In his movie Precious, producer-turned-director Lee Daniels has the kind of cinematic success story that gives hope to generations of independent filmmakers and other assorted dreamers. On paper, the film looks almost comically non-commercial. It’s a kitchen-sink melodrama about a morbidly obese, illiterate black teenager in 1980s New York who is physically abused by her monstrous welfare-cheat mother and sexually abused by her father, who is also the father of her two children. Throw in a complete unknown in the lead (Gabby Sidibe) and a director whose only other directorial effort (2005’s Shadowboxer) came and went without a trace, and you have a dodgy commercial prospect at best, even with Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz in supporting roles.
Yet when Precious played Sundance under the unwieldy title Push: Based On The Novel By Sapphire, it instantly morphed from ugly duckling to swan. The film picked up the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, while Mo’Nique picked up a special jury prize for her harrowing portrayal of an abusive, hateful tyrant; she quickly emerged as a serious contender in the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actress. Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey threw their clout behind promoting Precious, and a film whose own director expected it to go direct to DVD suddenly had distributors Lionsgate and Weinstein Company fighting over its theatrical rights. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Daniels and the bubbly, vivacious Sidibe about the film’s unlikely ascent to pop-culture prominence, why it’s sometimes okay to accept cake from a stranger, and why there’s a fat black girl in everyone.
The A.V. Club: How did you each become involved with the project?
Gabby Sidibe: I went to an open casting call. I went, and within an hour, I got a call for the callback, which was the next day, and within half an hour, I got a call that Mr. Daniels wanted to meet with me, and so we met in his office, and he offered me cake. I was too afraid to take some—
Lee Daniels: Why?!
GS: Because I don’t know you, stranger! I don’t want your strange cake from Brooklyn! It was in Brooklyn. I don’t know. You ever go to someone’s house with your momma, and they’re like “Say no, if they offer you anything, don’t you take nothin’.”
LD: Okay, but lemme tell you something, Gabby, it’s a job situation, I’m able to present a job to you, you’re supposed to say “I’ll have the cake!” even if it’s on the side.
LD: Yes! I gotta teach you everything. It doesn’t matter anyway, she got the job.
GS: Yes, I did. Without takin’ the cake.
LD: You certainly did. Touché.
AVC: What made her right for this role?
LD: Her smarts. I interviewed 400 girls—I stopped counting by then. Detroit, L.A., Atlanta, Boston, New York, Harlem, Philadelphia. I try to go for as much authenticity as I can, and I try to go for grit and honesty and in-your-face without makeup, and that certainly applied to the search for Precious, too. When I was looking for Precious, I was looking for Precious. I found her. I found 300 of them. But when Gabby auditioned, her tape was brought to me. It was brilliant. But then she started talking to me, and she talks like that.
GS: [Cheery tone.] Like this!
LD: Like some fuckin’ white chick from the Valley, okay? So, what is this, you know? And I hired her on the spot… no, I didn’t hire her on the spot, we talked. I wanted her to talk a little bit about herself and about me and about us, and about what she thought about things, and life, and Lenny Kravitz, and…
LD: And then I hired her. I felt that if I had hired one of the girls that I was trying to be authentic with, that would have been exploiting them. Really not putting on a movie, but rather just exploiting this girl that is the ultimate truth, and it would have been a documentary, as opposed to acting.
GS: The fantasy scenes would have been weird, too.
LD: Yeah, because she’s not acting in the fantasy scenes. She’s just being Gabby in the fantasy scenes; she’s being “Tee-hee-hee-hee!”
AVC: Lee, what attracted you to Precious as source material for a film?
LD: Gosh, I don’t have the answer, other than it was just raw and honest, and the characters were so rich and fresh and new. Shit like we don’t normally see. Shit like I don’t see. We’ve got to see this, we have to know this. And of course, I’m hoping that we go to DVD, but I didn’t give a fuck. All of my films are like putting on a play. We put on a play. We hope somebody’s going to see it on the big screen, and we’re happy when it goes to DVD, so somebody will see it. I can’t do movies where you start thinking “Where’s the commercial appeal? How are we going to market this?” It’s not that kind of party. The media and the studios continue to underestimate what the fuck we want to see. I want to see movies I can walk away from and say, “Wait, what happened there? Hold up, what did I just see? What?” and then it connects to something that you personally, unequivocally know to be truth. I’m cursin’ too much, Gabby.
GS: You’re fine.
LD: I said three curse words.
GS: It’s okay! They’ll write stars over them.
AVC: Were you worried the grim subject matter would be a dealbreaker when it came to raising money for the film? That it’d be commercial suicide?
LD: I fired my manager over this movie. I show him the movie, and he’s like “Huh?” I said “Uh-uh! Gimme my shit, I’m out.” He was like “Who’s gonna… ?” He saw the finished movie right before we went to Sundance. And you know, I’m nervous as it is. I don’t think anyone likes anything of mine. At the end of the day, I love it, but just because I love it… You know, I happen to love broccoli, not a lot of people like broccoli. I always question if somebody else is going to love my films. I think that’s what art is about—it’s so individual. Once you get over that, you’re okay with it, but I did not think that many people would. He was the first person I showed it to. He left me vulnerable and made me feel what my dad made me feel when I wanted to tell him that I wanted to do this. Like I was nothing. And I was [Snaps fingers.] out. I’m 50 years old. Fuck that. I’m so out of here. And I had to just get the gonads up.
GS: Like a grown man.
LD: Honey, if it was left to him, we wouldn’t have been at Sundance! I would have been like “Oh well, hmmph, let me go back to the investors, and, uhhh, see what I can do,” if I had believed him.
AVC: Does this feel like a Cinderella story to you guys?
LD: Yeah. Well, we don’t know that it has succeeded at anything.
GS: Not yet. Waitin’.
LD: It’s succeeded in my expectations. I really didn’t believe this film was going to do anything but DVD. I really walked in there with that understanding, knowing, “Okay, at the end of the day, when I wrapped it up, I’ve got Mariah Carey on this box—how’s this going to look? Mariah Carey, and put Lenny [Kravitz] here, and put Gabby over here someplace…” You know America’s not going to embrace it. You just can’t imagine anybody but a specific demographic and a cultural understanding of the DNA of this, and then that’s the genius that makes it so beautiful, is that it’s so universal. It’s fuckin’ universal, man. That’s the gift Precious has given me. You really think you’re telling a story about a fat black girl, and only fat black girls will understand it, and then you realize we’re all Precious.
GS: We’re all a fat black girl.
LD: Don’t you wanna know! That’s it, we’re all fat black girls [Laughs.] Oh Gabby, I love you. That’s a classic. Get them fat black girls in here.
AVC: “We’re all fat black girls!” could be the tagline.
GS: Patent pending.
AVC: How difficult was it to raise funds for the film?
LD: Actually, it wasn’t. I’m so used to having it be a difficult experience, funding movies, but it wasn’t as difficult. I had somebody that believed in me, that said, “Lee, what do you want to do?” Actually, there were a couple of people who wanted to finance my films. If you really spend time with movies, it’s three years of your life from beginning to end. I started out planting the seed with Monster’s Ball about independent cinema and raising money and that whole thing as a producer, and then it becomes easier for me. So when kids ask me today “How do you do it?” I don’t know how to answer that question, because my way of doing it now is completely different from the way I originally did it, and that was pre- this whole money shit that’s going down. I just did not take no for an answer, whether it was illegal money… I had to do what I had to do to get my movie made, and anything to get my movie made—as long as they recouped, it was all good by me. This is my world, this is my life. I take it very, very seriously. My kids are raised by it, what would happen if I didn’t do this? Oh, God. I’d be workin’ at Ralph’s. Would you be helping me? You’d be a receptionist!
GS: I’d be a receptionist! I’d be behind somebody’s desk.
AVC: Precious is an intense, harrowing viewing experience. What was the mood like on the set? Did it reflect the tone of the film?
GS: Not at all. We had so much fun on set. I think because of the material, we all knew what we would be stepping into emotionally. We rejected some of the bad emotional feelings, and we just let in the good ones. Every day was a party. We’re always laughing, we’re always making jokes, dancing, singing, we’re doing something on set in order to lighten the atmosphere. We loved each other so much more, and became a family because of the subject matter.
AVC: Were you able to leave the character when you went home, Gabby?
LD: Tell him about that dream, Gabby.
GS: The character was in and out of me, whether the camera was rolling—but I was so stressed out every day on set. We would do sometimes 15, 20-hour days.
LD: Don’t be saying that to people, because I ain’t got that kind of money. It’s overtime, illegal… That’s the producer coming out.
GS: Well, we spent a lot of time on set. [Laughs.] When I went home and slept, I would dream that my sleep was being filmed and directed, and when they said “Cut,” I would literally wake up and see them in the room, and turn over—that kind of lucid dream?—and I would go back to sleep. It was so bad. I would dream that every day. And one time, I dreamed that we were in the middle of shooting, and Lee says, “Okay, that’s a wrap, we can all go home, we won’t come back.” And I say, “There’s a whole other half an hour of the movie that we have to do!” And he says “It’s okay, we’ll get it in editing.”
LD: You crazy!
GS: I know. Well, you made me crazy! You had dreams too.
LD: I did have dreams. I had dreams that I wasn’t sleeping. But that’s because I wasn’t sleeping. Really. You can remember shit—I can’t remember! I slept for two, three hours a day for however many days prepping, and that’s dangerous.
GS: I remember, he would call me at 3 in the morning, and I would wake up and answer his call. I’d be like “Why aren’t you sleeping? Because we have to be on set in three hours! Why aren’t you sleeping?”
LD: I directed in my robe and my slippers…
GS: Yes, he would do that.
LD: It’s a blur.
GS: And pajamas.
LD: I stayed in the pajamas the whole time, because I didn’t have time to wash or anything… it’s so embarrassing.
GS: Don’t tell people!
LD: No, fuck it! Don’t matter. It is what it is, you’re into the moment, you’re into trying to get your shit done, and you have X amount of time to do it, and you have investors to make sure that they’re recouped, and you’re in the moment, so you don’t have time to sleep. But you do sleep, so maybe I was sleepin’ between takes and shit. How about Mo’Nique?
GS: She’d be sleepin’…
LD: Okay, we’d be sittin’ here… This is how brilliant Mo’Nique is. She is in a stone-cold sleep. I’m talkin’ knocked out.
GS: Well, most of her scenes were in the chair, too…
LD: She’s knocked out, right? She’s sitting there like this, sleeping, almost with a fuckin’ snore going—then I call “Action!” [Adopts gruff female tone.] “Precious, get yo’ ass down here!” I’m like, “What?”
GS: It was amazing, she would do that.
LD: It was really intense, I don’t know how people can do that. I sort of have to half-ass it.
GS: He’s in his slippers now.
AVC: It sounds like this movie consumed you.
LD: Every movie does. This one in particular, because it was New York City, and I knew they don’t fuck around in New York City with unions. It ain’t like shooting someplace like Anchorage. They are on you, because they’ve got so many big-time directors that have TV shows and stuff. Those unions are on you. If you’re doing a movie for a million dollars, they’re not watching you. You can go into the subway and do all sorts of things, but the minute it’s over $2 million, it’s crazy. The cops are tapping you, saying “Get off, get off, I’m taking the camera…” So it’s really intense. It made me grow up as a filmmaker, doing this movie. I grew up hardcore. I learned to be more responsible—and fiscally responsible—you know, I just wanna be a kid again! Do a musical, have tons of time or something.
AVC: Do you have a next project lined up?
LD: I do. I’m in negotiations for a film that is about LBJ and Martin Luther King’s relationship, just a snapshot in time, and the Selma riots, that march in Selma, just a snapshot. Sort of Frost/Nixon… but it’s different for me. I’m growing up!
AVC: As a producer and a director, you’ve done different kinds of films. What do they all have in common?
LD: That gray area that we fight all the time that is good and bad. I think we are all good people—I really believe that every morning when we wake up and feet hit the floor, we stand up and we wanna be good people. But life throws us shit, and that shit defines that gray area that we live. And I think that my cinema gives justice and life to that gray area.
AVC: This is your first film, right, Gabby? Were you worried about carrying such an intense film as your debut?
GS: Yeah, I was worried about doing the part justice. Because I’m a fan of the book, I’m a fan of Precious the film, and I wanted to do that justice. I hate when adaptations get it wrong, it just bugs me, and I didn’t want us to be a casualty of the adaptation curse.
And also, I wanted to do Mr. Daniels justice, because he clearly picked some girl from obscurity who wasn’t an actress at all, but he saw something in me, enough to see fit to hire me, and I didn’t want to let him down. I just wanted to…
LD: Gabby, you gonna make me start cryin’, bitch. What the fuck? Why you do this to me?
GS: [Giggles.] I just didn’t… [Snorts.]
LD: She starts snorting when she laughs!
GS: Stop, don’t draw attention to it! It won’t go away! [Laughs.]
LD: Why would she do this to embarrass us? We are black people in front of this white man, and she’s snortin’ like a fuckin’… What’s wrong with you!
GS: If you woulda let me finish the sentence, it wouldn’t have happened!
GS: But I wanted to do Mr. Daniels justice, and I wanted to do the writer justice, and Precious justice, because this girl exists, whether her name is Precious or not, whether she’s a girl or not, whether she’s black or not, this person exists, and I wanted to speak that truth. So eventually when I realized what the job in front of me was, all the nervousness melted away, and I had to do what I had to do.
AVC: If you weren’t an actress, how did you end up auditioning for this film?
GS: On a whim. I’m a very Christian girl, and I believe it’s my life path to have ended up at the audition. Because I ran away from being in the limelight or doing anything in the entertainment arena for most of my life, and I think I just wanted… Whatever my life was supposed to be, I wanted to start living it, so as soon as I made that statement, all these things started to fall in place for me to end up at the audition within about a week. And so that’s why I went. I did the audition, and it was easy—it was probably the easiest thing I did, because all I had to do was keep showing up. I mean, I showed for the audition, within an hour I got a call for the callback. I showed up for that, within half an hour, I got a call that Mr. Daniels wanted to meet me, and then the last step was showing up at his office.
LD: And not eatin’ my cake.
GS: And not eating his cake. I say no to cake. [Giggles.]
AVC: And then once you got the role, did you go “Okay, I need a crash course in acting,” or was it more instinct, feeling your way around the character?
GS: I don’t know—it wasn’t a crash course, but I had three weeks to do it. But it was like a series of conversations that we had that really, really helped me learn who the character was. Like I said, we’re all a fat black girl—she’s not too foreign from me, she’s not too foreign from Lee, so we just talked about her. We talked about him, and his insecurities, and his joys, and it helped me learn who she is, and who he wants her to be. It was easy.
AVC: Who surprised you the most with their performance in the film?
LD: I can’t answer that question, because that would be insulting to the actor that I hired. I think every person in this film is etched in my mind how I visually saw them. Like, I went to school with those girls. I knew those hairstyles. I sat there and meticulously took out pictures from high school and said, “This is what I want you to look like. Go do it.” From the colors to the hairstyles to the hoop earrings to the bangs, that was a replica of everything I grew up in. I think that no one in the big picture… I mean, actor-wise, I can tell you who surprised me, but everybody executed exactly what I wanted in my head. And I don’t know whether I can do this again. I’m just being frank. I don’t know whether I can replicate—with such authenticity—a world that I so know to be true. Every movement true, like every movement that they make, whether it’s edited or directed, it was I wanted, because I knew that it was in the time and of the moment, and what I personally experienced. So the surprise would be that it is the ultimate surprise. The ultimate surprise is that people are responding to this movie. The performances are not the surprise; the surprise truly in my heart is “Wow, y’all like me.” And that makes me feel so great, because I don’t know whether the next time you will. So I have to be honest about that. So right now, I’m just taking in the moment, and really being grateful and humble. Humble, humble, like so fuckin’ humble about it all.
AVC: How did Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry get involved?
LD: Tyler saw the film… Oprah saw the film before we began the film. I gave her my bootleg version, and she was working on trying to get Obama into the presidency, she had no time for me. She had a bigger mission to do, whatever. [Laughs.] And I gave her assistant the DVD, and she put it in her DVD player, and it skipped, so she didn’t just watch it, she put it back in her purse. She said it stayed in her purse. I say, “You only have one purse?”
GS: [Laughs.] Yeah, what is that?
LD: Like, what is that? That’s like, Oprah. She only has one purse? I guess she makes a point that women carry basically one major purse per season, or per month, or whatever. Whatever. And then Tyler Perry saw the film up at Sundance, his people saw the film, and they had a screening for him, and he liked the movie. He called me, then she called me as I’m walking down the red carpet receiving an award at Sundance. It was… dude, I’m telling you something, I am the happiest I’ve ever been right now. I wish I could just freeze time right at this moment. Because I was speaking to Jason Reitman, and I was like, “Oh man, I’ve got these interviews, and I’ve got to write this script, and how am I going to do this?” and he says “Lee, stop. Enjoy this moment. Really enjoy this moment, try to not complain or anything.” As filmmakers, all we do is complain—that’s just our nature. I’m trying to enjoy the moment. I’m trying to enjoy this find here that just… Like, all my hard work. We worked really so hard for it, so just trying to enjoy it.