Civil rights and the power of family collide in Lee Daniels' epic, Lee Daniels' The Butler. The film follows Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) from his start in the cotton fields in rural Macon, Ga. through his 30-year tenure as a butler at the White House at a time when the nation wrestled with racial inequality and the birth of the civil rights movement. Gaines comes to grips with the struggle through the eyes of several U.S. presidents and within his own family. The Butler was inspired by a Washington Post feature on long serving White House butler Eugene Allen, who served the White House from 1952 until his retirement in 1986. During a recent press conference in Atlanta, director Lee Daniels and actor Forest Whitaker discussed the struggles of getting the film produced and the messages behind The Butler.
The screenplay was written by Danny Strong and brought to Daniel's attention by executive producer, the late Laura Ziskin who credits include the Spider-Man franchise and Pretty Women. Ziskin sought Daniels to helm the project. "She understood me," says Daniels. "Few people can understand my wavelength, and she did, so I really fell in love with her."
Ziskin received a dose of reality as Sony dropped the option for the film. She and Daniels had to be clever with raising capital for the film. Considering the star-studded ensemble, including Academy Award nominated and winning actors, Butler was shot in 41 days with only a $25 million budget - a quarter of the average widely released film. But in Daniel's eyes, that's not a bad thing. "Every movie is a miracle and every black movie coming out is a phenomenal miracle," says Daniels. "God didn't present me with a bigger budget, we all worked for a fraction of our fees and did what we had to do. We were a family unit on that set and struggled to get that film made. We were tight, we were close and we understood that if this was Steven Spielberg we would have had a nice party and thank God we didn't."
Daniels is no stranger to the notion of small budgets yielding big returns. He gained notoriety producing Monster's Ball, which landed actress Halle Berry with an Oscar for best actress in 2001. But his Hollywood clout really took off with the success of Precious garnering several award wins for him including an Academy Award nomination in 2010.
On set, Daniels took painstaking measures to capture the emotional authenticity of the middle class Gaines family, the White House, and the young Freedom Riders during the tumultuous struggles.
"I'm a stickler for detail. I look deep into it [the scene] before I yell, 'Action!' I don't care how far away that I'm shooting them I come into their face," says Daniels. He explains his unusual ritual was a bit disconcerting for the actors.
"Forest got used to it but Oprah was like, 'What is he doing?' and she'd stand eyes closed and I'd say, 'Open your eyes!' For me filmmaking is capturing the nuance of the moment and making sure you looked like my cousin, or my aunt, or my sister, or the guy at the corner store, or the number runner down the street. It makes it real for everyone."
Daniels' attention to detail was cause for several unnerving experiences on set while filming the racially charged scenes where the young Freedom Riders held their ground against white supremacists. Reluctantly, Daniels explains a tense moment when a white female extra must spit in the face of Carla (Yaya Alafia), a young freedom rider.
"We didn't want to spit in her face but after trying the scene with water, we stop shooting and I said, 'Look, we have to do this.' The extra was reluctant but we got the shot. After the scene, Yaya went outside and threw up and the girl [extra] went to the bathroom and cried. It was a very sad moment. [... ] I realized there's no one to yell 'Cut' for those kids. Those kids were heroes in a way I certainly can't imagine. They were willing to die for what they believed in."
Parallel to the civil rights struggle in the film is Cecil's tenure at the White House. To handle the rigors and rituals these men manage daily, Whitaker had to learn the art of buttling from a butler coach. The experience left both he and Daniels with a new found respect for service and the service industry in general. "It definitely changed my opinion when there's any service going on," says Whitaker. "I sometimes think about it differently because he [butler coach] taught me which angle you should put the coffee down at the table. It has changed my perception of what people are doing." For Daniels it caused him to change how he interacts with people providing customer service.
"When the delivery man comes to bring food, I would just give him the money and don't even look up. Now I look at him and give eye contact and have that exchange. So yes, it has helped me," says Daniels.
Throughout the film the Cecil tries to deal with the decisions of his eldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo) and the consequence. "That was the core of the story," says Whitaker. "The relationship between the father and the son and exploring even the difficulties of how we can reconcile to keep the family together. Fathers influence sons and vice versa." In reference to his character's motivation and explain why their father-son relationship is so relevant. "When my character (as a child) asks his dad what he's gonna do. His actions influence everything else in my life. How I wanted to raise my son and protect him and try to keep him safe and it causes some of the friction."
Daniels' motivation is far more personal.
"I made the movie for my son," says Daniels. "My dad died when I was relatively young, so I had no experience on how to be a father. And my dad was really strict borderline abusive, and I didn't understand where that came from. But it came from his father beating him and his father beating him [... ] and his father being a slave. But I do know from doing Precious that cycle had to stop, so I didn't beat my child. But sometimes I want to kill him now (laughs). He's a teenager; he says night, I say day. In this movie it's a love affair of father and son that is universal and beyond color. It's the heart of the movie. We as black people don't see this - we don't see it. And I took it for granted."