LEE DANIELS’S “PRECIOUS”: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE By Jason Guerrasio
In this excerpt of our interview with Lee Daniels on his award-winning film Precious, which will be in the upcoming Fall issue, Jason Guerrasio talks to the director-producer about his connection with the book the film is based on, molding first-time actor Gabby Sadibe into Precious and his conflicts with the crew while making the film.
Precious screens at the Toronto International Film Festival this evening and will be in theaters in November.
Filmmaker: Did reading Push bring back any memories of what you went through growing up in Philly?
Lee Daniels: I had not experienced the things that Precious had experienced. Maybe a little bit, but I knew so many Preciouses in my life. I didn’t have to deal with obesity but I knew all those nuances. I brought my world, the world that I grew up in, to Mary’s (Precious’s mother’s) home. The living room in Mary’s home from the wall paper to the portraits on the wall to the couch, they’re all memories of my childhood.
Filmmaker: Did you ever ask Sapphire why she reconsidered and let you adapt her book (before producing Monster’s Ball, Daniels approached Sapphire about him producing an adaptation of the book, she declined)?
Daniels: No. [laughs] I was too nervous that the no was coming. I was just grateful that she did.
Filmmaker: Did she come on set?
Daniels: She has a small part. She takes Precious’s child at the end when she’s about the walk up the stairs to the office. She was also on set one day, and I was really nervous, and it was when Mary (played by Mo’Nique) tells Precious that her father is dead. I just remember her laughing because I was laughing. And it’s a very serious scene and Mo’Nique was laughing, so we all were. And I asked Sapphire recently why are we laughing in the most politically incorrect places and it’s because we understand it on another level.
Filmmaker: I think what people will be surprised about when watching the film is that it’s okay to laugh.
Daniels: When I introduce the film I always say it’s okay to laugh. Embrace it. And I think we laugh because we’re not supposed to. Nervous laughter.
Filmmaker: Were there things you learned from doing Shadowboxer (the first film Daniels directed) that helped you direct this film?
Daniels: I guess subliminally. I brought the same energy, the same person, the same everything. I didn’t do anything different, even as a producer I had the same spirit. My boyfriend says this, I don’t know, but he says that I was much more serious for this one. I think what happens is you get older. And I was a little smarter, I knew what I wanted in a take faster so I could get in and out quicker. And this is my second time working with Mariah (Carey) and Mo’Nique so there was a shorthand that we had. There were just grunts, literally, I would just grunt or use my eyes or hands and they would get what I meant.
Filmmaker: Then you have Gabby and she’s in every scene and she’s never acted. So I guess you were able to mold her into the actress that you wanted.
Daniels: Yeah. It’s brilliant how you can have that type of relationship. She was a godsend. I mean, you can’t call up an agency and say give me a 300 pound woman so we did an open call and it was really hard. I had over 500 girls audition across the country and we did a Precious camp where girls worked with my acting coach, they came from Philly, Baltimore, Chicago, New York and L.A. But the thing was they were very true, they were Precious and Gabby is not Precious. What you see in the fantasy scenes, the way she talks, ect., that’s her. Gabby wasn’t even in the boot camp, she came out of nowhere and just showed up in an audition one day. But she plays the role so convincingly that people will meet Gabby and think she should be talking the way she does in the film, I even did. When she snapped out of it I would go, oh, that’s right.
Filmmaker: Did you have to put her through language training to make her speak less educated?
Daniels: Yes, that was hard. And you know I used to be a manger for talent and I remember that when I had African-American talent during the ’80s and they would go in for auditions the casting director would say, “Great, but can you do that a little more ghetto?” [laughs] So I felt like oh my god this is not happening because I’m here telling Gabby to do the same thing. But we worked on deepening her voice, working from the gut because in real life she speaks from the head, and slowing down the speech. Often times just thinking about how my cousin spoke. I mean the guy who wrote the script, Geoffrey Fletcher, is an incredible writer, Ivy League school, teacher at Columbia, so it was written how you and I speak and we’d have to go back and remember how certain words were said or phrased at that time.
Filmmaker: Did you guys go back and forth on where you would set the film, present day or period like the book?
Daniels: We went back and forth and it was the general consensus that we do it in the ’80s because I don’t think it would have the impact if we set it in the present, especially the AIDS issue because back then if you got it you were going to die. No questions.
Filmmaker: Did you underestimate how hard it would be to shoot in New York City?
Daniels: Yes. In the back of my head I believe that I can get anything [for my film] but when you have so many obstacles in front of you I started to question myself. It was a very hard experience and I had no idea how radical and difficult it would be.
Filmmaker: How so?
Daniels: I don’t know, I just think I am who I am and often times I’m misunderstood and you can take my laughter and wanting everyone to get along as me being passive but a good portion [of the crew] didn’t understand the vision or what I wanted to execute.
Filmmaker: I’ve read that you fired d.p.’s, editors and sound people.
Daniels: You know it’s okay because people think that once that train leaves the station that you cannot get fired, that they are going to do their own twirl and do what they want to do and when you see that your vision isn’t executed to exactly how you see it in your head and ignore what you want, yes, you have to stop and I think filmmakers have to know that. You should never work in fear, nor should you work with people that don’t get you. The problem was the people who I’ve grown close with were unavailable because we got the money so last minute that everyone that I wanted was working. So I had these new people, all from New York, and I was forced to work with this person or that person. What? So now suddenly the painting’s supposed to happen? No. It’s painful. The actors were great, you’ll never hear about me firing an actor but I think this was a very difficult shoot and ultimately I fell in love with my editor and d.p. and production designer and costume person. I mean, it takes a minute to understand who I am too. I’m not easy. [laughs] And let me tell you, people will compromise your vision, they will compromise your work and that’s when you have to stand up for it and that’s painful. I think we want everyone to like us so we just smile and then the minute you stand your ground and say no this is not what I want and they say this is the way it should be that’s when they have to leave.
Read the complete interview with Daniels in the Fall issue of Filmmaker on stands in October.