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5 MINUTES WITH: LEE DANIELS|
There is already the atmosphere of a cult movie surrounding The Paperboy, starring Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and Nicole Kidman, that split critics down the line at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Set in the humid swamps of southern Florida, this sweaty drama concerns reporter Ward Jansen (McConaughey) who returns home to investigate a supposed murderer on death row, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). We met up with the director, Lee Daniels, to discuss this sexually and racially charged tale.
The Paperboy is an interesting choice after Precious: what was the hook?
Lee Daniels: In America, if you’re an African-American filmmaker, you get stuck in a genre of film and they – critics, Hollywood, oftentimes producers and actors – see you for only one thing. I didn’t want to be that guy, ‘the Precious director’, and I got offered tons of urban black stories that would have labelled me as that. But that’s not me, that’s just a part of me.
So what was it about The Paperboy that drew you in? Among other things, it features a steamy Southern vibe, racism in the late ‘60s and people with dark secrets…
LD: Everything that I do is personal. I can’t direct something if I don’t know it intimately. Precious was a very personal story for me: I grew up in that neighbourhood; I knew those girls; several of my family members were like that… I knew that world. The same with The Paperboy: everything that’s in there, from the subtlety of the racism to the sexual expression, is a view of what my life has consisted of.
The film is quite a ride. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry…
LD:I forget that there’s only a small sector of the world that will really understand this world I’ve created, will really understand the heartbeat of The Paperboy. The actors and I are having fun. It was no different than Precious. When the mother pushed the daughter down the stairs in that film, it was a stuntman and we were laughing on the floor. You have to laugh because it’s too painful. You’ll have a nervous breakdown if you take this stuff too seriously.
Why do you think some people have reacted so negatively to The Paperboy?
LD: I think it’s people backlashing on the success of Precious. I think that if I were a European filmmaker, then this movie would have been lauded in America more. Really, I believe that if I had been Pedro Almodovar or even Quentin Tarantino, it would have been a different reaction. What I’ve done is no different from Tarantino using the n-word one million times and showing the atrocities of what happened to African-Americans and laughing at that [in Django Unchained], and yet that is embraced. I don’t want to call it the race card because that’s a cheap card to call. But just because Obama is the president of the United States doesn’t mean that we don’t still have to deal with those kind of reactions.
You’ve assembled another amazing cast for your next film The Butler, which is based on the life of a man who worked in the White House for eight different presidents: Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower; Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan; John Cusack as Richard Nixon, plus Mariah Carey, Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker as the titular manservant…
LD: I didn’t want to do the movie at first because it felt like a film that was sort of expected of me. But I grew to love it. I did it for my 16-year-old twins because they don’t really know our history as African-Americans. There hasn’t been a black Forrest Gump that explains our history, from post-slavery to Obama, which is what this story covers. I’m blessed that the script was good enough to attract the cast that we got. You think we had fun with Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy? Wait ‘til you see the fun we had with Oprah Winfrey in The Butler! She plays a complicated, chain-smoking alcoholic who needs her pills to survive [laughs].
You’ve said you felt like you had a muzzle on directing The Butler. Are you reining yourself in to get a younger rating?
LD: The film is a slow boil. It’s one of those films where you really have to pay attention to Forest Whitaker’s character so I found myself falling asleep at the camera because there was no leg-spreading, there were no sex scenes, and there was no death by frying pan or fat girls eating fried chicken. At first, it was, what am I shooting here? Then I was like, Oh right, this is how normal people make movies.