The acclaimed director
of Precious never takes the easy way
BY A.D. AMOROSI
No cineaste could accuse Lee Daniels of playing it safe. The
native producer/director won the 2009 Sundance Film Festival’s top jury and
audience awards for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, while
one of its stars, Mo’Nique, took a Special Jury Prize for Acting and is already
generating Oscar buzz. And it’s only the third time in the history of Sundance
that the same film took home those biggest awards; bigger still when you
realize that Precious is Daniels’
second directorial effort.
Though the Academy Awards gave 2001’s Monster’s Ball a best actress Oscar for Halle Berry
and The Woodsman (with Kevin Bacon)
was a splash at 2004’s Cannes Film Fest, Daniels has had it hard. Daniels is a
gay African American male who makes flicks that deal with risqué issues – the
interracial romance of Ball, the
pedophilia of Woodsman, the incest at
the heart of his directorial debut, 2005’s Shadowboxer.
“African American directors aren’t supposed to tackle those
subjects,” says Daniels, calling from Park
City, Utah. “Now, if
I was European….” he laughs.
When Daniels chooses to feature black characters he refuses
to make their roles caricatures. Daniels has featured Berry, Mos Def, Eve, Lenny Kravitz and
Mariah Carey – the latter two nearly unrecognizably in Precious – and provoked them to do their most penetrating screen
work. The same thing happens with the usually giddy comedienne Mo’Nique
throughout Precious. She plays the mother
of a pregnant, illiterate incest victim (devastatingly portrayed by newcomer
Gabourey Sidibe, likewise the subject of Oscar watercooler chat) as she would a
monster – abusing her daughter physically, psychologically and sexually – with
the ferocity of “Baby Jane” on meth.
BLURT: I’ll make this
LEE DANIELS: No. [laughs]
Ok, I’ll make this
No. [laughs harder]
The last time I saw
you, you were filming the chicks-with-dicks finale to Shadowboxer. I know that film was hard to make and release. What
made you want to direct again?
In her autobiography, Helen Mirren talks so generously about
making that film with me. Weird because she rips everyone else apart but
reserves a special positive experience for that film. That film wound up as a godsend
to me. I was really on my high horse after my other films.
While you were
filming Precious in New York City, you stopped production. How
I’m used to shooting my films in Philly where I get love and
support. The NYC crew was all like “yawn” and “next.” They’re rough and could care
less. So I literally shut down production and waited ‘til my Philly people got
there. It’s unprecedented right? But I wasn’t going to let them fuck up my
What made you want Precious so badly – everybody wanted to
get hold of it?
Like Madonna, I know. I had to hold tight to get the rights. The story is
really dark. Actually, the storyline is dark. The way I tell it isn’t. It’s
light and done with some humor I hope. The writer wasn’t ready to give it to me.
It was her baby. Then Sapphire [a/k/a Push author Ramona Lofton] saw Shadowboxer.
She cried in my arms when she saw it, literally sobbed into my chest.
Mo’Nique is ferocious
Totally psychotic, right? Baby Jane looks tame, like
Cinderella in comparison. Mo’Nique can be intimidating. But in real life she’s
kind and good – everything her character is not.
What Precious scene still white-knuckles you?
It’s a roller coaster. But the scene that upsets me most is when Mary
[Mo’Nique] explains the whys – why she became a monster, why she let these things
happen to her daughter. We’re sort-of forced to empathize with her. It’s kinda
the same with Kevin Bacon in Woodsman.
We never forgive him for being a pedophile. But that we understand him is upsetting
to us. Why do I have feelings for him – he’s a child molester. We feel for Mary.
We see her pain. We know that she’s mentally ill. We understand there’s a beast
in us… but we never get why or how it got there. That scene does it.
[Photo Credit: David Shankbone/ via Wikipedia Wikimedia