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December 2004
A Producer's Take On Hollywood:An Interview with Producer/ Director Lee Daniels

A Producer's Take On Hollywood:An Interview with Producer/ Director Lee Daniels

By Nasser Metcalfe
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In 2002 Lee Daniels served notice to the world that he had arrived as a top Hollywood producer in the form of a critical and box office success entitled Monster's Ball. Along the way his star, Halle Berry made history by becoming the first, and thus far, only black woman to win a cherished Academy Award in the lead actress category for her performance in that film, as the world watched. A veteran power player in the industry, he is now poised to release his follow up offering, The Woodsman starring Kevin Bacon, Mos Def, and Eve in theaters on Christmas Eve, which also happens to be his birthday. With his directorial debut, Shadowboxer, which stars Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, jr. already in the can, Lee Daniels is a busy man these days. However, he did recently slow down long enough to chat with blackfilm.com's own Nasser Metcalfe about everything from his humble beginnings to his latest Hollywood projects. Lee opens up on everything you want to know, from his reaction to the unforeseen backlash that Monster's Ball endured, to what really happened in Halle's controversial love scene with Billy Bob Thornton

Nasser Metcalfe: I'm here with an extraordinary producer, Mr. Lee Daniels. How are you doing today brother?

Lee Daniels: I'm excellent. How are you?

NM: I'm great. We (blackfilm.com) want to get into your story and everything you're doing these days, but we want to start at the beginning. Where are you from originally?

LD: I'm from Philadelphia.

NM: Oh, really? Born and raised?

LD: West Philly, yes.

NM: Okay, cool. What kind of family do you come from? Large family? Small family?

LD: Large family. My dad was a cop. My mother worked various city jobs and I come from five siblings. I'm the oldest of five siblings.

NM: Where did you go to school?

LD: I went to school at Radnor High School. And I went to a liberal arts college in St. Louis, Missouri called Lindenwood College. I left after two years into it because I felt that there was nothing [there] that would prepare me for the game. The Hollywood game. And I didn't quite know what it was that I wanted to do. I just knew that [or] I felt that, and I certainly have [other] thoughts for my children, that college was not the answer for me.

NM: I understand. How many children do you have?

LD: Twins. They're nine.

NM: Oh that's beautiful. Are you married?

LD: I'm single.

NM: So you said that you knew that college wouldn't prepare you for the game that you wanted to play in Hollywood. When did you know that you wanted to enter the entertainment industry and how did you come to that discovery?

LD: It was sort of [like] God's cards unfolding I think, Nasser. I thought I could write. So it was my intention to start off as a writer. But I wasn't really great at delivering the word at the end of the day. I was sort of stuck in a quandary when I left college because I thought I was going to end up a writer. I found that my work wasn't as great as I thought it was. So I ended up doing what people from West Philly end up doing-hustling. So I got a job at a nursing agency. Where I was selling nurses. This was back in the early Eighties. I was selling nurses to people that were ill, [as well as] housekeepers. It was like a home health agency. I left that company a year into it to start my own and I made a lot of money doing that. I was under contract for the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation and the American Heart and Lung Association. [Mine] was the first company to take care of AIDS Project LA. AIDS was a disease that was just coming on the forefront and I made a lot of money. I had sort of given up my hopes in writing. One of my clientsŠŠ

NM: Now were you aspiring to be a screenwriter at this time?

LD: Yes.

NM: I'm sorry, please continue.

LD: One of my clients was a producer [who] said I can't believe you're twenty-two and you're running this conglomerate. Maybe you should think about producing. And I always felt that I should learn from the beginning. So I learned from the bottom up. So I sold the company and I took my Porsche and my money and began to intern at a casting office where I learned what I felt would be what would carry me through in my career in terms of casting. So I started casting. I cast music videos but I kept getting fired from jobs because I was iconoclastic in my ways of casting. I was casting sort of gritty people at a time when it was not appropriate. It was all about the Farrah Fawcetts and those types of people and I was really going against the grain.

NM: What kind of projects were you casting for?

LD: I worked on several things. I worked on a film called An Early Frost, which was a movie about AIDS. I was fired though. I worked on Under the Cherry Moon, and things like that. But I never stayed on a job long because I was different, even then, with my casting choices. I found them to be very real and sort of gritty. It wasn't appropriate for that kind of casting. I worked at Warner Bros. for a while. I was the head of the minority talent casting. It was like pre Spike Lee and post blaxploitation era.

NM: Sort of that in between Eddie Murphyish era?

LD: Yeah, but it was really no work for me in a sense. I mean it was what it was. I sort of got bored there. So I decided to start managing actors. And the actors that I managed were mostly of color. They were all like New York based and trained people. I did that for twenty years. I walked down the Oscar line four times with four different actors that I represented.

NM: Can you name some of them for us?

LD: Some of them I didn't leave on good terms with. Some of them I did. I represented Nastassia Kinski, Marianne Jean-Baptiste from Secrets and Lies, which she got an Oscar nomination for. I just was all over the place. Wes Benton from American Beauty, I represented. I got him that job. Most of them were Julliard actors. It was time for me to move on twenty years later when I realized that there was nothing I could do to change the system. To change the system in as much as finding people of color work. And work that I'd be proud of and that they would be proud of. And I was tired of telling the actors no. That not only was there not any work for you, but that the good roles were really not even written for people of color. And it was sort of discouraging. And I felt that the way of changing things was to create, hence Monster's Ball.

NM: Okay, so Monster's Ball was your first project that you produced?

LD: Yes, that was my first film ever.

NM: So how did Monster's Ball come to be?

LD: You know I came in a really weird way into the business to end up being where I'm at. I haven't taken any traditional, if there is such a thing as a traditional route to get to where I am now. Sean Penn called me. I had twenty years of experience under my belt as a manager; hence I knew a good script. All of my actors were superb. And they were representative of me. I took my craft very seriously. I took it as seriously as I take directing and managing talent. I no longer do but I did. I was working with a young actor. Sean Penn was friends with me and he called me because he was doing this movie, Monster's Ball. And at the time it was Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, he was going to direct it. Sean Penn was directing it; Robert DeNiro was starring, playing the Billy Bob Thornton Role. Marlon Brando was playing the grandfather and they wanted Wes [Benton] to play the young guy. Lawrence Bender was producing it. So I was like come on let's go. And then it didn't happen. A year later Oliver Stone called. At this time Tommy Lee Jones was attached to star and they wanted Wes still for the young guy's role and again it didn't happen. So I was like wait a minute, something's wrong with this picture. And I found out that the budget was very big. And most of my actors, a lot of them were European. I found that what I liked most about European productions was that they didn't cost any money for the most part. And they end up telling a story as opposed to I don't know what often times American filmmakers try to do. I'm not downing American filmmakers. Excuse me, I shouldn't say American Filmmakers I should say what studios try to do. So first I got the rights from the writers and I said listen you guys I'd love to produce this. And they go what gives you the right to produce? And I said after twenty years of managing and really knowing the ins and outs of what talent wanted inevitably. You know at the end of the day, if it's a good script actors don't care about money, they care about the work; because that's what they're in it for, if they're actors. So it was just a matter of trying to explain to them how they were going about it. That I felt that the producer who had produced [everything] from Pulp Fiction on was just bringing a bigger grander budget that was having problems getting the movie greenlit. Monster's Ball is a dark story and studios really don't want to take chances with that type of dark material. And justifiably so I think. I guess. I mean for every Monster's Ball there are a hundred others that don't [get made]. That are as good but simply [get made]. They gave me three months to put it together and I said okay. So that's when the hustle came up in me again and I was determined to not take no for an answer. And to proceed until we were in front of the camera. So ninety days to the day when my option was just about to expire, the movie was greenlit.

NM: What studio ultimately greenlit it?

LD: That was Lion's Gate.

NM: So after the film was produced and released it caused all kinds of reactions. There were some members of the black community who felt that it was unfair that Halle [Berry] won an Oscar for a role where she had to engage in such graphic sexual activity with a white man. How do respond to that?

LD: You know what, it's hard to respond to that because it's just ignorance. In that its filmmaking and I don't know that people win Oscars for taking one's clothes off. I think that if you look at the history of the Oscars, there's always the unexpected [element]. Shirley MacClaine won for a hooker. I mean how many women who have played hookers have won? I'd hoped that black folks wouldn't try to get too churchy on me. I made the movie for people of color, because I felt that that was definitely going to be my audience as expected. But that hurt me a lot because I wasn't even nominated for an NAACP image award that year when we won the Oscar. You know, [that's] sort of hard when you make a movie for your people. And I don't think anybody talks about the fact that history was made not only in front of the camera but also in back of the camera in that ninety five percent of the people who worked on that film were of color. It was never mentioned and we had so many people of color working and we just cut each other up. It was a very sad time for me. It was a bittersweet time for me. I did what my heart told me to do, which was to tell a story and to tell the truth. But most times the truth is ugly. I was prepared to be criticized for it but I don't think I was prepared for that. One would think that that would change my way of filmmaking after that, but I just realized that I can't make movies just for people's taste or for people of color or anybody but my kids.

NM: Maybe you can clear up this rumor once and for all. The scene in question with obvious graphic sexual content between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton was so visceral that the rumor mill began to buzz that it was actually the real deal. Can you go ahead and put that rumor to rest once and for all?

LD: It was certainly not the real deal. It was acting. It was extraordinary acting, I think, on both actors parts that gave the impression that that was going on.

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