After the critical and commercial success of Precious, director Lee Daniels most likely had offers flooding into his office. Considering the way he describes the post-Precious period, that was indeed the case. There were plenty of movies Daniels could have made and for large sums of money as well. In the end, Daniels decided to followup Precious with The Paperboy, a movie many have called “pulpy.” Pulpy material usually doesn’t equal commercial success, but after making a hit, Daniels decided to stick with his gut even if his gut told him to turn down millions.
The Paperboy, as ludicrous as it certainly is at times, remains a personal story for Daniels. Some may not see through the sweat and violence of the picture, but he saw this as another tale filled with people he knows well and who we don’t see on screen often enough: characters with a death wish. The world those characters inhabits is one you’ll either love or hate.
Here’s what director Lee Daniels had to say about his artist side superseding commercialism, when the magic happens on set, and why he really shows Zac Efron in his underwear so much:
I’m still putting together my exact thoughts on the film. Have you seen a lot of reactions like that?
Yeah [Laughs]. I think you will love it or hate it. There’s no grey area. You’ll either understand the world I created and go for it, or you’ll resist and say, “What the fuck?” It’s like that, you know? When I make movies, I don’t ever go out there to please anyone other than myself. I never try to make a film for the masses. I just try to tell my story.
When you look at a film like The Woodsman, it’s easy to tell you ain’t going for money [Laughs].
[Laughs] Yeah. Here’s the thing: I think the media underestimates the intelligence of the moviegoer. We need to be fulfilled. People want to sit down and think, and I try to make people think.
Precious did end up pleasing the masses, though. What you have a hit like that, do you begin to think more about commercial prospects and how that may play a part of what movies you make in the future?
Of course it does. When you have two kids about to go to college, you have to say it is a business. Unfortunately, I think my artist supersedes that [Laughs]. It’s a problem when your artist supersedes your brain! I end up going with what my gut and spirit tell me.
What about the world of The Paperboy appealed to your artist side?
I had the book. I had Push and The Paperboy next to my bed for many years. Those are some of the great, great novels. Once the dust settled from Precious, I couldn’t get off on some of the stuff people were offering me. It was a lot of money, but I couldn’t get off on it. I really wanted to do it. Like, a couple of million dollars for this movie? How can you pass on that? Ultimately, I couldn’t. I had to go with what my spirit told me to do, which was this.
Do you ever see yourself taking on one of those work-for-hire jobs, maybe as an artistic challenge to see if you can bring your voice to it?
I think this last film I finished, The Butler, is the closest I will come to as a work-for-hire. That was a big compromise, because it’s PG-13 and there were producers attached to it before I came on-board. It wasn’t something that I developed, but I did help rewrite the script with Danny Strong. You know, it’s a different medium. As an artist, it challenges you, because you are hired. You are a director for hire…does that answer your question?
Yeah. Was it a good experience?
Yeah! History is hard, though. I had to follow history. I could only take so much creative liberty, whereas with The Paperboy and Precious, they were wild rides. Even Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman were wild rides. The Butler is more sedate. It’s a sedate world. I just finished my last night of shooting yesterday. I’m excited and getting into the groove.
Congratulations. Did you find yourself having to be more clever with the PG-13?
You have to more clever. Like I said, it’s challenging. You can’t just lay it out there. You’re only allowed one “fuck,” which you can get about 20 from me in one scene [Laughs].
[Laughs] The Paperboy definitely lays it out there. Right from the beginning, did you want to make a film that was unhinged and went to extremes?
No, I didn’t. What I loved about that film is they were all lost, little, fragile birds, with several of whom on a death wish. I think Nicole Kidman‘s character and Matthew McConaughey‘s character had death wishes. We don’t see those kinds of people, and I also know those people. I can’t direct something I don’t know. I have to know the world I am in, so I can direct the people to do the right thing.
When you read the book, did you feel an instant familiarity with the characters?
Yeah, a lot of people I know. I mean, wow, what interesting people, huh? [Laughs] When I read the book, I didn’t know if the story made a lot of sense, but I love reading these people. I’m going to make this story make sense, or at least try to, because these people are so fascinating. I like characters over story. The characters knock me out.
To make those characters come alive, you have your actors go to places maybe some actors wouldn’t be comfortable with. How did you go about establishing a certain trust to assure them the more risque scenes would work?
I love these actors, and we’re very close. Matthew McConaughey just came to visit me on the set of The Butler, and it was cathartic. I sort of wept in his arms, because I’m so proud of him and his work. You know, I’m in Butler world creating magic, or a painting, or whatever the fuck it is! When Matthew came to visit, I told him he surprised me and that he did it. Heath Ledger came to visit me on the set of Precious, and I did sort of the same thing. I love actors, and I’m very protective of them. I trust them. It’s a mutual trust. It’s not just them trusting me. We don’t rehearse. I never say, “Okay, let’s go through this scene. Here’s the character’s motivation and blah, blah, blah!” We talk. They get to know me. They get to know about my weaknesses, my past, and my battles with drugs over the years. We talk about sex, rock ‘n’ roll, food, and literature.
We know who the characters are, because they’re already written. It’s about getting to know you and to really become friends, so we can make magic. That only comes from knowing each other. By the time I’m ready to yell “action,” we know each other so well. We just go for it.
Some actors have said an intense, and not in a good way, relationship with a director can be beneficial. Have you ever worked that way?
I’ve worked with actors I don’t like, and that ain’t pretty! [Laughs]
[Laughs] When you’re working under that circumstance, what happens?
I get what I want anyway. I hook a crook. I’ll tell them to look over here, but I’ll have the camera over there. It throws them off. Anything to get the scene. That’s not really a nice place to be at, you know? It happens. Sometimes you make a bad choice for the unit, but you have to make the best of it.
And you can control their performance in editing as well.
Is editing a process of experimenting and finding the movie for you, or do you already have the movie completely mapped out in your head?
You know what happens? Jack, the miracles happen through the accidents. I’ll give you an example: I made a mistake at Cannes and shouldn’t have said this, but this guy was irritating me. He was making such a big deal about Zac Efron in his underwear and I was, like, “fuck.” I had every character based on somebody I know. When the guy asked why I have Zac in his underwear, I said, “Because I’m a gay and I like it.” I just thought the question was so stupid. Then I realized I shouldn’t have said that, since that isn’t the truth. The truth is, as a kid, my mother used to always say, “Why are you always in your underwear? Why are you always walking around in your underwear?” She slapped my head and told me to put some clothes on. Of course, I didn’t look like Zac Efron, but that part of movie was on the screen, except without the Efron body.
When he goes out and dances in the rain, that was an accident. It rained that day, and it was Nicole’s last day. When you’re making an independent film, your time is money, and you ain’t got money. God told me to put some music on during the scene, so I put my iPod on, picked some songs of the period, and told them to dance after the scene. That’s just how it happened. It was the most beautiful, pure moment in the film. The accidents are the miracles.
You said in a previous interview, “Whether you love or hate the film, you’ll still know it’s a Lee Daniels film.” What do you associate with a Lee Daniels film?
That you always find truth. Some people call my style shocking, but I don’t know what the hell that means. You can’t throw a dart at any of the actors, because they’ll always bring their A-game with me. You know, that’s what bothers me a little bit. When people don’t like the film, I can take a bullet. I don’t mind you talking about me, but I’m protective of my actors, because they bared their soul for me. I can’t take it when they attack an actor for his or her work, because I think that stops them from being unafraid for their next director or their next piece of work.
When you do take a bullet or see people calling your work shocking, how do you respond to that? Do you see it as a misinterpretation or do you not dwell too much on those kind of criticisms?
I think that they don’t get it. It’s like a Democrat or a Republican or a poor person or a rich person, in that you understand this world or you don’t understand this world. If you don’t, then that’s okay! Look, my own mother doesn’t like my movies [Laughs]. I’m okay with it, because you’re entitled to your own opinion.
The Paperboy is now in theaters.