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Int: Lee Daniels’ Shadowboxer

Lee Daniels is a casting agent, turned manager, turned producer, turned director out with a new film called Shadowboxer which is premiering at the Toronto Film Festival. As a producer, Daniels’ Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman have found success, despite the difficult subject matters. His debut sees a mother and her stepson who share a relationship as lovers and as killers. As a filmmaker, Daniels likes to push people to the edge, whether he does it blindly or on purpose. Here he talks about the process of directing his first film.

Lee Daniels

Justin Ambrosino: After producing Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman, you decided to become a director and make Shadowboxer. Which title do you prefer?

Lee Daniels: They are completely different hats, different stress levels, two different worries and I love them both equally. Just because I finished directing, probably directing. But for my next film I’m going to just produce it and I’m so happy that I won’t have to deal with the all that creative stress.

JA: So have you learned anything about directing that will help you work better with directors in the future?

LD: I’m so hard on my directors because we never have enough money to make films. So I did this actually as an exercise to work better with directors. Now I’m going to be too director friendly and become a weak producer, just kidding. It could have been a mistake doing this, but I’m glad I did it.

JA: Why did you choose this particular film to direct?

LD: It was written by the same writer as Monster’s Ball [Will Rokos]. The story really intrigued me. I felt kindred to the story line. It’s about the relationship of a mother dying of cancer and her step son. They are killer and lovers – I mean come on. I wanted to do something fun. My stories are so serious and though this is serious too, we found time to make light of it. The dialogue was also really powerful. It moved me.

JA: You originally wanted German director Oskar Roehler to direct Shadowboxer, but he convinced you to direct it. What would he have added to the project?

LD: He would have had a completely different take on the material. As a producer I like to hire people who are alien to the world of a script. They tell the story from a completely different perspective; a naïve perspective. He would’ve done something with an European flare, but it didn’t work like that. I can’t believe I actually did it myself.

JA: How long was the whole process for you?

LD: It was a year of my life. I can’t afford to be a director because they don’t get paid enough. A year of my life, wow, but I love every frame of the film. I look at film from a completely different perspective myself. I appreciate the filmmakers of my prior films now even more. I didn’t realize how much work goes into every single frame. I was used to getting a director’s cut and saying, “Ok, this is what we have to do.”

JA: Did you call Marc Foster and Nicole Kassell and tell them how you feel?

LD: I’m going to call them now.

JA: Did you ask for any rewrites of the script?

LD: The writer did additional rewrites for character development purposes. I look at all my scripts as blueprint and we sort of fill in the blanks with the actors. The actors have to feel comfortable with the words.

JA: Did you story board any of this?

LD: I storyboarded every frame.

JA: When you were on set, were you giving a lot of direction or taking it because it was you first time?

LD: It was give and take. It was learning process. I’d say, “I don’t how what I’m doing, help me.” I’d say, “This is what I want to do; how do we do this?” I wasn’t embarrassed to ask. I worked with a lot of first time directors and I know it takes courage to ask. It was really a collaboration. You got to have everybody’s advice. The actors, the cinematographer, the art director all have to have an opinion. Why else did I hire them? There were heated arguments, but we worked it out.

JA: How was directing the actors when their craft is strictly creative and not technical?
LD: I was a casting director first prior to becoming a manager for a long time. My world comes from trying to get actors work. I felt connected to the actor. I felt I could definitely direct the actor. What I didn’t know was the technical aspects of film.

JA: How long in post?

LD It seemed like a hundred years. It was a long time. Maybe six months.

JA: Did the story change in post?

LD: I felt in some place that the story sort of just sat. It’s a drama and so to pick up the pace I needed the help of the editor’s.

JA: Why did you choose the Toronto Film Festival as its’ premiere?

LD: I’m lucky they choose me. I’m just honored and happy to be here.

JA: Did you send Shadowboxer to any others festivals? Was it rejected?

LD: Well we submitted it to Cannes and we weren’t accepted. But we are going to the San Sebastian Festival, so we are excited about that.

JA: Now with the film seeking distribution, have you ever thought of self-distribution?

LD: For me to wear a producer, a director and a distributor hat all at the same time, would make me pull out my hair. It is just another job that is way too much. Though I think I could do it, it would be a bit too much for me.

JA: Is there any particular distribution company you want to get the attention of?

LD: I don’t have any qualms with anybody. They need to really understand me and my story. If they don’t get it, I don’t want to get with them.

JA: Anything about Shadowboxer that makes you nervous in terms of audience approval?

LD: I went to some sexual places that frightens me a little bit, but I think it’s the truth. In hind sight you know maybe I could have lightened it up a bit and not go so raw. Anyway, I feel like sex is an important part of our lives as humans.

JA: What kind of reviews did you get so far with this film?

LD: I don’t read reviews because it makes me question myself and where I want to go, so I can’t look at them.

JA: Do you think you will ever write a screenplay?

LD: No. I can’t write, produce and direct. I realize as I get older I can only do so many things.

JA: Will you ever do a European film with an American director?

LD: Yeah I’d be open to it. You just gave me an idea.

JA: How much does money play in every decision you make regarding a film?

LD: I never think of films making money.

JA: What is going to be your next film?

LD: I’m producing a film called Tennessee. It’s a about a young boy and his relationship with his brother. They both come from an abusive father and decide to runaway. The young boy finds out that he is dying of cancer and has to go back to his father for a bone marrow transplant and deals with the irritate father. We are in the preproduction stages and we start shooting October 31st. David Cronenberg’s nephew, Aaron Willy, is the director. He’s brilliant. This the best part of the filmmaking process for me. I love to research, look at and study directors then match them up with a particular story.

For more information on his future projects as a producer and director check out: Lee Daniels Entertainment

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Justin Ambrosino received his MFA from the American Film Institute where he was awarded the prestigious Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell Scholarship. His short, ‘The 8th Samurai', a re-imagining of the making of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, won more than 20 jury awards worldwide and qualified for the Academy Awards Short Film category in 2010. Ambrosino began as an assistant on major feature films including 'The Departed', 'Lord of War' and 'The Producers'. He also staged a series of one-act plays throughout New York. He has been a Sapporo Artist-in-Residence, a Kyoto Filmmaker Lab Fellow as well as a shadow director on 'Law & Order: SVU'. Ambrosino is working on his feature film debut "Hungry for Love". Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Bong-Joon Ho (Memories of Murder), Lina Wertmuller (All Screwed Up), Ryan Coggler (Black Panther), Yoji Yamada (Kabei) and Antonio Capuano (Pianese Nunzio...)

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