If it takes a village to raise a child, it took a principality to bring "
A five-year odyssey of false starts, studio abandonment and piecemeal financing, "The Butler" arrives in theaters Friday with 37 different people credited as producers — among them retired
Ziskin left money in her will to help bankroll the $30-million picture, inspired by the true story of a black White House staffer who served under eight different presidents at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The saga began in November 2008, when Wil Haygood's profile of White House butler Eugene Allen was published in the
The tale Haygood chronicled, titled "A Butler Well Served by This Election," was irresistible and unique. Allen, then 89, had worked at the White House from Eisenhower to Reagan. A fly-on-the-wall witness to history, he had come to
Among those impressed by Haygood's feature was Amy Pascal, the head of
"Laura responded to the human story — what pulled us in was the humanity of the butler, the humility of the butler, and the poignancy of his relationship with his wife," Williams said. "She saw it as a personal story, not a history story."
Given the subject matter — a serious drama starring an African American with no action scenes — it was never going to be an easy movie to get financed. "The obstacles were really great," Williams said. But by early 2009, actor-writer
"We had an amazing script, an amazing director — we were ready to go," Williams said.
Made for $10 million, "Precious" had won two
"All of those things worked against us in the studio system," Williams said. By the end of 2010, Sony had lost faith in the movie and abandoned it. "It was pretty devastating for all of us," Williams said.
Ziskin, who at that point was being treated for
Ziskin decided the best way to make "The Butler" was to enlist wealthy African Americans in its financing, and in early 2011 she met with Sheila Johnson, who with her former husband, Robert Johnson, had founded the entertainment network
Johnson, a philanthropist, had served as a producer on some documentaries but had never invested anywhere near the amount of money Ziskin needed to help make "The Butler."
Johnson ultimately put $2.75 million into the film and promised Ziskin that she would ask other rich African Americans to join the cause. "I knew I had to make an investment myself if I was going to ask others to do the same," Johnson said. "I met with a lot of celebrities and talked to some rappers. And the only thing they said was, 'Cool.'"
Daniels was running into the same walls. "Hollywood would not allow me to make a black drama," he said last week in an interview in
Weeks of traveling the country yielded zero new investors, and less than two months after Johnson met Ziskin, the producer died. "On her deathbed, this was her last request: 'Get this movie made,'" Johnson said.
Ziskin's death galvanized Williams and Johnson. "As long as I kept the movie going forward, Laura remained very much alive," Williams said.
Despite the countless rejections, Johnson for months kept phoning friends and cold-calling strangers. "I was the only one hanging out there for a long time," she said.
She finally was able to land major investments from entrepreneur Earl Stafford and retired NBA player Finley (both of whom are credited as executive producers). By April 2012, most of the funds were in place. The tally of 37 producers in the film's press notes is largely made up of people who invested in, or helped bring investors to, the movie.
"The Butler" started filming last summer with
Johnson and some of the film's cast are hopeful that the film's doubters will be proved wrong.
"Hollywood's not in a hurry to tell these stories, unfortunately," said actor
Johnson said she believes that of the film's many producers, one would be more thrilled than all the others that "The Butler" is finally coming to theaters: Ziskin.
"I know that she knows," Johnson said, "that this movie has come to fruition."
Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.