Lee Daniels on Prince of Broadway, Following Precious, and Life as a 'Studio Boy'
Producer. Director. Oscar-nominee. Name brand? We'll see if it's in the cards for Lee Daniels, the multi-hyphenate behind Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire who made history this year as the first black director of a Best Picture candidate (and only the second African-American ever nominated for Best Director). Daniels today is among the mobilizing forces behind Prince of Broadway, a gritty, low-budget drama finally escaping festival purgatory en route to limited theatrical release. (It opens today in NYC and next week in LA.) Is this a toe-dip in the pool of a would-be empire-builder? Or just a guy paying his good fortune forward?
Definitely the latter, to hear Daniels tell it. If so, he picked a good film to endorse: Sean Baker's sophomore effort tracks Lucky (Prince Adu), a Ghanaian immigrant to New York whose life of wholesale-district hustling is disrupted by the arrival of an ex claiming to have had his son. Meanwhile Levon (Karren Karagulian), one of Lucky's business compatriots, grapples with family and professional crises alike while his -- and a whole neighborhood's -- way of life gradually erodes around him. Baker approaches both threads with candor and formidable street smarts, marrying all with the grace that caught Daniels's attention during Prince of Broadway's initial festival run in 2008.
Movieline recently caught up with Daniels to reminisce about PoB's discovery, what it means to "present," the enduring push-pull between studio projects (including his HBO project Gilead and his upcoming novel adaptation The Butler) and independence, and how one follows a phenomenon like Precious.
How are you doing?
I'm doing. I'm doing good. I'm doing good.
Oscar hangover has finally subsided?
Praise the Lord Jesus.
I mean, you started with Precious in January 2009 and then carried it for more than a year. That had to be grueling.
I know, right? It was tiring by the end. I started out like a racehorse, but it was just tiring at the end. It was a lot, but it was fun. I'd do it again, though I don't know how Meryl Streep does it every year. How about that? What is she on? Give me whatever she's on; I can't do that every year.
It's a good problem to have! Meanwhile, everyone was wondering what your first project would be after Precious, but helping shepherd Prince of Broadway to screens was unexpected to say the least.
It's a good thing because I don't have to work! I just let somebody else shine.
Well, I was a juror at the Independent Spirit Awards, and this kid [Sean Baker] had this incredible... Actually he had two films. One was Prince of Broadway, and the other was Take-Out. I thought, "Wow." I just loved 'em. They were so real and honest and in your face and gritty. I don't know. They just reminded me of the work that I aspire to do. So after the whole Precious thing came to an end, he called me and he said, "Can you help me?" And with Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, I understood the power of presenting something. And I wanted everybody to see this movie, because it's a movie for everybody. So that's what happened.
Have you mentored Sean at all over the years since his films started making the rounds?
No, he did it all by himself. I just love... I mean, look. It's hard to bullsh*t me. If I'm into a movie, and one thing takes me out of the movie, then I'm out of the movie. This kid told a story from beginning to end that sucked me in and left me gasping. So I just said, "I want everybody to see this movie." And that's what happened.
You mentioned Oprah and Tyler Perry as influences. I was wondering if this is just kind of the natural track of things -- if this kind of branding is something you've wanted to do more of, especially as your profile has grown?
I never thought about it until now! I don't know that I'll do it again. Maybe. But if I find a filmmaker that makes me feel the way Sean has, then yeah.
You're known to have had a difficult relationship with your father. How did this film's picture of fatherhood resonate with you and influence your involvement, if at all?
I think so many of us have difficult relationships with our parents, and it's not talked about. We just kind of sweep it under the carpet and don't address it. Any way to shed light on dysfunctional relationships in families -- so that we can talk about it openly -- is something I'm for and I support.
Once you've had the success you've had directing, do you have any motivation to just go back and produce, directing a few things here and there? Or are you officially a producer-director now?
Both. You know, directing is a lot harder and you don't make as much money. But I love both for different reasons. Hmm. That's a good one. I like both for different reasons. It's like, do you like apples, or do you like peaches? I like both.
And of course it never gets any easier. For example, all I know is what I read, but is Selma still happening?
Yep. [Pause] Well, they say it's happening. They say it is, but I won't know until I'm in front of the camera. Right now I'm working on a piece called The Butler, and that's getting made.
Is that coming first?
Whatever hits first. I'm doing both of them, and whatever is greenlit first is the one I'm doing.
Hugh Jackman is reportedly off to prepare for Wolverine 2. Will he still do Selma?
You've been attached to Miss Saigon for a while as well. Is that something you still have an ambition to direct?
Yes, but it's a big-ass project, you know? I don't know how long that one's going to take. It's a process; this is not an independent film. This is not, "Give me $10, and I'll go shoot it." This is a process. That could be years in the making. But it's still very exciting.
And obviously you've always produced and directed independently. What's the learning curve when it comes to working with studios, as you are with Sony on The Butler?
You know what? I used to have a fear of the studio for some reason, but they've been wonderful to me. Amy Pascal and the people over at Sony have been incredible to deal with for The Butler. They've taken away that fear.
Because they're letting me do my thing. I'm not as handcuffed as I thought I would be.
What's your "thing"?
Well... [Pause] You have this idea of what it will be like to work with a studio. And I didn't know, because I hadn't worked with one before. I thought they were just hardcore and sort of edicted what the film was, and we're just sort of directors for hire. I had this thing, these thoughts of what it was like to work for someone else and not be the ultimate boss. But it's been a wonderful experience, and I have a wonderful producer in Laura Ziskind, who is almost like a big sister to me.
Aside from Laura, did you solicit any counsel from other filmmakers who had made this kind of leap?
Oh, yeah. Yes. And some had horror stories. But those who did were honest enough to say, "I wasn't strong enough when I walked in. So if you have a very clear idea, and if the studio's on the same page with you before you begin, and you both know what it is you're doing, then it's smooth sailing."
When do you think The Butler will finally shoot?
We're looking at early next year.
Ah ha. Late 2011 release, which means...
That's for the studio to decide. I'm a studio boy! But my heart's in independent. I'm going to go back and forth to both worlds.
[Top photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images]