The legal battle with Warner Bros. over the title of “Lee Daniel’s ‘The Butler’” was a win-win situation for The Weinstein Company.
During the nearly month-long dispute — Warner Bros. claimed they had the right to the title “The Butler” because of an obscure 1920’s film from their studio with that title, and the Motion Picture Association of America agreed — everybody started talking about the sprawling civil rights epic, which has a serious subject and a star-studded cast led by Forest Whitaker as the titular character Cecil Gaines, and Oprah Winfrey, who plays his feisty but neglected wife Gloria, a woman who numbs her frustrations with booze.
“Lee Daniel’s ‘The Butler’” is Winfrey’s first major film role since her Oscar-nominated performance in “The Color Purple” in 1985. The film is kicking off the Oscar race, and lots of the buzz is going to Winfrey, who’s got a real shot at taking home the little gold man.
Recently, Winfrey was in Manhattan to talk up the film at an exclusive Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) screening at the SVA Theater in Chelsea. Following the screening, Winfrey – who was the star attraction – along with cast members Forest Whitaker, Lenny Kravitz, Terrence Howard, British actor David Oyelowo (who plays Louis, Gloria and Cecil’s civil rights activist son), screenwriter Danny Strong and Daniels participated in a Q&A.
While making it, did Daniels have any idea how relevant and important this film was going to be in a discussion of race in America today?
“I didn’t,” the director said. “It was a father-son love story for me. It wasn’t until we were shooting the film, David came into my office and cried, and that was, to me, the first inkling that this is deeper than the father-son story.”
There is a scene in the film set on a bridge where kids in a bus headed to recruit voters in Mississippi are suddenly surrounded by KKK members and burning crosses.
“I yelled cut, and they didn’t hear me because of all the screaming and the spitting,” Daniels said. “I got nervous, scared and for that moment, that split moment I realized what those kids went through. They were heroes fighting for the soul of our country. And they weren’t just black kids. There were white kids on that bus.”
He added, “You know, I can die for my kids. I can take a bullet for my kids easily. But I don’t know that I’m man enough to take a bullet for a cause. But I think that they were heroes.”
Later someone asked about Winfrey’s hands, which are always busy; they cut potatoes, cup a drink or hold a cigarette. Someone asked, were Winfrey’s hands the director’s starting point?
“I’m fascinated by her eyes and her hands,” Daniels replied, “so if you’re not on her eyes, you’re on her hands. She does these wonderful things with her hands where she tricks you into her Opradom. You know what I mean? So her hands are very much a part of it, her eyes too.”
Winfrey looked surprised. “He didn’t tell me this. This is the first time I’m hearing it.”
She may have spent a lot of time holding a cigarette, but learning how to smoke it was another thing. “I do know that as I practiced smoking, Lee had said to me from the beginning people who smoke will know if you’re faking. And so I was walking around with a pack of those herbal cigarettes for a couple of months.”
“The first time I was smoking, I had the cigarette backwards,” she said. “Gee I can’t get it to do anything,” Oprah told him.
“You lit the wrong end,” the director told her.
“He was teaching me how to flick it. I was never going to get that,” Winfrey laughed. “I was sitting in between takes one day just sort of practicing the smoking,” when the director stopped her. “Do exactly what you were doing. He just took what was happening at the moment,” Winfrey said.
It turns out there were many improvised moments in the film, including a scene where Terrence Howard spins metal clothes hangers and talks about sex.
“The Butler” is inspired by the life of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served eight presidents over three decades. (He died in 2010.) The name of the title character of the film has been changed to Cecil Gaines because he is a composite of numerous butlers and their families interviewed by the screenwriter.
The director said Eugene Allen’s son Charles came to the set. “Oprah was on set that day and he got to meet his pseudo mother and was thrilled to be part of it,” Daniels said, adding that although the title character is not his father, he thought Whitaker “personified the essence of his father along with his humanity and humility.”
Someone asked if Charles Allen had seen the film and what he thought of it?
“Oprah, you want to tell them what happened at the Hearst screening,” Daniels said.
He was referring to a private screening of the film at the end of July that Oprah hosted at the Hearst Tower Building, followed by a panel discussion moderated by Gayle King. During the panel, King gave a shout out to Charles Allen and asked him what he thought of the film.
Oprah said, “Before he opened his mouth, I told him, ‘We took a lot of liberties with your mother,’ and he said, ‘Yes, you threw my mother under the bus.” The audience laughed nervously.
“What’s rule number one?” Daniels asked.
“Don’t ask a question if you don’t know what the answer’s going to be,” Winfrey replied, adding, “He said he understood.” Oprah’s character also may be playing around with her next-door neighbor played by Terrence Howard.
“His mother was a really heavy smoker,” Winfrey said about Charles Allen’s mother. “But I don’t know if she’s going next door with Terence.”
“If she was living next door to Terence she would,” cracked Howard.
Then someone in the audience asked about the costumes designed by Ruth Carter, which make the scenes feel so real through the five decades the film covers. There’s a spectacular black-and-white jumpsuit that Winfrey wears when she’s dancing along to the television program “Soul Train.”
The costumes have a life of their own. Winfrey singled out one scene set during the 80’s. “I loved that scene where we’re having the house party. Everybody is wearing so much polyester that if you lit a match we would have blown up. We shall overcome polyester!” she laughed.
“Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler'” opens today, Aug. 16, 2013.