Thursday, November 12, 2009


Interviews with PRECIOUS director, Lee Daniels and star, Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe

It didn’t always have this name. Back in 1996, when Claireece “Precious” Jones was first introduced to the world, it had another name altogether. Back then, it was a book and it was called “Push”. It was still called “Push” when its film incarnation debuted at the Sundance film festival in January of this year. In fact, it was still called “Push” when it went on to win both the audience and the critic’s award at that festival, a rare feat. It was only then that things changed. It had moved people; it had floored them. It was then that “Push” became “Precious”.

More specifically, the film adaptation of Sapphire’s acclaimed novel is called PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE. And to be fair, the name change did not come about because the new title was more emotionally evocative than the original. A superhero movie called PUSH that came and went pretty quick this spring owned the rights to that name so it was necessary to change it when Lionsgate came on as North American distributor at Sundance. I personally prefer the new title.

“Really? I was so hurt by the change.” This is the first thing that Gabourey Sidibe says to me when we meet at the Toronto International Film Festival. Things are off to a great start.

When a little known film producer named Lee Daniels first approached Sapphire about adapting the novel that meant so much to so many, she wanted nothing to do with him. It wasn’t until he had some concrete experience directing (his first feature was the critically panned, SHADOWBOXER, starring Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr.) that she even allowed herself to consider his request. Sapphire appreciated Daniels’ seemingly natural interest in difficult subjects – Daniels had previously produced THE WOODSMAN and MONSTER’S BALL – and figured him the best man for the job.

Once Daniels had the rights, he was not letting go of the direction he wanted to take. “I had fought so long to get to do PRECIOUS. I knew what I wanted and what I was doing. I didn’t care what anybody else said,” Daniels tells me when we meet at TIFF. “It was my book. It was my story.”

While this may at first sound somewhat arrogant, I assure you there is nothing remotely smug about Daniels. In person, he is self-effacing and clearly overwhelmed by the heaps of praise both he and the film have received. He is also warm, receptive and surprisingly candid, whether he is talking about the film, his cast or himself.

Daniels worked with first time screenwriter, Geoffrey Fletcher, to adapt Sapphire’s harrowing stream-of-consciousness novel. It was not easy. “If I had done the book the way it is written, it would be x-rated,” he proclaims rather starkly. “Sapphire’s book delves deep into the truth and stays there. Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, she just goes right back there.”

To alleviate some of the tension the novel manifests, which is not to suggest that Daniels and Fletcher sugarcoated any aspect of it, they included a fantasy world for Precious to escape to whenever necessary. This is the most significant departure from page to screen and, so far, enthusiasts of the novel have not had any major issue with the addition. Of course, everyone involved in the project wanted to honour the book and its fans. “Being a fan of the book, I just really, really wanted to get it right,” confides Sidibe, perhaps the person with the most pressure to perform after Daniels himself. “I wanted to stay true as a fan myself,” she continues. “I hate it when adaptations don’t get it right.”

To meet Sidibe in person is mind-blowing. How could this jovial, delightful girl have transformed herself into such an introvert? Sidibe landed this demanding role in what seemed to her like the blink of an eye. “There weren’t a lot of girls who met the physical requirements of the role,” she quips as if her weight, which was beefed up an extra seventy pounds prosthetically during filming, was the only reason she got the role. “Monday was the audition; Tuesday was the callback; Wednesday I got the part without having to audition again.” Sidibe had responded to an open casting call in Manhattan and prior to this, she had only appeared in some college theatre productions. She seemed destined for this part and now she is an Oscar front-runner. Not bad for her first role.

Destiny, whether that be a great personal triumph or a great tragedy, is central to PRECIOUS. And right now, it would seem that PRECIOUS is destined to reach many people and move even more. Of course, lots of movies move people on a regular basis but PRECIOUS is different. PRECIOUS is an experience that most infrequent filmgoers are unaccustomed to. It deals with illiteracy, poverty, abuse of all kinds, teen pregnancy and incest. When was the last time the masses came out for something like that?

Suddenly, the girl that everyone would walk right past in the street without noticing is the one that everyone wants to see. And who do we have to thank for that? Oprah, of course.

Oprah Winfrey and independent movie mogul, Tyler Perry, both signed on as executive producers after PRECIOUS premiered at Sundance. As a result, the attention the film is getting is almost deafening. It was honoured with standing ovations at Cannes. It won the Audience Award at TIFF. It broke records for limited releases when it hit theatres last weekend, pulling in nearly $2 million on just 18 screens. A Best Picture nomination is almost guaranteed.

How does this affect the director? “I am humbled by all of it,” Daniels states with sincerity and cracks in his voice. “I have to embrace this moment, savour it. That is ultimately what PRECIOUS is all about, appreciating what you have.”

Imagine, there’s only more greatness to come.

(Part Two of Black Sheep’s PRECIOUS feature will run tomorrow.)

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