MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Film goers will remember Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels for his provocative 2009 drama "Precious," which was based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire. It was an often grim, but also inspiring, story of an obese, illiterate, abused black teenaged mother who eventually finds a way to overcome her many challenges.
Now, Lee Daniels is out with another film that is equally intense, gritty and emotional. It's "The Paperboy" and it's based on the 1995 bestseller by Pete Dexter. It follows the story of a crusading reporter's investigation of a murder in Florida's bayous. "The Paperboy" boasts a star-studded cast, including Matthew McConaughey as reporter Ward Jansen, John Cusack as the suspected killer and Nicole Kidman as the woman who loves him and wants to save him from death row. Here's a short clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PAPERBOY")
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (as Ward Jansen) My name is Ward Jansen. This is my associate, Yardley Acheman.
JOHN CUSACK: (as Hillary Van Wetter) You look like your picture.
NICOLE KIDMAN: (as Charlotte Bless) I do? Thank you.
CUSACK: (as Hillary Van Wetter) These your paperboys?
KIDMAN: (as Charlotte Bless) Mm-hmm.
CUSACK: (as Hillary Van Wetter) What are they going to do for us?
KIDMAN: (as Charlotte Bless) They're going to save you.
MARTIN: "The Paperboy" opens tomorrow in select U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. and this is probably a good place to point out that this conversation will probably contain some content that may not be appropriate for all listeners.
So, with that being said, director Lee Daniels is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
LEE DANIELS: Woo-hoo.
MARTIN: You know, after a film like "Precious," one might think you might have gone for a screwball comedy or something like that, but no. Why were you attracted to this project?
DANIELS: This book, Pete Dexter's book, "The Paperboy," was by my bedside, along with "Push" by Sapphire for forever, and after "Precious," I got offered a lot of films for a lot of money and I had to come back to what it was that - and I was also scared a little bit, you know. With the success of "Precious," I didn't want to just jump into anything and I had to go where my heart was and so it took me a little bit to find the right thing and the characters are real, raw, people that I know.
MARTIN: I should mention that you also wrote this screenplay working with Pete Dexter on the script, but you did make some major changes. For people who remember the novel, for example, a major character, Yardley, who is Matthew McConaughey's reporting partner, is white in the book, but he's African-American - well, wait a minute. I'm trying to figure out how to work - he's black.
MARTIN: He's black. He's played by...
DANIELS: He's black. That's smart.
MARTIN: ...actor David Oyelowo, who many people will remember from "Red Tails." Why that twist?
DANIELS: Because I am black. I - you know, all the characters that are in the film, I had to understand and Yardley's character that David plays was written white, but I took the liberty to change him to African-American because I felt that it would add a special something in the story that wasn't there. I added race into this mix in a way that the book does not.
MARTIN: You sure did. I mean, the book is set in 1969, which is a time of, you know, a lot of ferment. Right? A lot of things racially, culturally going on and one of the other changes you made was making Anita, who's played by Macy Gray, the narrator of the story and she plays the maid for Ward Jansen's family. Let me just play a clip of her with Matthew McConaughey.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE PAPERBOY")
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Ward Jansen) How are your kids?
MACY GRAY: (as Anita Chester) You look beautiful, babe. Oh, they're doing good. They're doing really good. I'm - as soon as I get out of here, I'm going to see them. I'll make dinner all over again. You should come to that dinner, too.
MCCONAUGHEY: (as Ward Jansen) Come to that dinner?
MARTIN: Can you talk - you know, I'm trying to figure out how to talk about it without giving away too much.
DANIELS: OK. Let's...
MARTIN: But - yeah.
DANIELS: I'm going to go back to the...
DANIELS: ...David of it all and...
MARTIN: OK. Help me. Yeah.
DANIELS: In the '80s, when I was growing up, I remember lying to people about my existence, about where I came from, that I was from Beverly Hills and, you know, about going to Harvard and I was embarrassed about, you know, being from the projects or being - or not being able to afford to go to a school like Harvard. And so David is me a little bit and what one had to do to succeed during that time.
Macy's character is representative of a lot of my aunts, a lot of my friends, a lot of my neighbors that were actually the help. And when Zac's character says the N word and she hears it, she's not offended. She doesn't take it personally. She loves this boy deeply and she doesn't want him to use it because somebody will hurt him in the streets if he uses that word inappropriately.
So - yeah. It was...
...to use it because somebody will hurt him in the streets if he uses that word inappropriately. So, yeah, it was - I have to bring my past into the world that I'm painting.
MARTIN: Zac, being Zac Ephron, who plays Jack, who's Ward's younger brother.
DANIELS: As I clear on that? Yeah, I was clear on that.
MARTIN: It's cool. We got you.
MARTIN: You know, I have to ask, the thing about the film that I think will strike people - striking people so far - is on the one hand, very matter-of-fact about a lot of things that are just true, like the dynamics in the household and things like that, punctuated by some really graphic and explosive, you know, violence. And I have to ask you about what it is that you're drawn to this extreme fare. Talk to me a little bit about that.
DANIELS: People are calling this film sort of shocking and everything. I think what's shocking to me is that we don't see enough. I don't think that we see the truth enough. I mean and, you know, it's OK. I don't mind "Spider-Man." I don't mind the "Avengers." But I think that life is hard sometimes.
MARTIN: You know, people are themselves having a hard time right now in this country. I think we could probably agree on that, right?
MARTIN: And I wanted to ask how you hope to persuade people to follow you into challenging fare like this at a time when they are themselves having a hard time.
DANIELS: I think that the media, 90 percent of the stuff that we see right now is built for people that are having challenging times right now, and they continue to underestimate the intelligence of people that want to view and read worlds that are of truth.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels. His latest film, "The Paperboy," comes out tomorrow in select U.S. cities.
The other thing that interested me as a journalist, you might imagine, is that I remember Pete Dexter's book when it first came out in 1995. I think I focused a lot on the commentary about journalism, right? Because there are two journalists, and one is very much about the facts, and the other one is like let's just get the story and let me get my book deal...
MARTIN: ...and do my thing and move on. And I remember thinking about the commentary about what was he saying about the state of journalism then. But it's still - it's a very different world of journalism now. I just wondered if you had some thoughts yourself about a person with a foot in both of those worlds, about whether the world they're talking about in terms of what it means to be a truth teller still exists.
DANIELS: That's what I'm trying to get across with the entirety of the film. You know, in the '80s, there were many white men that I dated that were having issues with their sexuality, and one guy in particular killed himself because he was from the South. His parents hated him because he was gay, and then double hated him because he was dating a black man. He killed himself. And so, when you say truth, I got to come from a place of truth. It's not just about telling Pete's story, but bringing my breath and my soul into that story.
MARTIN: When people walk out of that theater, what are you hoping they'll take with them?
DANIELS: They've laughed. They've been frightened. They've been titillated a little bit. And that you've been entertained. You walk away thinking. And if you can walk away thinking, then I've done my job.
MARTIN: I kind of want to ask about the actors. I mean, once again, you've assembled this amazing cast and you've taken them to places I'm not sure many of them - some of them haven't been before, definitely, which has kind of become your signature, hasn't it, right?
DANIELS: We had fun.
DANIELS: We have a lot of fun.
MARTIN: How do you do that? I mean, how do you get people to do that? I don't want to give away too - this is again, the tricky piece about talking about the film...
MARTIN: ...is that you don't want to give away too much.
MARTIN: But there's one scene where Nicole Kidman - is it OK if I tell this, or do you think that gives away too much?
DANIELS: Yeah, everybody else know it. Why not?
MARTIN: Oh, all right. All right. Well, she urinates on Zac Ephron's character. She has a reason, but I think that's the thing that a lot of people are going to think, whoa. How did you, you know, whoa...
DANIELS: I know.
MARTIN: ...what happened here?
DANIELS: I know. We - I know, right?
MARTIN: But that's not the only one. I'm just letting people know, that's not the only thing that comes to mind. What I'm interested in how you get people who - these, you know, big stars who have a certain image...
DANIELS: Well, thank you for being so classy about it, because everybody else has been just outright nasty about it.
DANIELS: Like, you know, how could you have this happen? Or, this is Nicole Kidman.
MARTIN: Well, this is NPR. We are classy. We're not trying to be.
DANIELS: We - when I go and we're doing a film, it's like putting on a play. There are no egos. And I think that that's what real actors want to play with, not movie stars, but real actors. They want to come in and they want to roll up your sleeves and they want to move furniture around and they want to put on their makeup - their own makeup, like Nicole did.
And we don't have any money. I have no money. I don't pretend to know or have all the answers, I don't. We find them together, in the moment. And I'm honest with them about who I am. I'm, you know, I've learned to brutally honest about my past, my drug addiction, my sexual addictions, my, what my fears are, my dreams, my hopes. So after we've known each other and we become friends and we're a family, there's a deep trust between actor and director, and I don't even have to verbalize my direction. I grunt and I roll my eyes or I'll looking at them and, and they sort of - we're on the same page syllable.
MARTIN: Does anybody ever say I'm not doing that?
DANIELS: Nicole said at one time. She - I asked her to use the N-word. It was like the fourth day of shooting. Fourth day of shooting, and I asked her to use the N-word. She says, I can't do that. I go - and I was - I had a little bit of a problem. I went home and I called my producer. I said Nicole didn't use the N-word when I told her to use the N-word. And she said, Lee. She has sex with John Cusack the first day over a washing machine. The second day, she is telepathic sex. The third day she's urinating on Zac Ephron. I think that you can forgive her for not using the N-word. And I go, OK.
MARTIN: So you're reasonable.
MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, you just finished filming a new film that you have in the works. It's called "The Butler," and it's based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler, who, in fact, is a real person...
MARTIN: ...who served eight U.S. presidents, and another all-star cast, including some of the people you just worked with. You got Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, Robin Williams, Jane Fonda - just to name a few. Can you just tell us a little bit about the project? I know you just finished shooting.
DANIELS: Yeah. I wanted to go PG-13. I wanted to make of movie for my mom. And, wow, it's a father-son story. It's a civil rights story. It's a story that starts out in the cotton fields, and then ends in Obama coming into office. I'm really proud of it. I think - it spans eight decades, and I got a really great cast. And I think that it's something that I'm - I'm really proud of it. I'm really proud of it.
MARTIN: Well, come back and tell us more about it, if you would.
DANIELS: OK, I will.
MARTIN: Lee Daniels is a director, writer and producer. His latest work is "The Paperboy." It opens tomorrow in select U.S. cities. He's also working on "The Butler." That's due out next year. Next year? Right?
DANIELS: Yup, yup.
MARTIN: And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York City.
Lee Daniels, thank you for speaking with us.
DANIELS: God bless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.