Lee Daniels, co-creator of Fox’s new series “Empire,” is the first to admit that musically he’s “stuck in the world of Diana Ross and Donna Summer,” so the director of “Precious” and “The Butler” may at first seem an odd choice to helm a weekly primetime soap opera devoted to hip-hop.
But with multiple Grammy-winning producer-rapper Timbaland signed on as executive music producer, Daniels is free to focus on the gasp-inducing storylines that propel this melodramatic cross among “King Lear,” “Glee,” “Nashville,” and his favorite show as a child: “I was obsessed with ‘Dynasty’ as a kid, and I wanted to bring that back to my TV world.”
“Empire,” which debuts Jan. 7 after “American Idol,” centers around hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). After discovering he has a terminal illness, the patriarch pits his three sons against each other as they compete to take over the New York-based company (though the show is filmed in Chicago). Add in his scheming ex-wife/ex-jailbird Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who has designs on the business herself, and there’s plenty of sudsy drama to go around.
“Empire’s” co-creator, writer Danny Strong (Imagine’s Brian Grazer serves as executive producer), first presented the idea as a movie, but Daniels felt it was better suited for TV. “There was something about the longevity of the story that excited me and watching this (idea) grow that I wouldn’t have been able to do in film. In theater and film, the director is king,” says Daniels. “They really want me to be happy at Fox, but I have a lot of people to answer to and they have a lot of input and that’s a different thing to understand.”
Daniels says the conflicted, driven Lyon isn’t based on any particular music impresario; rather, he’s a composite of “my dad, me and several celebrities that I know. He’s based on several real estate moguls that I know of African-American descent. He’s the American dream.”
“Empire” also marks the first series for Timbaland, best known for his work with Jay Z, Justin Timberlake and Rihanna. Daniels called Timbaland out of the blue. “In three days, he gave me some music that was just astounding, and I said ‘Done’,” Daniels says.
Like ABC’s “Nashville,” “Empire” is filled with live performances, licensed needle drops and score, but, Daniels stresses, “The story drives the music, the music doesn’t drive the story. That was very important to me that we’re not just popping out musical numbers for the sake of popping out musical numbers.”
“Glee” helped teach Fox how to integrate music into a show while remaining true to the plot, says Geoff Bywater, Fox’s senior VP of TV Music, adding because “Empire” is a series about the music biz — and because of access to Timbaland’s star-studded Rolodex— expect real artists to drop by. “We want to make the world of ‘Empire’ almost feel like a real music-breathing entity,” he says.
Given the tremendous amount of music in the show — the pilot has more than 12 songs — Bywater says, “It’s all hands on deck” for each episode. As scripts are written, holes are left for original songs. “It takes a while to write a song according to the story notes or emotions that the song needs to help accomplish,” he says. “We have to have those songs ready to go before anyone can step in front of a camera.” Though the show will use outside writers, Timbaland’s team gets first crack at the tunes. Then after the episodes are shot, any licensed songs and composer Fil Eisler’s score are added.
Bywater declines to disclose the show’s music budget, but adds that since there is so much original music, “We don’t have to pay licensing fees for a lot of the ‘big moment’ music.” Fox owns the publishing on the songs written for the show, so it will benefit from additional exploitation of the material.
To that end, Fox has linked with Columbia Records for a music marketing plan that draws upon the tremendously successful template the two partners launched for “Glee.”
To build excitement for “Empire’s” debut, Columbia released on iTunes the series’ first original song, “No Apologies,” performed by Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray, who play Lyon’s two youngest sons. Smollett’s character, Jamal, is an R&B singer, while Gray plays Hakeem, a rapper. “We wanted to give people an idea of what’s coming,” says Shawn Holiday, Columbia Records senior VP of A&R.
Like “Glee” and “Nashville,” a handful of songs from “Empire” will be released on iTunes immediately following each episode. Additionally, compilation albums are on tap — the first is slated to drop in early May as the last show of the season airs — and there’s even the possibility of individual albums from Smollett and Bryshere’s characters, according to Holiday.
Daniels, who directed the pilot, has never been shy about expressing his opinion, or generating controversy. With refreshing candor, he says his stake in “Empire” is all about the Benjamins — to quote the Puff Daddy rap hit. “I get a nice little piece of money from movie to movie, but I have friends that do what I do in television and they’re gazillionaires. I was like, ‘Danny, what the hell, let’s try to make the money for once.’ That was the motivation, I’m embarrassed to say.”