Producer/Director Lee Daniels speaks very candidly about working with high profile talent, his background, and his thoughts on being an independent film director. Shadowboxer premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival and will be showcased in December at the 2005 Bahama's International Film Festival (Dec 8-11).
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Lee Daniels is most notably known as the Oscar winning producer of Monsters Ball starring Halle Berry. He also produced the Woodsman starring Kevin Bacon, and most recently Shadow Boxer starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren. This time around with Shadowboxer he is also the Director.
Your subject matter is always really interesting and intense. Why do you think that is?
You know why? Because I come from such a dark place. And, and I’m comfortable in that place. So, I’m trying to get out of that dark place and come into the light. Maybe make a musical and bring back Doris Day. Except you’ve got to put her with Whitney Houston. I released a lot of demons as a director.
Is this technically the first film you’ve directed? You’ve never shot on Super 8 when you were a kid or picked up a camera before?
"I’m a little bit Euro, a little ghetto, a little homo, um, you know. It’s a hodgepodge of different types of filmmakers that have really affected me and who it is that I am as a filmmaker." - Lee Daniels
You know I used to direct my cousins in theater in the basement when I was growing up [in Philadelphia]. You know I would direct them that way, and you know I certainly have worked with actors over the years. I spent many years as a manager. As an acting talent manager and through that process I helped them with auditions. I was a casting director and a manager.
So in that regard, you know, I was directing actors for casting directors. This is ‘technically’ my first.
So you’ve never picked up a camera before?
I’ve learned so much from being on sets with the actors that I represent. And then also just being really hands on with the two films that I’ve produced.
How is being a director different than being a producer?
I love them both for different reasons. This is a very emotional time for me because as a producer you really are a salesman. And you’re selling yourself and the project to investors to selling the world on this director and his vision. And so I’m used to running around and telling people ‘yeah, this is incredible.’ But as a director, I am so humbled because I don’t know how to sell myself.
It would be weird for me to tell you that this movie “Shadowboxer” is a masterpiece.
But you love your movie right?
I do. But I don’t feel good saying that. I feel it’s arrogant. I’ve seen directors do that and it grosses me out. But I love the movie. And so I’m in a weird position because I’m also used to being a salesman. All of a sudden, I’m talking to people from a different perspective and it’s really scary.
And as opposed to people not liking the film, this time I really care. And I did care before because I always feel like there’s more work to be done. But as a director I’ve tapped in on insecurity.
I did this film and that’s a great thing.
I like Philadelphia; I can’t say I’ve spent much time in West Philly though.
I grew up in a place of dodging bullets and stuff in the ghetto. I grew up in West Philly. It’s unique. It’s a very unique place to be in.
Has West Philly changed now that you’re older?
Sometimes I drive there. At first I was really comfortable driving around then I became afraid all of a sudden. I don’t understand what that’s about either.
You can’t get movies made being fearful, especially with the subject matter that I’ve addressed. You have to be fearless.
And I did this; I used it really as a learning experience on how to deal better with directors. And I’ve learned a lot. It’s given me a whole other perspective.
“RAIN MACHINE! GET HIM 10 RAIN MACHINES!!!”
I like to ask independent film directors about any challenges that they had on set that forced them to make a hard decision. Would you tell us about some of the challenges that you had in making Shadow Boxer?
I was directing during the day and then raising money at night. I never knew from moment to moment if we would make it to the next week. I realize that on the next film I am either Directing or Producing, and I’m producing my next film, but I realize that I can’t wear both hats. I have aged. It affected my speech. It affected my health. And I got a bunch of grey hairs from it. And I gave it my soul. I normally give my soul when I’m Producing too but this one snatched it. It was a battle. I think the biggest battle for me was making sure that I was a constructive Producer; because when I wanted something I felt that I had to have it. I had to remember what I would tell my Directors which is ‘no’. And it was really frustrating, man. And it was really difficult. It was an ongoing battle. Constantly trying to raise money.
It made me think that it’s a miracle that any movie is made. I was a little resentful for a little bit. Here I am, an Academy Award winning Producer, you know, and I was like, ‘get a f###ing clue. You’re lucky to be making any movie. You’re lucky to be making a commercial. If this is what you want to do. And that was really humbling.
Do you have preferred shooting locations?
I have only shot in Philadelphia, but I’m forced to shoot in Tennessee for my next movie. I love shooting in Philadelphia because they treat me so good. The name of my next film is “Tennessee”. It stars Janet Jackson.
Are you going to hear a lot of jokes about casting Janet Jackson because of the Superbowl thing?
You know I heard the ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ jokes, but they weren’t as bad about the Halle Berry joke about the car when she got into an accident. Everybody has jokes about the talent I work with. There is always something.
Can P. Diddy really act? You know, I don’t care, because I speak what I feel. I do what I feel is truthful to the story and the characters. I don’t cast just for the sake of casting.
Sometimes I put the producers hat on when casting because I want to make sure that they are as truthful to the character that they can be. And at the same time that they meet a certain demographic that we feel can put seats into a theater.
I try to bring movie stars into the independent film world. It’s really hard because they are used to…they are very wealthy, and they don’t need to work here, you know, for me. And they work for scale, like nothing. And I try to do independent film with movie stars. That’s what I try to do. But it all starts with the script.
Actors really want to act in good material. And that’s all they want. The successful actor wants to act. They really want to work. They really want to be credited for their work. It all starts with the script.
I know you’re on a limited budget but do you rehearse with your actors? What process do you put your actors through to get the best from them?
Hell. Hell and back. It’s ugly. It’s not a movie if it’s not a horror on the set. If your dealing with talent…that are passionate…they are going to be opinionated. And there are bound to be differences. And that’s when magic happens.
What movies have influenced you?
How come no one has asked me that? There you go. I remember taking my 80 year old aunt to ‘Pink Flamingos’. And just watching her freak out. And I remember getting off on that.
I am influenced by Pedro Almodóvar, John Waters, I’m influenced by Spike Lee. I’m a little bit Euro, a little ghetto, a little homo, um, you know. It’s a hodgepodge of different types of filmmakers that have really affected me and who it is that I am as a filmmaker.
What advice do you have for the independent filmmaker trying to get his or her film made?
You know…People take no for an answer. We believe that we are not worthy of getting our film done. It’s an impossibility. The studios tell us no, that things can’t be done. And I know this sounds really corny, but I think that if you don’t take no for an answer and that you simply believe in yourself and your project…that’s how I get my movies done. I go into a place of zone where I’m knocking down walls until this is done. And I think that a lot of new filmmakers they buy into a lack of trust, or something…in themselves. That’s how I feel.