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Precious – Lee Daniels interview

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Compiled by Jack Foley

LEE Daniels talks to us about some of the pressures of directing Precious, securing the rights to Sapphire’s provocative, X-rated book and working with close friends such as Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey…

Q. Isn’t it true that initially the author, Sapphire, was against a film adaptation. Yet you won her round?
Lee Daniels: I love her for that. It took me nine, probably 10 years to stalk her. I have stalked her for 10 years. Sapphire is a scholar. She’s a genius, she’s a poet, she’s an intellect beyond belief. She doesn’t give a f**k about Hollywood. She don’t care about it, just doesn’t. It’s about literature and I think that Lady Luck must have been on my side because she finally embraced the idea. I think that even if I did a bad movie, it would not affect her brilliant masterpiece and I think that she saw the difference in both. She finally realised it and I was there the right time stalking her.

Q. Do you know why she changed her mind? Did she see one of your other films maybe?
Lee Daniels: I think it was a combination of things, but I think she saw Shadowboxer and she really thought I could bring something to the world that she created and she was very excited that I was doing it.

Q. Did she come to the film set?
Lee Daniels: She came down once or twice. I think she had to watch some of what I was doing because I am dealing with her very profound book. She laughed at something that only Mo’Nique and I thought was funny and she was laughing with us because she got it. She understood that there is humour and that she was still the creator. There was a moment when Mo’Nique was laughing at something and I was laughing at something and Sapphire was laughing at something and we realised that nobody else was laughing but us and that we were on another plane. It was a surreal moment.

Q. What was the moment?
Lee Daniels: It was the scene when the mother tells Precious about the HIV. Precious says: “Do you have it?” And the mother says: “No.” And Precious says: “How do you know?” And the mother says: “Because we didn’t do it up in the ass!” No one else thought that was funny. I don’t think it was funny but it was this brilliant delivery of it. I think we were laughing at the execution. It was exactly how Sapphire wrote it in the book so there was this triangle of understanding between Mo’Nique, Sapphire and myself.

Q. It is a tough film but also a very tough book. Did you have to soften the delivery a little bit, and add a few more rays of light?
Lee Daniels: A little bit!! A lot of a bit. If I had done the book it would have been X-rated. Not that I have a problem with doing X-rated films. I haven’t yet. But this would have lost an audience. I think that the audience should be entitled to breathe. I think with the book, if it gets too much, emotionally, you can put it down. It affected me so that I had to stop. I had to digest it. I put it down and picked it up again later on and I think that the sequences and the touches of humour that we put in the script really do it justice. Geoffrey Fletcher really did a marvellous job translating this book, this script, and we just took it to another place on the screen. We had to let the audience breathe. If you’ve read that book you will know what I am talking about.

Q. You’ve said that you knew people who were moments away from being characters in this story. From where in your life do you know these people?
Lee Daniels: I knew these people when I was a kid. I knew these people as an adult. I know these people now. As a 50-year-old man, there are people like Precious, and there are Mary’s. These are real life people to me. Everybody in that movie is someone that I have known. And I find it surprising that people don’t know them. I know that if you live in New York City there is no way you don’t see Precious. And I often see Mary. I am down in the grocery store and I am watching mothers yank on their kids, and just really fuming at them, with a cigarette dangling from their mouth. It doesn’t matter if they’re black, Puerto Rican, white or Chinese. Each woman exists.

Q. Was the character of Mary the hardest to cast? She needs to be very complex, almost macabre, yet able to show that she did have something good inside her once…
Lee Daniels: Mary is a very complex person and she was the first person that I did cast. Mo’Nique is my best friend; a very, very good friend and I speak to her every day. I like working with friends. Mariah Carey is another. Gabby has become a good friend. I like working with friends because I know they have my back and we have such a tight budgetary parameter in dealing with the film that you have to count on friendships to take you through those barriers. It is a difficult journey. With regards to Mo’Nique what we did, only friends can do. It went beyond the director-actor friendship; she really understands me.

Mo’Nique understands me in my primal place and we just talked about her. And we talked about me. We talked about my insecurities, paranoia, hopes and dreams and sex life, and what I love poetry-wise and what literature I like. And then she sort of broke down and then we transcended all that shit that she knew that I wanted into her interpretation of Mary. It was volatile, explosive, a magical moment, for me. I expected everything that she gave me. I was not surprised by a syllable.

Q. With Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry as producers on your movie, did that help get the movie made?
Lee Daniels: No. They came on after the movie was made.

Q. In what capacity?
Lee Daniels: Executive producers. I make these little movies and I pray that people see them. When I made Shadowboxer, I was sure that we were going to end up straight to DVD. I had no idea that it would be a theatrical release. It is mind-jarring because I’m actually a filmmaker who just wants his movie to be seen by people on a screen not on a DVD. So the reward for me is that my writer who wrote this magnificent book embraced me and the film and that we didn’t go to straight to DVD. We took Precious to Cannes and I was in Toronto and I was in Spain and Germany and for a filmmaker, that’s pretty exciting.

Q. You’re friends with Mariah Carey as you say. But was it a tough sell to get her to play the Ms Weiss character, with no make-up and glitz?
Lee Daniels: She was like: “Oh, no, what’s he doing now?” I said: “Mariah, you’ve got to come solo. You can’t come with your posse, you can’t come with a scrubbed face, there’s no make-up. We’ve got to make you more ugly!” And I think that she embraced it with gusto. She was so excited to be on an independent set and, oh, God I love her! I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love her. I’m so proud of her, too. I’m just so proud of her, man, because you don’t know what it is like to step outside of that bubble that she’s in. Bringing her out of that bubble with all of those people, and that machine she has around her, and getting her into my cocoon, that was a triumph for me. It was like Christmas time for me, and for her, too. It was liberating…

She kept looking at the lighting and the overhead lighting was beating down on her. She actually had no control and it just drove her and then she finally succumbed and through that submission came this life and I tell you, man, that was a highlight for me. I knew she could do it, but I didn’t think she would go to where she went. And though I feel validated about Mo’Nique, I feel extra validated about Mariah and Lenny Kravitz, because those characters really are not the people that they are.

Q. Finally, what was the most important thing that you wanted to convey with this film?
Lee Daniels: That never again should we look at Precious and not look at Precious. When you stumble across this girl you will acknowledge her. Because I have cousins that are her, friends that are her and even having friends and cousins that are her, I still disassociate myself. It is so important for me that I embrace this girl with all my gusto, because she is embracing me. The other important part of this story is about learning to love yourself, and accepting who you are. Those are the two big points I hope people will walk away with from this film. Who knows if they will? But I pray to God that they do.

Read our review of Precious

Read our interview with Gabby Sidibe