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Lee Daniels talks to Philly2Philly.com about latest movie "Precious"

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In the gritty indie drama Precious, a sixteen year old girl deals with the punishing aspects of poverty, rape, and abuse as she struggles to find the hope to survive in a world stacked with incredible odds. Director Lee Daniels, who found rousing success back in 2001 with “Monster’s Ball”, adapted the controversial book from the page to the screen. The film has been receiving incredible buzz since its debut at Sundance over a year ago. Lee sat down with Philly2Philly to discuss the filming experience, his relationship with the cast, and his thoughts on an Oscar nomination!

Philly2Philly: You grew up in West Philly—did that influence you as an artist and a filmmaker?

Lee Daniels: Coming of age in West Philadelphia? I think there were many colorful people in my life. Over the years I have attempted to have them all put up on the screen.

Philly2Philly: How would you describe your unique, atypical style of filmmaking?

Lee Daniels: I didn’t go to film school. I come from theater. Being onset so often, that was my film school when I was managing actors over the years and I managed several famous actors during that time. I have been around the world on sets so I understood the cinematographers job, the customers job, the production designers job, how to hold the camera, crew, etc. All of that was a learning experience of ten years.

Philly2Philly: Precious is based on a novel by Sapphire. How did you come upon the source material?

Lee Daniels: The book was given to me by Ally Sheedy’s mom, who is an agent in New York, many years ago before I did “Monster’s Ball”. The book stayed with me. It stuck to me like hot grits. It was just one of those things that left me gasping. I was gasping with my mouth open. Every other page was like what the f*** did I just read and I wanted to see it on the screen. I knew it would translate well.

Philly2Philly: Were there any major changes made when adapting the book to the screen?

Lee Daniels: The only thing I added personally was a dream sequence. Also, if we had told the book as is it would have been X rated. It would have been an X-rated book. Mary (Mo’nique in the film) does some very, very, vile things to her daughter that I wouldn’t even repeat at this table. But you must read it because it is a great piece of literature beyond anything I have ever read. So, I can’t go into that place. I think the audience needs to breathe as opposed to seeing the physical.

Philly2Philly: Speaking of Mo’nique, she is one among a varied, mostly inexperienced cast in Precious. How did you help these actors find that place and channel powerful, award worthy performances?

Lee Daniels: My approach is a very unique one. What we do is, I don’t have a rehearsal period. My rehearsal period is really a therapy session. Selfishly it’s all about shut up and just listen to me. This is my story. This is my pain. This is my drug history. This is my sex. This is what literature I like. These are my political beliefs. This is my spiritual life. This is what I like artistically. Then what happens is that it subliminally puts them in a place of talking all about them, so we are one. We become best friends. I can’t work with an actor unless I am on the same – not page, not sentence, but syllable – I am on the same syllable. They know me better than I know myself. Swear to God—so when I yell action, we become one.

Philly2Philly: Mo’nique has been criticized for her lack of promoting when it comes to this film. Can you comment at all on that?

Lee Daniels: Yes. Mo’nique put her soul into this movie. She gave me everything and I think it shows on the screen that she gave me. I asked her at the end of the movie, “Mo, like yo I don’t know I think this is award worthy.” She said, “Lee you are my award.” And she started crying in my hands. She worked for free on my film and that is how she gives me her soul. She has a television show, two shows a day. I know what she does. She gives that her soul. She has twins that are 5. It’s not that she doesn’t care about the awards at all. She can’t work 14-hour days and have twins and be on the road. People are always looking for gossip. She can only do but so much, and I think she is doing everything she can do.

Philly2Philly: As you mentioned, Precious is already getting a ton of awards buzz? How do you feel about the word Oscar being thrown around?!

Lee Daniels: I don’t even embrace it. I’m in my bubble. I know I have another job. I know my agents are taking my calls. My award is that it didn’t go to DVD. I don’t read reviews and I don’t… the minute I give into it I will have a f***ing breakdown. I will look for the one word that says this movie sucks. I am really hard on myself.

Philly2Philly: Precious is a very heavy, intense film dealing with poverty, sexual abuse, and domestic violence among other things. Did filming take a toll on you emotionally?

Lee Daniels: It is no different than any other experience. It’s an 18-hour workday for me. Then I am sleeping, working in my sleep. It’s three months of that. Then it consumes you. I don’t look at films the way you look at my films. You look at the final product up on the screen. I look at it as a personal growth as a man. What can the experience do to change my life and how can it make me a better human being. It’s a journey.

Philly2Philly: Ultimately, what do you hope people take away from Precious?

Lee Daniels: Many things because we hit so many subjects. I think ultimately we come, we should want to come away from this film loving ourselves more, appreciating ourselves more. Also never ignoring her (Precious) again because we see her everyday and yet at the same time we don’t see her at all.

Photo credit: Renaud Corlouer