Although Lee Daniels is better known for art-house fare such as 2009’s Precious, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for best director, he has found his biggest box office success with this summer’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which so far has earned more than $116 million domestically. After working on edgier fare — directing 2012’s The Paperboy and producing 2001’s Monster’s Ball and 2004’s The Woodsman — Daniels says he can’t really explain the commercial success of the film. The experience of telling the story of a White House butler has left Daniels humbled and grateful to the film’s biggest champion, the late Laura Ziskin.
AwardsLine: How did this project start?
Lee Daniels: It started with (Sony co-chairman) Amy Pascal, who read an article in the Washington Post, and she told the late Laura Ziskin that she should option the story. Laura started talking to directors, and it came to me.
AwardsLine: How did you shape the material?
Daniels: At first, it was more of a history lesson than the family story. What I wanted to create was a heart, and that really was the father-son story.
AwardsLine: Among the black themed films this season—12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, Mandela and 42—Butler stands out as the most commercial effort. That’s a bad word to some movie critics.
Daniels: I embrace the criticism, because ultimately (it means) the masses have seen it. I embrace it for my father’s story, for my mother’s story, for my auntie, for my grandmother, who all got their teeth knocked out so I could be on the phone with you here today.
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