EXCLUSIVE: While Precious director Lee Daniels continues to wait for financing to mobilize on the Civil Rights drama Selma, he has closed a deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment to rewrite and direct The Butler. The Laura Ziskin-produced drama is based on Eugene Allen. A servant in the White House over 34 years, Allen watched the eight presidents he worked for wrestle with and finally stem the tide of segregation. The film is based on a series of articles written on Butler by Wil Haygood. After Haygood’s first article, the long-retired Allen was invited to be a guest at the inauguration of the country’s first African American president, Barack Obama, bringing his experience full circle. The first draft was written by Recount‘s Danny Strong.
Daniels will begin re-writing immediately and I’m told the picture could be ready to start before year’s end–Daniels has gone as far as approach Denzel Washington about the title role–if Selma doesn’t finally get its funding together quickly. The film, about Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King and the marches that led to civil rights reform, might finally be verging on happening. Deals aren’t closed, but it looks like Harvey Weinstein’s The Weinstein Company will commit $8 million in funding for domestic distribution, with Pathe matching that amount and taking foreign. Daniels’ WME reps have lined up an equity investor–I’ve heard Skyline Pictures–to provide the remaining funds for a budget that is $18 million, after location rebates.
While Precious grossed a surprising $63 million worldwide and got six Oscar nominations that included Best Director, Daniels has been exasperated that his momentum and the Selma script and cast hasn’t yet made the film real. Daniels, an emotional guy by nature, was ready to swear off the film earlier this summer. His frustration is understandable. Armed with the Paul Webb script, Daniels lined up a terrific cast–Hugh Jackman, Liam Neeson, David Oyelowo, Ray Winstone, Robert De Niro, Cedric the Entertainer are among those who’ve circled-and planned to start production earlier this year. Actors agreed to work cheap and left schedules open. Jackman even gained 30 pounds to play Jim Clark, a sheriffs who arrested Martin Luther King. But the financing never solidified, and Jackman had to go lose the weight to star in Real Steel. Most of that cast is hanging in, and the producers–Slumdog Millionaire‘s Christian Colson and Plan B’s Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner–are prepared enough that production could still happen in the fall. But if those funding deals don’t close in the next week or two, it might not be possible.