Lee Daniels is a Cannes veteran who has steadily worked his way up through the festival’s hierarchy. “The Woodsman,” which he produced, played Directors’ Fortnight in 2004. “Precious,” which he directed, was featured in Un Certain Regard in 2009. And this year, Daniels graduates to the competition with his newest film, “The Paperboy,” which receives its gala premiere on Thursday.
An adaptation of the 1995 novel by Pete Dexter, the film is set in 1960s South Florida, where a young man (Zac Efron) witnesses a series of events while his journalist older brother (Matthew McConaughey) is recruited by a death-row groupie (Nicole Kidman) to prove that a man convicted of murder (John Cusack) is innocent. Daniels spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about finally returning to work after the whirlwind that surrounded the release of “Precious,” how he assembled a cast and what it means to him to be summoned to walk the red carpet.
After “Precious,” you spent several years pursuing a movie called “Selma,” about the famous Civil Rights march. How did “The Paperboy” become your next movie instead?
Lee Daniels: I did. We got right to the altar, and the bride ran away. We had the money, but I needed more money. Looking at it in hindsight now, I should have figured out a way [to make Selma]. I think oftentimes filmmakers make that mistake. I know I did. You don’t realize the gift that you have making films. It’s so rare that you have the opportunity to do it. But it brought “Paperboy” into my lap. I had had the book, Pete’s book. I’d gotten it around the same time I’d gotten “Precious,” actually Push, by Sapphire. I enjoyed both of them very much. They are the types of books that are on my bed stand. When I got some money from investors, I had the choice and I decided to do “Precious.” After “Precious,” there were several movies that were floating around — “Nights of Cabiria,” “Miss Saigon.” Being courted by so many people because of the hype of “Precious,” you lose a sense of focus. But after the fairy dust settled and reality kicked back in, I became an unemployed director. I went back to what I knew, which was my passion for “Paperboy.”
You’ve got a very high-profile cast. How did it come about?
Lee Daniels: Casting was a circus. It was crazy. We kept losing actors because we kept pushing the start date. We started out with one cast and ended up with another. We started out with Tobey Maguire and Sofia Vergara and Bradley Cooper and we ended up with Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey and Nicole Kidman. Crazy. I think the universe plays it exactly as it’s supposed to. I couldn’t be prouder of each of the actors in the film. They serviced Pete’s characters magnificently.
Zac Efron is the relative newcomer in the cast. How did he hold his own?
Lee Daniels: Zac Efron, he is hungry. That is the best way to describe Zac. He is hungry and eager. He really gave it to me, man. He brought it home for me.