Interview: Talking with The Butler’s Lee Daniels


Director Lee Daniels had been producing controversial independent films for many years—including Monster’s Ball, for which Halle Berry won an Oscar—before making his debut with 2005’s Shadowboxer, though it wasn’t until he teamed with author Sapphire for an adaptation of her bestselling novel “Push” that people started taking him seriously as a director. The resulting movie Precious received six Oscar nominations including one for Daniels’ direction and winning two for its screenplay and Mo’Nique’s performance.

After a tangent into last year’s period crime drama The Paperboy, Daniels is back to making movies that make a difference with Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a historical drama starring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, a butler at the White House who served under seven presidents between the years of 1957 and 1986, becoming a witness to the history of our country during its most troubled times. As Cecil works hard to keep whomever is leading the country happy, he faces tension at home with his wife Gloria, played by Oprah Winfrey, and his anti-establishment son (David Oyelowo).

Inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article by Will Haygood called “A Butler Well Served By this Election,” the project was developed by the late Laura Ziskin with screenwriter Danny Strong (“Game Change”), and it’s probably Daniels’ most ambitious project to date if only for the size of the cast and amount of time spanned in the movie. Besides the three main actors, the ensemble cast includes Oscar winners and nominees such as Cuba Gooding, Jr, Terrence Howard, Jane Fonda and the likes of James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, John Cusack and Alan Rickman playing five of the presidents in office during Cecil’s tenure. got on the phone with Daniels last week to talk about the movie. Great talking to you again, Lee. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet as I’m sure I’d have more to ask you after seeing it, but it seems like a departure for you in some ways. I know a little about how Laura Ziskin got the screenplay going after reading the article. How long after the 2008 election did you get Danny Strong’s screenplay and consider it as your next project to direct?
Lee Daniels:
Um, that’s a good question. Maybe a year, I think. That would make sense. A year.

CS: At that point, had “Selma” already drifted away? It seemed like you were definitely interested in doing something in that era, so did this come at a time when that wasn’t going to be happening anymore?
“Selma” wasn’t happening and I saw it dissipating in front of my eyes, so yeah, it was a bummer. So I went off to do another film… Look, what was going to happen was that I was either going to do “Selma” or “The Butler” but both of them could not get financed, so I went off to do something that I wanted to do for about four or five years now. “Precious” and “The Paperboy” were the two films that I wanted to do, so then “Selma” and “The Butler” came to me and neither of those were financed. When neither of them got financed, I went back to do “The Paperboy” which was immediately financeable—easy film to finance—and while I was shooting “Paperboy” we got the financing in place for “The Butler.” So I went back-to-back from “Paperboy” to “Butler” literally with no break.

CS: Speaking of “Paperboy,” that was a pretty amazing cast you pulled together for that and for this one as well. You have a way of putting together these casts for fairly large ensemble pieces so did that come from your experience as a manager and producer?
People throw out my management days, but I evolved into management. I started out as a theater director in New York so around the time when I met my boyfriend and partner—he was also a theater director and ended up casting all my movies, Billy Hopkins. I think the casting, we both were theater directors and we moved from that to casting directors, so casting has always been an integral part of… even before I became a manager after I became a theater director—‘cause theater didn’t pay any money and casting films did. That’s where the idea of cast comes from, it comes from me being a casting director.

CS: What was it about Danny Strong’s screenplay that spoke to you when you first read it?
Well, I helped develop it. I read it and it was history. It was a film that made me think and Danny does that with his writing. It made me think about family, it made me think about my roots, it made me think about the state of the world today.

CS: Was doing something historical very present in your mind after “Selma” rather than doing something set in the present day?
It was a different way of approaching the civil rights movement, this film. We learned it from a butler’s eyes in the White House.

CS: How did it change when you first came on board, because I know that Denzel and Will Smith were both up for Forest Whitaker’s role and it would have been a different movie if they did it, probably it would have been done at a studio first of all. Were you involved when they were involved?
Well, Will Smith was never doing the film. Denzel, I was speaking to him, he’s my friend, and we were just kicking it around, he was never officially attached. We were just talking about the idea—Denzel was never attached. We just started talking and he helped me with some ideas that Danny and I applied to the script.

CS: He directed “The Great Debaters” with Forest and his son, which I really enjoyed and it’s a similar historical drama. It is interesting that you went independent with this. Maybe you didn’t have much of a choice on that, but that’s interesting since because there’s a lot more involved with making a historical movie including locations and costumes, so how challenging was it to make this movie independently?
Look, no movie is easy to make. Each movie is (like) giving birth and labor is rough, so this one is probably the biggest baby I’ve ever delivered. Raising capitol we had to go thirty different people to get money for this movie, individuals that believed in the film, and me, and Danny’s script. That was pretty powerful to know that people were going to make this happen even if the studios weren’t.

CS: “The Paperboy” hadn’t come out yet while you were financing it, but “Precious” was, so were people able to easily connect the director of “Precious” as someone
Oh, yeah. And here’s the thing. Laura Ziskin, who produced “Pretty Woman,” “As Good as it Gets” and she did the franchise for Spider-Man… she, God rest her soul, quit the last Spider-Man to do this film. When the studio didn’t do it, she went out and began raising money and we continued developing the script, even on her death bed, literally I was with her developing the script a week before she passed away and raising money for the film a week before she passed away, from her bed. An incredible woman who was a creator also of “Stand Up to Cancer.” And then she passed the torch to this wonderful woman who really was the facilitator that all the money was put into place.

CS: I wanted to ask about casting the presidents, because this is the story of Cecil and his family, but a story set in the White House you’re going to have to have the presidents show up, so can you talk about casting them and making sure they’re not doing impressions that take away from Cecil’s story?
Well, you gotta see the movie ‘cause you’re going to see that it was a hard thing to do, to separate what was going on in the White House to what was going on with the family. I felt to keep the movie alive, we needed to make sure that the family was the focal point of the film—not the Civil Rights movement, not the history lesson that was going on in America.

CS: Was that something you had to focus on in the editing or was a lot of that taken care of in the script stage?
I think a combination of both. We did a little bit in the script form, and we changed that, and then of course we did it in editing.

CS: The original article on which this was based tied into the election of Barack Obama in 2008 to show how far someone could come in the White House, so has he had a chance to see the movie yet and are you planning a special screening for him?
Yeah, we’re supposed to be showing it to him. We were supposed to show it to him in August but I know that he’s on holiday in August—he’s trying to take the First Family away in August—so we’re trying to get it to him so if it’s not this month… we wanted to have a screening before the L.A. screening and the New York screening, in between them, but I think we’ll probably be doing it in September.

CS: What’s next for you? I know you’ve been talking about doing the Janis Joplin movie with Amy Adams.
Yeah, I’ll be doing Janis Joplin. I’m writing it… I’m scared to say I’m co-writing it but I’m currently assisting the writer, which isn’t really the same thing.

CS: It’s been in development for a long time and I think a lot of people want to see Amy Adams play that role.
I’m thrilled about it. Yes, I’m thrilled, thrilled, thrilled about it.

CS: Do you have anything else in the works besides that?
No, I need a rest, are you kidding me, man? This movie spans seven freakin’ decades, eight decades! I need to work for a minute. Normally my movies span a summer, a day, a year. This spans ninety years. I think I’m done with movies for a little bit, just a little bit. I’m writing away. I’ll go back to work, but I’m not rushing to get back. In fact, I have to do justice to the new script I’m working on, the Janis Joplin thing.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens nationwide on Friday, August 16.

(Photo source: Fayes Vision /