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LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER

A Discussion with Screenwriter Danny Strong
How did you originally become involved with the project?

I was originally approached by the late great producer Laura Ziskin to write the script. Along with Sony Pictures, she had optioned the fantastic Wil Haygood profile on Eugene Allen and felt that I would be the right screenwriter for the project. I was incredibly flattered that she approached me and I thought there could be an amazing movie in telling the story of a White House butler. However, it was also an extremely daunting task trying to figure out what the 'story' would be. The film spanned so many presidencies and so much US history, I had no idea how I going to narrow it down into a two hour movie. The real breakthrough for me was when I decided that I wanted to make the film the story of the Civil Rights movement. This would give the script a clear spine that I could center every era on. I'm also very passionate about this particular chapter of US history. I had written a script about Thurgood Marshall and his quest to end legalized segregation that hadn't been made (it still hasn't), and I was determined to get a movie made that covered this important and dynamic era.

This film is inspired by a 2008 Washington Post article about real life White House butler Eugene Allen. How did you strike a balance between paying homage to Eugene's story and creating a new world within the film?

There was a tremendous amount of research involved in writing the script, and a great deal of information came from interviewing former and current members of the White House staff. Hearing story after story from these White House employees and also reading various memoirs from people who worked at the White House or lived through these eras, I realized that I wanted to be able to use as many of these stories as possible. This is how Cecil Gaines and the Gaines family came to be. They are composite characters based on numerous White House employees and their families. I felt by combining all of these different stories I would be able to create a more universal experience for the audience of what it meant to be a member of the White House staff during these extremely tumultuous times. The Gaines family took on a life of its own in which I was hoping to dramatize the American experience during the Civil Rights Movement through their eyes.

This is a very ambitious film, both in terms of the scope of history it covers and the number of characters involved. What was the most challenging aspect of writing the screenplay?

This is without a doubt the most difficult script I've ever written. Taking characters through so many eras of US history was a daunting and complicated task that required an enormous amount of research because I had to have an in depth understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, the policies of each presidential administration and the general culture of the country through all these decades. I spent six months researching the film before I even wrote a single word and then the research never ended through out the entire writing process. One of the most challenging aspects was the time span of the events of the film. Going from administration to administration without the film feeling episodic or repetitive was quite difficult. It was also important to me that the film never felt like a history lesson, and yet there was a tremendous amount of history that was going to be dramatized. I wanted to make sure that the movie always stayed emotional and dramatic and that Cecil had a clear arc that would clearly evolve over the decades.

Some of the most acclaimed, iconic actors of our time are part of the film's cast. Were there any characters or scenes that you wrote with a specific actor in mind?

I always imagined Forest Whitaker as the Butler. He's one of the great American actors of our times and he's able to exude such depth and soul without saying a word. One of the primary challenges of the film was going to be getting the audience to feel the emotions of a character who is by his nature, passive and quiet. There were very few actors that I thought could pull this off and Forest was always at the top of the list. I almost fell out of my chair when I found out he was going to play the part. It was a truly thrilling moment for me.

Your last screenwriting project was for HBO's GAME CHANGE, based on John McCain and Sarah Palin's 2008 presidential campaign. What is it about politics that appeals to you when choosing to take on a screenplay?

I love political films because the stakes are incredibly high for the characters and the events of the story have such an enormous impact on our country. It makes for an incredible compelling movie (when its good). That's why movies like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and ARGO are so fantastic, they deal with issues that are truly profound, but are also extremely exciting and dramatic. When political films work, they are riveting because the issues being dealt with are so important. They are also a great way to talk about important social issues without being preachy or boring.

This is a film that examines some of the most pivotal events in American history, and at the same time also is a story about family. What do you hope that audiences take away from it?

I want the audience to have a better understanding of the history of race in this country. I think if people knew and understood our past better, then I believe race relations would improve at a faster pace. I also think this film celebrates how much we've grown as a nation. When you see the events of the Civil Rights Movement dramatized beat by beat, and then you see the election of the first African-American president, it allows us all to be incredibly proud of how far we have come as a nation.

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