To say Lee Daniels isn’t shy about pushing buttons would be a gross understatement. In fact, he’s built his career on seeping into the ugly side of humanity to examine our deepest insecurities and taboos.
His first film as a producer was 2001's "Monster’s Ball," which earned Halle Berry an Oscar, as she played the wife of a recently executed inmate who falls for a racist prison guard. His directorial debut, in 2005, was "Shadowboxer," a crime drama starring Cuba Gooding Jr and Helen Mirren as a mother-stepson assassin team who are romantically involved. His 2009 film "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" broke through all barriers, following an illiterate pregnant teen with HIV as she survives her abusive home life.
For his latest, Daniels continues to challenge audiences, this time with the pulpy thriller "The Paperboy" (opening Friday). Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival to mixed reviews and constant tabloid fodder for the bizarre scenes its leads Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman find themselves in -- like one where Kidman’s character has a telepathic sexual encounter; in another scene, she urinates on Efron’s character after he’s stung by jellyfish -- it’s based on the Pete Dexter novel about a reporter (Matthew McConaughey) and his brother (Efron) who investigate the case of a death row inmate (John Cusack) with the help of the inmate’s pen pal (Kidman).
Daniels talked with Film.com from the set of his next film, "The Butler"—about a White House butler who served eight presidents—on why at first he didn’t want to cast Efron, his reason for changing one of the characters to an African-American and why he thinks "The Help" is bulls**t.
Were you a fan of the book?
Yeah. I read the book when I read "Push" and both of them were close to me. The characters were so real yet outrageous, for both books. "Push" had a story, "The Paperboy" story you could just throw up in the air and shoot holes through the book because the story wasn’t as strong. But I felt the characters were stronger in "The Paperboy," they were vivid. And it was more of a character study than the story of the investigation. I think that bothers people because they’re expecting—well, I don’t know what they’re expecting. [Laughs] But what attracts me to material are characters that I know, characters that I know people don’t know but I know, and bringing them to the screen. Spotlighting voices that have not been heard before on screen. And also I got so many movies offered to me after "Precious" I really wanted to do something that was unexpected, I think it was a curve ball.
It’s interesting you brought that up, because I would imagine that with the success of "Precious" you were suddenly the torchbearer of the black filmmaking community—
[Laughs] I can’t say that because then I get in trouble.
But it sounds like this was a conscious decision to not do what others wanted you to do.
I wanted to make sure that whatever I did was a world that I understood. I didn’t specifically go out and look for a movie to justify my existence as a filmmaker to anybody but I knew whatever it was, there would be the "why." And so the "why" here is simply because it’s one of my favorite books. "Paperboy" and "Push," there’s another book called "Iced" [by Ray Shell] that sat next to me that was another favorite book of mine. I loved all three. I haven’t done "Iced" yet because that would slay people. [Laughs] It’s a hum-dinger. I’m going to do it one day. But anyway, these were my three favorite books and I said to myself I’m not going to do what Hollywood wants me to do or what African-American filmmakers want me to do, or what my mom wants me to do—she wanted me to do a musical. I did what my spirit wanted me to do and I like character-driven movies. I like making people walk away and think and feel one way or the other, strongly.
Was it Nicole or Zac that signed on first?
I mean, casting was all over the place because the cast is not the cast that we started with. Bradley Cooper was going to do it with Sofia Vergara and then Tobey Maguire [came onboard], but it’s always like that.
Was it always just scheduling conflicts?
Yeah. When you’re paying everybody nothing, I mean, they have homes to pay for. And my movies are like putting on theater. Nicole Kidman is at craft services and John Cusack is moving furniture, there are no egos. The only ego is the story.
Is it true the first scene Nicole and Zac did was the jellyfish scene?
That was her third one and that was his second. Her first one was being bent over on the washing machine. And the second one was the telepathic sex and the third was the jellyfish. You know what, by that point we’re a family because we are in the trenches together. Putting on a movie is like going to war, for me at least. It’s all about time, time is money and we don’t have it. So it’s all about getting to know each other intimately quickly. You are with family members that you like or don’t like, but you can’t leave them because you’re stuck with them.
This is your first time credited as a screenwriter—
Credited. Credited. [Laughs]
You co-wrote it with the author of the book, Pete Dexter, how was that dynamic like?
I love him. He’s famous. He’s a legend. He’s this old cat and he’d say stuff like, "Lee, this is the way I want it." And, "I don’t understand why you’re turning the Yardley character black." And it’s because I have to understand everyone on the screen. I can’t direct them if I can’t understand these people. I have to know these people intimately. If they want, people can make fun of the story or maybe the way the story is told, the pacing, but they will never be able to punch a hole into any Lee Daniels character ever, because I know these people. Because if I don’t know them, I’m not directing the movie. And if you see one piece of fakeness in my work then I have to hang it up and stop working. So I told him, "The black guy is me." I mean, I did a lot of things that I’m not proud of to get to where I’m at right now, so I had to do what I had to do to survive. You come from the projects, you don’t go to college and you lie and say you’re from f**king Beverly Hills and say you went to Harvard just to get in the f**king door in the ‘80s. And you throw in that fake white voice just to get accepted, I understood him to his core.
Has Pete seen the movie?
No. He hasn’t seen the movie.
Do you want him to see the movie?
No! I don’t want him to see the movie, are you crazy?! His agents love the movie, but I’m scared to show it to him. I have so much respect for him. You know, writers want their stuff to the word, and I did not give him that. Not with Yardley. That was the only difference from the book.
The response to the movie is people either love it or hate it, which outside of "Precious" is old hat for you—
It’s the same damn story as "Precious." But they couldn’t hate on it. It’s politically incorrect to hate on a heavy-set black girl with HIV, who’s being abused, who’s illiterate. There isn’t one person in the world who can say anything. But this one I was fair game because I had four beautiful white movie stars. [Laughs] They were gunning for me. But I don’t care. I mean if I read [reviews], I get really disturbed. But I just don’t read it because then you’ll be literally making your movies for critics. So I just get in a bubble. I did read something where someone called it camp, that offends me. I just try to do my best and get my actors to go to places they’ve never been before. I can take a bullet, I’ve dodged bullets in the projects, dodged the AIDS bullet, I’ve dodged them my whole life. But what I can’t take is people who come into my world — actors, celebrities, movie stars — and work for nothing and bare their souls for me and get criticized.
When you saw the finished film, which performance were you just blown away by?
I knew Nicole was going to bring it, so I would say Zac. I mean I didn’t want him for the movie. I just thought he was corny. And then he auditioned and he was great and then he gave me his soul and I was like, wow.
Also Check Out: 'The Paperboy' Director on Zac Efron
I will admit he looks like a matinee idol through most of the movie and then a third of the way through he just changes.
Yeah. I got ya! I flipped it on ya! I waiting and waiting until he pounced. Also I’m happy with Macy [Gray]’s delivery [who play’s the family maid]. It’s gut wrenching and honest, it reminds me of one of my relatives. I mean I watched "The Help" and went "What the f**k is this?" This is white people loving this shit. This is bulls**t. Do you honestly think this is how black people talk and act? So Macy’s character is really an homage to my relatives and the people who I grew up with. Most of my relatives were housekeepers and maids so they told me these stories and there was a heart there.
So who is really wowing you on "The Butler" set?
There are great actors all around but there’s a new discovery that I’m very excited about, his name is Mo McRae and he plays the head of the Black Panthers, Eldridge Huggins. He’s a new kid on the block that I think is going to rise to the top. Mark my words.