10.18.09

The Journey Behind Precious

Fall’s most anticipated film tells the story of an abused teen—but its director’s odyssey is almost as remarkable. Stephen Farber talks to Precious’ Lee Daniels about his early life in the Philadelphia projects, finding Sapphire’s book, and casting Mo’Nique.

After Lee Daniels’ poorly received 2006 directorial debut, Shadowboxer, few would have predicted that his next movie would be among the hottest titles of 2009. But Precious, the disturbing tale of a young girl growing up in Harlem, picked up both the grand jury prize and the audience award in January at Sundance, won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, and received a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival.

Daniels’ own odyssey has been almost as remarkable as that of his lead character, Precious (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe). An overweight girl who is expecting her second baby by her father and lives with an abusive mother (electrifyingly played by comedienne Mo’Nique), Precious finally escapes her grim surroundings when she is accepted into an alternative high school.

“One of my earliest memories is of being put in a trash can,” Daniels says in a quiet voice. “I was 5 years old.”

Raised in the projects of Philadelphia, Daniels worked in health care for many years before becoming a casting director and manager. He then decided to produce movies and found financing for several edgy films, including Monster’s Ball, which won an Oscar for Halle Berry, and The Woodsman, a stark study of pedophilia starring Kevin Bacon. Daniels’ movies, The New York Times noted, were “far more Todd Solondz than Tyler Perry”; Daniels adds that he would have had a much easier time in the business if he made movies expected of black directors, like Barbershop or Big Momma’s House.

Instead, for his second directorial effort, he chose the novel Push by Sapphire. When he read the novel, he says, “It brought back a feeling I had when I was 11 years old and living in the projects in Philly. I answered the door one day, and a neighbor of ours, a light-skinned black girl who was about 5 years old, was standing there naked and bleeding. She’d been beaten with an electrical cord. I looked in my mom’s eyes, and it was the first time I ever saw fear in her eyes. When I read Sapphire’s book, those memories came back, and I felt I have to deal with this.”

As he began working on Precious, even more painful memories flooded in. As the oldest of five children, Daniels says he experienced the brunt of his father’s anger and frustration. “I was beaten quite a bit for no reason,” he says. (His father, a police officer, was killed on duty when Daniels was 13.)

David Kaufman talks to Precious writer Sapphire about why she won’t sell out.

“One of my earliest memories is of being put in a trash can,” he says in a quiet voice. “I was 5 years old. My dad was playing cards with some of his friends. I put on my mother’s red high heel shoes because they looked pretty to me. He saw me and he got furious. He said I was gay and would never amount to anything, and he threw me in a trash can. And I remember the only way I could deal with it was to escape to a fantasy world. That’s what gave me the idea for the fantasy scenes in the movie, which were not in the book.”

When Precious is raped by her father or beaten by her mother, she dreams of herself as a superstar in a perfect, antiseptic universe. Daniels pulls off a neat balancing act: He captures the brutal reality of his heroine’s home life, but he knows when to pull back to allow the audience some respite.

Casting is crucial to the film’s success. Daniels says he interviewed 400 girls for the lead role but was dissatisfied with the results. “They were Precious,” he says. “Then I met Gaby, who talks like a white girl from the Valley, but she could act the part, which the others couldn’t do.”

Daniels also took a chance casting Mo’Nique, who had worked with him on Shadowboxer, as Precious’ abusive mother. The actress fearlessly illuminates the character’s viciousness, but in a final scene in which she explains what motivates her, we feel a smidgen of pity for this wreck of a woman.

After prizes at Sundance and Toronto, awards-season buzz for Precious is building ahead of the film’s Nov. 6 premiere. The last picture to take home the audience award at the Canadian festival was Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

In the end, Daniels says he hopes the audience will come away from the movie feeling the same sense of liberation as the bruised central character. “Precious finds dignity at the end of the story,” he says. “The cycle was broken, and she can walk out into the world with confidence.”

Stephen Farber is a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. He has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Movieline, Esquire, New York, and New West. Farber has written four books on film: The Movie Rating Game; Hollywood Dynasties; Outrageous Conduct: Art, Ego, and the Twilight Zone Case ; and Hollywood on the Couch.