Director's Cut: Lee Daniels ('Lee Daniels' The Butler')

lee daniels the butler

If enough people didn't know Oscar-nominated "Precious" director Lee Daniels, they certainly will now: His latest film, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" bears his name, but that doesn't mean he's happy about the title.

"That's what I would think is, like, ew," he told me when I caught up with him in New York City ahead of this Friday's release of the movie.

Title aside, Daniels' movie has plenty of buzz, Oscar and otherwise. Starring Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr. and David Oyelowo and featuring cameos from John Cusack, James Marsden and Liev Schreiber, to name just a few, "The Butler" chronicles three decades in the life of a White House butler (Whitaker). Familiar historical events are seen through his eyes, and certain themes resonate strongly today, in a society still reeling from the death of Trayvon Martin (read our full review of the film here).

Daniels took the time to chat with me about the lawsuit that resulted in the movie's title change, trying to turn Oprah into a serial killer and racial fears from the '60s that live on to this day.

FILM.COM: So you made a movie.

LEE DANIELS: I made a movie! Oh Lord, I made a movie.

So what was this whole process like? When did this begin for you?

Five years ago… Four years ago. I don't know, right after "Precious." How long has that been? Four years? Yeah, four years. And right after "Precious", developing it, and then thinking that it was greenlit and not being greenlit, and then developing it more, and then having my beautiful producer [Laura Ziskin] die, and then having a wonderful producer step in to replace her, Pam Williams. It was hardcore, then getting greenlit – finally – and then prepping, a very short prep, chaotic prep, and then an even more chaotic shoot, and a very tight post. All of it was done for no money, none, and then literally wrapping it four days ago. And here I am.

Wow, sounds easy.

Oh yeah it does. (Laughs) Yeah, let's do it sometime, shall we?

No problem at all. And a big thing in the news lately has been the title, of course. Now, your name is in the title. By the time that decision was made, were you just beyond caring? How attached are you to a title?

You're funny. "Beyond caring, beyond caring." No, I can't say I'm beyond caring, but I do feel that beyond caring is fascinating because what happens is that I couldn't care. Because if I did, it would affect the kid. I look at my movies, I call my movies "the kid." It's like I'm giving birth. I'm in the cocoon, you know? And anything that takes… I mean, I got problems with my boyfriend when I leave these movies, I got problems with my kids, I'm overweight. But when I'm in the middle of creating the kid, I have to neglect everything else, you know? The kid comes first.

So, anything that is a distraction, I pay no attention to. But I was pulled out of it for a second – of the cocoon – for this title shit. And I'm thinking, you know, and I just was in denial when I hear it. So all of that stuff's happening and I cannot… It's like, I won't read reviews, I will not. People will not penetrate me with the good or the bad of this film, because it'll inhibit me to making another film. I don't wanna know. Anyway, so then I come out of the cocoon four days ago, and then I'm dealt with this title. And people are asking, "What do you think of it?" And I don't know what to think of it.

This is what I think: I think insiders like you understand the reason that the MPAA gave me the title, but I think that ultimately, I want people to see the film. And I don't want people in Oklahoma that don't know the politics and why the MPAA ruled "Lee Daniels' The Butler" to think Lee Daniels has put his name on the film. They don't know that. They'll just think, "Who's this guy who put his name on 'The Butler'?" They'll think, "Ew!" Or that's what I would think, is like, "Ew!"

It's like "Tyler Perry Presents…"

Ew! Do you know what I mean? That's "ew" to me! So I don't know how I feel about it. It doesn't make me feel good right now. I don't know, I'm resentful and I'm angry about it. That's how I feel right now.

Did you get a response to the letter you wrote to the head of Warner Bros?

Yeah. He's just, they were… Kevin [Tsujihara] sent a very nice letter. We had a conversation, we called. We exchanged calls and… Look, it's some s**t between them, and it's nothing personal. So I had to separate myself from it, and sort of deal with it.

Step aside.


Sorry, I don't wanna make this all about the bureaucratic nonsense.

No, it's okay. But you know, it's healthy to talk about it. Because it is!

We're in movie title therapy right now.

(Laughs) Yeah, I'm on the couch.

Just lay back, it's fine. So there are a few recognizable names in this movie.

A few?

A few. A smidge. Was there anyone that you wanted who you couldn't get?


You wanted him for the very end?

Uh-huh. (Laughs)

What did you have to do to try? What does it take to get the president in your movie?

Well, I was too nervous to even ask, because I knew we were gonna get "no." But you know, I guess it's okay not to have. I guess it's okay the universe protected me from myself by not putting him in, even if he did, even if the likelihood – which was unlikely that he would've. He was running for president at the time. Can you imagine if he would've taken it? If he stopped his election and did a movie?! (Laughs) Isn't that funny?!

"Hold on, Tea Party. I'm gonna go…" So there are certain actors who have their own set of needs and requirements... What was it like having Oprah in your movie? What kind of sway did she have?

None. That's the reason why we didn't get any money from her. I'm sure if I had gone to her, she would've given me the money, but I refused to get money from her because she was a hired gun like everybody else. And I had to treat her like everybody else. She opened herself in a way that I felt protective of her, because she wasn't "Oprah." She became un-Oprah. Un-O. O became Un-O. Because she was nervous and vulnerable and fragile, I felt the need to protect her from the outside world, because she didn't come with anybody, she knew the rules.

The rules are: The only ego is the film, and you have to serve the film. So it was all about getting her comfortable, because ultimately it was – if she is nervous, then the performance would be nervous, so I had to do every trick in the book, not about demands. She had no demands. She stood in line with the extras and the crew to eat from a tray with nasty food that tastes like prison food.

Did you have to court her? 

I had to court her. Yeah, because she said that she wanted to work with me. She kept saying, "Oh, I want to work with you. I want to work with you." But every time I gave her something, she was like, "No." I sent her something that was a serial killer, that was like a Kathy Bates in "Misery" sort of thing, and she was a serial killer, and it wasn't until the end that I figured it was Oprah Winfrey. No one would know that it was her! Like, it would really be… I thought it was the most brilliant thing ever.

Like the twist at the end would be, and it's Oprah!

Yeah! "And the murderer is…" But she refused. She refused, and I thought it was the biggest kick. The producers thought I was out of my mind for doing that. I didn't get the job, even. When I told them that I wanted Oprah for the job, they didn't even care.


No way. Did this movie get made with someone else?

No, it didn't get made! Why didn't it get made? Because I wanted Oprah for the job! Not only did Oprah not do it, I lost the job. How 'bout that? I mentioned it to the producers, "I want Oprah to play it," and they were looking at me like, "He's not right for this movie."

"He thinks he can bring Oprah to murder someone."

Yeah, or that the world could believe it. That she could murder someone.

Do you think Oprah could murder someone?

No, no, no. (Laughs)

She's probably behind that door right now.

Really! With a hatchet!

Danny Strong, who's known as an actor for "Buffy" and as a writer for "Game Change," was the screenwriter. To what extent did you work with him on the script?

Danny wrote an incredible piece, and I nuanced it with African-American dialogue and other things, and the n****r thing. I pushed him over the edge, too. Stuff that he felt, as a white man, that he didn't have the right to say, I said, "You can say it. Write it. Say it! Write it!" I pushed him over the edge. And he's in the movie too.

Yeah, I caught him on that bus scene.

Mhmm. Isn't he great?! And that's Denzel Washington's daughter that he's flirting with.

Oh, no way.

Yeah, she gets the milkshake thrown in her face. That's her acting debut.

Really cool. You and Denzel are friends, right?

Very good friends. He came to visit me in my house. You know what was exciting about doing the film was it's such a camaraderie. As African-Americans, we don't get a chance to work together enough. And it was like, all the black people coming over. I stayed at Sandra Bullock's house. I'm surprised it's still intact with the parties that went down in there. I wanna come back just for the parties.

There's a line in the beginning that struck me as very resonant with current events, it was —

"Any man can kill…" [a black man without consequences.]

There we go.

So listen. When we shot that, Trayvon Martin hadn't… none of that [George Zimmerman trial] had happened. So that was about the past, and I think that's what the universe making this movie come out so right now, at this very moment, is so timely. Who'da thunk? And I think that we haven't changed. Nothing has changed. When I finally walk away from the movie, I feel like, you know, it can happen, even right now. Because a white man can kill a black man and get away with it. I did a movie about Lyndon Johnson passing a voter's rights bill for African-Americans that has just been taken away.

Like my mother, unless she shows ID to some white cat in Florida, she ain't getting in the vote. Are you f**king serious? Really? And it passed Congress? Like it's so powerful, I can't talk about it without getting emotional. You know? It's too f**king upsetting.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" opens in theaters this Friday.