Sunday, November 1, 2009

Lee Daniels: The “Precious” Interview

with Kam Williams

Headline: Euphoric Lee

Lee Louis Daniels was born in Philly on December 24, 1959.

The iconoclastic director/producer’s own life story is every bit as raw as the films he creates. Overcoming assorted childhood adversities, he founded and was running his own health care agency by the age of 21, providing nurses to private homes and hospitals while simultaneously trying to become a scriptwriter.

After selling his business, and abandoning screenplays, Lee began managing such actors as Loretta Divine, Michael Shannon, Natassja Kinski, and Aishwarya Rai. As a consequence of the frustration he encountered while searching for great projects for his clients, he later turned to producing, and the natural leap to directing soon followed thereafter.

Monster’s Ball, for which Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2002, was the initial offering of Lee Daniels Entertainment. The movie also marked Mr. Daniels as the first solo African-American producer of an Oscar-winning film. He subsequently produced The Woodsman, made his directorial debut with Shadowboxer, and then produced Tennessee.

Here, he talks about new movie, Precious, the critically-acclaimed screen adaptation of Sapphire’s best-selling novel, “Push.” The picture stars Gabby Sidibe in the title role, along with an all-star cast which includes Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz and Sherri Shepherd. The movie has been the beneficiary of considerable Oscar-buzz since winning three awards at Sundance Film Festival last January, including best picture.

Kam Williams: Lee, I loved the film, and I have lot of questions, but they told me I can only have 10 or 15 minutes with you, so I have to ask you to keep your answers brief in order to touch on everything.

Lee Daniels: To hell with the minutes! We can delve deeply into it. Don’t think about the time.

KW: Great! What inspired you to adapt “Push” to the screen?

LD: Its truth. I read the book, and it just left me gasping for air. I couldn’t believe it. My mouth was open as I turned page after page. I was like, “What the [bleep]?” And yet it was so truthful. I had never seen truth written in such a way. So, I had to have it. I became obsessed with it like a lover. I slept with it under my pillow.

KW: I assume the abuse issues struck a nerve because you had experienced that as a child yourself.

LD: I did. That’s part of the film, and it’s certainly something that I identify with. But through the abuse and through the darkness, I actually identify more with the sense of loving yourself, of finding self-love and ultimately loving yourself. That’s what I identify most with, because it took me a long time to love myself and not be so hard on myself. That’s what makes the movie not just a black film, but a universal story.

KW: One of the questions I routinely ask in my interviews is, What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome in life? And I’m always surprised at the number of celebrities who answer something like “self-acceptance” or “self-love.”

LD: That’s deep, isn’t it?

KW: Yeah. How are you enjoying all the critical acclaim the film is receiving?

LD: I don’t read the reviews, the blogs, or anything else. Instead, I feel the audience when I show the film. And that’s my only experience with connecting to people around Precious. I cry inside when people are standing and clapping for me, and sometimes I even cry on the outside. And I often just have to walk away from it, because I have my own issue with accepting people’s embracing the film. It’s hard for me to accept love. I wish I could lie to you and tell you that it’s easy for me, but it’s not.

KW: How was it collaborating with Sapphire on bringing her book to the screen and having her on set during the shooting?

LD: It took me forever to talk her into letting me have the book. She was fine with it remaining solely in the literary form, and didn’t want anyone to throw it onto the screen. She’s a scholar and true artist who doesn’t really care about Hollywood. She’d already been courted by Hollywood. I think she believed that a bad screen version would reflect badly on her novel. She finally came around when she finally realized that whether the film was good or bad wouldn’t affect her great piece of literature one way or another.

KW: Why was she so protective of the book? Is it autobiographical?

LD: No, not in the least! I thought it was, because it was so real. How could anybody make all this up? But Sapphire’s a teacher, and Precious is a composite of many of her students’ lives.

KW: Why did you change the title from Push to Precious? Because of that Djimon Hounsou film Push that came out in February?

LD: Yeah, we had to. I didn’t feel good about it at first, but I accepted it. However, now I love the title, because the word “precious” has a couple of great double meanings.

KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks, do you think the film will open a new dialogue about child abuse, incest and teen pregnancy in the African-American community?

LD: It better! I certainly hope so. That’s my objective here. That people will see the film and walk away from it open to discussion. But like I said before, it’s not just about abuse. It really is about learning to love yourself. And it’s also about literacy, and homophobia.

KW: It also touched in a subtly-powerful way on issues having to do with skin color, hair and class within the black community.

LD: Yeah, I’ve had all types of beautiful girls tell me that they ugly when they look in the mirror, as if it’s someone else’s reflection they see. So, yes we see it through Precious’ eyes, because she’s this black girl, but I think the film can resonate with anyone. You know, it was adapted into a play in London, and the whole cast was white.

KW: Where did you find the confidence to cast comediennes like Mo’Nique and Sherri Shepherd, and singers like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz?

LD: They’re all friends, and I really like working with friends. I’m always more comfortable and in a good place when I’m with friends because I know they trust me. I’m able to get great performances from people who trust me.

KW: How about casting Gabby Sidibe in the title role?

LD: It was the hardest role to cast. I interviewed over 400 girls before I found her. She blew me away. Her smarts is what did it. She’s so smart!

KW: What was it like to win at Sundance?

LD: Out of body! I felt so honored even to be there. So, when you end up winning, it’s an out of body experience. I can’t even describe it to you. There’s no word to describe it. I felt, “Oh my God, I’m not worthy of this. All these other filmmakers have worked just as hard as I have.” I saw some other films that I thought were as good, but I guess people connected to Precious on another level.

KW: What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

LD: Really, there were none. This was the easiest movie I’ve made. I don’t know how I found Gabby. It was almost like we had angels over us. And then to have Oprah Winfrey call me! I think God has been looking over me, because I decided to talk about a girl that we never see, to focus on a face that we see everyday, yet we don’t REALLY see her.

KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks, did you have any hesitation about bringing Push to the screen, since it’s, in many ways, a salacious story that ties into all the negative stereotypes many people have about the black family?

LD: I did. When I first put the film together, it was in front of some white people. I thought, “I don’t know about this,” since it’s such a personal story. But not long thereafter, when I had this Chinese lady cry in my arms after watching it, I realized that I needed to get over myself because it was a universal story where the characters just happen to be black.

KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?

LD: Yeah. No one picks up on the irony of the picture’s hero, the teacher [played by Paula Patton], being a lesbian which is someone Precious has been told all of her life is a bad person by a mother [played by Mo’Nique] who’s been sexually-abusing her. That’s crazy!

KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?

LD: Yeah, sometimes, but I have true faith in God. So, I step out of my fear through prayer. I’m afraid for my kids sometimes, for their safety running the streets of New York and on the subway by themselves. Because there are some sick [bleeps] out there, so I get nervous. That’s my biggest fear. But they’re okay.

KW: Do you still live in Harlem? That’s where you were living the last time we spoke.

LD: No, I moved to midtown Manhattan.

KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?

LD: [Chuckles] Yep, I’m happy! I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?

LD: [LOL] Just minutes ago, with this African-American journalist. After seeing the movie, she came right up to me and said, “Lee, there you go being naughty again.” I laughed so heartily.

KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?

LD: The Bible. That’s mandatory reading for me. I wish I could say something more profound, but I’m finishing up the Bible. I’m in the Book of Revelations right now. Otherwise, I’m constantly reading scripts, which doesn’t leave me any time to get to my pile of books. I need a vacation! But I want to hurry up and get to Pete Dexter’s “The Paperboy.” I’m very anxious to read that.

KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to nowadays?

LD: I’m sort of obsessed with Nona Hendryx right now, who was one of the members of Labelle. She’s no joke. She’s incredible. I’m sort of feeling her right now, now that I know who I am.

KW: What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?

LD: Knowing that my father loved me. I had a lot of issues with him. Not until recently, when I was already in my 40s, did I realize how much he loved me. Is that too personal? As for ordinary obstacles, I have never taken “no” for an answer, so I’ve always been blessed enough to get what I want.

KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

LD: I see a little bloat from last night’s alcohol that I’d like to figure out how to drop, because I have to be on TV in a couple minutes. [Laughs] How vain is that?

KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?

LD: I cook an incredible potato salad, incredible fried chicken and incredible cornbread.

KW: Southern soul food staples.

LD: Those are the three things that my mom taught me to cook that I’ve been commended on.

KW: The Flex Alexander question: How do you get through the tough times?

LD: With prayer and by leaning on the shoulders of friends. I have a couple of really great friends who support me and help me deal with my neuroses.

KW: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help you?

LD: [Shouts] My fans? I don’t know. Do I have fans? By coming out and supporting my film. That would be nice.

KW: The Boris Kodjoe question: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

LD: My kids. I’m just really, really, really, really, really proud of them.

KW: Yale University grad Tommy Russell asks, what do you think about Iran’s tentative agreement to export enriched uranium to Russia and France. Do you think Iran will continue to enrich uranium secretly?

LD: Oh my God! [Laughs] I don’t have an answer for that. I’m not adept to answer that intelligently, but I clearly disagree with it. I’m not a politician. I just make movies and raise kids.

KW: Tommy was also wondering what’s your favorite scary film, and film overall?

LD: My favorite scary film is Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. That scared the [bleep] out of me, even more than Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist. There’s something really disturbing about what happens to Charlotte. It’s really a sick film. I’d say my favorite film of all time is Gone with the Wind.

KW: Producer Dianne Cleare who was at the Lincoln Center Film Festival's premiere of Precious, also attended the director's dialogue session with you afterwards. She said she enjoys your work but was most inspired by your graciousness and realness, and would love to work with you in the future.

LD: Really? That’s so sweet. Tell her to get in touch with me at Facebook.

KW: Will do. The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?

LD: Oprah Winfrey.

KW: How do you want to be remembered?

LD: For my work, and for my honesty. As a good, honest man who tried to do the best that he could at whatever he did. I’m currently doing cinema. If I decide to give this up for teaching, I hope people remember me as a good teacher.

KW: What’s your next movie, Selma, about?

LD: It’s a moment in time, about what happened there between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King.

KW: Thanks for the time, Lee, and best of luck with Precious.

LD: All right, man, have a good one.

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