A couple of days ago I had the opportunity to speak with director Lee Daniels of Precious fame. He was in the middle of a commute from one campaign destination to another. He's not running for public office but Best Director (though that's nearly our favorite sort of public office, don'cha know. What's more public than the Oscars?). From roughly October through February, the Oscar grind devours people: festivals, speaking engagements, parties, premieres, awards shows, travel. I imagine you get through it by way of adrenaline, the psychological boost of a coveted nomination from your peers (or the chance of one prior to January), and sheer force of will. A good sense of humor can't hurt. Daniels definitely had one, laughing at the connection glitches we had and riffing on misheard words that come with interviews on the go-go-go.
Jan 2009 and Jan 2010: Lee and Gabby at Sundance and the DGA event
It's late February 2010 and he's been pushing Precious, in one way or another, for years now. In our chat he amiably conveyed (elated) exhaustion. Though he noted a strong desire to "get my life back in order, get my head clear" before the next project, he was definitely in high spirits. If he were an actual politician I could only imagine that he'd be great at campaign promises, handshaking and kissing babies.
Here are some highlights from our conversation.
[He had just spoken with a university cinema class]
Nathaniel: Do you suddenly feel more authoritative about it after all the Oscar attention? Like 'I AM AN OSCAR NOMINEE!'
Lee: [Laughter] Here's the thing. I don't feel more authoritative but they seem to feel that I have more authority.
[On directing actors]
Nathaniel: What do you feel you did to pull that amazement out of them? Mo'Nique's performance... I still can't wrap my head around it.
Lee: I think there was a level of very deep trust. Trust is very hard to come by. Actors have been burned by directors that um... well, inevitably they're guarded. It's rare that an actor trusts and opens their soul up to a director. I think that's what Mo'Nique did. And Gabby didn't know any better [Laughter]
Nathaniel: She hadn't had the opportunity to be burned yet!
Lee: There was a deep respect and trust there. It was a magical experience. I hope to have it again.
[On the campaign trail with the directors]
Nathaniel: I think it was Quentin Tarantino that said all of you director nominees were spending so much time together you could start a rock band?
Lee: It's really sick. It's like being in production with these clowns. I love them. We've gotten to become almost like a frat pack. They're terrific people. Like, I can't even be upset if someone wins outside of me. I can't believe I'm even saying that. But that's how I feel because I've grown so fond and respectful of each of them. We started out wanting to win -- I certainly do want to win -- but I'd be okay if any of my other posse wins because they deserve it. They've been so supportive of me and I've learned so much from them on this journey. It's an amazing once in a lifetime experience. Well, I don't know if it's once in a lifetime. I hope not!
[On weathering the backlash]
Nathaniel: ... if there's too few representations of one type of thing it takes on extra weight rather than just being a movie. Precious becomes a Black Movie rather than a movie.
Lee: I'm sort of over it. I'm over it being... At first, you really want to have people talking so it doesn't matter. But then it spreads like a virus almost. You find yourself defending your work. I don't have to defend my work.
Nathaniel: It's already thematically provocative enough without having to deal with being a representation of race. Child abuse... that's plenty to discuss. It's such a potent movie that I kind of wish that people wouldn't put all that extra weight on it.
Lee: The people that continue to... I think they have issues of their own. I think we have, as African-Americans, we really strive to be Obama. And in those aspirations we forget the Preciouses of the world. We don't want to be a part of that. We don't want to know that. We don't want to see that. We don't want to be reminded of that. Guess what? We are that. That's where we're coming from. If we're not from the projects we're a generation away from the projects. No African-American is not a generation away from the projects, from that world. You can't really grow as people until you understand yourself and see yourself. So, that bothers me. It bothers me more that I have been reduced to even articulating those thoughts.
[On the Production Design by Roshelle Berliner... He was very pleased I brought it up, since it's one of the technical elements of the movie that people haven't been discussing.]
Nathaniel: The reason I bring it up is that shot of the stairwell inside the apartment when Mary is yelling up at Precious. That shot! I just think the production design was very smart. Did they come to you with these ideas or did you find a place?
Lee: I knew exactly what I wanted. Everything in that apartment was replicated from a hodgepodge of apartments that I lived in and grew up in Philadelphia. In Harlem and in New York -- especially in the projects -- its hard to find an upstairs/downstairs apartment.
Nathaniel: I live in Harlem so that two-story thing was shocking to me but I loved the art direction of the apartment.
[On Gabourey Sidibe as Precious]
Nathaniel: One of the things I like most about the movie is how small, in a way, Claireece's character arc is: she doesn't have to conquer the world she just has to learn to read and step away from that environment. That reads like this huge emotional triumph -- which it is! -- but in the grand scheme of movie plots, so to speak, that's really small. Since she was a new actress, did you have to talk to her a lot about the modulation of the arc?
Lee: No, no. Complete natural... she was a complete natural. What we had to do was just find it. She's so good that she found it and then some. We didn't shoot in chronological order. Precious grows as a person that's not to a person that is literate. And she grows as a spirit because of Ms. Rain and the girls. In my head I had the arc from A to Z sort of planned out. Gabby doesn't know Precious and that's what's so beautiful about the acting that she was able to find her; Her voice was deeper, her posture was slouched, she walked slower, she moved her eyes barely. And then slowly she blossomed. I'm not good at order, my memory is pretty shot, and so Gabby would remember exactly where this girl was supposed to be at exactly the right time. You can't do it alone. It really was the two of us finding her.
And find her they did... and they uncovered Oscar nominations, too. Those are often tricky to find. Congratulations to the cast and crew of Precious.
Lee Daniels' next project is rumored to be Selma which may star Robert De Niro as Governor George Wallace in Alabama during the struggle for civil rights. Generally speaking, I'm not big on bios or true stories, but I'm curious. Shadowboxer, Daniel's first, was a bizarre film but it was idiosyncratic in ways that made you wonder where the 'man behind the curtain' might be coming from. Precious was obviously a huge step forward artistically and career wise. Will you be there for round three?