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10 to Watch: Lee Daniels

From handler to decision-maker

Lee Daniels had not intended to become a producer; rather, he was almost forced into it, he says. Having grown up on the mean streets of West Philadelphia and Harlem, Daniels’ best friends, by his own admission, were either dealing drugs, working at McDonald’s, in jail or dead.

Starting off as a casting director, Daniels got burned out quickly on the types of roles offered to black actors and felt the only way to change Hollywood was from within as a decision- maker.

So 15 years ago he flew to New York with $500 in his pocket to handle Morgan Freeman and reinvent himself as a manager. It was this desire to change Hollywood from within for African-Americans that eventually gave him the producing bug.

Daniels became involved in the Oscar-winning “Monster’s Ball” when it originally crossed his desk as a project for his client Wes Bentley. His interest immediately piqued, Daniels called the writers begging for a three-month option to get the movie greenlit.

The response wasn’t favorable. Daniels was told that if some of the most powerful people in Hollywood couldn’t get it financed, what made him so sure he could? “By sheer naivety I managed to convince everyone I could pull the rabbit out of the hat and they trusted me,” he says.

The movie nearly didn’t happen when Bentley, exhausted from his last movie, decided to pass on the project. But Daniels and CAA came to the rescue in Heath Ledger. William Morris also stepped in to hold the project together at Lions Gate, granting Daniels yet another reprieve.

The producer is honest about his initial reluctance to hire Halle Berry for the female lead, feeling she was too beautiful for the role. He also had to battle flak from the black community for not hiring an African American to helm the film. Daniels stuck to his guns, feeling that

Swiss director Marc Forster’s talent and his European objectivity would give the film a unique perspective on racism in America.

Though having an Oscar-winning movie would seem to open doors all over town for a fledgling producer, Daniels says the scripts he’s been offered since are pretty embarassing.

Instead he remains committed to divide his time between management and producing, and lining up a projects of his own. He’s currently developing “Shadowboxer,” penned by “Monster’s Ball” scribes Milo Addica and Will Rokos, about the unusual relationship between a mother and her stepson; “Donkey Skin,” a remake of the French film starring Catherine Deneuve; “Killer Joe,” based on an off Broadway play; and an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s novelette “The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym.”

Snapshot:

Primary credit: “Monster’s Ball”

Definition of a producer: “Someone who assembles a group of talent — actors, writers, directors — into a medium that is displayed on film, TV or theater and finds financing for that venture in whatever medium is chosen.”

Strengths: “Coming from management, it’s being able to communicate with the talent; and coming from the streets, not giving up.”

Achilles’ heel: “I have a difficult problem saying no to talented people.”