BEHIND THE SCENES
Since its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, "Precious" BASED ON THE NOVEL "PUSH" BY SAPPHIRE has confounded notions of what an "urban film" is, touching people of all backgrounds with its dramatic, vividly realized story of a Harlem teenager who overcomes tremendous obstacles to discover her own worth, beauty and potential. "Precious" is remarkable both for what it is -- a film whose heroine is a dark-skinned, plus-size young woman in 1987 Harlem; and for what it is not -- a static, standard-issue treatise on the disadvantaged. Directed with passion and imagination by Lee Daniels, written with elegant economy by Geoffrey Fletcher, and brilliantly performed by a fearless ensemble cast, "Precious" is a journey into a world whose specific realities may be far from our own, but whose fundamental human truths -- and fundamental human hopefulness -- are recognizable to us all.
The movie "Precious" is filmmaker Lee Daniels’ second directorial effort, but it is a film he has wanted to make since he first read Sapphire’s novel, which was published in June, 1996. That summer, Push was ubiquitous on New York subways, its arresting red-and-black cover design instantly identifiable. Intrigued, Daniels bought a copy. The story of Precious Jones, who learns her own value and potential when she learns to read, struck a deep chord. "From page one, I sat there with my mouth open: this was a world that I knew intimately," recalls Daniels, who grew up in West Philadelphia. "I had many relatives who resembled Precious physically, and I had many friends and relatives who didn’t know how to read but somehow got by in life. My neighbors, my relatives and I, we all know the politics of dealing with the social worker, waiting for her to come and hiding certain things so that she wouldn’t see them."
The milieu resonated, and so, too, did the voice of "Precious," who describes her life in direct, unguarded language that evolves over the course of the book. Precious often misspells the words she is only now learning to write, but her thoughts and emotions are piercingly clear: her pain, anger and yearning for love; her feelings of doubt and worthlessness; her excitement at new discoveries and growing sense of confidence, pride and strength. "I identified with every syllable on the page," says Daniels. "Precious’s story is about learning to love yourself, and that is a universal story."
He continues, "By the end of the book I thought to myself, ‘Wow. How do you bring this to the screen?’ Because people needed to know about this world."
Lee Daniels was a successful talent manager, but he had not yet made the leap into feature filmmaking. In any case, the film rights to the novel Push -- one of the most acclaimed and highly publicized books of 1996 -- were not for sale. Though the film world came knocking, Sapphire declined to entertain offers. "The book was doing well and I felt that it needed its own life," the author explains. "It was my baby, and I worried that a bad or corny film could do a lot of damage."
Sapphire’s attachment to the material was as personal as it was strong. A poet who performed her work in various venues, she had lived in Harlem for a decade and spent eight years teaching reading and writing to teenagers and adults in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Push was her first novel, and it reflected what she observed and experienced during those years. "As a teacher, I was in a lot of the situations that are described in the book, and I was inspired by the resilience, intelligence, and beauty of the many young women I taught who persevered despite horrendous circumstances in their lives," Sapphire comments. "These people are not invisible -- we hear about them every day. But they are totally misunderstood, and I wanted to show what‘s behind the statistics."
In 2001, Daniels transitioned from talent management to filmmaking with the production of his first film, the Academy Award®-winning MONSTER’S BALL. His company, Lee Daniels Entertainment, changed its focus to production and he ramped up his pursuit of the film rights to Push, determined to give Claireece "Precious" Jones a voice and bring this story to life.
Meanwhile, Sapphire had begun to feel more receptive to a film adaptation -- on the condition that the right filmmaker came along. She admired MONSTER‘S BALL, and agreed to take a first look at Daniels’ directorial debut, the unconventional crime melodrama SHADOWBOXER. "SHADOWBOXER sealed the deal," Sapphire acknowledges. "Lee had a vision for adapting Push, and he also had the ability to put that vision in motion."
With the long-coveted rights at last acquired, Daniels began seeking financing. Along the way, Daniels was introduced to Geoffrey Fletcher, a relative of a potential backer. Fletcher was working as an adjunct professor in film at Columbia and NYU, and was a filmmaker himself. When Daniels saw one of Fletcher’s short films, he realized he’d completed his search for a screenwriter. Remembers the director, "I said, ‘Get this, I want you to write this movie. You’re the one.’"
Fletcher was unfamiliar with Push, which allowed him to come to Sapphire’s novel with few, if any, preconceptions. "I was told before reading the novel that it was difficult and perhaps a little grim. But for me the experience wasn’t that way at all. I thought it was the most luminous thing I’d ever read," Fletcher says. "The images were clear to me from the opening quote in the book. I adored this young woman, Precious, and cared about her and wondered what would happen next."
Precious’s voice, and her way of seeing and coping with the world, became key elements in translating her story to film. In the novel, Precious turns to her imagination in traumatic moments; at one point, for example, she visualizes herself as a dancer backing up 80s stars Doug E. Fresh and Al B. Sure! at the Apollo Theatre. Given the difference between a written description and a visual depiction, Daniels felt that expanding Precious’s flights into fantasy would serve not only the character, but the audience, too.
Fletcher agreed, and Precious’s inner landscape came to include visions of red carpet strolls and photo shoots. "These fantasy moments felt to me so appropriate and fitting," Fletcher remarks. "They throw the viewer an unexpected turn, but one that hopefully works and feels organic." Daniels enlarged the presence of some supporting characters, including Nurse John, a helpful medic glimpsed only briefly in the book; and the alternative school receptionist, Cornrows, who was fleshed out with boyfriend troubles and a tart sense of humor.
Humor was a prominent element in Push and remains so in PRECIOUS. Says Daniels, "There is no way you can witness what "Precious" goes through without laughing, if just to stop from crying."
Smokewood Entertainment Group founders Gary Magness and Sarah Siegel-Magness had teamed with Lee Daniels Entertainment to produce the recent coming-of-age drama, TENNESSEE. Siegel-Magness explains that the combination of Daniels and Push were irresistible. "As a filmmaker, Lee is daring and edgy and I really appreciate that," she says. "My husband and I set up our company in order to tell amazing stories -- which is exactly what "Precious" is. It really doesn't matter what socioeconomic background you have, this story grips you and it pulls you into the world of Harlem 1987. As producers and audience, Gary and I want to experience that."
Siegel-Magness took an active role in the production and was present on the set every day. "Sarah’s support was unwavering," says Daniels. "She fed a positive force in me to do my very best."
Casting the role of "Precious" was one of the biggest challenges facing the filmmakers. The production set up casting calls in Los Angeles and New York, and expanded their search to Ohio and Georgia. The process went on for months as some 400 actresses read for the role. The fall production start was looming, and Daniels had yet to find an actress who met the complicated requirements of the role. He instructed the film’s casting directors to arrange yet another open call in New York for Monday, September 10, 2007.
24-year-old Harlem resident Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe had just started a new semester at college when she heard about the casting call from a friend at Lehman College in the Bronx. A psychology major, Sidibe had acted in a few college productions but had no ambitions to become an actress. However, she did know Sapphire’s novel, having read Push a few years earlier when her mother, singer Alice Tan Ridley, was approached about appearing in a stage adaptation. Sidibe read a few pages of the book to re-acquaint herself with Precious’s voice, and decided on Monday morning to go the audition. Within a matter of hours, she received a callback for a second audition the next day.
Sidibe’s audition tapes stunned the casting directors and filmmakers alike. "The authenticity she brought to the part was amazing," says Daniels. On Wednesday, September 12, he met one-on-one with Sidibe. "We talked about the character in depth. Gabby clearly understood "Precious", and even disagreed with me about some aspects of the character’s behavior based on her own real-life experiences. She gave me the facts and just blew me away."
Sidibe had gone to the meeting expecting to give a third audition for Lee Daniels. "We were talking, and I was getting kind of antsy about when we were going to get to the audition. Then Lee just came out and said, ‘I want you to be in my movie.’ I said, ‘but --’ and he said, ‘No "but," I want you to play Precious.’ I started crying. It was a very clichéd response, but it had all happened so fast: the first audition was Monday and this was Wednesday -- Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday…boom!"
Sidibe was moved by Precious’s capacity to imagine a better life for herself, despite the relentless negativity and abuse from her mother, Mary. "Precious is very much a dreamer, and has a lot of wonderment in her. And she’s very hungry for knowledge," the actress comments. "She’s sweet, but at the same time she’s learned to be defensive. When there’s trouble coming, she’s ready for it. She’s a warrior, I think."
Enough of a warrior that she is willing to risk Mary’s wrath by enrolling at the alternative school Each One Teach One, where she is placed in a pre-GED class taught by Ms. Rain. The class changes Precious’s life on many levels, delivering intellectual and emotional sustenance. Says Sidibe, "Precious gains a support system at Each One Teach One. It’s much more like a family than what she has at home. In a lot of ways, Ms. Rain becomes Precious’s surrogate mother. The other young ladies in the class are really her first friends; they care about her, and they have problems like she does. It’s like a classroom of broken hearts, and they all mend each other."
One of the first roles cast was Mary, played by Mo’Nique, the beloved comedian who mixes rapid-fire, earthy humor along with positive messages about size and beauty. Though Mo’Nique has primarily acted in feature comedies, Lee Daniels saw first-hand her dramatic range and professionalism when she co-starred in SHADOWBOXER. "I knew Mo’Nique would give Mary a human face," the director remarks. Nonetheless, he prefaced his offer with a caution. "I said, ‘Mo’Nique, I don’t know whether you’ll want to do this movie -- Mary is such a monstrous character. So don’t be mad at me when you read it.’ She said, ‘Sign me up.’"
Mo’Nique had no trepidations about playing such a profoundly unlikeable character. "Mary is not Mo’Nique; I’m acting," she says simply. The actress points out that Mary’s fury and cruelty have not developed in a vacuum; to some degree, they are a reflection of what she has seen and experienced. "Abuse and self-abuse are what Mary knows. You almost feel sorry for her," Mo’Nique reflects. "You have to ask the question, ‘what’s happened in your life to make you turn out like this? Who did this horrible thing that your heart has hardened, and is gonna stay in that place until you die?’"
She continues, "I think there were several things that went into creating Mary. I think her mother has a lot to do with it. The man she chose has a lot to do with it. But most importantly, Mary created Mary. Mary created what you see. She just allowed herself to go deeper and deeper and deeper into that horrible place."
Paula Patton, the luminous beauty who starred opposite Denzel Washington in DÉJÀ VU, portrays Blu Rain, the strong-willed, empathetic teacher at Each One Teach One. Patton spent a few weeks auditing literacy classes like those taught by Ms. Rain, which she credits with helping her construct her character. "Ms. Rain has taken on the difficult work of teaching children who have very troubled home lives and have not gotten the education they need," says Patton. "She’s starting from basics with 15 to 19-year-olds, teaching them how to read and teaching them to care about themselves, to have respect for themselves and others. She’s like a tough-love mom."
The college-educated, sophisticated schoolteacher might appear to have little in common with her tough, streetwise students. However, Ms. Rain has had her own troubles with family and rejection, and that naturally informs her work. "The fact that Ms. Rain is a lesbian and has problems with her mother allows her to relate to her students," Patton surmises. "She feels like an outsider, just like they do."
Sherri Shepherd, the actress/comedienne and co-host of ABC’s "The View," won the role of Cornrows, the acerbic receptionist at Each One Teach One. "When Precious comes in, Cornrows is a little rough on her," says Shepherd. "Precious interrupts her in the middle of arguing with her boyfriend, but there’s something about Precious’s spirit that draws Cornrows to her, more so than any of the other kids in the school. Precious is like a little butterfly that comes out of her cocoon, and everybody gets to see her come up and fly."
"Precious" must also contend with an overburdened, often dysfunctional social services system. Helen Mirren, who starred in SHADOWBOXER, was originally slated to play Precious’s welfare case worker, Ms. Weiss, but had to withdraw due to another commitment. Enter multi-platinum musician Mariah Carey, Daniels’ close friend and one of the stars of TENNESSEE. An ardent admirer of Push, Carey was delighted to join the cast as the no-nonsense civil servant, and her performance has been hailed as a creative triumph by critics.
Carey played her character as neither a villain nor a savior. "Ms. Weiss is competent and well-meaning, but she also has to maintain a certain detachment in order to do her job," Carey reflects. "She’s looking at Precious’s world from the outside, and it’s very shocking for her when she realizes what this girl has been dealing with in her life."
Essence Magazine founder Susan L. Taylor makes a cameo appearance in the modeling fantasy sequence that opens the film, playing a fairy godmother who bestows upon "Precious" an orange scarf. The scarf takes on a talismanic role in the film, and the casting of Taylor makes the scene even more resonant.
"Precious": BASED ON THE NOVEL "PUSH" BY SAPPHIRE was filmed in New York City in late 2007. The locations stretched from Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan, through Harlem and across the river to downtown Brooklyn and Coney Island Hospital.
Fidelity to the details of the story required an abdication of vanity on the part of the actors. Beauty make-up was essentially off-limits for the actresses and much of the 80s-era wardrobe was less than flattering. More to the point was the emotional commitment required to portray characters grappling with dramatic circumstances and intense feelings. But Daniels found all of his cast ready, willing and able to dig deep in order to reveal the truth of their characters. As he describes it, "If I said, ‘Okay, jump through that hoop,’ they did. ‘Okay, now put some fire around that and jump through again.’ ‘Okay, now put some fire around it, and put some nails through it, now jump!’ That's what they did. I was so blessed to work with everybody on this film."
Lee Daniels encouraged the cast to try different approaches to scenes. Says Sidibe, "Lee’s not married to one idea; he loves options. A scene might start out very simple -- like A, B, and C will happen. Then Lee would throw in D and F and E. It was vanilla, and now it’s chocolate with bananas and sprinkles. He taught me to be freer in my thinking and in my lines."
"Precious" looks and feels as alive as its heroine. Working with director of photography Andrew Dunn, Daniels crafted a visual style that reflects Precious’s perspective as well as the reality of her circumstances. He made unconventional and liberal use of color, including arresting accents of primary red, blue and yellow. The camera swoops, zooms and dives, and Harlem glows warmly, a neighborhood where people live and love as well as struggle. Explains Daniels, "I wanted a sensual quality to the color and feel of the film. We had to show the beauty as well as the pain."
Originally titled PUSH: BASED ON THE NOVEL "PUSH" BY SAPPHIRE, PRECIOUS made its world premiere in the American Dramatic Competition program at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. The breakout hit of the festival, the film garnered three awards, including the top award, the Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award and a Special Acting Award for Mo’Nique. PRECIOUS soon found a home at Lionsgate, which had previously teamed with Daniels on MONSTER’S BALL. The PRECIOUS family grew quickly: Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry came on board as executive producers and are presenting the film with Lionsgate; and singer Mary J. Blige wrote and recorded a new song for the film, "I Can See in Color."
Winfrey describes her reaction upon seeing the film: "I’ve never seen anything like it. The moment I saw PRECIOUS, I knew I wanted to do whatever I could to encourage other people to see this movie. The film is so raw and powerful - it split me open."
Adds Perry, "When I started watching this film I was taken back 25 years to my childhood, when life was rough. By the time it was over, I was changed. PRECIOUS is filled with so much hope, and I really think it has the power to change lives."
In May, Daniels and several members of the cast travelled to the Cannes Film Festival, where "Precious" screened in the "Un Certain Regard" section. As it had at Sundance, PRECIOUS drew cheers and standing ovations from audiences, and its message of hope and triumph inspired more than one person to stop the filmmakers to share their stories. "It’s been so moving to know that the film has affected such different people," acknowledges Daniels. "Eighty-year-old Japanese ladies tell me they feel like they’re Precious, and they hug me and they hold me. I think that there is Precious in all of us."