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Director Lee Daniels talks ‘Butler’

Lapacazo Sandoval | 8/15/2013, 10:32 a.m. | Updated on 8/15/2013, 10:32 a.m.
Lee Daniels

“This film is inspired by many true stories,” shared screenwriter Danny Strong. “I worked closely with Lee [Daniels] and others to bring as many amazing truths, as revealed to me, from their mouths to the screen.”

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” started with an article in the Washington Post about the real-life story of a Black man who worked in the White House for decades, serving eight presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.

His name was Eugene Allen, and he was born in the South during the Jim Crow era, when lynchings and segregation were accepted parts of life. Allen witnessed history from a unique vantage point and lived long enough to cast a vote for Barack Obama and meet him during his first term as president of the United States. In “The Butler,” Daniels took on Allen’s story through his protagonist, Cecil Gaines.

This is a brief interview with Daniels, director of “The Butler.”

Amsterdam News: How do you evoke the important details of such a large part of history without getting lost?

Lee Daniels: Easy. We don’t focus on history; it’s just a backdrop. Personally, I’ve never been in the White House, so I choose to focus on the father and son love story and make the rest of it a backdrop—the White House and the Civil Rights Movement. Otherwise, it is not a story; it’s a history lesson. Danny Strong wrote an incredible script. He knows so much about history. I had to do additional research on the White House, but the sit-ins, the bus rides, the different drinking fountains—those were things my family and I experienced. I once drank from a “whites only” fountain and got slapped by my dad. I thought there would be Sprite coming out of there! My experience is that experience, either from personal experience or from my mom or my dad, or my aunts and uncles and grandparents.

AmNews: What is it like to work with Forest Whitaker, who plays the title character in the film?

LD: He is one of, if not the, premier actors of our generation. I just told him when to bring it down or bring it up, like adjusting the volume. He comes at you like a cannon, but with humility.

AmNews: How did you get Oprah Winfrey to appear in this film?

LD: I begged. We are friends because she produced “Precious,” and we were looking for something to do together. But then she got nervous. And I said, “Wait a minute. You told me you were looking for something. Now I done brought you something. Now you’re getting nervous because of something called OWN? I don’t care about OWN. I care about seeing you as an actress, the way you were in ‘The Color Purple.’”I pushed her, pushed her, begged and pleaded, cried—until she came to poppa.

AmNews: Was she nervous?

LD: Yes. She was nervous, and she was anxious. She was like a little girl. As such, I felt very protective of her. She was just one of the crew, lining up for that messy food at craft services with everyone else, one of the gang. The only ego was the film.

AmNews: What do you want people to talk about on their way home from your film?

LD:How they could laugh and cry at the same time. How I didn’t take it too seriously. In the research I did with the slaves and the Civil Rights Movement, [I discovered that] they didn’t take it too seriously. If they didn’t laugh, they got terrified. So they had to laugh through the tears. I hope people will say, “Lee Daniels did not take it too seriously, and by that, he told the truth.”

AmNews: How did this butler, serving tea and crumpets, help this country change?

LD: To help in any way possible is to help. Louis [the butler’s son] helped his country by doing what he did, and Cecil helped his country by doing what he did.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” opens in theaters on Aug. 16. For more information, visit www.weinsteinco.com/sites/leedanielsthebutler.