Director, producer and general force of nature Lee Daniels is a hot property these days. So hot that two studios, Lionsgate and the Weinstein Company, are suing each other over the rights to distribute his second directorial effort, “Precious,” the winner of both the jury and audience awards at Sundance earlier this year. Lawsuits willing, “Precious” opens in the fall, and in the meantime Daniels has “Tennessee” in theaters, a small-scale Americana-steeped road movie he produced under his own banner of Lee Daniels Entertainment. “Tennessee,” directed by David Cronenberg nephew Aaron Woodley, has the distinction of containing the first Mariah Carey acting role to officially see theaters since “Glitter,” something that was looked upon as potentially laughable when the film premiered at Tribeca last year, but that seems a lot less so now, in light of the singer’s praised turn as a social worker in “Precious.”
It’s that fearlessness with material, casting and subject matter that’s made Daniels’ filmmaking career so fascinating, from its 2001 start with the Oscar-winning “Monster’s Ball” through his… let’s just call it “indescribable” debut as a director with 2005’s Helen Mirren-Cuba Gooding Jr. assassin drama “Shadowboxer.” “Often times people ask me, ‘How do you get into the film business? What do you do?’ And I don’t have that answer,” Daniels told me over the phone. “The only thing I have is determination, and determination is what ultimately got me my first movie made.” And certainly a willingness to color outside the lines, which may be why our interview didn’t into any typical Q&A template. Instead, it seemed better to just let Daniels describe for himself the idiosyncratic path he’s been blazing, with what’s so far been remarkable success, through the indie film world.
I came to Hollywood to write, and found out I don’t have the attention span. I moved on to a nursing agency as a receptionist just to get a job, and ended up managing it, which led to me opening my own — say your mom is sick and needs someone to help her, then you call something like what I had, a home health agency.
I was taking care of the mother of this producer who [hadn’t realized] that I was black and 22 and had, like, 500 nurses. We became friends. I think he was blown away that I was so young. His mother was in my hands! I hadn’t gone to med school. He said, “I think you’d be a really good producer. You know talent. You should start out [as a] PA.” He was working on “Under the Cherry Moon,” Prince’s film. So I sold the nursing agency; just sold it. Like I’m crazy. Made a couple million and was running around as a PA in a Porsche and an Armani suit.
I left to open a casting agency, casting these Harlequin romances and working at Warner Bros. I was bored, because they stereotyped me into just casting for African-American things. It was pre-Spike Lee and post-the black exploitation era, so there wasn’t much of anything for me. I said, “Okay, I’ll start managing actors.” I took everything I knew about the arts and mixed it with the concept of representing nurses. I navigated actors’ careers, mostly African-American, eclectic, off-the-wall people I was obsessed with, not your run of the mill actors. I focused, really, in theater, though TV was where the money was. In walks an actor that I saw in a play at Julliard. His name was Wes Bentley. I put him in “American Beauty,” his first job, which was the norm for me because I was finding actors in weird places.
“Monster’s Ball” (2001)
Wes was one of the first white actors that I was representing. Incredible material started coming to me. I decided it was time for me to produce. Wes was going to be a vehicle for me producing — he’d just completed “American Beauty,” the hottest thing out at that moment — except he didn’t do what I asked him to. He committed to “Monster’s Ball” and at the last minute pulled out. Lionsgate was like, “Okay, you have 48 hours to find another star,” or the movie was gonna be canned. Literally, the 48th hour, Heath Ledger agreed to do it. That was my first film. I was the sole producer, and I was learning.
I didn’t have the sensibilities of your ordinary filmmaker, let alone your ordinary African-American filmmaker. My heroes were John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar, and actors that were part of that world. Different. Tons of famous directors wanted to do [“Monster’s Ball”], and I knew that to get recognition as a producer I had to find a discovery. I didn’t want to ride on anybody’s coattails and I didn’t want to get anybody like famous so I could be their producer. So I chose Marc [Forster] — I was blown away by the little film that he gave me, and I knew he’d bring a fresh eye to racism because he was European, he wasn’t from that world.