To begin to understand director Lee Daniels, you can start by looking closely at the living room of the broken-down Harlem apartment created for Claireece “Precious” Jones, the obese, illiterate, abused teenager at the center of his emotionally raw new drama, “Precious.” There you’ll see remnants of the West Philly apartment in the tough neighborhood where Daniels grew up. The fabric on the walls is the same, the worn couch a replica, a framed photo of his late father hangs on the wall; and the memories, the ones that refuse to leave him alone, linger in the stairways, color the scenes.
Now with the powerful imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, “Precious,” adapted from the 1996 novel “Push” by writer/performance artist Sapphire, will have its coming out party at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday night, before landing in theaters in November. It will be the film that divides Daniels’ directing career into before and after -- where “before” held promise, “after” will come with expectations.
“Precious” throws open a window into a world that most of us never see, would rather pretend doesn’t exist. This place, where women and children are beaten down verbally and physically, where life is disposable, is one that Daniels knows well. His need to examine the rippling effect of those experiences is nothing new. Being dealt a bad hand and surviving it is a theme that the 49-year-old filmmaker has come at artistically more than any others.
It’s there in the films he’s produced including 2001’s “Monster’s Ball,” which won an Oscar for Halle Berry as a black woman involved with the white racist prison guard who presided over her husband’s execution, and in 2004’s “The Woodsman,” a pedophile’s life examined starring Kevin Bacon. It’s central to the first feature Daniels directed, 2005’s largely overlooked “Shadowboxer,” and now it’s at its most painful and empowering yet, in “Precious,” with Mo’Nique as Mary, a soul-destroying perversion of motherhood, and introducing Gabourey Sidibe as her teenage daughter, Precious.
“There’s something about women . . . I feel for the injustices,” he says. Those feelings all begin with his mother, Clara, now 67. “I love my mother, cherish her. She had many, many things thrown at her in life, hard things; and I watched it, watched her remain this stoic figure that carried on.”
There is also his father, William, who died when Daniels was “12 or 13, I can’t recall,” a fact he offers up casually, as if that loss weren’t infused with searing emotions. The legacy of the father he prefers not to talk about -- the ways in which that relationship diminished him, undercut his self-esteem, pain him still -- has in part pushed the filmmaker to succeed, because “if I don’t, it will mean everything he ever said about me was true.”
The father represents a stolen childhood for Daniels, a violent act witnessed by Daniels at 5, one he is not ready to speak about publicly; the responsibility he felt years later to watch over the three sisters and a brother, born after him. That particular memory is one of the reasons Daniels holds his own kids, 13-year- old twins, Liam and Clara, so close.
On this sunny September day in New York, just back from a vacation in Italy and with Toronto only a week away, Daniels is, as he describes it, content to stay in his bubble, the one that only grants entry to good things. He would rather not pick through the more difficult moments of his past, not sure how much he wants to reveal, deflecting what he can with funny lines lifted from “Muriel’s Wedding,” which, one could argue, is a much, much lighter Aussie white-girl version of “Precious.”
In jeans and a crisp white shirt, he looks leaner than he did at Sundance in January when the film, then named “Push,” officially premiered and walked away with three top awards, from both the festival jury and the audience. The long, wild curls and the ragged scruff that gave him a sort of crazed zealot look are gone. The intensity, the passion and the humor, are not. He’s got an easy smile and a quick laugh that pulls you in. The wariness in eyes that turn thoughtful and introspective when pressed you notice only when he disappears behind them.
“When I reflect on it, on why I did this movie, it has a lot to do with my youth, what I witnessed, and that girl who came to my door at 3 o’clock on a summer afternoon when I was 11,” he says. “But it also has to do with the food I was eating, the pork, the chitlins, the cockroaches on the walls, the mice we’d throw bread at, it’s a combination of all that was.”
The girl was a 7-year-old neighbor named Angie and the moment was a seminal one for the director. Daniels remembers opening the door of their West Philly apartment to find this already morbidly overweight child, naked, crying, trying to cover herself with her hands, bloody welts raised on her back and arms by an electrical cord. The memory was profound, the words, “Mommy beat me,” haunted him, that and the fear he saw in his own mother’s eyes. “I remember my mother on her knees in the corner praying, and me thinking, ‘Where’s God?’ ”
When, years later, he read “Push,” those images, long suppressed, rose up. “The book evoked the same feelings -- I could smell every scent, I could see the texture of the walls, I was shaking. Shaking. It was like family, I knew it intimately, but I didn’t know whether I wanted the story told.”
When we are first introduced to Precious in the film she is 16, in the ninth grade still, unable to read, pregnant with her second child, both the result of rape by her father. Her first child, a daughter called Little Mongo because of the imprint of Down syndrome on her face, lives with Precious’ grandmother.
Precious, still very much a child herself, lives at home, in a world that despises her -- the mother who hates her for “taking my man,” the kids who taunt her for her weight. She survives by escaping into wild fantasies where she is a superstar -- adored, beautiful, free of the horror of her reality. Then an alternative school for troubled girls begins to change her life. It is not an easy story, to put it mildly.
Daniels knows it was crazy, but when casting started he called ICM asking for a 300-pound teenager who could act. When that didn’t pan out, the production started holding “ ‘Precious’ camps.” They’d find girls on the streets, at movie theaters, at McDonald’s, and have them come in and work with acting, vocal and dance coaches. When Daniels was close to despairing they would never fill the part, he got a call from his casting director.
“Barry Hopkins, he’s a genius, genius, said ‘I got her.’ So I bring her in and talk to her for a little over an hour and I cast her, on the spot, never made her read. The other girls we talked to were the character, were Precious, they lived that life. Gabby was not. She talks like a white girl, she bubbles, she’s smarter than me, you, anyone, has a loving, nurturing mother and father, and looks at life from a completely different perspective.”
Mo’Nique, whom Daniels had worked with before in “Shadowboxer,” was his first and only choice to play Precious’ mother. He trusted that she would trust him enough when he asked her to disappear inside this monstrous life. Though there were other key roles -- Paula Patton as the teacher who brings hope; Mariah Carey with no makeup, no smile and almost unrecognizable as a social worker, as is Lenny Kravitz’s nurse’s aide, shoulders slumped, dreds stuffed inside a white hairnet -- Precious and Mary were the two Daniels had to get right.
Mo’Nique’s complete immersion into the role of mother as abuser and betrayer, riding a river of rage, won her the dramatic acting award at Sundance and has her name surfacing in awards talk now. The scenes between Mary and Precious were among the most wrenching, and Daniels resorted to breaks where he would hold them and the three would cry, before he’d say, “OK dolls, we gotta do it again,” as well as using a lot of very morbid humor.
“I looked for humor everywhere I could,” Daniels says. “We lived through laughter on this set, it was the only way to survive some of it.”
Daniels counts Fellini and Spike Lee as his two primary cinematic influences and you can see them both echoing through “Precious” -- Lee’s gritty, ironic, unsparing realism mixed with Fellini’s love of absurdism. Though the director and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher were faithful to the essence of the book, the film is not as unrelentingly bleak and there are far more fantasy sequences, which serve as a much-needed escape for those watching as well as for Precious.
Though Daniels is nervous about how the movie will be received in Toronto, he was far more stressed before Sundance. “I didn’t know whether or not white America would embrace this movie.” It helped that Oprah phoned just as his name was called on awards night for the Utah-based festival -- “How crazy is it that the cell said ‘Unknown user’ and I still answered?” -- saying she wanted to be involved. Perry’s call had come just a day or so earlier. Both felt “Precious” was a potent story that needed to make its way to African American and mainstream audiences alike. They wanted to help.
He’s since shown the film to abusers and seen complete denial. He’s shown it to those who have been abused and seen tears. He’s shown it to his mother who tells him she’s happy if he’s happy. He’s increasingly anxious to get back to work. There are other projects in the offing, including the possibility of a musical. He’s writing something for Oprah, and working on developing a prequel to “Huckleberry Finn.”
But at the moment, Toronto awaits. He hopes the fantasy sequences will balance the more disquieting moments in “Precious,” that the optimism of the ending will translate. “This film is about feeling blessed with what you have, and it’s about healing,” he says, “my healing, yes, but for all the others who have witnessed or experienced.
“And for Angie, I hope somewhere she’s safe and sound and well.”