Exclusive: Precious Director Lee Daniels

For many years, Lee Daniels was best known as the producer of Monster’s Ball, the tough drama that earned actress Halle Berry her Oscar, followed by the equally controversial The Woodsman starring Kevin Bacon. After making his directorial debut with the critically-reviled Shadowboxer, Daniels decided to tackle the adaptation of the popular bestseller “Push” by poet Sapphire, an equally tough story about a hefty slow-witted 16-year-old named Clareece “Precious” Jones, growing up in the Harlem of the ’80s. Already pregnant with her second child after being raped by her father, Precious lives with an abusive and negligent mother who does everything to destroy the teen girl’s remaining spirit.

Daniels took this difficult source material and along with screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher molded it into the movie now known as Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. It features an amazing performance by newcomer Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe in the title role of a girl who fights insurmountable odds and tries to come out the other side with her head held up. Countering the ray of sunlight that is this bright young actress is the equally harrowing performance by comedienne and talk show hostess Mo’Nique as the worst screen mother since Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, a maternal monster who mistreats her daughter in every possible conceivable way.

Despite the harsh domestic environment and difficult subject matter, it’s a surprisingly inspirational tale, one that Daniels fills with colorful fantasy sequences and a surprising amount of humor thanks to Precious’ classmates. It’s also a film that’s been winning over audiences (and being given plenty of awards) since the movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, putting it on many short lists as the movie to beat at next year’s Oscars. Besides the terrific performances Daniels got from the two women, there’s also an equally strong supporting ensemble including Paula Patton as Ms. Rain, the “alternative education” teacher who helps Precious break out of her shell, Mariah Carey who is almost unrecognizable as a weary social worker, and rocker Lenny Kravitz making his acting debut.

ComingSoon.net sat down with Daniels a few weeks back for an introspective chat about his background and how it helped enhance a movie that everyone has been and will be talking about over the next few months.

ComingSoon.net: I read that this has been a long time coming. That you read the book in ’96 and were chasing after it. So what finally got you the gig?
Lee Daniels: I think that she was just tired of me stalking her, Sapphire. I stalked her, I stalked her. (laughs)

CS: Did you know her beforehand?
Daniels: No, I didn’t know her beforehand. A friend of mine had given me the book, Ally Sheedy’s mom had given me the book, and I stalked her. I wouldn’t let up, and I think that she came to realize that she was worried about somebody making a bad movie, because she certainly had bigger stalkers than me stalking her, but I think she realized that no matter how bad I screwed the movie up, that it wouldn’t mess up her great piece of literature.

CS: Did she give you the impression whether or not she’d want to be involved in the making of a movie based on it?
Daniels: I mean, she didn’t ask to. She really gave that up, but it was me and Jeffrey Fletcher, we went back to her because as a director, I needed to know certain things that I didn’t understand. Like I didn’t understand certain social worker terms I needed to understand to make sure that I directed girls right and current about that kind of stuff. She’s also in the film, too. I wanted her in the film as a good luck charm.

CS: Harlem in the ’80s is a very specific place and time. You grew up in Philly–I assume you’re still there–so were you able to see a lot of correlations between your own time growing up there with Precious’ life here?
Daniels: Yes, I think Philadelphia is very similar to Harlem, very similar to Harlem, VERY similar to Harlem. Harlem is a little prettier than Philadelphia.

CS: That’s surprising to hear, because Philadelphia has all the monuments and historical buildings.
Daniels: Well, where I grew up in Philly, it was ROUGH. It was not pretty, and it’s even rougher now. I went back and I can’t believe it’s even rougher, like boarding up houses. It looks like Iraq. It’s hard.

CS: Is that because of the economy?
Daniels: I think that combined with… It’s definitely not the city I left or the area that I left. Yeah, I mean, for me, I replicated my world in growing up on the screen. I just took it, every snapshot of everything that I had remembered, and I put it up on screen.

CS: As far as setting the movie in the ’80s, how important was it to keep it in that era?
Daniels: I thought it was more effective. I think that now AIDS is treatable, it’s more containable, and it doesn’t have the impact that it had when my friends were all dying. Like we didn’t know when that thing hit in 1980 whatever, words can’t articulate where your headspace was. How do you get it? Do you get it by touching? Do you get it by coughing? Do you get it by sex? What is this disease?

CS: It’s almost like swine flu now.
Daniels: Yes, yes! So I thought it was important to tell this story in its time period and also I love that period of time where all those girls in that classroom, they’re all girls that I grew up with. Each hairstyle and the earrings and the sunglasses and the colors, that was a very specific, you know Madonna-esque sort of coming out, Cindy Lauper coming out, moment.

CS: I haven’t read the book yet, but was much of that already in there or was there other stuff from your own early years you wanted to bring to it, knowing that it would be set in this period?
Daniels: Oh, yeah, the social service system is not the social service system that it was then, now. Look, if I even look at my kids wrong, they go, “9-1-1, Dad!” I even LOOK at them wrong, “9-1-1!” 911 didn’t even exist back then. Precious was in her own place, and she was really stuck, and I think that the social service system wasn’t what it was then.

CS: I’m curious about what you attracts you to these high dramas.
Daniels: Now, now, now… I don’t know whether it’s drama. (laughs)

CS: Between all the stuff you’ve produced–”Monster’s Ball,” “The Woodsman”–and now this, there is always some element of heavy drama or heavy subject matters. There’s always some amount of lightness and humor, but I’m curious what attracts you to such tough material.
Daniels: I don’t know. I think maybe just like watching… I remember… this is a first, I’m going to tell you this story. I remember downtown Philly going in and seeing “Pink Flamingos,” John Waters’ movie, and I remember… (starts laughing and clapping hands as he remembers) I remember going back with my mother and my aunt and watching their faces and they were like (laughs hysterically)… and I remember the feeling that I had…

CS: How old were you at the time?
Daniels: I was 18? 17? 16?

CS: Old enough to get into “Pink Flamingos” in the theaters obviously.
Daniels: I don’t know even when it came out, but it was definitely… I don’t know. I was a couple years out of high school. So I just remember how iconoclastic it was, and how bold it was, and I don’t know that it’s my favorite film, but it had an effect on me that it was just like he was doing his thing. He was doing his thing. Like “You know what? F*ck everybody else, I’m doing my thing!” And I loved that people could just do their thing, because every movie that I’d seen had a formula, and a happy ending! What I loved about the film was that I didn’t know what it was! But it was… and so for me, it had a very lasting impression on… I mean, I don’t know want to have someone scooping up (dog sh*t).

CS: But it effected you.
Daniels: Yeah, of course. Like what is this?!?

CS: Interesting. I wanted to ask about the casting. Everyone’s really surprised by Mo’Nique in this but I remember seeing “Shadowboxer” and she really jumped out because I remember seeing her hosting “Showtime at the Apollo” and seeing her in that movie, I couldn’t believe it was her, so I see her in this and she’s taken that to a whole ‘nother level. I know you have a background in talent management, so how do you know, like Mariah and her, can actually do this type of material? And Gabby as well? Where do your instincts come from to know that you can make the movie you want to make with them?
Daniels: I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t even finish college, so I just have a third eye and an understanding about people and about what I can do with that person. Mo’Nique and I had worked together on “Shadowboxer” so we were friends, and I think they understand me. I like working with friends. They happen to be my very good friends, I mean that they know my insecurities, they know my fears, my dreams, my past with drugs. They know me, and so they know everything about me. They also know the material, and so what happens is that they connect me to… knowing everything about me… to what they understand to be… the material. So that before I yell “Action,” we’re not on the same page, we’re not on the same paragraph, we’re not on the same sentence or even the same word, we’re on the same syllable. We are one, you know? And it’s harder for me to work with people like Gabby, who was new to understanding who I was, because my rehearsal period is none. I don’t rehearse the lines. We sort of talk about everything, and really, it’s hard to get somebody to talk about themselves, so I normally download what it is that I’m going through at the moment, what my problems are, what happened to me as a child. So days into them hearing enough about me (laughs), they’ll start opening up about them, and then we sort of find our way. It’s very therapeutic.

CS: I was going to say that it doesn’t sound like a very conventional way to make movies, which may be why you can make a movie like this. The material itself is so difficult, one couldn’t really imagine a lot of directors jumping forward to try to make this movie, but we definitely see results coming from this process… or non-process… or whatever you want to call it.
Daniels: But I don’t take credit for… people go, “Well, how did you do this? How did you make Gabby beautiful at the end? Like she’s spectacular!” That’s not me, that’s God, because I told her how to walk, how to talk, where to move, but her eyes… that was the last shot we shot in the film and she walks with her head up really high, that is being treated like a movie star, that is being treated like a human being. That’s what happens when people love somebody. It’s like a combination of two months of people loving you and showing you love. I can take credit for loving her, but I can’t take credit for my crew and the other actors supporting her in such a way that she hasn’t been before. So when she walks away and she’s holding her head up really high… the last shot of the movie, which is the last scene that we shot in the film. That was her being a movie star, because that’s what she was. She had become a movie star.

CS: With that in mind, how’s she been handling all the attention that’s been coming her away since Sundance?
Daniels: Crazy. (laughs) Well, I told her beforehand. I said, “Now, listen…” and Mo’Nique, too.

CS: But she’s been out and about and making movies, so this can’t be that new to her.
Daniels: Right, but it’s about staying in your bubble. Getting off the internet, only answering your Emails, ’cause it’s so hard not to Google “Precious.” It’s so hard, but it’s almost you have to go to Google Anonymous for “Precious” so that you can stay away from it. I know that just based on my agents returning my calls (laughs). And I got a couple of gigs… and that Oprah likes me! Or likes the movie… that it must be something nice going on. I assume that.

CS: So you yourself, you don’t go on the internet and see what’s being said.
Daniels: No f*cking way, are you out of your mind? ‘Cause all I’m going to focus on is the one negative word, and my mother, she sent me something.

CS: That’s the other thing, because your family will always find this stuff and then Email you about it, assuming you want to read it.
Daniels: Oh, after I told her not to. I said, “Ma, don’t send me anything,” cause I got BASHED for “Shadowboxer,” and she sends me “How can they say this? Who will want to see a movie about a 350 pound black girl?” And she cuts it and pastes it so that it’s from my mother, so of course I’m going to read it! And of course I’m going to really read it ’cause it’s like an addiction, as I’m reading how people are interpreting my every… and I’m reading this thing and I’m like, “Holy cow!” So, yeah.

CS: I have to admit I wasn’t a huge fan of “Shadowboxer” but after hearing your “Pink Flamingos” reference, I want to see it again with new eyes. Because knowing that, I might be able to watch it again and think that it’s genius.
Daniels: Here’s the thing. This is what I think, or maybe I’m wrong. I think that because of “Woodsman” and “Monster’s Ball” and my producerial work, that they were expecting something like “Precious.” For me, it was a f*cking party, it was like crazy, it was “Are you really taking this seriously because I’m not taking it seriously.” And I think that it was taken too seriously but I think there are so many moments of… and maybe I should look at it again because I haven’t looked at it since. I haven’t seen it so maybe you’re completely right. I might look at it and “What the f*ck was I doing with this movie?!?! Oh, Jesus!!! Oh, God!!!” But a lot of people… Gabby’s seen the movie, I think she said either seven or seventeen times. A lot of black people like, really, that’s a twisted f*cking experience for them.

CS: I remember that it did really well when it played at the Magic Johnson Theater on 125th Street. My thing was that I saw it at Toronto at 9:30 on my last night there.
Daniels: I love the fact that you can tell me that, man, because I can say, “Thank God that I’ve got ‘Precious’ now,” and that you can release one baby and then onto the next. But check it out.

CS: I was really nervous about doing this interview because I was like, “What if he read the internet and read my review of ‘Shadowboxer’?”
Daniels: Don’t worry, I didn’t. (laughs)

CS: What do you think you’ll do next? Now that you’re done with this, you’ll have to go through the whole awards season.
Daniels: Should I be nervous about your review for “Precious”?

CS: No, not at all.
Daniels: (laughs)

CS: I was wondering if you want them to re-release your previous movie as “Shadowboxer: From the Director of ‘Precious’”?
Daniels: Oh, I don’t know. I’d have to watch it again. Maybe I should. You know what? Give me your phone number, because I want to find out. I’m going to tell you what I really think. I haven’t seen it since the end of 2005. I will tell you what my honest opinions of it are, as objective as I can be, and you tell me.

(At this point we make a deal about reconvening to discuss “Shadowboxer” at a later time, swap Emails and numbers, etc. Daniels seemingly relishing the very idea.)

Daniels: I’m curious to find out what… because every movie you’re in a different headspace, you’re in a different place, and maybe it was bad. I don’t know. I really don’t know. But Gabby, she was obsessed with the movie, and my financiers who gave me the money were obsessed with the film.

CS: And I heard that Sapphire saw the movie and that was the reason she was okay with you directing this.
Daniels: Yeah!

CS: So do you have any idea what you might do next or do you have to finish the whole process for this first?
Daniels: I’ve got a couple things that I’m up for. A musical, I’m thinking about doing “Miss Saigon,” I’m thinking about that, and I’m thinking about “Selma,” which is this moment of time in Martin Luther King and LBJ’s moment, the signing of the Civil Rights, that moment in Selma. Yeah, so I don’t know.

CS: Are these things you’re going to develop from the ground up?
Daniels: No, it’s already done, and I should be going to work right now, but I have to do this. But to me, this is important because this is closure that something I worked really really hard on. (And then we’re back on “Shadowboxer.”) It’s so funny that you were afraid to do this, I just want to read it now just so I can read it and laugh. Because you’re separated and you’re so disconnected from the child. You put as much work as you do, but a while later, you can really laugh about… I just started reading reviews about “Woodsman,” a couple months ago, ’cause I’m that disconnected. It helps you, you’re able to disassociate. I don’t know how well I’d be able to disassociate from something I directed, but I think I would probably start laughing. Having met you, I’d probably be on the floor laughing. I’d be hysterical. “The audaciousness of a zebra on the lawn. What is he, crazy?!” (laughs)

Later on, we sat in on a roundtable interview with Daniels and got a couple stories specifically about “Precious”:

Q: For those who haven’t read Sapphire’s book, how close does your movie stick to it or does it differ a lot?
Daniels: The book is X-rated if I were to show the book on screen, so the only difference and liberty that we–Jeffrey Fletcher, the brilliant screenwriter, and I–took was to jump into fantasy where the book does not. Not only for a rating, but for the audience to breathe through humor, because I found that through laughter, the pain is more bearable.

Q: You and Sapphire have both expressed that you had similar experiences as Precious, and that you could identify with them from your own lives. Would you have been drawn to do the movie had you not had that personal connection?
Daniels: It’s a collaborative thought process. The pig’s feet was one of the reasons why. I love pig’s feet even though I’m not supposed to be eating them. The scent of the house, so I don’t know if it was necessarily the abuse. Certainly, yes, of course, but I think it was a collective experience and the nuances of the book that struck me, and having relatives that can’t read and having understood running. We were on a welfare at a time when my Dad died, and I remember “Miss Shirley’s coming. Why didn’t you tell me that b*tch was coming?!?! Hide this, hide this!” We were just running and trying to hide things from her because there were moments like that. So the abuse, yeah, of course, that was a given, but I think that always feeling different, never feeling a part, like that I was normal. I think that many of us (think) “Who is normal? What defines normality?” and I think that is a universal theme of the film.

Q: The movie is very dark so what was the atmosphere like on set?
Daniels: We were laughing. We were laughing at the ludicracy of it all. Not the end scene, and thank God that was the end because I don’t know if we could continue on past that last scene. Mo’Nique is a comedian, so they view things from a different perspective than an ordinary actor. They have a third eye and they see things in a very twisted sort of way, so you find yourself laughing at things that you really should not be laughing at. So Mo’Nique is at the bottom of the stairs, Gabby is at the top of the stairs and “Action!” and she says, “You ain’t never been nothing, you ain’t sh*t, you ain’t been sh*t, I should have aborted your ass…” and she just goes on and on. By take 4, you’re laughing, and then Gabby is at the top of the stairs, she’s giggling and Mo’Nique is laughing at the absurdity of it all. Honest to God, we are laughing, and I had to literally, some of the best stuff in the film, I had to cut because Mo’Nique broke out in laughter and then I had to cut to Gabby, and then I had to cut away from her because she was laughing. I can’t take credit for that. My brilliant editor Joe Klotz who is a genius, because that scene, the outtakes, which I will put on the DVD, you’ll see that we laughed throughout the take. Mo’Nique says, “You b*tch” and I say, “No, call her ‘fat b*tch’” and she’s like, “Lee!” (laughter) Every time we would go further and further but the end scene was not. I said, “Do not cry because I need you to be troopers. Go through this and be adult,” but it was so painful and when I started crying, Mariah and Mo’Nique and Gabby started crying and I couldn’t yell “Cut” because it was God in the house taking over. It was a bizarre experience, it was surreal. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. That moment was similar to Halle’s gumball experience where I said to Marc, “Don’t have her cry, just cut to the chase…” and it felt like I was living that moment again. And (with this), I was almost like, “We’re here again.”

Q: Was it a challenge to get this movie financed or made?
Daniels: Look, I can’t say that Hollywood did not open its doors to me after “Monster’s Ball.” That would be an inaccuracy. It was the doors that were opened to me that I chose not to go into. They were very embarrassing films that I would never do, that I couldn’t in my conscience do. I didn’t want to do “Soul Baby” or “Who’s my Baby’s Cousin’s Daddy?” and stuff. It’s a business. It’s called “show business” and I have two kids so I’ve got to support my kids. It’s hard to walk away from a couple million dollars, it’s hard, but I had to stick to what I believe that is my truth and is my work. So I do “Woodsman” and I do these movies that I think make people think, and as an African-American filmmaker, I think that I have an obligation so that when the coffin is closed and there’s dirt on the grave, I want my kids to say that their gay Dad, married to this white man, did something that will leave a little bit of a legacy. I want them to be proud of me, and I think that “Precious” was not difficult to finance, that was the irony of it all. You would have thought that it would have been difficult. I must have been crazy because in hindsight, I think to myself, “What was I thinking?” I don’t think that at this current moment, I would have done “Precious.” When you think of the math? Who would go see a movie about a fat black girl? Really? Logically, it doesn’t make any sense, but I think that it’s been blessed with angels. I think that our angel was the script, my next angel was that I got financing for this movie–who would finance this movie?–that I could find the girl to play her, that we could get accepted into Sundance. And Oprah Winfrey is calling me up as I win my award! Yo, I’m talkin’ about I’m stepping up to the podium to get my award and “Unknown” picks up on my phone. Now, who would answer their phone? I’ll tell you who. A filmmaker who is starving because that’s either somebody with some money with an unknown number or a movie star, so I’m still thinking about my next movie as I’m walking up and getting my award. I think we’re blessed with angels, I think that the film has been blessed with angels from the beginning through the end.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about Mo’Nique not wanting to do much press or dealing with the awards circuit stuff for her role in the movie. What’s up with that?
Daniels: Here’s the skinny on Mo’Nique. At the end of this thing, I said to Mo’Nique, “This is award-worthy.” She said, “Lee, what are you talking about? You are my award. Did I serve you?” She gives her soul to me, as she gives her soul to her kids as she gives her soul to her TV show. She’s in the middle of a new TV show that’s #1 and she’s the best mother I’ve ever met. The press thing for Mo’Nique, she’s like, “What do you want me to do, Lee, so I can stop with the kids.” She didn’t come to Toronto, her child was sick, so she couldn’t make it there. She has twins, five-year-olds. It was their birthday during the New York Film Festival. She is on another level, so people interpret that as “She’s being a snob.” She said, “Lee, get this, I’m here. What do you need? And let them talk.” She’s coming to the L.A. premiere. This is what kills me about the press. They find something and they just start… (laughs) It’s just ludicrous!

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire opens in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco on Friday, November 6, with plans to expand into more theaters over November and December.

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