‘Paperboy’ director Lee Daniels says his work is ‘sort of deep’

If there were ever a genre referred to as “film maudit hot mess,” movies so irrepressibly wrong as to be irresistibly right, the work of Lee Daniels would be filed on that shelf. Not many filmmakers would follow a success like “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” a film that was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two, with “The Paperboy,” a movie already notorious for a jaw-dropping scene involving Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron and a jellyfish sting.

That’s not even the wildest thing in Daniels’ interpretation of Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, brought to the screen as an overheated Southern thriller cross-wired with a melodramatic coming-of-age story underlined by an obsession with sex, race and violence.

There is such brazen craziness throughout Daniel’s filmography that when he calls from New Orleans during a break in the final days of shooting his upcoming “The Butler” there seems only one place to start: What is wrong with you, Lee Daniels? Why is there always too much movie in your movies?


“I’m going to go deep on you for a minute,” Daniels says, not dropping a beat in answering a question that might have caused many Hollywood types to just hang up the phone. “Black people laugh a lot when they’re in pain, and it comes from slavery. It’s almost generational, it’s been passed on. And during some very difficult times you’ll find that black people will laugh when they’re broke, when they’re homeless, when death occurs. They try to put on a happy face. And so, in some weird way, how that seeps into my work is that I don’t take anything seriously.”

The story concerns a young Florida man (Efron), who with his big-city reporter brother (Matthew McConaughey) re-investigates the circumstances around a convicted murderer (John Cusack) with the aid of the letter-writing woman who has become his jailhouse sweetheart (Kidman).

During the press conference for “The Paperboy” following its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, even the film’s cast seemed a little knocked off balance. Actress Macy Gray said, “It’s a crazy movie,” while Cusack noted what he likes about Daniels’ work is “you don’t know if you’re supposed to laugh or cry or be aroused or be disgusted.”

Daniels shifts effortlessly into repositioning “The Paperboy” when asked on the phone about the movie’s oblong initial response. “I think that the problem some people see with the film is that they think I’m trying to be serious and it ends up camp or whatever,” he says. “It’s not, I don’t take life too serious. My feeling is that I come from an interesting place where I’ve had to smile and laugh and get though some dark times and places. I think that’s sort of ultimately what my work is about.”

“Precious” was seen by some as a clear-eyed urban-realist take on what’s really going on in the inner city, while others found it a horror-comedy grotesque. The sweat-stained period melodrama of “The Paperboy,” which opened Friday, is also dividing moviegoers. It’s so over-the-top that it might cause some fans of “Precious” to reassess just how seriously they took the 2009 film.

“I hope so,” Daniels says of whether “Precious” might already be ripe for reconsideration. “It’s up to interpretation, always. I remember playing it in Harlem at the Magic Johnson Theatre and it was like the room was on crack. Everyone laughed, from the beginning to the end. When I took it to Sundance, I couldn’t get a laugh. They looked at it completely different. It’s a piece of art where it’s going to be interpreted one way or the other. And I think that this film [‘The Paperboy’] is similar, but in a different world.”

An overweight black teenage girl stealing a bucket of fried chicken in “Precious” might conceivably be couched in the realm of social commentary or even satire. But in “The Paperboy,” it’s harder to comprehend the unsettling sight of McConaughey naked, manacled and beaten bloody after a kinky pickup gone wrong. What conceivable reason is there for that disconcerting cut to a close-up of Cusack’s soiled pants following a session of no-touching, heavy breathing, visiting-room prison sex with Kidman?

“I didn’t have to,” Daniels acknowledges. “I figured I’d roll the dice. Really, I didn’t have to show that. People think it’s shocking, but what’s shocking is we don’t see it ever. We don’t see enough of it, and that’s the reason it’s shocking. We should see more of it.

“And I’m not here to shock anybody, I’m not,” he adds. “I’m here to entertain, that’s all. It’s not deep, but it’s sort of deep. It’s not deep, but there is a message at the end of the day. I’m not here to say, ‘Oh, I’m this brilliant filmmaker.’ I’m a storyteller, I hope you enjoy it. Don’t make a big deal about it, just enjoy it.”

“The Paperboy” was for a time going to be adapted by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, and it might be easier to process the film from within the ironic, high-style world of that international art house champion, a notion not lost on Daniels.

“I think that maybe, I don’t know, what’s expected of me is to tell African American stories,” Daniels says. “‘The Butler,’ ‘Precious,’ that’s what’s expected of an African American filmmaker, to tell something that is in our world. I think if it were Pedro who told this exact same story, or any other foreign filmmaker, you would not be having this conversation about this film at all. America, the world, is expecting a specific viewpoint from an African American filmmaker.”

And yet, Daniels struggled to finance a civil rights drama called “Selma,” even after the box office and awards success of “Precious.” When “Selma” fell apart, he injected some of that project’s concerns about race into his take on “The Paperboy.”

“The Butler” will further Daniels’ explorations of race relations with its story of an African American at the White House who served under eight presidents over 30-plus years; the cast includes Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cusack, Terrence Howard, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Robin Williams.

“‘The Butler’ is sort of an unexpected movie from me,” Daniels says. “It’s a massive departure from ‘The Paperboy.’ It’s PG-13 so I feel like I’m handcuffed and gagged as I’m directing. It’s a completely different world.”

As for how one directs Winfrey — “very carefully” might be the expected punch line — Daniels says curtly, “I just tell her to shut up and let’s do this.” He pauses and adds, “She’s fabulous. We love her.”

Noting that Winfrey’s performance may well fit into the gallery of how he has worked to redefine other actresses’ on-screen presence, including Mo'Nique and Mariah Carey in “Precious” or Kidman and Gray in “The Paperboy,” he described Winfrey’s character as “an alcoholic, drug-riddled, chain-smoking, fun-loving, good-time girl.”

In what might very well be the mantra for the upside-down, good-bad taste of Lee Daniels’ supercharged worldview, he adds a polite warning:

“Be prepared.”


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