Promoting his latest endeavour The Butler, Daniels speaks his mind, he’s a conversationalist with a lot to say. He discusses with us his own personal memories and how they affect his work, as well as his thoughts on the forthcoming awards season. He also speaks about the decision to cast so many Hollywood stars in this picture, and the struggles with gaining finance for a movie, and the importance in having a good distributor behind you.
The story is based on the life of Eugene Allen, and I was wondering about the decision to ensure this was inspired by his tale, rather than being a full-blown factual account of his life?
Because of the father and son, it’s a father and son love story and I think they transcend race. The history lesson is really secondary to the human condition and I didn’t have a good relationship with my dad, and I have a 13 year old son and we’re butting heads when I finished Precious. I say yes, he say no. I say day, he say night, I say black, he say white. Like, when is this shit gonna stop? It does stop in the script. But then when I was shooting some of the atrocities that took place I realised it wasn’t just a father and son love story and rather the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, about kids that were fighting for the soul of America.
We see everything from Cecil’s perspective, when he walks in a room we only hear snippets of conversation that he can hear… Were you ever tempted to give the presidents more to do outside of his company?
It’s Cecil’s journey, not all the presidents are there in the film, if they were it would be a history lesson and I didn’t want to hit you over the head with a history lesson, rather than the story of this family coming to terms with a life that happens to be during a very turbulent time in America.
That being said you do cast an eye over modern American history, was that a daunting task initially?
Daunting? Daunting is an understatement. Terrifying would be a better term. Most of my films, like Precious or Monsters Ball or with The Paperboy, they’re like a moment in time, or one summer, maybe a year. This is decades on decades and we didn’t shoot in order, so it was like, what year am I in? 1927, now 1967 the next day. Yeah, it’s crazy.
I read there were some problems getting this off the ground, at least from a financial point of view, but I would have thought this was a safe bet…
Don’t you think? Don’t you think? I would have thought. Especially after the success of Precious, I made a lot of money for a lot of people in that movie. It cost like 10 million dollars and it made about 80 million. But no, I feel like we always have to continue to prove ourselves. With movies I can’t just call it a race card because it’s not a race card. It’s dramas – if it’s not a tent-pole movie it’s going to be hard to sell to studios.
The cast must have helped a lot in that regard? There is an array of huge stars in this.
Yeah. If she was a star, I’d have put your mother in it if it meant a couple more dollars in the movie.
Forest and Oprah are incredible too – it must make your job that little bit easier when you have actors of that quality taking on the lead roles?
Oh yeah, yeah. It started with them, but the material was so good, Danny Strong wrote a really great script. The actors aren’t just movie stars, they’re thespians also that are also political activists. They really have a strong sense of politics and they were there to help with the cause. Cos we din’t have any money to pay them, that’s for sure!
Casting a lot of the presidents must have been good fun, because it’s like a who’s who of Hollywood stars.
Yeah, but did it take you out of the movie?
Honestly? Alan Rickman as Reagan made me giggle a bit. But to counter that, Robin Williams was brilliant.
[Laughs] It’s funny because some people say Williams take them out of the movie, some people say Rickman, some people say none… It’s all so individualised. But for what matters is that I wasn’t taken out of the movie and I wasn’t taken out my any of the presidents.
Talking of great actors, I was fortunate to interview David Oyelowo last week…
I adore him. Is he famous here? On a scale of 1-10?
He is, but not as much as you’d expect him to be. Maybe a 6…. Or 7.
Really? But he’s so famous in America.
He’s on a gradual rise – he’ll be huge in no time. Anyway, we were talking about the common theme in cinema at present about the mistreatment of black people in history, what with The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, the Mandela biopic… Do you think there is any particular reason this theme is quite common at the moment?
Don’t forget Fruitvale station. Do you know about that? It’s great and it’s by a great young filmmaker and it’s about a black kid who was brutally murdered. Harvey Weinstein has that – its incredible. But anyway, the reason is that it’s time. For so long we were starved, Hollywood was starved from this type of story and the world was starved. It’s good that we’re in a place that people wanna see African-American stories, it’s nice. We’re now telling our own stories and it comes from a place of truth and a different perspective that isn’t what America, or the world, is used to seeing. A black perspective.
Have you seen 12 Years a Slave?
Loved it. It is so powerful and I am so flattered that I’ve even in the same company as that film, it’s gut-wrenching.
Deservedly so, there is some Oscar buzz surrounding The Butler, you’ve been here before in the past. What is this time of the year like, as we build up to the awards’ season – is it quite exciting to be involved? Or quite stressful?
It’s stressful if you let it be. I don’t think about it, I try not to think about it. If I start thinking about it then I get my feelings hurt if I don’t get nominated, so you have to appreciate the box office that you have, because it’s staggering what we’ve done in the box office – and you’ve got to appreciate that my awards come from my 90-year-old cousin, who was a doctor and is retired in Hawaii. He hugged me and he said, ‘finally my story is told’. And from my mother, who has no teeth. All my life I’ve made fun of my mum because she had false teeth and she used to put her teeth in a little plastic thing at night by the bed and we used to make fun of her. Then I didn’t vote one year and she said to me, ‘Why didn’t you vote?’ and I was in college and I said, ‘I was too busy’, and she said. ‘Do you know I got my teeth knocked out for you to vote’, and it just hit me in such a profound way. You know, those are my rewards, when I see her distraught because her story is told, just happy in a way that words can’t describe. Those are the awards for me. Yes it would be nice to get nominations and awards because that means more people will get a chance to see your work, but the real award comes from touching people who have experienced the experience.
Forest is also much deserving of some recognition in that department – he has to play the role with such subtlety. Was it tough to create this emotional character when he’s so introverted and keeps so much hidden away?
No, because he’s a consummate actor and continues to give. Whatever you want, he gives. With a ‘yes, sir’.
Forest said to me earlier that there were a few times on set you cried at his performance. Is that common of you as a director to get so emotionally involved in your work? Or did film move you a bit differently to the others?
No, when I see good work I am moved by it. When I hear good music it moves me to tears, if I see a good piece of art, just when I see great work, it is emotional.
Was there a particular scene that really moved you?
I think that the water fountain scene, when he goes to the water fountain scene and it says ‘for coloureds’ and ‘for whites’ and it just triggered something that happened to me when I was five years old. You shoot what you know, and you know what you shoot. So I remember when I was five years old and I went to visit my grandfather in the South, and it was how I learnt how to read actually, because I had to study ‘for coloureds only’. I was told to only ever drink ‘for coloureds’ and I remember, F-O-R C-O… etc. Of course when I was five I read from the whites’ because I thought it was just fountain soda, or ginger ale or Sprite [laughs]. So for me when I shot that it reminded me of that. It triggered something from my childhood.
Do you implement a lot of yourself in your work?
All of it. Everything. Everything that is on that screen is something that has personally happened to me. Or happened to my cousins, or my father, my sisters, my friends… But me, mostly.
I guess that doesn’t include the infamous jellyfish sting scene in The Paperboy…
[Laughs] What did you think of that movie?
I loved it.
Why did people attack that film so much? We had a bad distributor. Awful. No matter how great your film can be, the key is finding somebody who is really behind you, otherwise it doesn’t work. But now I have Harvey Weinstein and I trust him implicitly with my work. He gets me and he supports me, and it’s rare to have a distributor as powerful as he is to really embrace me. I’m really, really lucky man. Yeah, I’m really lucky. I pinch myself sometimes because I’ve come a long way form being hungry in the streets and stealing and supporting my family through theft, to where I am at right now.
Have you adjusted to this Hollywood lifestyle then?
I always feel like I don’t belong. I don’t live in Hollywood, I live in New York in a really weird neighbourhood. My next door neighbour is a plumber, another lady nearby… I’m not gonna tell you what she does, but something illegal [laughs]. It keeps me honest and it keeps my work honest, and I feel like I’m a part of normal life.
My final question is about this forthcoming Janis Joplin biopic starring Amy Adams – how is that coming along?
It’s coming along well, if the script is good. I think the script is going to be good. Crossed fingers.
You were saying earlier you like to implement a lot of yourself into your movies, where does the Janis Joplin connection come from?
Drugs. The drugs and the music. Plus I’m a huge fan of Janis. But it all depends on the script, if the script is good then great, but it’s not official until that script is perfect.
The Butler is out on November 15 and you can read our review here.