Telegraph, Nov 2013
The director of The Butler talks drugs, racism and giving orders to Oprah.
A slightly different edit is up at The Telegraph
Wearing a white T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, but for some reason, no shoes or socks, the director Lee Daniels giggles and squirms on the sofa at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.
“Don’t make fun!”
I hadn’t meant to tease. I’d simply asked Daniels, why his latest movie had been released in the United States not as The Butler, as it will be known in Britain, but as Lee Daniels’ The Butler. After his best known work, Precious – based on the novel Push by Sapphire, it’s officially his second film to contain a credit in the title.
“Look, I’m not a fan of Tyler Perry’s Big Whatever,” he explains. “Putting the name before the film takes away from the work!”
Apparently the title was forced upon him after a legal wrangle with Warner Bros, which already owned a 1916 film called The Butler. The Weinstein Company, which is distributing the new film, suggested Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and the director was simply too frantic to come up with an alternative.
“Harvey [Weinstein] made me open it in August in America, instead of October,” he says, “so I was in shock mode in the editing room. Three months premature!” Then he leans forward, conspiratorially. “But we were at the Ziegfield theater in NY and I saw my name up there, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. And I was like, ‘Yes!’ But I hated that I felt that way! Am I weird?”
He’s certainly unique. From his directorial debut, Shadowboxer, which featured a bizarre stepmother-stepson love scene between Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr, via the Kevin Bacon film The Woodsman (which he produced) and which portrayed a convicted child molester in a human light, to Precious, a grim tale about (yet more) child abuse that went on to attract six Oscar nominations (including a supporting actress win for Mo’Nique), Daniels has earned a reputation for off-kilter, gritty films. And as a result, he tends to either command the highest praise, or fail terribly. Conventional he is not.
Which is why The Butler is a surprise. Certainly his most tepid effort yet, it marches dutifully through the story of a black man (Forest Whitaker) who was raised on a cotton plantation and rose to become the White House butler. Along the way he witnesses what amounts to a civil rights sizzle reel, all the way from Jim Crow to Obama – the Freedom Riders, Reverend King, the Kennedy Assassination and The Black Panthers are all crammed in. Oprah Winfrey’s exceptional as Whitaker’s boozy wife but still, the film may struggle to stand out in a bumper year for films about racism.
“Oh it’s competitive!” he says. “Mandela, 12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station…” (He doesn’t flinch when I mention Django Unchained, even though he’s made it clear in the past that he’s no fan.)
Will his film be able to compete with these others come Oscars time? He shoos the question away. “I don’t like talking about it. If you don’t get nominated, then it’s like a bad review,” he says, slumping back into the sofa theatrically. “It guts you more than anything.”
As with many of his films, half the fun of watching The Butler is in spotting the famous faces among the cast. Several of his regulars are here, notably Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey, a pair of rock stars whom he never fails to deglamorize. Then there’s a parade of A-listers playing cameo roles – Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.
“Listen, it’s important to get as many people into the theaters, in Oklahoma, in Buttfuck Wherever, and so I felt the more names, the better,” he says. “Also I don’t think I would have got the movie financed.” He merrily points out that all the brand names above worked for free. “I just asked them. I know they’re activists, they stand for something, but I didn’t know them personally. Only John from Paper Boy.” He roars with laughter. “The notorious Paper Boy!”
Widely panned and booed at Cannes, Paper Boy was his unhinged film noir of last year that at one point featured Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron to alleviate a jellyfish sting – a testament to Daniels’ considerable charisma and powers of persuasion.
“Trust,” he says, gravely. “You have to trust people because life’s too short. Nicole trusted me. And Oprah gave me that trust with The Butler. Trust is pure.”
He’s also, he says, a tough boss on set – and he made no allowances for Winfrey, playing her most substantial dramatic role in years. “Here’s how I talk to her: ‘Shut up and say the line. Just say it. That’s fake. You suck. I’m out of here.’ I’m serious! She’s used to being in control, so it was liberating for her.”
Already The Butler has stirred up controversy. Michael Reagan, son of the late president, has complained that it depicts his father as a racist (for promising to veto any bill that imposed sanctions on South Africa).
“It’s simply Hollywood liberals wanting to believe something about my father that was never there,” he wrote on a news website in August. “Truth is too complicated and not dramatic enough for scriptwriters.”
When I raise the subject, Daniels laughs and pushes his tongue against the inside of his cheek. “Listen, Nancy Reagan and her two other children loved the film. Why don’t we hear that?”
He dismisses the narrative that’s popular on the right these days that we live in post-racial times, now that Obama is in charge. The film is especially poignant when it shows the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a hard won victory at the time that was swiftly repealed this year by the Supreme Court.
“There’s definitely still racism. I couldn’t get a taxi from LAX the other day,” he says.
They don’t send cars for you?
“No, they do! They better!” He laughs. “But I had to go buy something for my daughter so I sent my assistant and my trainer ahead in the car with the luggage.”
But Daniels isn’t thrown by a little racial profiling. His extraordinary story is one of tenacity and spirit in the face of quite distressing adversity.
The eldest of five children, Daniels grew up in a housing estate in Philadelphia during the Sixties, an experience he describes now as “terror”. “From kindergarten to eighth grade [13 years old], I could train myself not to go to the bathroom all day and then just run home at three o’clock, because in the school toilets I’d get beaten up.”
It was not just the colour of his skin that attracted bullies. Daniels realised in his late teens that he was gay, something that didn’t go down well either at school or at home. His father, a policeman who was later killed in the line of duty, would try to beat the gay out of him. “I’m OK with it now,” he says. “Making The Butler helped me realize why he did it. Because he was beaten as a kid, and his father’s father was beaten, he was tied to a tree. It’s generational. He was just trying to protect me. So yes, I love him for it.”
He started out directing plays in his spare time, first in New York and later in Los Angeles, while working as a receptionist at a nursing agency. He went on to establish and then sell his own agency at the age of 21, making a lot of money in the process. He then worked as the casting director for the Prince film Purple Rain before becoming Halle Berry’s manager and producing her 2001 film Monster’s Ball.
Despite this ascent, his childhood still cast a shadow. In 1996, his estranged brother telephoned him out of the blue. He was about to be sent to prison and his girlfriend, a crack addict, was pregnant with twins. Would Daniels bring up the children? Daniels agreed, adopting the children when they were only a few days old. Today he credits those children with “changing his life”, but only after he had overcome his own struggle with drug abuse.
When Halle Berry phoned him on the evening she won the Oscar for Monster’s Ball, becoming the first black woman to win a best actress Oscar, Daniels was not in a good way. “She said ‘Lee, where are you? I’m at the Vanity Fair party,’” he recalls. “But I was here in this hotel with a crack pipe in my hand.” He felt overwhelmed by his own success. “I didn’t think I deserved it. It’s crazy thinking, but that’s what happens. I was always told that I was nothing because I was gay.”
Now 53, Daniels has long since abandoned drugs. He’s even cutting back on the occasional vodka and tonic – “I’m trying to lose weight,” he says, patting his belly. One can only hope that this sobriety doesn’t affect his work too much. His best films have always had a wild edge – the incest and violence of Precious, the steamy sex of The Paper Boy. He’s now working on a television series for Fox, which he describes as “a black Dynasty, about this hip-hop family…”
I hesitate to say it to his face but, by his own standards, The Butler is distinctly, well, conventional.
“Go on, say it,” he says. “It’s OK. It was PG-13! Trust me, it was really, really hard for me to make. Completely out of my comfort zone. But my mom always said, ‘How come you can’t make movies like Tyler Perry? Miss Clark down the church says something’s wrong with you, making films about pedophiles all the time.’”
“So it was important for me to make a film that Miss Clark and those church women could see.”