did you know that you were gay from very early on?
I didn't. Just like I didn't know that I wanted to direct. One doesn't know one's sexuality, you know? You discover it.

I've got to ask you about the first time that you decided to direct a film, Shadowboxer. Was that intimidating?
No! Oh gosh, no. It was the most exciting experience of my life. The reviews were not the most exciting experience of my life, but I didn't care because I had the best time. I had the best time. Look, what happens is I was a critic's darling for Monster's Ball. I was the producer, and we won Cannes on my second movie, The Woodsman. It was really my choice of material, my choice of directors, my choice of cinematographers. I was just too afraid 'cause -- this is why the school's so important to me -- 'cause I didn't have the technical background to direct. So I just delved right into it with Shadowboxer. [Laughs.] I love that movie. I'm gonna watch it again. I haven't seen it in 15, 13, how long has it been? Thirteen years maybe? Cuba [Gooding Jr.]'s out there [in an adjacent room]. I directed him in it.

Why has it been so long? Do you not like to watch your films?
No. I don't 'cause it's so hard, 'cause you've watched it so many times. I haven't seen Precious since the premiere. I won't.

Well, that one I have to obviously ask you about. It came along four years after Shadowboxer. Were those four years spent entirely on Precious or figuring out how you wanted to follow Shadowboxer or if you wanted to follow Shadowboxer? In other words, why was it four years until the next directing project, and why was Precious that project?
Well, it spoke to my heart, as did Shadowboxer. It spoke to my heart, as does The Butler -- it speaks to my heart. I have to do projects that speak to my heart. As did The Paperboy; it spoke to my heart. You have to love it. Dude, you live this; it's like giving birth. I've got stretch marks to-boot. This ain't no joke.

The whole process of making a film or the promotion of a film or what?
Everything. From finding the money to first developing the script to preproduction to shooting it to postproduction to promoting it to being ridiculed or loved -- not knowing -- you know, it's a rollercoaster. And you must be crazy to do it. What other business is there where you work two years on a movie to be slammed to the wall? [Laughs.]

Does the way that others react to your films impact the way that you feel about them, or can you sort of mute the reaction and still maintain the same feeling that you had before you put them out into the world?
I love every one of my films equally -- every one equally. But I don't know, because I haven't seen them, so it's really hard. I gotta go back. I haven't seen them, so I say that with how I remember them.

We'll have to do the Academy retrospective of Lee Daniels' filmography…
[Laughs.] Boy, I wonder. If I watched all my movies now, I don't know whether I'd have the same attitude. But I love every one of my films equally, honest to God. Like, I don't understand: We got slammed for Paperboy. I was like, "Why?! I think it's great!" I think it's as fun as -- it's a different me. It's not Precious, you know? It's not The Butler. It's just different. I don't think people understand that's what art is about. I guess that's what critics are about, too. [Laughs.]

What you say is something I was gonna ask about. With someone like Martin Scorsese, I could put on many of his movies and people would know that it was a Scorsese movie without even being told because most Scorsese films share many things in common. If we screened all of your movies, though, I don't know that there is that sort of stylistic or thematic through-line -- to me, at least, they each seem so different. Do you, yourself, see any kind of a thread that connects them?
I mean, the only thing that really connects them is family, from the story perspective. There's always the element of family that I'm attracted to. I'm drawn into the family. I don't know why that is.

Why do you think?
I don't know. I really don't. That's a good question for my therapist, and I'm gonna ask him that. [Feinberg laughs.] You think I'm joking? I'm gonna ask him that next Thursday! Stylistically, I go for a different -- I just do it differently. I like to mix it up.

OK, so let's talk about The Butler. What made you want to do it? Was there a personal connection to the material? I know that you and Laura Ziskin were very close.
Yeah. Well, I got on because of Laura. That was the key because I was nervous. I had been in the indie world forever, so the idea of working for anybody was just incomprehensible and terrifying -- terrifying. And so she seduced me, and I loved her; I fell in love with her. She made me feel like I could direct it. I thought it was too big for me to direct. She sort of talked me into it. She believed in me in a way that no one has in Hollywood. In Hollywood, it's different than being outside in Harlem making your own movies, you know? And to be embraced by somebody who is beloved?

It's true that you've never really made a studio film. From what I've been able to gather, it's not that you're opposed to working within the studio system, generally. Is it because the sorts of things that you're looking to do and the sorts of things that they're looking to do don't really overlap? Or has it just worked out that way?
I don't know. It's not like I haven't been offered jobs in Hollywood. I've been offered jobs in Hollywood, but sometimes I get scared because I don't want to ever be the one that's fired. How horrible would that be? "Lee Daniels Fired!" I mean, I don't want to get fired. And I'm very specific with what it is that I'm trying to say.

So you're not going to just take a comic book movie for a paycheck? That would not be your thing?
No -- I wouldn't know how!

Sometimes you see directors who come from an indie background and sensibility all of a sudden doing that…
I can, though! I can! This [The Butler] is a big one for me. For me, this is almost like a different sort of experience. I'm doing stuff that I didn't think I could do before on a bigger canvas.

Did you enjoy it?
Oh, I did, very much. Very much. And it made me think that I could certainly work on an even bigger canvas. So that's what that did: It gave me the confidence to know that maybe I could answer to the suits.

Who, ultimately, is this movie for? I've heard a number of people -- including Forest Whitaker, I believe -- say that it's important for everybody to know this history but particularly for young people in the black community, a lot of whom don't know their own history. Is that the way that you feel?
Kids. It's for kids. It's for white kids, it's for black kids, it's for kids to know what our history was. American history is the civil rights movement. And I think that, you know, it's for American children to know.

You have said, "Directing this film is the most important thing I've ever done in my career in cinema." Why do you feel that way?
'Cause of my mom. You know, I did it for my mom. I did it for my kid. My mom lived this. I lived it in a way, but she lived it in a different way. My grandma -- they marched, you know? And my kid didn't understand why he's being followed; this movie explains it.

Right now, especially in the wake of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman situation, a lot of people are saying that we need to have a "national conversation" about race. It seems to me that between this movie and Fruitvale Station and soon 12 Years a Slave and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, that conversation, in a way, is really happening through the big screen.
Isn't it great? It's fantastic. I love it. I love that these stories are coming up for everybody to shine a light on the injustices that America has done to its American citizens.

The film's riff about Sidney Poitier is great. And I wonder if today --
I love Sidney Poitier. Now I gotta see him!

I bet he'll get a kick out of it.
Oh, I hope so.

Is there something today, though, that would generationally divide African-Americans in the way that he did? The only thing that I can think of is maybe the use of the N-word.
I think that's a really good analogy. Yeah, I think that people -- we have different opinions about it and they're strong. I think that that's a very good analogy. Why didn't you let me answer the question? I would've thought of it if you gave me a minute or two, asshole! [Laughs.] F---, that's good. It was a good question, and you had the f---ing answer.

[Laughs.] Sorry. All right, well, the last thing is this: What is your secret with getting such great performances out of women in particular? Not that the men aren't great -- Forest is amazing in this -- but in every one of your movies, you seem to get career-best performances from the women.
Oh, thank you. Tell Oprah that.

I will! But what's the secret?
Oh, I think just that I am who I am with you. I'm unedited, and I am open to, you know, I'm the same way I am with my kids as I am with my -- flawed. I don't pretend to have the answer. I don't have the answer. And I think that once they know I don't have the answer and we gotta find it together, then there's a trust. We're all on this mission together.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg