Danny Strong was always one of our favorite recurring actors on “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” He has become quite a successful screenwriter with the Emmy winning HBO movies Recount and Game Change. He wrote Lee Daniels’ The Butler, based on the White House butlers who serve multiple presidents. Forest Whitaker plays a Butler for presidents Eisenhower through Reagan, while his son joins the civil rights movement. Strong also wrote the screenplays to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2 and is adapting Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. We got to speak with Strong by phone the day before Lee Daniels’ The Butler opens.
CraveOnline: Lee Daniels’ The Butler has a much bigger canvas than Recount or Game Change. What were the challenges of managing this bigger canvas?
Danny Strong: The challenges were everything. It was really overwhelming covering 35 years of history but then the movie itself spans over 90 years and it’s just extremely complicated to take a story through all of that time period and still make it dramatic and there be a through line of tension that can carry an audience through the story. I found it extremely difficult, probably the most difficult thing I’ve done to date.
Were any of the subjects more accessible? Could you at least speak with the actual butler, where maybe Sarah Palin wouldn’t take your calls?
Well, talking to the actual butlers, I did interview Eugene Allen and his son and I interviewed a lot of other White House staff. It’s really helpful. In the case of Sarah Palin, she wrote a memoir about her entire experience during the campaign so I really did have her point of view on it even though she wouldn’t talk to me. The research is always, for these types of projects, a really huge part of the process of putting the story together.
This began with an article. That’s shorter than a book, but you also have the actual history of the last 40 years that’s even longer. Does it balance out?
It all started from a Washington Post profile on Eugene Allen that was written by Will Haygood that got a ton of attention. It really seemed to capture people’s imaginations and it was picked up worldwide and Sony Pictures bought it and put Laura Ziskin on it, the producer, and Laura Ziskin is the person that brought the article to me.
In the case of the article, the article was just a starting point for a concept. Basically just that concept of a White House butler, and there were a couple anecdotes in the article that are actually in the movie, but besides that, that’s the end of the road as far as the article’s use in constructing the film. So from there, I’ve got to go do a ton of research but the character in this film isn’t the guy in the article.
The character in the film is a composite character based on many different people I interviewed and the storyline between him and his son is a fictional storyline. So basically, I had to create this whole story to take us through the true events of these administrations and the true events of the civil rights movement. So all the history is true but the family dynamic, which is the heart and soul of the movie, is based on composite characters and there’s fictionalization involved with that.
So you did work directly with Laura Ziskin before she passed?
Yes, oh, our beloved Laura Ziskin. There’s a reason why she’s a legend. She’s just an amazing woman and I spent a year with her on the script, her and Pam Williams, her producing project who took over the project and made it her mission to get it out there to get it made for Laura. I actually think Laura put in her will enough money to keep her company open so that Pam could get the movie made. Really neat, huh? She was a very special woman and a real legend in our business. It was a great experience and then Lee Daniels came on board, and then Lee and I worked on the script together for, on and off, almost three years.
Did I hear a fisting joke in this movie? When Cuba Gooding, Jr. gets drowned out.
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say it was fisting. Maybe it is. Yeah, it’s something along those lines that the MPAA didn’t find so funny for us to get a PG-13 rating, so there were certain lines that get a little drowned out so that we could still get a PG-13 rating. It was really important to us that the film be PG-13.
You actually told the whole joke in the original cut?
Yes, yes, we did. Lee Daniels has a very edgy voice and put certain things in there that don’t necessarily equate to a PG-13 rating.
No, they certainly don’t. I would never have thought you’d try to get the uncensored joke in there. I thought that was a clever way around it.
Well, in the early test screenings the joke played like gangbusters too so it was too bad that we had to do that, but nonetheless it was perfectly [fine].