Director interview: The Butler

Laura Reynolds talks to Lee Daniels about making the film and working with Oprah Winfrey

The Butler has taken the world by storm; a compelling film about the American civil rights movement seen through the eyes of the White House’s long-standing butler (Forest Whitaker). Here, director Lee Daniels speaks about the film everyone is talking about.

Producer Laura Ziskin approached you to work on The Butler. Was it something you were initially keen to do?

It seemed like a history lesson and I wasn’t really attracted to it until I heard it was between me and Steven Spielberg to direct it. Because he was interested, I thought there must be something in the script that I wasn’t seeing. When Steven passed on it, I jumped at the chance. To me, the civil rights movement is just the backdrop of the story. What I saw was a father-and son story, something that transcended race; that was what fascinated me.

There have been a lot of films about civil rights movements in history released in recent years. Why do you think this is?

I believe Hollywood and the world have been deprived of the African experience, the African-American experience in particular, and I think it’s time we saw more of this.

Do you want to carry on making films about this subject?

I have to tell stories about the things that I know. I’m black, so it’s part of my story.

You’ve said before that this is the hardest film you’ve ever made. Why was that?

All of my other films [Precious, The Paperboy] are just moments in time, whereas this is decades, so I had to really study the whole time period.

Did you find that you got an education while making the film?

Yes, I discovered it wasn’t just African-Americans and black people who were on the front line, but there were just as many white people who were ready to die for the cause. That was something I don’t think people knew, and they need to know that, so that was something wonderful to hear and to see.

Eugene Allen, the White House butler who the film is based on, sadly died before it came out. Did you ever speak to him about it?

He knew an article was being written about him. He was very excited about it. I didn’t get a chance to speak to him, but my writer did and he was blown away by his purity and his sense of dignity.

The cast is an ensemble of many well-known names. How easy was it to get them all involved in the film?

It was hard because we didn’t have much money to pay people. They were wonderful, and signed up because the script was so strong. They’re not just actors, they’re thespians and movie stars who are all political activists, too; they all stand for something and want to be part of the cause.

Was Oprah Winfrey your first choice to play Gloria, the butler’s wife?

Yes. We wrote the part for her. She didn’t know she was on board, but she was. She kept telling me ‘no’, and I kept telling her ‘yes’, and she kept telling me ‘no’, and I pleaded and begged and screamed. She had produced a movie for me [Precious] in the past, so I knew how great she was to work with.

Oprah’s character has a lot of light-hearted comic relief to balance out the heavy subject matter of the film. Did you intentionally give that part to Oprah?

Not just to Oprah, but also to the younger son and several of the butlers. I thought we had to, because there’s such seriousness. I wanted it to be balanced.

It was Barack Obama’s election that kick-started the story. Have you spoken to Obama at all?

He told me he wanted to see the film, and when he did, he told me he cried. I wanted him to play himself in the movie, that was my dream, but I got too nervous when it came to calling him and I chickened out.

The Klu Klux Klan scene is very powerful. Did you intend for it to be so poignant?

I cried for those kids. When I was shooting that scene, I was in the bus with them and it was an old bus we had to use as a period piece. I yelled action and from nowhere the KKK came out and they were shaking the bus and screaming and spitting and throwing bricks at it. I yelled cut and they couldn’t hear me because the windows were up. I went to the window and yelled cut, but the whole bus was encircled and no one could hear and they just kept going. Everybody in the bus was terrified. At that moment, I had what Oprah calls an ‘aha moment’ and I broke down in tears because I realised there was no one to save those poor kids. The black kids and the white kids that were doing that were willing to die for our country, and I don’t know whether I’m man enough to do that. What those children went through just so that I could be talking to you right now. It was one of those very profound moments that will affect me for the rest of my life.

What did you intend the take-away message of the film to be?

I wanted to show that we’ve come a long way in America with race, but we still have a long way to go.

The Butler is released in cinemas on 15 November. Read our review here