Helmer Lee Daniels began 2009 by winning two major prizes at Sundance and has continued to receive fest love ever since. “It’s like I’m on a cloud, waiting for someone to pop it,” says the 49-year-old director, who previously helmed “Shadowboxer” and produced “The Woodsman” and “Monster’s Ball.” He adds that his movie (full title: “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”) is about the same kind of feelings: of insecurity, of unworthiness, of being an outsider. But, he says, “I’m finally letting myself embrace it.”

GENESIS: Daniels called on his friends — notably Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey — to help bring the well-known Sapphire novel to the screen, and enlisted newcomer Geoffrey Fletcher to adapt the novel. ” ‘Push’ is a very gritty book and Geoff brought his elegance to it. It’s a woman’s story, but he wrote it in the way that a very elegant man would write it.”

VISION: Daniels had plans for lots of animation in the film but was constrained by his budget. “Her fantasy world was going to coexist with her real-life world,” Lee says about his lead character Precious, played by Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe. “Like whenever her mother Mary sat on the couch in the apartment, these little pink and yellow bunnies were going to pop out. But alas, dream on. Wake up to the world of independent film!”

CHALLENGES: The real hang-up, he says, was casting Precious. “I interviewed more than 400 girls and just couldn’t find her — but I did find her, that’s the thing. And I learned so much from the real Preciouses of the world. A lot of them had HIV, couldn’t read, couldn’t write.”

MAGIC: “Gabby came in and gave a great audition. What separated her was that she was talking like this white girl from the Valley: ‘Oh my God, Lee, I can’t believe you know Lenny Kravitz!’ It was weird.”

NEXT: “Selma,” about the landmark civil rights march/protest of the ’60s. Daniels says that some call it “a ‘war movie,’ but it’s very different for me.”