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Lee Daniels Gets Pushed Around New York

Lee Daniels Gets Pushed Around New York

Articles - Directing

When it’s all said and done, I honestly can’t remember the making of ?any of my films. The best way to describe it is… a tsunami comes and sweeps you out. And somehow you crawl back to the beach and survive. So, in thinking about the making of Precious,? I took a break from editing and called my assistant, Dominique, to ?help me remember what shooting this film was like.

She says that the? experience made her think NYC was an acronym for “No You Can’t,” since? pretty much everyone was telling me “No.” Shooting a film in New York City is the hardest thing I have ever done, and I? mean the hardest! I heard “No” from everyone. Honestly, from the start? of production, there was an endless onslaught of “No, you can’t shoot? here,” “No, you can’t have this permit,” “No, you can’t have this actor,” “No, you can’t? get clearance for that” and countless other “you cant’s.” My response to all of that was, ‘Yes I can!’

I don’t know how I? turned each “no” into a “yes,” but I did. When my assistant ?reminded me of how I had accomplished this, I realized—with a bit of? pride—that the first “yes” came from Sapphire, who wrote the? acclaimed novel Push. She told me “yes” after telling several far? more established entities “no.”

I read Push 12 years ago and it? was so powerful that I slept with it under my pillow. My obsession? with the story superseded any drug or love affair to which I had ever been? addicted.? Set in 1987, Push is the story of a 16-year-old girl who wants to? learn how to read and how, against insurmountable obstacles, she? finds her way. She has to push through life: She pushes through ?being obese. She pushes through being tormented by her peers. She? pushes through being constantly beaten down by the system. She pushes? through sexual abuse. She pushes through contracting HIV. And through? pushing, she achieves happiness in her life. She’s an example for us? all.

Her name is “Precious” and her character became? my best friend. I don’t know why—maybe because I saw so much of myself ?in her. But I think there’s a little bit of Precious in all of us; she? represents the will that we all have to live.? ?

From the outset of pre-production I was on a quest for the lead? actress, and I could not find her anywhere—and I mean anywhere. I did? a nationwide street search since I couldn’t really call a Hollywood ?agent and ask for a 300-pound African American girl. After? months of casting and some 400 girls later, a workshop that? would have put “I Love New York” to shame (where were my docuboys when I needed them), I found my star Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe,? and she’s as delectable as a chocolate soufflé. Actually, I’m telling the casting of the film backwards. Mo’Nique, who was in my last film,? Shadowboxer, was cast first. She co-stars as Precious’ heinous? mother, Mary. There is nothing funny about her in this movie!? ?

As I write this, I keep looking to my assistant for guidance, as ?I am truly without memory. That is how painful a journey this was.? She says I should mention how many times I cried and laughed and? screamed during shooting, while trying to get my vision across. She’s ?urging that I be politically correct. Fuck that. I didn’t feel? connected to most of my crew. Actually, I didn’t like half of my ?crew. I don’t feel they understood me, my process or my journey. ?I felt that most of them saw it as just another job, which pained me.?

I had to fire an editor and a cinematographer. I went through three? continuity people, three locations managers, two producers, two ?assistant directors, two sound people, two video playback people, two? caterers and I’m too embarrassed to think of any other replacements.? And no, I’m not difficult. Okay, maybe I’m a little difficult.

New York—that ?was the problem! I can’t recall? the specifics, but my assistant told me it was on day two or three that the? police shut us down. I was working on the last shot of the day; I? was on 131st and Twelfth Avenue, and a cop literally tapped me on my? shoulder and said, “If you don’t stop now, I’m taking your camera.” ?

Apparently I was one minute over my permit time. I turned to? him: ‘This is a joke, right?!’ The way he came at me I knew he meant ?business. I screamed louder than my 12-year-old daughter, ‘It’s a?wrap!’ Why, why me? One can’t scream racism anymore… Obama ruined that!? I’m still trying to figure out if that was some evil joke played by? a crewmember. Needless to say, thus began my journey into hell.? 

I know I’m jumping around here, but I want to go back and talk about? working with some of the actors and crew I loved. Lenny Kravitz is? like a brother to me. He plays a nurse; what a rock star! And I? don’t mean that literally. Mo’Nique, she gave me her soul and then some. Paula Patton rolled up her sleeves and dove right in. Gabby, what a find! What a miracle! The group of? girls Precious befriends when she enrolls into her new school were my ?puppets on a string that made magic happen. I’m sure I’m forgetting ?other actors, but I’ll say these actors made my life happy and my? heart smile. It was an honor to work with them.

My assistant? also reminded me not to forget mentioning the babies and children we ?worked with. Young filmmakers out there, please don’t do movies with? babies! I don’t have anything against kids, I have two of my own, but ?I was ready to kill myself at the end of the day. I’m talking about a room ?full of kids. You’ve got to see the movie to know what I’m talking about.

One of the few solaces I sought out from the very beginning was from my ?producer, Lisa Cortes, who kept me grounded in my constant state of? paranoia. I also loved my props girl, Sabrina Wright; she rocked. My doll baby Sarah Siegel-Magness, my other? producer, kept it real. I also loved Andrew Dunn, the DP I? ended up with. This cinematographer saved my life and brought me peace. He came in at the last minute? from London and shot nine-tenths of the film. This man is no joke.? He was able to shoot? this movie in a beautiful way without any prep or storyboards, which is a true testament to his genius.? 

December 21, 2007 was our last shooting day. We were in, I? guess, the 18th hour of shooting and I was literally directing with? one eye open and one eye closed. The whole crew was wiped out. I ?should have called it a wrap at a decent hour. After all, it was? Christmas. But I had a movie to make and kept pushing.

So now I’m editing this bad boy and I’m a little scared. I loved my last ?movie as much as this one and it was not received well. I hope they ?get this one. I love making movies.

Push will premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

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