Unless there’s a last–minute gold rush of five-star movies between now and the end of the year, the 2009 Oscars belong to director/producer Lee Daniels and his film Precious – Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire.
Precious, as it’s known, is a brutal, unflinching drama about 16–year–old Claireece “Precious” Jones, who lives in a squalid Harlem apartment with her unemployed, chain–smoking monster of a mother, Mary.
Played by newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, Precious is in a world of hurt — she’s illiterate, obese, and pregnant (for the second time) by Mary’s boyfriend — who happens to be Precious’ own father.
Her mother abuses her, too — physically, verbally and sexually. “Get your fat ass down to the Welfare,” she screams at Precious, between calling her stupid and worthless, and hitting her with whatever household object she can get her hands on.
Pretty grim stuff. But the brilliance of Daniels’ film is the way he balances such poverty and pain with light–hearted moments (Precious often fantasizes about starring in glamorous music videos, and being wooed by a handsome young boyfriend) and a rising sense of hopefulness.
Both Daniels and Sidibe will attend Saturday’s Special Screening of Precious at the Trustees Theater, and take questions from the audience. Distributed by Lionsgate, the film goes into limited national release Friday.
Sidibe, tight–lipped and almost emotionless as Precious — who’s operationally numb to the life she’s inherited — is a wonder in the movie. So, too, is the comedienne Mo’Nique, who turns Mary into one of moviedom’s most pitiable villains.
Precious also includes a bravura performance by pop singer Mariah Carey — her laughable Glitter days behind her — as a social worker who tries to look out for Precious and her babies.
Rocker Lenny Kravitz appears, too, as a male nurse in the maternity hospital.
Ultimately, though, Precious belongs to Daniels, who took on the unenviable task of translating the poet/novelist’s stream–of–consciousness prose into an eminently sweet, and watchable, film.
As in Sapphire’s book, Precious’ salvation arrives when she’s signed up for a special–needs class, a small group peopled with other outcasts, misfits and victims. She slowly comes to understand she isn’t necessarily alone.
Daniels, 49, developed and produced the 2002 indie hit Monster’s Ball — which brought Halle Berry an Academy Award — and 2004’s The Woodsman, with Kevin Bacon. His previous directorial effort was the controversial Shadowboxer in 2006.
Precious took this year’s Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for best drama at the Sundance Film Festival, and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.
Both Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have championed the film, and their involvement has propelled Precious into that golden circle of “must–see” movies.
A fact which both thrills and annoys Daniels, as you’ll see in our interview.
You’ve said that in making Precious, you overcame some of your own prejudices. What did you mean?
Lee Daniels: I meant that I was of a certain way of thinking before making this film. I felt a certain way about people with darker skin, and about people that were fat, you know?
I never look at my films the way other people do. I look at how I grew as a man, how it affected me. I look at what I did to grow, and to become a better person: “What did I learn from this?”
Because I know I’m going to like my movie at the end of the day. They’re like children to me. So every one of my kids, I love, whether it has four fingers or five fingers. I hope people love it, but “what is it I’m going to learn from it,” that’s what’s key on the journey.
What I learned on this, really, was that I was prejudiced. I had pre–disposed feelings about a specific person. And I was really upset with that, when that truth hits you in the face.
People find my truth so unbearable they think it’s a lie. But I don’t have a problem with that.
When you read Sapphire’s novel, were you seeing it cinematically, in your mind?
Lee Daniels: You’re the first person that’s asked me that, and yes, I had a very clear vision of what this movie was going to be like. I knew. The book affected me so much. That book threw me into another stratosphere. I just sat there gasping. Gasping. Gasping.
I didn’t own the rights, but it didn’t matter. I dared to dream that I would. I stalked her.
People crack me up — I’m reading these articles and they say “Oh, he raises money really good.” You know what? Try doing a movie — the money’s the easy part! The hard part is trying to make the art. The hard part is stalking someone down until you get the rights. That was the hardest part of this journey. It took me eight years of stalking her.
What finally convinced her that you were the right person?
Lee Daniels: She didn’t want anybody to do it! It wasn’t about me. I think that in her head she really believed that if anybody made a movie of this, and it was bad, it would affect her book. And I think once she realized that even if I’d made a bad movie, it wouldn’t have affected her great piece of literature, she did embrace the idea of me directing her piece.
Was that because you’re a smooth talker, or that she loved Shadowboxer, or what? What do you think tipped the scales there?
Lee Daniels: I guess I’m a smooth talker with a lot of passion. I don’t know. I mean, I read that I’m a smooth talker! I think that people find charm either full of shit, or you’re completely embraced. And I guess I have something that they say I do, called charm. And whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean, it’s guided me through many a set, and made many a movie. I don’t know what that means; all I know is I’m trying to become a better man and become a better filmmaker each film I make.
Casting, obviously, was crucial. How did you know Mo’Nique was the actress to play Mary?
Lee Daniels: She’s my best friend. Well, she’s one of my best friends. I mean, Lenny’s my best friend, Mariah’s a really good friend ... they’re my buddies. I like working with buddies because I know that they got my back.
You auditioned more than 400 girls for the role of Precious. What did Gabby have that the others didn’t?
Lee Daniels: She talked like a white girl after her audition. I’m always looking for truth in my movies — I’m looking for grit and honesty in this world. And so while looking for Precious I was really looking for an authentic Precious. And we had some great ones.
But then Gabby came in. And she jumped out of the character and started talking like herself — which is like this white girl from the Valley — I realized that if I had used one of these authentic, so called Preciouses, that I would have been exploiting this girl. That I would have been taking advantage of her, and she would not be able to articulate this journey the way Gabby has done.
You got Mariah Carey to work without makeup. She’s virtually unrecognizable. Was that a hard sell to her?
Lee Daniels: No, because we readily agreed. But once she left the bubble it became very difficult, and you knew ... I didn’t realize that I was treading on something that was really fragile, because she’s very safe in her cocoon. With her bodyguards and her people, the masseur and the whole posse.
When I told her to show up on set in a taxi, alone, I saw a different person. I see her as a different person anyway, because when we’re behind closed doors she really is like the social worker. Not like her, like her, but her spirit. And the minute she puts on those pumps, and she puts on that makeup and she hits that door, she’s a different person. She’s selling Mariah Carey. And that’s not really who she is — she’s a cross between the character she plays and the woman that is the persona of Mariah Carey.
So when she came up out of that taxicab, she was nervous. I knew that she had left her bubble, and I felt very protective of her. Because I felt for her — she hadn’t left that bubble in 20 years.
Were you concerned at any time that the depictions of this really hard life in Harlem might be too much for people?
Lee Daniels: No, never. No, no, no. It’s interesting that you say that, because people that see it, love it. I don’t hear anybody saying “I can’t handle this.” Maybe it is too much for people, I don’t know, but everybody walks out saying “Oh my God, I want to see it again.”
But soon Middle America will get a look at it. Will they think “Is life for some people really like that? Oh my God!”?
Lee Daniels: I think that life is like that for some people in Middle America. This is the universal story. It’s told from the black perspective. This was done in London as a play, in the West End, with an all–white cast. Illiteracy does not implicitly apply to the African–American. Nor does obesity, nor does abuse, nor does incest.
That was the other thing I learned on my journey. That this wasn’t just my story – how dare I think that this was an African–American story!
When Sapphire told me it was a play in London, with an all–white cast, I was like “What?”
And I understand now why, when I took it to Germany, even without subtitles people were understanding it. They didn’t understand that it was a universal story.
So yeah, I think that Middle America is more than ready for it.
You got endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, and they’re now executive producers. What does that mean for you and the film? Money? Prestige?
Lee Daniels: I love Oprah, and I love Tyler. I make independent cinema, and at the end of the day you read these things about me and it’s hard to really embrace it, you know? I begin to believe it myself: “He’s a shaker and a mover and a charmer.”
You know what? I’m a filmmaker! What the fuck are you talking about? I’m a filmmaker, and I have to do what I have to do so that we can get a movie off the ground.
I think that Hollywood is not used to this: How does this African–American man, openly gay, from Harlem, get these types of movies made? Wins an Oscar on his first movie, wins at Cannes on his second movie ... how does he do this, when we’re in Hollywood doing this day in and day out? I think it’s confusing to people and so they make these things up.
Regardless, it doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day, not many people see my movies, and I continue. It’s like putting on a play. So I don’t have a big fan base. I have a support base of filmgoers that like independent cinema.
But just because Oprah puts her name on something ...
Lee Daniels: Well, I’ll be damned, I know that with the big “O,” at least 10 people are going to see it this time!
My mother’s always telling me, “Miss Maybelle down at church says something happened to you ... why can’t you make a movie like Tyler Perry?” I made this movie for my mother’s church folk. I knew that if Tyler was associated with this film that my mother’s church folk would go see it. And that would get her off my back.
The buzz is amazing. Are you feeling that wind blowing your way?
Lee Daniels: No, I don’t. I’m at the epicenter of it all. Occasionally I read something — and I don’t know what my luck is, man, but whenever I read something it’s bad. I look at the bad in it. I can’t figure this shit out.
I finally had to ask my friends to stop sending me stuff to read. Because I don’t like to be told what to see. I don’t like buzz; buzz means that you gotta see it.
Maybe I’m just an outsider, and I don’t believe the buzz. I like finding and stumbling and discovering things on my own. So the concept of buzz frightens me a lot. Because then you have to live up to something. And we’re just a little movie. CS
Screening: ’Precious – Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire’
Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
When: At 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7
Tickets: $10 for the general public, $5 for SCAD students, faculty and staff with a valid SCAD ID
Followed by a Q&A with Lee Daniels and Gabourey Sidibe