I took a virtual trip with young, gay producer/director Lee Daniels along the streets of Manhattan, where- between routine stops- we talked about his abuse, his kids, his Oscar award-winning movie Monster's Ball, his near death experience, the morbidly attractive film Shadowboxer and the one thing this mastermind just won't show on camera.
Hi Lee. I've seen Shadowboxer many times and I have to say it's one of my favorite films; so it's a privilege to speak with you today.
I knew making this film that it would not be everybody's cup of tea. When I did this film, it really paid homage to how I view cinema. Your response makes me feel good because I know that everyone will not have that same response towards Shadowboxer. You have to a taste for it.
It seems as if the general tone of your films mirror the darkness of your past- growing up in West Philly, living near a contract killer, having an abusive father and dealing with his violent death. Are there shadows from your past that you won't explore on film?
I can't watch or show a woman being beaten. My mother was beaten by my dad; so if you notice in the beginning of Shadowboxer, I blacked out the scene when the mother is beaten. I can't watch it. There are certain things that make me nauseous. Seeing women being physically abused is one of those things. I was beaten as a child, but a deeper pain for me was watching my mother being beaten, so I can't show that.
Let's talk about the power dynamic between men and women in your films. Your lead women- Halle in Monster's Ball, Eve in The Woodsman, Helen Mirren in Shadowboxer- are portrayed as emotionally conflicted, yet the stable partners in their relationships with the otherwise subordinate and almost drone-like men. In one Shadowboxer scene, Cuba Gooding is killing for a living to protect and provide for a mother and child he practically just met, yet he is the one begging to stay. So is it as Beyonce says in her lyrics about relationships, "Run by the men, but the women set the tempo"?
The men in my family have all been sort of violent or physical men and largely abusive to the women in their lives and yet they've been driven by their mothers.
They almost become children in front of their mothers. One of my earliest memories was when I was 3 or 4. I was in a high chair. I don't remember being beaten, but I remember there was blood in my rice. I then remember one of my aunts coming in and taking the belt from my dad and attacking him with it. He was 6' 4" and could have easily taken her, but he did nothing. That's indicative of the men that I write about or that I try to portray.
The women in my family are also the survivors of very abusive men and now it's the women that set the pace of the family. The younger generation men have almost become subordinate to them as well.
I try to portray the power of women in my story telling on a very subliminal level.
Another line that stands out in Shadowboxer is the scene where Helen Mirren's character Rose tells the just saved Vanessa Ferlito, "The only man a woman can trust is her son." I see Lee Daniels and a lot gay men, including myself, written all over that statement. Some would argue that a lot of gay men are strongly attached to their mothers and vice-versa. Are us gay sons the only ones our mothers can trust?
I think so. That's such a gay line.[laughs] It's clearly a homosexual memory. However, my mom has not been allowed on my set since Monster's Ball because she was telling me how to run the show. So now, she comes the first day to pray before we begin shooting; but after that she's not allowed in. She has a very powerful influence over what I do. She's had such a rough life; it's hard for me to say no to her.
Most of us are accustomed to thinking it's life that is precious, but I almost see a consistent message in your films that death is the thing that's being taken for granted. With death comes life in the form of children, love or relationships. Is that the message you're trying to send?
I think that statement is accurate. I had a heart attack while I was editing Shadowboxer. It was then that I realized- when I came so close to death- what it was I was trying to do with my life and how I understood the relationship between life and death. I never thought that that was what I was trying to say because it was on such a subliminal level. Because I didn't know how to deal with some of the sh** from my childhood, I turned to drugs. It wasn't until I got my kids 10 years ago that I sobered up. I do think the drugs led up to my heart attack and forced me to come to terms with death. At that time, I don't think I was doing anymore [drugs] than anybody else in Hollywood, but whatever the case it was enough. I thought I had done the right thing by taking in my brother's kids, then I did Monster's Ball and God through me a curve ball by giving me a heart attack ten years after my height of drug usage.
Will you ever make a gay-theme film?continued...