Written by | Ray Cornelius

Lee Daniels was in Atlanta recently promoting his new epic film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler  which opened nationwide in theaters this weekend. The one-hour press conference was attended by a number of  the city’s tastemakers and press who were able to get up close and personal with the director who brought us Precious  and The Paperboy.

Never one to shy away from the hard questions, Daniels was very candid about his views on being Black in Hollywood and the difficult conversation he had about race with his teenage son in light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. He also opened up about the arduous task of raising capital for film and how it actually brought the cast together as a family unit. Daniels also shared a few behind-the-scenes secrets and how some of the scenes transcended action and became very real.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler  is based on the real-life story of White House butler Eugene Allen who served  eight presidents including John F. Kennedy Jr, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The film also features an all-star cast including Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Robin Williams, John Cusack, Mariah Carey and newcomer David Oyelowo.

Check out a few excerpts from the interview below and as well as shots from the film:

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Lee Daniels with YaYa Decosta and David Oyelowo

On the difficult decisions some actors faced while filming certain scenes…

The actors were always in character and in the moment for most of the shooting. It’s sort of transcended acting in that during the movie, particularly during the “sit-in” scene, a lot of the extras were very uncomfortable. There were two interracial couples that were extras. One white actor was doing some pretty bad things to his black wife. So, it just goes to show you how far we’ve come because not everyone wanted to do what they were being told to do. Nobody wanted to do what they were doing. So it wasn’t just acting but reflecting on what it was that those students went through. There is also a spitting scene involving actress Yaya Dacosta that was another touchy scene. The first time we did it of course, I didn’t want to use real spit so we decided to use water. But then I had to stop and say, “We have to do this because the water is not going to work.” So Yaya said, “Let’s do it” even though other female actress didn’t want to do it. So we did it and at the end YaYa went outside and threw up and the actress ran into the restroom and started crying. It was very sad moment but it was real.


 Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who’s role is based on real-life butler Eugene Allen

On the benefits to not having a big budget for the film…

God didn’t present me with a big budget. I think he gave me exactly what I was supposed to have. I wanted a bigger budget. I assume if the film were Steven Spielberg it would have been a $70 million movie. So we all worked for a certain fraction of our fees. And so we did with what we had to do. We didn’t have elaborate trailers. It was what it was and it was a very humbling experience. In fact, it was great that I didn’t have that kind of money because what it did was bring us together as a family and a unit. We were a family on that set. We were struggling to get this film made. We were tight and we were close and we understood that if it were Spielberg we would have had a bigger party but we’ve never had it as African-American filmmakers and actors and I thank God we didn’t.

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 Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey get cozy in this now very infamous shot

On how important humor was to the film…

When I did my research, I learned that even all the way back to slavery that many of us told jokes as we traveled over here to this country. Humor kept many of us alive during slavery and even during the Civil Right Movement, it kept us alive. And that was dedicated to them. Humor also enabled us to breath as a cast on set because it was so intense!


 Forest Whitaker with David Oyelowo

On why he really made the film…

It’s about a love affair between the father and his son, which is a universal story and that goes beyond color. And that was the beauty of this story, the heartbeat of a father and his son. We as African Americans don’t see this in film’s today. We don’t see it. I take for granted that we do see it. But what movies are out there. I couldn’t think of any that really address this. I remember Claudine but that was back in the 70’s. It’s almost like we don’t have a family. The Huxtables? I guess? So for me the movie was not just about a history lesson as it was about really showing us as African-Americans in a way that we’ve never been seen before. We ain’t all deadbeats!

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company