Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.
Although Lee Daniels is better known for art-house fare such as 2009’s Precious, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for best director, he has found his biggest box office success with this summer’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which so far has earned more than $116 million domestically. After working on edgier fare — directing 2012’s The Paperboy and producing 2001’s Monster’s Ball and 2004’s The Woodsman — Daniels says he can’t really explain the commercial success of the film. The experience of telling the story of a White House butler has left Daniels humbled and grateful to the film’s biggest champion, the late Laura Ziskin.
AwardsLine: How did this project start?
Lee Daniels: It started with (Sony co-chairman) Amy Pascal, who read an article in the Washington Post, and she told the late Laura Ziskin that she should option the story. Laura started talking to directors, and it came to me.
AwardsLine: How did you shape the material?
Daniels: At first, it was more of a history lesson than the family story. What I wanted to create was a heart, and that really was the father-son story.
AwardsLine: Among the black themed films this season—12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, Mandela and 42—Butler stands out as the most commercial effort. That’s a bad word to some movie critics.
Daniels: I embrace the criticism, because ultimately (it means) the masses have seen it. I embrace it for my father’s story, for my mother’s story, for my auntie, for my grandmother, who all got their teeth knocked out so I could be on the phone with you here today.
AwardsLine: Do you have a problem with the word commercial?
Daniels: The commercialness was something I set out very specifically to do. I could have gone a little edgier, but I wouldn’t have been able to get the audience. It was a real lesson for me, too, to play in that arena.
AwardsLine: You were shocked when The Weinstein Co.’s Harvey Weinstein decided to open the film in the summer instead of the fall.
Daniels: I thought he was out of his mind. I thought there must be something wrong with the movie. How could we possibly compete with the tentpoles? But I was wrong.
AwardsLine: Do you think having Oprah Winfrey in the cast—the so-called Oprah Effect—draws the crowds?
Daniels: I’ve often thought, what was the lightning in the bottle on this?, and I don’t quite know. People enjoy making fun of people who are famous; they love putting people down. Her last (onscreen role), Beloved (1998), didn’t do so well, so you could argue that either way. Her work is just phenomenal in the movie, and I think that people love her.
AwardsLine: You’ve also had black moviegoers criticize you for wallowing in the ugly past. That hurts, right?
Daniels: It confuses and disheartens me that African-Americans have said they don’t want to see this kind of story. I come from a family of servants. My father’s father was a servant, and my father’s father’s father was a slave. These movies are important films for our kids to study, not just African-Americans, but white kids too.
AwardsLine: After the box office success, it’s easy to forget this film was a hard sell. It credits a whopping 41 producers.
Daniels: Three-quarters of the way through, we were still fighting for financing. But you know what? If it took 41 American citizens to tell a story that the studios weren’t willing to tell, touché to them for getting 41 producing credits.
AwardsLine: Did racism play a role in the struggle to get the film made?
Daniels: It’s very easy to call the race card. It’s a family drama—I think that plays as much a part as the race card. But I’m not going to say that racism doesn’t exist (in Hollywood). Everywhere we go, we have to be so happy to be here, so honored to be at your party. What separates (Butler producers), especially the brilliant Laura Ziskin, is that they came to me and said, “Hey, Lee Daniels. We want you.” Can you count the number of black producers who are able to take this on? You tell me. Find two of them. Just name two.
AwardsLine: Ziskin died of breast cancer in June 2011. What did she do to champion this film?
Daniels: Laura was dialing for dollars from her deathbed. This film was keeping her alive. I know it to be (true), as sure as I’m talking to you. She put her life on the line, even leaving money in her will so we could continue on. We don’t hear about that.
AwardsLine: You won the box office war, but lost the well-publicized battle over the film’s title. How do you feel about your name being added to the title just because Warner Bros. also produced a 1916 short film called The Butler?
Daniels: At first, I was really annoyed by it, but I have to say, when I got to the theater for opening night, my ego—well, I did have goosebumps. I don’t profess to be Quentin Tarantino or Tyler Perry. My philosophy has always been, you don’t put your name in front of a movie. Listen, if you ever see Lee Daniels’ The Chair, call me out on it. (Laughs.)