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Exclusive: Interview with The Butler director Lee Daniels (part one)

"Honey, Oprah's a power-top!"


Lee Daniels is a critically-acclaimed, Academy Award-nominated gay film director. The man behind The Paperboy, Precious, and the number one American box office smash The Butler. And today, we were let out of GT Towers to London's lavish Corinthia Hotel to speak to the man himself.

The Butler is set against the turbulent political backdrop of 20th century America. Based on a true story, it tells the tale of White House butler Cecil Gaines - played by Forest Whitaker - who serves during seven presidential administrations between 1957 and 1986. Cecil is a firsthand witness to history and the inner-workings of the Oval Office as the civil rights movement unfolds. But his commitment to his "First Family" fosters tensions at home, with his wife Gloria - played by Oprah Winfrey - left alienated and alone to raise their two sons.

In the first part of our exclusive interview with one of the most important directors of a generation, we chatted about what drew Lee Daniels to the movie, Steven Spielberg's backwash and the parallels between the American civil rights movement and the need for LGBT equality. Oh, and about Oprah being a power-top, of course...

GT: First of all, we know you're going to get this a lot, but we saw The Butler on Wednesday and it was simply incredible...

Lee Daniels: Thanks man.

How did it all come about? How did you get attached to this project?

There was a producer named Laura Ziskin, who had produced Pretty Woman and the Spiderman movies, and I really wanted to work with her. It was between me and Steven Spielberg, and Spielberg really wanted to do it, but he pulled out at the last minute, and I took his backwash. And I'll take his backwash any day! So, it began, but she passed away and then the studio passed on the film and it was a very dark time for us. But then her partner, Pam Williams, began raising money from a whole bunch of people and here we are.

So what was it about the film that made you want to push it forward? What drew you to it?

What drew me to it was the father and son story. That was the exciting part for me. The history lesson was sort of secondary to a father and son love story, which I think transcends race and is something everyone understands. I didn't have a great relationship with my father and I was having a difficult moment with my son, so that really brought me in.

That's really interesting because although The Butler is documenting such an important moment in American history and civil rights, and telling a fascinating true story,it has such intricate sub-plots in there - like the loss of the family unit and the father and son conflict, too.

I often get asked what the message of the movie is…

Well, maybe not message, but what would you like people to take away from The Butler?

Well, the bigger message is there are heroes out there that are unsung and forgotten. We should try and find more heroes. And we should all try to be heroes ourselves. Those kids [the Freedom Riders] really were doing something that I don't know people understand how to do today. They put their lives on the line for the civil rights movement. What they were doing really was what… I don't know. Are gays putting their lives on the line right now for some of the atrocities that are happening to us? Are we out there doing what these kids were doing? That's the only way I can equate it. They [the Freedom Riders] were heroes. There's a few gays out there who're doing just that, and we should pride them as opposed to distance ourselves from them. Sometimes we say 'that's great that someone else is doing that job', but what we should be doing as gay people - men and women - we should be heroes. That's how I'm able to sit here right now with you and talk.

Because of the sacrifices that other people have made?

Yeah, and I think that's the lesson - in a bigger picture - that you walk away with.

What were your thoughts when you watched the movie back for the first time? How do you think it stands in the Lee Daniels body of work?

I was terrified. I thought my true hardcore Lee Daniels fans would feel that I'd sold out and made a family movie. And some have. But I think this movie has enabled me, and will enable me, to make more Paperboys and Shadowboxers and Preciouses. So many people have seen it and they now know of my work in a way that's not just my gay fans or my little small sector of people who were really appreciative of Precious of The Paperboy. I quite like it. I can't believe I'm even talking like this but I'm looking at other fun, bigger types of films that I think I can enthuse a little bit of Lee Daniels into. I was talking to my boyfriend and was like 'gosh, I don't really see any of me in this movie'. It's just so Spielbergian. And he said 'that scene with Oprah and the lipstick is very you and you're enthused in it'. And I thought about it and thought 'yeah, I'll take that'.

One thing we enjoyed about The Butler was there're all these big names in the film - like Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Robin Williams - but they didn't take focus. At all.

Thank you so much for that.

It took us about five or ten minutes before we realised Alan Rickman was Ronald Reagan.

Thank you, that makes me feel good. That was the hardest thing about doing The Butler. I really wanted everyone to see the movie, so I tried to get as many stars that were great actors - and enthuse my world of Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey - into this world. I've always done it. Back with Monster's Ball I was really smart to know that Heath Ledger was on the cover of Vanity Fair and Halle Berry was budding at the hight of her career and Puffy was just budding at the height of his career, so I knew that each one of those people represented a demographic that I would get to see the film. And it's the same as The Butler. Each of those people from Rickman to Vanessa Redgrave to Mariah to Lenny to Cuba Gooding Jr, everyone has their own demographic and, with them, I would hit as many people as possible. I felt the film had to be seen and I didn't want people to think 'oh God, here's some history lesson'. The hard part, though, was making them disappear and making them seamless. I had to remember it was a father and son story - father and son LOVE story - and they would just POOF. Disappear.

You mentioned the Oprah scene and how your boyfriend said it was the Lee Daniels' scene. Was there a scene that was difficult to shoot?

I think the lunch counter scene was the hardest thing for me to shoot. It reminded me of being bullied. Of being taunted for just being me. Not just being black, but being gay too. I lived both racism and homophobia…

Lucky you!

Woohoo! Double whammy. KABAM! [laughs] But I think it's made me the man I am today, and it's made me resilient and made me continue on making films, not taking no for an answer. Being bullied and being taunted and being made fun of because I am gay and because I am black has put a sense of armour on me, that I wear as a badge. I'm pretty bulletproof when I'm getting my movies made. I think it's made me more of a man than many of my heterosexual brothers.

So, come on, tell us. What was Oprah like? What was it like directing her?

Honey, she's a power-top! [laughs] She'll drill you down, baby. [laughs] But it's a fun ride. Oh God, why did I just say that? [laughs] She's the most powerful woman on the planet so she's THAT. But, you know, when you chip at her and you chip at her, she adapts quickly to her environment, and she realised that she needed to be directed. And then you chip away at that and she became vulnerable, she became fragile, afraid, nervous, and all of a sudden I felt like I had to take care of her! What happened to my power-top?! All of a sudden, I felt very protective. She didn't come in with an entourage. She stood in line and ate that crappy food we all have to eat in catering and I felt very protective. In a way that I hadn't, because we were friends before through Precious. But I saw a different side to her and it made me love her that much more.

But even a power-top needs a cuddle at the end of the day, right?

[Laughs] I guess so.

To read part two of our exclusive interview with Lee Daniels on losing his friends to HIV, homophobia in Hollywood and why he wants to make the next great gay film, click here.

The Butler, one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year and the American box office number one, is out in cinemas in the UK today.


Words: Ryan Butcher (@RyanJohnButcher)

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