It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess
And that’s enough reason to go for me
It’s My Job/Mac McAnally
“I kind of like the ring of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” I’m thinking about naming everything after Lee Daniels.”
Danny Strong screenwriter of Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Huffington Post article by Christopher Rosen
Following yesterday’s post about Ashton Kutcher’s quote on work, it seems fitting to give a shout-out to Lee Daniels’ The Butler which hits theaters today. Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a character based somewhat on Eugene Allen who worked at the White house for eight presidential terms between 1952—1986. The original seed for the movie was inspired by the Wil Haygood 2008 Washington Post article A Butler Well Served by This White House and the screenplay written by two-time Primetime Emmy winner Danny Strong (Game Change).
“I knew pretty early that if we stuck to the absolute truth there would be no movie, because butlers are pretty tight-lipped. I didn’t know how to tell the story. Then I started researching, reading memoirs of people who worked at the White House. I interviewed butlers, house men, engineers, former chief ushers, family members of the first family. Through the course of these interviews, I realized I could create a composite character through which I could utilize different stories from different people. And that’s basically how the Gaines family came to be….There were two big breakthroughs. It was a story that took place over many administrations. As soon as I realized that this was going to be a story about the Civil Rights movement, and that was going to be the spine of the film, that was the first breakthrough. In all these administrations, there will be a common theme going on as we travel through the eras. And then the second breakthrough was [creating] a son who was a Civil Rights activist so that we could actually be in the center of the action while those events were happening. That created this really great triangle of the butler trying to get his son out of the Civil Rights movement and the presidents dealing with the crises that his son is in the middle of as the butler is serving those presidents. It made the story emotional even when the butler wasn’t speaking in the White House, and it created what I thought would be a very interesting generational story between father and son. It keeps everything personal and emotional as opposed to a history lesson.”
Screenwriter Danny Strong (Lee Daniels’ The Butler)
Fact, Fiction, and ‘The Butler': A Q&A with Danny Strong by Jay Fernandez
Strong says other books that were helpful in giving a glimpse to working in the White House and of the times were My 21 Years in the White House by Alonzo Fields, Upstairs at the White House by J. B. West, Walking With the Wind by John Lewis, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life by Peter Robinson, Kennedy by Ted Sorense, and The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro.
Look for the Lee Daniels’ directed film and screenwriter Strong (and maybe Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey) to pop up again when Oscars are announced next year.
P.S. Love to hear writers talk about characters, theme, and emotions because I think those are the keys of the best writers in command of their craft. Oh, and speaking of great writers and work—Strong became friends with Quentin Tarantino when Tarantino worked as a video clerk at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, CA. More on that Monday.