Precious gem: Lee Daniels wins acclaim with drama of abused teen

When Push, the debut novel from the celebrated African-American poet Sapphire, arrived on bookshelves in 1996, it floored critics and readers alike with its vivid tale of Clareece "Precious" Jones, an obese, illiterate black teenager living in a squalid Harlem apartment with her abusive mother. Filmmaker Lee Daniels was one of the many people left shaken by the book, but for uniquely personal reasons. Speaking on the phone only a day after returning from a European vacation, Daniels describes how reading Push triggered a haunting memory from his childhood. "One afternoon when I was 11 years old, a little girl knocked on our door. She was a friend of ours, about seven or eight years old and very obese. My mother opened the door and there she was, naked and bleeding. She cupped her private areas as best she could and said, 'I think my mom is gonna kill me.’

"I remember that being the first time that I saw fear in my mother's eyes," Daniels continues, in a somber tone. "She was always in control and I looked to her to be in control. But she was not in control in that moment. That experience evoked fear in me and I remember feeling pain for this girl—unexplained pain, because it didn't happen to me, it happened to her. And I remember feeling that way when I read Sapphire's book; I felt I had to tell that story because it was a way I could heal and hopefully help someone else heal."

That kind of intense connection to the material would seem to make Daniels a natural choice to bring Push to the big screen. But Sapphire didn't see it that way. According to Daniels, the author—who drew on her experiences as a literacy teacher in Harlem to create Precious and the world she inhabits—turned down any and all entreaties to turn the book into a feature film, including his own impassioned pitch. "Many famous people and major studios were after the book," Daniels reveals. "And she pooh-poohed them like she pooh-poohed me."

With his dream project temporarily off the table, the ambitious aspiring director, who began his show-biz career as a casting director and talent manager in the early ’80s, instead turned his attention towards producing a low-budget drama called Monster's Ball. The critical and commercial success of that 2001 film helped Daniels launch his sophomore production, The Woodsman, which also bowed to strong reviews three years later. Despite these back-to-back successes, Sapphire continued to turn down his repeated requests to acquire the film rights to Push.

Strange as it might sound, it took his first cinematic misstep to win her over. In 2005, Daniels made his directorial debut with the offbeat thriller Shadowboxer, which boasted an impressive ensemble cast that included Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The movie landed with a thud at the Toronto Film Festival that year and was savaged by critics when it arrived on American screens during the summer of 2006. (The Hollywood Reporter's Michael Rechtshaffen summed up the majority opinion when he described the movie as a "howler of a slab of pulp fiction.")

"Shadowboxer was a very humbling experience for me," Daniels says now. "I mean, my first movie won an Academy Award [for Best Actress] and my second movie played at the Cannes Film Festival. I just assumed that's what was expected of me. But because of that experience, I know now what it feels like to have people not respond to my work and I needed that as an artist."

Critics and audiences may not have embraced Shadowboxer, but Daniels says that Sapphire saw it and "fell in love. [Other people] expected Shadowboxer to be something very serious, but it was really camp. It was meant to be fun and not as deep as my other two films. Sapphire got that and I'm really happy she did."

So, at last, after almost a decade of pleading, Daniels received Sapphire's approval to direct the movie version of Push. Funnily enough, Shadowboxer continued to help him get his new project off the ground. According to Daniels, the primary financier behind the movie version is also a big fan of his directorial debut. "I'm so blessed that the investor happened to like Shadowboxer and that Sapphire liked the film as well," he says. "Had they not, I would never have been able to make this one."

With the rights and money to direct Push firmly in hand, Daniels embarked on his next major challenge: finding the right person to play Precious Jones. "It took a while," he sighs, remembering the arduous casting process. "First, I called an agent at ICM [International Creative Management] and told them I was looking for a 300-pound, 16-year-old black girl. And they just said, 'Yeah...' I realized I couldn't do this by conventional casting and set up a bunch of open calls in cities like New York, L.A., Chicago and Philadelphia. I'd also see girls in McDonald's or at movie theatres or pick them right off the street. We set up a camp where he had 20 girls working with our acting coach Karen Giordano, and each week one girl would fall out. It was like a reality TV show! This lasted for about a month and then our casting director Billy Hopkins discovered a girl and brought her in to read. I saw the audition and talked to her for a good hour or so. Then I offered her the job on the spot."

That girl was Gabourey Sidibe, a Harlem-born and bred teen whose only prior acting experience was in a single high-school play. Before she walked into the casting office, Daniels says that he had been looking for girls that seemed like real-life versions of Precious. But Sidibe instantly stood out to him because of how different she was from the character. "Physically, she resembles Precious, but she doesn't talk like her or walk like her. She's not that girl. My casting process is that I have to feel really safe with you and know you. And with Gabby, I felt safe with her in an hour."

Despite, or perhaps because of, her lack of formal training, Sidibe adjusted easily to Daniels' loose yet intense directing style. "I don't do rehearsals or blocking," he explains. "Instead, I get to know the person so well beforehand that we're one by the time I call 'Action.' I direct with grunting and moving my hands—I don't really talk in sentences. Fortunately, Gabby is a unique, smart individual that's able to take direction and be in the moment. She was keenly aware of how to deliver an emotion I wanted right away."

The role certainly demands an enormous range of emotions from Sidibe. In the course of the movie's 109-minute runtime, we watch as Precious is raped by her father (with whom she's already had one child and has another on the way), insulted and beaten by her mother (played by the comedienne Mo'Nique in a startling, career re-inventing performance) and diagnosed with HIV. But amidst all the horror and tears, there are also moments of happiness and joy, as when she bonds with the other outcasts in her alternative-education program and gives birth to a healthy baby boy.

"It was my intention to make you cry and then start laughing," Daniels says. "Every time we were in the dark, I found humor wherever I could. I told the cast, 'Help me here, we have to laugh!' Because if we couldn't, it would end up being like an after-school special or the audiences would throw daggers at me and I had already been through that with Shadowboxer."

The movie's roller coaster of emotions crests in its stunning final scene, when Precious confronts her mother in the cubicle of a sympathetic welfare officer (played by an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey) and Mo'Nique delivers a speech that is guaranteed to have most moviegoers (as well as Oscar voters) in tears. "We didn't rehearse that scene," Daniels remembers. "We just talked about it beforehand and then I told Mo, 'I want you to stop halfway through your speech. When I snap my fingers, you stop.' The speech was a lot longer, but I wanted her to stop and start rambling. On the day, I knew we were onto something and when I saw the footage of all three actresses, I went, 'Fuck—this is going to be fun to play with.'"

Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and instantly became the talk of Park City, Utah, taking home both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, as well as a Special Jury Prize for Mo'Nique. "I was so happy by the way it played at Sundance," Daniels says. "I was shocked, to be frank. I had tested it at a theatre at 125th Street in Harlem and the reaction was crazy. So I thought, 'Great, but how is this going to fly at Sundance, which is as white as you can get?'"

Not long after its triumphant debut, Lionsgate scooped up the distribution rights and Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey signed on as "presenters" for the film. (Along the way, the title was also changed to Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire.) In addition to Sundance, the film played Cannes and Toronto and took the Centerpiece slot at the New York Film Festival. And while Daniels refuses to entertain the notion, Precious will almost certainly be a major player in this year's Oscar race. ("What are you doing to me?!" he half-jokingly yells when told this.)

The swirl of publicity appearances, press interviews and after-screening parties that define Hollywood's awards season means, of course, that he'll have to carry around this film he's made—and the painful memory it evokes—for a few months longer. "I'm trying to separate from it and move onto my next movie," he says, adding that his follow-up feature might be a musical for a major studio. "But Precious keeps haunting me. I keep feeling how lucky I am that I never had her life. I complain often about everything and I think to myself, 'Stop complaining—look at Precious.' Her story is universal, I just happened to tell my version of it. It's a movie about a girl that sees the light at the end of a very dark tunnel and comes out smiling."