Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Precious Moments with Lee Daniels
Expanded Edition of 11-04-09 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
A pensive Daniels (portrait by Renaud Corlouer), with Sapphire at the Toronto Film Fest-Gabby Sidibe-Mo'Nique at a tense moment
in the film
Film producer and director Lee Daniels is a whirlwind of energy with an irresistible passion for movies that cut deep propelled by his
unusual casting choices. He produced the Oscar winning Monster’s Ball, directed the compelling The Woodsman and the odd but
fascinating Shadowboxer and now is winning film prizes right and left with Precious. The self-described “part homo, part Euro, and
part ghetto” 49 year-old African American Daniels has been focusing all his energies on Precious, the bleak story of a 16 year-old
Black, pregnant, illiterate teenage girl set in Harlem in 1987, based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire that Daniels produced and
The contest of wills between Precious (played by newcomer Gabby Sidibe) and her horrendous mother Mary (played by stand up
comic Mo’Nique) is at the epicenter of the film which focuses on Precious’s efforts to escape her fate when she enrolls in an
alternative school and comes under the wing of a caring lesbian teacher (played by Paula Patton) and a tough social worker (Mariah
Carey). When we spoke Daniels was scurrying through airport security to make a flight, anxious then relieved when his missing
passport was located. “Now my boyfriend can calm down,” he said with a laugh. “Okay, I’m yours,” he added as we began to talk
about his “baby.”
WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): You’ve commented that Precious is very close to the reality of your growing up.
LEE DANIELS (LD): True.
WCT: Has going through the experience of shooting the movie been cathartic for you?
LD: It is a cathartic experience. It is – wow – how do I articulate it? It is humbling; it is mind blowing, it continues to surprise me
and yes, it’s very cathartic.
WCT: I strongly identified with Precious escaping into a fantasy world. I’m sure so many queer audience members will—
LD: (laughing) That’s my gay sensibility, isn’t it? Someone said to me, this gay producer, “Lee, your gay sensibility is all
throughout the film” and I was like, “I never tried to hide it!”
WCT: I think that’s magnificent. I know there’s a queer sensibility in the movies but there is a Black queer sensibility as well?
LD: Oh yeah, definitely. Like I’ve said before, “It’s a little Euro, it’s a little Ghetto and it’s a little homo.”
WCT: (laughing) I’ll have some of that cocktail please!
WCT: That fantasy world she envisions just fires the imagination. Was that your experience as a young, closeted gay man as well?
LD: Yes. I often fantasized when bad things happened to me. As a gay kid we have our own way of escaping. I knew growing up –
and my boyfriend points this out – because he can’t figure out why I made it and other African Americans in my same situation didn’t
make it out of the ghetto. But it was that gay sensibility that knew, “I. Don’t. Think. So.” You know? I knew there was some
glitter somewhere (laughs).
WCT: You just had to go find it.
LD: Yes I did. Oftentimes what I did was…when I was being harassed as a gay kid or just in bad places I often fantasized. The
fantasies are not really that strong in the book. They’re hinted at in the book but I delved into them because the movie is me. You
know? I had to marry the book with my own personal life. So, Precious really steps into my fantasies (laughs).
WCT: As bad as things are for Precious, how much worse would they have been if Precious had been a gay male high school teen in
LD: I think that we all are Precious. I think it would have been the same story.
WCT: The queer in me loves that the most maternal character in the movie is the lesbian teacher.
LD: There are so many subject matters to hit upon in this film – self-esteem issues, obesity, the social service system – I tried to
hit on so much but what people seem to miss which is what I try to hint at strongly is just how people from a specific socio-economic
background feel about homosexuality and what I do in this film is I make our savior – this beautiful goddess – a lesbian. Which
fucks up a lot of people from a socio-economic background that think homosexuality is the root of all evil that this person is the
savior. It really freaks a lot of people out.
WCT: Your films are all such showcases for great performances of great depth. How do you get actors to go to such extremes on
LD: (laughs hard) I think it has a lot to do with me being gay. Yes, I do because I’m not afraid to get deep with these women.
You know my rehearsal period is a very strange one in that we don’t rehearse the work. We know the script and so I open myself
up. I’m very vulnerable, painfully so to my cast. We don’t rehearse line by line. I just tell them my insecurities; I tell them my
fears; I tell them my hopes. We talk about sex, we talk about wet dreams, we talk about literature, poetry. So all that shit breaks
the actor down in being vulnerable and open themselves. Also, they know me. I don’t hide my drug past, I don’t hide anything. My
life is an open book and so they know my DNA so they marry that to me to the words. So oftentimes they’re just imitating me
Mo’Nique and I had worked together before. We’re just sitting there and we are one. We’re not even on the same page or sentence
or paragraph. We’re on the same syllable. When we are working we grunt like animals. It’s very primal. It’s very honest. It’s very
pure. And I think that is what I try to bring to my work because I take it very seriously and I think the only way to get the truth
onscreen is to be brutally truthful – even if it’s painful – to the talent that I’m with. Oftentimes they can’t take it – they quit.
(laughs) “He’s too much – I gotta walk away from this one. This one’s a Fruit Loop!”
WCT: Can you talk about going from Helen Mirren to Mariah Carey in the role of the social worker? That’s really a switch!
LD: Let me tell you. I didn’t do it to make a statement. It was just God protecting me as he always does. I don’t remember shit.
I learn from the actors what happened because I go into autopilot. I have a limited amount of money. I have a limited amount of
time. Time is so valuable and I don’t have time to fuck around. The job’s got to get done. Helen was set to play it – she was
going to do me a favor, really because I don’t pay any money to anybody – and in doing so she got a real job and I was like,
“Come on, Helen, do you really have to get a job now?” But she’s my friend, too so I understood that it’s a business. And this is
how God works. Three hours later Mariah calls, “Darling, darling, it’s Kitten” – I call her Kitten and she calls me Cotton – it’s so
ghetto, that’s so wrong (laughs) – she goes, “Cotton, it’s Kitten, what are you doing? Come over” and I said, “I cannot come over I
am working Mariah.” I can’t tell you how much fun we have. I proudly say she is one of my best friends. She’s a riot. She knows
what everybody thinks and she’s smarter than anybody I know. So smart she’s almost clairvoyant. She knows what goes on three
rooms down from you.
WCT: She’s a Jersey girl and you finally see that in this part. I loved that.
LD: All that bubble and fabulous and pink and whatever the fuck, honey, is just for the public. She’s made an image and some
money on that and she works that (laughs). Regardless of what people think she doesn’t give a fuck. She’s like, “I’m hear my
darling” and she’s just fabulous. And when we’re alone she’s not that public thing. If anything she’s the opposite. She’s very shy
and sweet and so not the diva. So when she called me and said, “Come over for a splash” I said, “I cannot and girl fell out. I said,
“It’s not a pretty day Mariah. I’m not in the mood” and she was like, “What is it?” And I said, “It’s called ‘Push’” and she said, “I
know that book. I read that book. I love that book.” A light bulb went off in my head and I thought, “You know what? If I can pull
this one off it would be even more interesting than have Dame do it because Helen is a genius and it’s sort of expected. It would
have been brilliant.
WCT: But with Mariah it’s a real head turner.
LD: Oh yes. That was a trip trying to get her – that was the first half. The second half was getting her into the drag and that twirl.
That was – oooohhh
WCT: “You can do it honey, come on baby.”
LD: Yes – it was just like that. “I got your back.” It’s a testament to the love and it states what the whole movie’s about – trust –
WCT: I also think it speaks to this age old thing between gay men and women. We just have this way of getting them to trust us.
I know the gal pal thing is a stereotype.
LD: No it’s not! Because they know we don’t want to fuck ‘em. All of them – Mo’Nique, Mariah, Paula – they resort to what they
know how to use. They go, “But Mr. Daniels…” and they’ve got the ta tas out and I go, “Bitch, put ‘em back, use it for another
director.” And they forget sometimes for just a second and they go, “Oh yeah, we dealin’ with him. Let’s dig deep instead.”
WCT: I read that you’re interested in doing a feature that focuses on men on the down low. Is that or any other gay themed movie
in the pipeline? Because I want you to do a big gay movie.
LD: Me too. You know I was going to do Brokeback Mountain. That was the most devastating thing. It’s a very sore subject and I
really want to delve deep into the down low in a way that is my version of American Beauty where we really understand it and it’s affect
on the community and on African American women. Because when I went to do research for Precious at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis
in Chelsea (in Manhattan) and Marjorie the fabulous black woman. Honey, she gave me some information that was staggering. The
people that were in there were not gay men. Primarily they were African American women. And that shit was deep. I mean, what
the fuck? Gay men – we have our shit together for the most part. But women who are in love with these FedEx workers and these
UPS men they got their legs spread wider than Baryshnikov, you know? And they’re infecting our women and it’s very disturbing to
me because they’re afraid to be out in the church and lose their jobs and lose their friends and be disconnected from the family. It’s
very hard being out, man. Ain’t no fuckin’ joke. Everybody thinks it’s so easy to be out. It is not easy being out. I’d fuckin’ have
an office on Sunset Boulevard right now (laughs) if I were on the DL. Life is easier.
WCT: That reminds me that several gay directors have gone on the record saying that it might be prudent for leading man types to
stay closeted at this time. How do you feel about that Lee?
LD: I feel horrible. I feel horrible. I have to say that I in the beginning was like that. “Oh, he’s gay. He shows.” Now what does
that say? I think that’s self-hatred. In the beginning of my career I was a perpetuator of that whole thing. I know guys now who
are decision makers that do that, “Oh, he’s gay we can’t hire him.” Well fuck that. You know what? In any seed are the mavericks
of the world like my very good friend Rupert Everett. Could things have gone differently for him had he not at the height of his
career exposed himself? We’re more open, society is, to women that do it but I think that this is too much. But I don’t think it’s
going to be for long, though. I’m not just being optimistic. I really don’t believe that race or sexual gender will be I pray in my
lifetime but I know very soon will not be as much of an issue.
WCT: There’s a lot to tackle.
LD: So much I want to do. It’s all hitting me at once but I have to stay focused and pray that two people see Precious so I’m doing
the dog and pony show first before I really commit wholeheartedly to the next thing. I think gay men and women will so identify with
the characters and the truth in this because they’re especially Precious.