Life Ain’t Pretty: Lee Daniels on The Paperboy and The Butler

The Oscar-nominated director on getting Nicole Kidman to do her own makeup and the most ambitious film of his career.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Precious discovered Gabourey Sidibe and made Mo’Nique an Oscar-winner, so for Lee Daniels’ next film, actors like Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack and Zac Efron wanted in. The Paperboy stars Efron and McConaughey as journalist brothers covering a convict (Cusack) and his prison pen pal lover (Kidman). We won’t spoil some of the shocking events in the movie, but we spoke with Daniels about them spoiler free. After you see the film, you’ll know what we were talking about.

CraveOnline: Why isn’t this movie called The Paperboy – Based on the novel The Paperboy by Peter Dexter?

Lee Daniels: Shut up! [Laughs] Shut up. You’re funny.

I guess that’s my answer.

You know what, don’t tempt me. I could go back into the edit room and flip it out for the European cut.

How hard was it to choose your next film after Precious?

So hard. It was very hard because I had many offers and I have two kids that are about to go to college, and it’s hard to turn down a couple million dollars here and there for any bit of work when you don’t really think you’re deserving. Like oh my God, you’re going to pay me $3 million to do that! Really? But I guess they’ll be going to community college. My heart spoke to me. I had to do what my spirit told me to do because at the end of the day, 20 years from now, 30 years from now when I’m gone, I have to live with the work that I’m proud of and that I love. Whether or not it is loved back I’m not sure but I have to know that I love it.

What would be the studio sellout project you got offered off of Precious?

Oh, a lot of them. I got all sorts of things. I was going to do Miss Saigon, the musical, for a couple million. A slew of sh*t like that, stuff that I was going to do, thinking about hard.

Was there also a freedom with the clout of Precious, that you could champion something more challenging and difficult?

Yeah, yeah, it was that ultimately because that’s what I did. Certainly no one wanted to do this film. No studio wanted to do this film. I had to go back with what I know how to do which is going to people, knocking on doors. That Oscar nomination did not help me with this film at all. I think it helped me with the actors. I think the actors trusted me, people that I hadn’t worked with before, it certainly gave me cred with the actors which is a good thing because I love actors.

Do you think your work will always in some way be confronting audiences with difficult themes and subjects?

No. Not with this new film I’m working on, The Butler. It’s sort of a civil rights movie, father/son story, not difficult.

When you’re dealing with a film like The Paperboy, do you think it’s important that there be some movies that confront audiences with harsh themes or things they don’t want to think about?

I don’t really look at it as things you don’t want to think about. I look at it as a story that very similar to Precious sort of, a coming of age story. I’m just telling a story and life ain’t pretty. I don’t know of anybody’s life or journey or struggle that has been pretty. We have been forced by the media to go and see the Spider-Mans of the world, not that I have anything against Spider-Man. I think that there’s room for every kind of story. Whether you like, whether you don’t like the world that I create, it’s a story. We have freedom of speech and we can do our thing. Anything that I put on screen, man, is something that I have had a personal connection with. I can’t tell a story if I don’t know everybody on that screen, every character and where they come from and how they think. If I don’t know them and/or are related to them or have personally walked that walk, then I can’t direct that story. I don't know what it says about me but I know everybody, either I have experienced it personally, or I know everyone that is in The Paperboy personally. It’s all true to me.

How did you get that saturated ‘60s film look?

I wanted you to feel that we were in a film that was made of that time era, flaws and all, from the editing to the color to the music to costumes. Sound, if you really study the sound of it, even the sound’s f***ed up in places, purposefully because I wanted you to feel that the movie was made in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. I studied all those films and they were all so flawed and yet beautiful. Cool Hand Luke, all of them. All those films that were made during that time.

Nicole Kidman looks like a woman from the ‘60s, as we’ve seen photographed back then. What combination of makeup and lighting achieved that look?

It was Nicole. I told her, “You can’t make yourself up. You have to do your own makeup and I have to believe you.” I almost lost her for that because then she sort of freaked out about that idea. She’s like, “Wait a minute, hold up.” But ultimately we prevailed and it was just her putting on her own makeup. She did it by sending me over the iPhone, she sent me a picture of what her interpretation of what this lady was like. I said, “Great, let’s do it.” It saved me a lot of time dealing with a makeup artist, that’s for sure.

It ends up being the sexiest she’s almost ever looked in a film. Did she see that in the end result, after her initial worry?

I think so. I think she’s sort of sexy, right? She gained weight for me. She gained weight. I said, “You’ve got to have some junk in your trunk, so give me a little booty.” So she put on I would say about 12-13 pounds, maybe 15. Yeah, she transformed. That’s what she does. She’s incredible.

That’s what Nicole Kidman looks like with extra weight?

Extra weight, extra makeup and a director that is clearly out of his mind.

What were your talks with the actors directing that first prison visit scene?

That was our second day of shooting. I like to get the hard stuff over with. The first day was the washing machine sex scene and the second day was the prison scene. Third day was the scene where she squats over Zac. Those were the difficult scenes but they’re getting to know you scenes where we’re all getting to know each other as people, as artists, as friends and if you can get through those three days, I figured the rest, it was smooth sailing from that point on. So it just happened. We had become friends, all of us. I don't know how it works for other big films. I haven’t worked in that medium but when you are in an independent world, or you’re in my world of independent filmmaking, everybody is a family, meaning that there are no egos. The only ego is the story. Matthew’s helping out at craft services and Nicole’s in costume helping other people out. We’re putting on a play. We are a family, a unit and supportive of each other. We know that time is money and we don’t have that so it’s like a circus act. It’s quick and it’s fast. It’s really made with a bunch of love and care and respect for each other’s actor and for the writing and for me. It’s a great place to work. I love working like this.

What then were your first days of filming on Precious to get the difficult scenes out of the way?

The masturbation scene, when Mary’s masturbating and she tells Precious to come upstairs, the rape scene with the father, that end scene with Mo’Nique. Those are the hard ones because if you do the hard ones, that bonds the actors, it bonds the crew, it bonds us all together to make everything else easy. Does that make any sense? It makes sense to me.

It does, I’ve heard that from other filmmakers. I also wondered with Precious, how sensitive did you have to be to cast that part, because the character was specifically overweight so the actors coming in had to fit that part?

I’m as sensitive as I ordinarily am. It was what it was and finding her was finding a family member, a long lost family member that I hadn’t seen in a while, very easy, very “pass the butter, let’s go to work.” It was very easy.

What can we expect from The Butler?

Not this. It’s PG-13. It’s a PG-13 film so you ain’t getting Paperboy for schnizzle my nizzle.There’s only one f*** in that. I could only say one f*** in that to keep it PG-13.

Who gets to say it, the butler or one of the presidents?

Johnson because he curses like a sailor.

How did you come to Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagans and John Cusack as Nixon?

I’d worked with John already. Look at him. I think he’s brilliant. He scares me. When I watch the movie, I’m actually scared of him, and for me to say that is a good thing because I made the movie. I edited the movie and he still scares me. I felt that he would be terrific and he’s turned out to be quite a terrific Nixon, and I enjoy working with the same actors over and over again. Matthew was supposed to play Kennedy but he’s doing a movie right now where he’s dying of AIDS so that didn’t work out, but he came on the set to visit me my last day of shooting. It was a powerful thing because I cried in his arms, I was so proud of what he’d done with me on Paperboy. I’m just so proud of his work. Jane and Alan, Alan was a friend and Jane I’d met before but I thought it was interesting casting. She said, “Come on, let’s do it.”

Was The Butler easier to get made?

No. No, no. It was hard to raise the money. It’s a larger budget than I’m ordinarily used to working with because it spans over 70 years. I didn’t want to go to Oprah for any money at all because she had to work for me and I couldn’t answer to her which really worked perfectly. So no, it was really hard, and it was a hard movie to make. It was the hardest movie I’ve ever made because Precious takes place over a year or two years, The Paperboy took place over a summer. This is set over 70 years so it was the hardest thing because it’s hard to keep track of time and whether I’m in the cotton fields or whether I’m in the offices of Obama. What are we doing today? And there weren’t any hard scenes, there wasn’t that small group of actors that I ordinarily work with. This was an epic cast. We worked the same way but it was hard because there were so many cast members and they were coming in and out for just a couple of days.

Since you’ve been so busy making movies, do you have a stack of screeners to catch up on?

I am not home to get them. I don't know, I’m sure I do. When I get home, I’m leaving to go back home, my premiere is tomorrow. I’m very blessed to be in a bubble. I haven’t been able to really understand what the reception is to Paperboy. I would assume that people either love it or hate it. I don't know. What I do know is I have been blessed to work on another film that I love very much and now it’s time to promote this movie and try to figure out what’s next for me.