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July 2006
SHADOWBOXER: An Interview with Director Lee Daniels

SHADOWBOXER: An Interview with Director Lee Daniels
By Nasser Metcalfe
July 17, 2006

One of the most unique and visionary talents in the film industry today, Lee Daniels once again sits down with blackfilm.com’s Nasser Metcalfe and comes clean about his new film Shadowboxer, his recent health challenges, and what drives him to keep on pushing.

As if the month of July wasn’t hot enough, movie theatres across the country will have to crank up the air conditioning as Lee Daniels, unleashes his highly combustible directorial debut, Shadowboxer. Opening in select markets across the nation on July 21st, the film promises to be a most provocative offering amongst the summer landscape of the standard popcorn friendly multiplex fare. The film stars Academy award winner Cuba Gooding, jr. and the legendary Helen Mirren as a pair of contract killers confronted with a high stakes life and death dilemma. The cast is rounded out by Macy Gray, Stephen Dorff, Vanessa Furlito, and Mo’Nique in a departure from her normal comic form and taking a dramatic turn.

It has however, been a long road for Daniels to bring this film to the screen. Although his track record as a filmmaker is highly regarded, the challenges still persisted. His debut as a producer made history in 2002; when his reluctant choice of Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball yielded the only best actress Oscar win for an African American woman to date. While he could have played it safe and taken advantage of the many Holly wood offers he received in the wake of such an achievement, Daniels stayed true to his immense vision and decided to continue to tell the stories he wanted to tell. That meant turning down the comfort of major studio support and securing independent financing to do things his way. The result was his follow up project, The Woodsman starring Kevin Bacon. An unconventional portrayal of a sympathetic pedophile as protagonist struggling for redemption, The Woodsman earned much critical praise as well as its share of criticism for how it approached the subject of child molestation.

Never one to compromise his point of view, Lee Daniels continues to create within yet without the system. As determined as he may be, he cannot do it alone. Among his truly committed staff is his “Comrade in arms”, senior VP of production, the indefatigable Lisa Cortes. After a 20 year friendship Daniels enlisted Cortes as he prepared to shoot Monster’s Ball. Having enjoyed great success in the music business, Cortes was looking to transition and pursue her first love, film. While her first career boasts such laurels as being a founding member of Def Jam Records and Rush Management, working for a stint at Mercury Records where she signed such successful acts as Black Sheep and Buju Banton, and ultimately running her own label imprint, Loose Cannon, the need for a change eventually became undeniable. She took a huge leap of faith and traded in all her perks as an executive in her former field to embark on her new career from the ground up. She went to film school and took on some of the most thankless positions in the business. Displaying an impressive amount of character, Cortes did everything from Grip, Gaffer, and PA work in order to fully understand every aspect of the process. Today, Shadowboxer is the third film that she has worked on with Daniels and is credited as Producer. After a few minutes with each of them it becomes apparent that creatively they are kindred spirits. “At this company we really do it all” explains Cortes, “From finding the projects and developing [them], the physical production, the delivery, working very closely with the marketing, distribution, the international sales. [As well as] the visual, cutting the trailers, cutting the TV spots, cutting the radio spots. Our imprint is on all of those things. Which is a very intimate process for us.” This hands on approach yields dividends in the form of being able to tell the stories they want to tell in the way they want to tell them. This latest offering contains a generous helping of sex, violence, drug abuse, nudity and various debaucheries.

Early screenings of the film have invoked a varied response to the provocative themes of Shadowboxer as well as the poetic beauty of its stunning visual imagery, prompting audiences to wonder what statement is this film really trying to make? Lee Daniels makes it clear, “Let me just say that this movie is not for everybody. It wasn’t that I did it for shock value. But just that I felt that as African Americans we rarely, rarely, rarely get a chance to do our thing. Our thing meaning to be different. They expect us to dance to a certain dance and to a specific rhythm. Some people will love this movie and some people will hate this movie.” He continues, “What pisses me off is that they say I’m controversial for telling shit that I see is real. That’s what upsets me, they say ‘Oh here comes Lee with his controversial ass coming in here.’ This is not controversial this is life. This is stuff that I think is human nature and stuff that I think we all need to know about. Maybe it’s just me but that’s the way I view the world.” Lisa Cortes explains further, “This is an incredible script, an incredible cast, this really unique, visionary director. This movie is like the Hughes Brothers meets David Lynch. Nobody’s doing that. I want to be down with that and I want to make certain that it’s as successful as possible.”

Even though as producer, his previous two films, Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman garnered their share of controversy, Shadowboxer pushes the envelope even further with the stakes raised even higher by it being Daniels’ directorial debut. Why of all the projects he could have chosen would he want to tackle all of this? He simply states, “It was a very odd story. It was unexpected and I like the unexpected. I just decided to do something different.” Some of his choices not only raised eyebrows but even ruffled the feathers of some of his collaborators. The industry buzzed with the story of Shadowboxer’s original screenwriter being so displeased with Lee’s choice to cast Mo’Nique in her role as the troublesome jealous girlfriend with a drug problem, that he removed his name from the credits. When telling his side, Lee Daniels chooses his words carefully, “[He was unhappy with] many of the things so he took is name off of the script and I understand because I sort of did my own thing creatively with it. I understand that it was hurtful. The thing was that it was written for an all white cast. [Mo’Nique’s] character was written for a 23 year old, skinny, supposedly beautiful white girl with blonde hair. That did not interest me at all so I cast Mo’Nique. Because why not cast Mo’Nique? When do we get these opportunities as actors? We don’t get these kinds of opportunities. So I decided to go against the grain and cast what I saw in my life. My sister was a drug addict and she was very heavyset. She had a chicken wing in one hand and a crack pipe in the next and she was able to pull in these good looking white guys. So for me that’s a very real character. It was more interesting for me.” It was a similar sensibility that led to his choice of singer Macy Gray as a drug addict with an insatiable sexual appetite. “I think Macy’s a genius. She’s a brilliant singer and she’s a brilliant actor.” He declares. “She takes on these nuances. It’s like working with Billie Holiday. Macy Gray is the truth.”

With much of Hollywood’s elite talent clamoring to take a pay cut to work with the maverick filmmaker, perhaps his biggest gamble is utilizing Cuba Gooding, jr. to carry the film. It is a gamble, however, that it not unfamiliar to him. It is now common knowledge that Lee Daniels initially didn’t want Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball but the actress impressed upon him her ability pull it off and he ultimately trusted her. The rest is history. Literally. Yet in the case of Gooding circumstances are a bit different. He comes to the project with an Oscar already on his mantle, yet due to some of his choices in recent years, audiences may be reluctant to embrace him as a muti-dimensional cold blooded killer. Casting Gooding, however, was not uncalculated. “With Halle I remembered her in Jungle Fever.” States Daniels, “With Cuba, I remembered him in Boyz In The Hood. What he did in Boyz In The Hood, what John Singleton was brilliantly able to capture was that he got him to do nothing. Cuba has a tendency to want to please people, as most people do. When I got him to place of doing nothing, to me that was very real. Then the character became real to me. So his nothingness became powerful. I’m very proud. I’m honored to have worked with him too.”

In order to gain a clear perspective on Lee Daniels today one has to consider the influence of his personal life on his approach to his work. He is the father of adorable twins Liam and Clara who are now 10 years old. When scheduling the interviews for this piece, this writer called Daniels’ office at 11pm one night, expecting to leave a voice message to be picked up in the morning. Much to my surprise someone picked up the phone and it turned out to be Lee Daniels himself. His response to my surprise was “I’m opening a movie. I’m working around the clock.” Once we were in the actual interview, he explained further, “I’m so hungry to work. I’m so used to not having anything. People assume that it’s easy for me and it’s not. It’s a hard journey that I’m on and I have to work. But my health comes first.” By now it is no secret that in late 2005, Lee Daniels suffered a massive heart attack. Such an experience naturally makes one consider their own mortality and alters their outlook on life in general. So while he yearns to continue to create he has to consider more than himself. He attributes his recent health challenges to both his former and current lifestyles. “I was working a lot. Also in the 80s and early 90s I did massive amounts of drugs. I haven’t done drugs since I had my children. But I think those years and the hours of work that I put in to what it is that we do affected me. So at the end of [Shadowboxer], right after I edited [it], it was a wrap and it was a wrap for me too. It was a wake up call. Because the most important thing to me are my kids and I can’t fuck around with my health. So it’s hard for me psychologically. My knee jerk [reaction] is that ‘I gotta work, I gotta make some money. I gotta work, gotta work, gotta work. But, I can chill for a minute.” For every upset there is, however, a blessing. The experience has seemingly grounded Lee Daniels in a stronger sense of spirituality. “You realize that there is somebody watching over you, blessing you. I’m lucky to be alive. I’m blessed to be alive. So I think that brought me to a complete place of center. I’ve learned to spend a lot more time with my kids.” Lee Daniels will, however, have to continue to find that balance because he remains determined to keep it moving with his filmmaking.

He has no less than three films set to shoot back to back to back. The first is Tennessee starring grammy winning songstress Mariah Carey which will begin filming in November of this year. Next is Push, an adaptation of the popular novel by Sapphire which will once again team him with Mo’Nique. Finally, he will return to the director’s chair and collaborate with multi platinum recording artist Lenny Kravitz on Funk. Set in the 1970s, Funk, chronicles the life of a fictional musician who goes from performing in the church to becoming an international Funk music superstar. When one anticipates what the future holds for this visionary artist, perhaps his trusted confidante, Lisa Cortes explains it best. “As long we live in a society that’s not censoring truth, and even if it does, we are still going to make these very honest films that are nitty, gritty, raw, and real. I just think that that’s the best thing as an artist to have that kind of talent to create upon.”

SHADOWBOXER opens on July 21, 2006


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