An interview with director, Lee Daniels and star, Gabby Sidibe
Now that PRECIOUS has started playing in limited release, I will finally get an answer to something I’ve been wondering since I saw it last September. Will audiences choose to see a film in theatres knowing that it will likely kick them in the gut repeatedly, leaving them bloody and bruised on the floor? It broke records on 18 screens last weekend and unrolls onto another 174 screens this weekend. Lionsgate plans to push it to 600 screens in time for Thanksgiving, a holiday that Precious herself would never have had the opportunity to experience.
It has been selling out screenings all week so the future looks bright. I am both pleased and relieved by this. The biggest impact PRECIOUS has on its viewer is to bring a mirror to the viewer’s face, exposing a layer of ignorance so deep that the viewer may not even be aware of it prior. Precious is the kind of girl one walks right past in the street while casually judging her weight and making presumptions about who she is as a person. PRECIOUS forces you to think about how every person has a story that brought them to precisely where they are. The film has the potential wake people up, to make them more open but we cannot see how closed we are if we never walk past her to begin with.
When asked how he did it, director, Lee Daniels, attributes this effect to one specific approach in his direction. “I just tried to capture moments of truth.” And the truth subsequently follows through on its promise to set things free.
These moments of truth depended on Daniels getting his cast to understand their characters’ truths and with a cast that consists of an unknown, a comedienne and a diva, that could not have been easy.
“I knew exactly what I wanted from every one,” Daniels answers when asked about the eclectic cast. “I knew when I hired them what I was going to get.”
I’m glad he knew because I would never have suspected that any of these actors were capable of pulling the sincerity from their souls that they did. In fact, I would never have necessarily referred to a couple of them as actual actors. Again though, it is about opening your mind and that is clearly what Daniels got them to do.
“Mr. Daniels and I had so many conversations about who this character was and that helped me get it,” Precious herself, Gabby Sidibe, admits when asked how she found this character. Her trust in her director was so strong she even refused to talk to the author of the original book, Sapphire, prior to filming. “I didn’t want any different direction about who this character was. The creator of this character, she really could have thrown me off.”
With that much trust in the captain, how exactly does he run his ship? “When I am doing a film, it is very much like a theatre piece,” Lee begins. “There are no egos except mine.” Having worked in theatre, I can attest that this is pretty much the only way it comes together but does Daniels seriously expect me to believe that Mariah or Mo’Nique left their egos at home?
“Mariah came with zero – no posse, no makeup – and she remained that way. She was putting makeup on Gabby. Mo’Nique was feeding people at the service table.” Daniels beams with pride as he tells me this. “It was a union nightmare but I believed that we were one. I think that’s the magic of the film.”
With material as difficult as this, I cannot imagine the cast not bonding. If anything, they would need to in order to just get through it all. Still, it could not have been an easy set to be on.
“The air was stale and shady sometimes,” admits Sidibe. “Most of the time, Mr. Daniels would call cut and we would laugh. With other scenes though, between takes we would just sit there and avoid eye contact.”
Daniels remembers it the same way but he seems as if part of him is still there. “I get transported back into just being there,” Daniels confides but not before getting choked up and noticeably emotional. “It was a very powerful thing, to just let the material speak for itself.”
So what is the secret formula to make something as tricky as this work so beautifully? “Anything to get the performance!” Daniels proclaims before getting specific about his technique. “I didn’t want tears at all. By not wanting tears, we got the truth. So by not directing them, I did direct them. I knew that if we were just in the moment, then it would happen.”
I will point out at this stage that there are plenty of tears in PRECIOUS. Daniels may not have asked for them but he still got them.
Mariah and Mo’Nique aside, Sidibe, the only actor coming in with zero experience, is perhaps his greatest achievement. The performance he pulled from her is so transformative that when I met her in person, I was myself floored by her outgoing personality. I never saw that coming.
“I don’t know if I can yet say that I am proud of myself because I can’t really see that yet,” Sidibe earnestly confides. “It feels like such a conceited notion to be proud of yourself. It is a completely different girl up there though.”
This whole other girl is changing the lives of everyone she comes in contact with. But has Precious and the subsequent whirlwind the film has been picked up into changed the girl who brought her to life?
“No,” Sidibe asserts by tacking on at least ten more O’s on the end of that word. “There are maybe ten days out of the year where I’m a big deal so this is still something big for me.”
Wait until you hear your name called out for an Oscar nomination, Gabby. Talk to me then.
It was a pleasure meeting both of these talented, appreciative people. I urge anyone who reads this to see PRECIOUS when it plays in your city. We all need to be set free.