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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com

Why Lee Daniels wants to be like Julian Schnabel

Lee Daniels is a character, a live-wire who stands out even when his hair is trimmed back from the wild outgrowth of recent years. As awards season marches on, his $45 million-grossing Precious, Based Upon The Novel By Sapphire, is clattering with hardware for co-star Mo’Nique, despite her disinclination toward the game. Precious’ world is one you’d want to imagine doesn’t exist even more than you want not to imagine it as fiction; this is a story of “America” as a second language. A cruel place where dignity is the one currency you’re always denied. The cast includes Mariah Carey as a not-glamorous social worker, but Mo’Nique’s turn playing a monster, a master of abuse, a mother who’s turned a gimlet stare to her own child with simmering hatred. As a comedienne, she adroitly captures the character’s terrible self-pity. lee_daniels_precious697674.jpg
Daniels own success is twofold, as a gay man—”a little bit Euro, a little bit homo, a little bit ghetto,” is his formulation—and as an African-American director, since nominated for a Directors Guild award, who may yet find his alternately admired and derided film among the expanded field of ten Best Picture nominations. Its greatest success is its ending, demonstrating that generational cycles of abuse can stop.
During the Chicago International Film Festival in October, I meet Daniels and Sidibe in a suite in a Loop highrise hotel overlooking the El. The pair sit close on the plush couch, each wrapping their arms around their own huge pink velour pillow. After a screening the night before, they had clutched each other’s hand during a heartfelt Q&A.
Textures clash in Precious. The movie is a jigsaw of visual devices until rhythms eventually untangle themselves. Then Daniels seems to discover how to make a movie as he goes along; I mentioned Julian Schnabel as someone who had fashioned a rude stylistic vocabulary, which elicited an unexpected confession. “I think I’m taking that as a compliment. Is it a compliment?” It sure is. Turns out they’re not just friends, but Daniels wants to grow up to be Schnabel. “Out of his mind! And no one will tell you that’s he’s better, than him. That’s why I love him. Because he has the power that I want to have. He has no problem saying, I go, ‘Julian! How’s your next piece?’ ‘Brilliant! It’s a masterpiece.’ I go, ‘Julian, no, really, how is it?’ ‘Didn’t you hear me? I said it was a masterpiece!” He says it… and it is a masterpiece! I love him and I want to be him. He directs like me, too, often…”
Sidibe interjects, “In a bathrobe?” She giggles. “Unlike me,” Daniels says, “He takes it even further. At least I put on these clothes, I put on these clothes for journalists—” Sidibe says, “You do the glasses…” [like Schnabel’s oversized horn rims] “Everything! I’m telling you something, he’s my bl— It’s a very subliminal thing. I go, I direct in my pajamas, I direct in my bathrobe, everything. But at least I have respect for journalists. I’m too afraid. I’m not that ballsy. I won’t do it. I put on clothes for you.”
On that overcast October afternoon, Daniels says there aren’t many more screenings of his “baby” where he’ll be able to introduce it and give permission to laugh. “I can’t anymore. My baby is up and going. A lot of people, not just white people, but conservative blacks, very wealthy African-Americans will watch it and go, y’know, ‘What is so funny?” Truly! And I go, What… is not so funny?’ This is really some funny shit! We laughed doing it! Mo’Nique laughed doing it. Sapphire, the writer of the book, was hysterical. She laughed! There was a moment when she was on the floor. Okay. This is when I knew that I had hired the right girl. [There’s a scene where boys on the street harass her,] she’s pushed on the floor, right?'” Sidibe snorts. “She’s pushed on the floor, I’m on the fuckin’ floor, laughing, I’m laughing my ass off. I’m laughing… My white crowd, the crew’s, ‘Oh he’s just so rude, he’s so disgusting, what kind of director is he, he’s vicious,’ and I’m fuckin’ on the floor, laughing.”


“Oh I remember that day,” Sidibe says. “And they say, ‘Are you happy now? Look at her. She’s crying!’ Gaby’s like this… [He hunches his shoulders, seems to sob].” Sidibe laughs. “I walk up to her and Gaby’s like… laughing! And I say, what are you laughing at? She goes, I’m a fat girl on the floor, what do you think I’m laughing at?’ She got it.” Precious also hits people, and surprisingly, the audience bursts out laughing each time as if she’s earned the right to do that. I repeat a couple of the laugh-lines to Daniels, wanting to talk about how humor is pulling dialogue down to the syllables. “They talk like TV channels I don’t watch” is one; another, “Cold-ass pig’s feet is nasty as shit.” Daniels howls. “I love the way you said that! I love the way a white man says it, ‘Cold-ass pig’s feet’! But you get it, man, you’re almost there. I close my eyes, I’d think you were black for a minute!”
So what’s Daniels’ philosophy in dealing with downbeat, potentially deadly material? “Feel free to laugh. You have to laugh! You need room to breathe. Anyplace you can make me laugh, please, please, God, make me laugh.” And he smiles, flashing his large brown eyes, daring me to ask another.

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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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