Oct 23 2009

New York Times: The Audacity of 'Precious'

< > Lee Daniels, director of Precious talks to Lynn Hirschberg of the New York Times about the film and its stars including Mo’Nique, Gabourey Sidibe and Mariah Carey.

A month after Cannes, Daniels was back in Manhattan in his 11th-floor loftlike apartment near Madison Square Garden. "This is where I raised money for 'Precious,' " he said. Daniels, dressed in black, lay sprawled on a plum-colored sectional sofa; on a low, white table in front of him were piles of scripts and stacks of photographs from "Precious." A Roller Disco pinball machine stood next to a baby grand piano, and a large TV screen dominated one side of the room. Although he had a separate office in the same building, Daniels's apartment seemed more like a lavish hotel suite than a home.

"These are my girls!" he said, picking up a photo showing Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious, with Mo'Nique, Paula Patton, who plays the teacher who changes Precious's life, and Mariah Carey. "Mariah is everything we're not supposed to love and yet, we absolutely love her," Daniels said, staring at the photo. "She's crazy — look at her! She would throw herself under the train for you, as long as her hair was perfect." Daniels laughed. "I made this movie for my girls. People read so much into 'Precious.' But at the end, it's just this girl, and she's trying to live. I know this chick. You know her. But we just choose not to know her." [...]

While he was editing "Shadowboxer," Daniels, who was living on 17th Street at the time, went for a run by the piers on the West Side. He felt a little ping in his chest. The pain increased, and by the time he arrived at his office in Harlem, he had to lie down. His assistant persuaded him to go to the doctor, who immediately realized Daniels was having a heart attack. "I'd been using a lot of cocaine. I'm embarrassed to say this, but I had to learn to bring down my bravado. When you're finding yourself in the world, you start blinging and dinging and dingdingdang dang, and next thing you know, you're in the hospital.

"He said that the heart attack changed him, that it was part of the reason he felt he had to make "Precious." Unlike "Shadowboxer," "Precious" is a world without glitz, glamour — or, for the most part, men. Daniels convinced his actresses to leave their vanity behind. "I asked Mo'Nique to grow a couple of pimples," Daniels recalled. "And I asked her not to shave under her arms, and she went there for me." Mariah Carey's role was originally offered to Helen Mirren, who had scheduling conflicts. Carey and Daniels are close friends — he calls her Kitten, and she calls him Cotton — and he offered her the part on the condition that she show up at the set alone (no entourage) in a taxi (no limo) and freshly scrubbed (no makeup). "People say to me, 'You are so ugly in this movie,' and I take that as a compliment," Carey told me. "During the filming, I tried to sneak some blush, but Lee caught me. He rubbed my cheek and said, 'Take that off.' I said, 'But Precious is wearing makeup!'

"When Daniels wanted a fantasy sequence to be a Vogue photo shoot starring Precious and the magazine's editor at large, Andre Leon Talley, Talley looked at a clip of Sidibe from the movie and declined. Daniels fired some crew members halfway through production ("They weren't listening to me, and I said, don't let this hair fool you, give me what I want"), and the production ran out of money twice. Carey helped out by singing at Daniels's house to dazzle potential investors. "I would do anything for Lee," she said. "He can strip you down, homely you out, and you trust him, because he's after the truth. He can drive you crazy, but what interesting person doesn't drive you crazy?'"

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