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Why one scene in 'Empire' left writer/director Lee Daniels 'sobbing' behind the camera

by Michelle Lanz and Cameron Kell | The Frame

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Lee Daniels, writer and director of the new Fox drama, "Empire." Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for DIFF

What do you do after you direct and produce two of the most critically acclaimed African-American themed movies in recent years?

If you're Lee Daniels — the creative force behind "Precious" and "The Butler" — you produce your first TV series and you model it after melodramatic, over-the-top '80s soap operas such as "Dynasty." Daniels' latest project is the new Fox show, "Empire," a musical drama about a dysfunctional hip-hop family tearing itself apart. There's a lot going on, so just check out the trailer below.

Daniels came by The Frame recently to talk about his hip-hop knowledge, his love of the "Housewives" reality shows and some of the difficult, real-life stories that ended up in "Empire."

interview highlights:

Why did you bring your first TV series to a broadcast network rather than cable?

Because it was even more challenging. I felt that I could have done this with my eyes closed on cable, but I knew that this would push me to the limit, creatively. There was a bidding war going on and I chose Fox because I knew that they would probably let me go as far as I could go, and I chose them because most of my family could not afford to see it on cable. So I wanted them to see our life on a network that they could access.

You talk about pushing yourself — this is a show that has hip-hop music, and to get a hip-hop song that doesn't have a single swear word, you've got to look high and low, right?

[laughs] Yes. We take it right to the edge, and it's very exciting. Timbaland, who I didn't even know — look, I don't know hip-hop; when I did "Monster's Ball," I didn't even know who Puff Daddy was. That goes to show what my knowledge of hip-hop is. So I knew that we needed someone that was going to be able to have a strong voice, and my kids, who are 18, told me to call Timbaland. And I did, and I pitched him the idea, and he came up with some music within the following 48 hours. It blew my mind and I learned about hip-hop through him.

If you have an elevator pitch for this show, how would you describe it?

[laughs] I loved "Dynasty." And I felt that there had not been a black drama, family drama, in ... I don't even know how long it's been. Maybe [the 1960s series] "Julia"? I guess? That's the last we saw of a drama. I wanted to see a black "Dynasty" with music and high drama.

High drama in "Dynasty" is melodrama in other people's language, meaning a lot of crazy stuff is happening just in the pilot of this show. Is that something that you kind of revel in? That it's a little over-the-top, that you're just going to throw some crazy stuff at the audience?

Yeah! I've become addicted to those "Housewife" shows, and I said, I've got to trump them! I have to do something better than that, cause they're coming at you for real, in real time. So then it was a matter of, How do we do this?

What's also exciting to me is that [the series] really takes a look at the African-American experience today. I felt that we started out with "The Butler," which took us up to this moment, and this takes us from "The Butler" on into today.

Even if it's going to be modeled after "Dynasty," is it going to tackle relevant political issues?

We do, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. I'm constantly winking at the camera, if you look carefully. I never try to take myself seriously with anything that I do; I'm not hitting you over the head with it, but there are serious issues that we have to take a look at.

Poverty —  it's not just in the hip-hop community, but in real estate or banking; finance ... many, many African-Americans have come from the world that Lucious is coming from, and it's a story to be told. It's no different than the Kennedy story.

We should explain that Lucious is the character played by Terrence Howard in "Empire," he's running a record label. Explain who Lucious is:

Lucious is a man from Philadelphia who was an aspiring rapper, and he and his wife, Cookie, were drug dealers. A deal went down 20 years ago that was bad, and his wife was put away. Twenty years later, an empire was created. Cookie has come out of jail, 20 years later, and she wants half of her company.

There's a scene in the pilot where Lucious literally throws his gay son in the trash. Can you talk about that scene?

It was a very hard scene to direct because it's something that happened to me. Because I haven't gone to therapy, this is sort of therapeutic for me, it's healing for me to work through my art. Yes, he puts on his mother's high heels, the son does, and he walks down the stairs, and the father puts him in the trashcan.

And this is something that your father did to you?

Mmhmm. I think that homophobia is rampant in the African-American community, and I think this will address homophobia in a way that hasn't been before.

What was it like writing and directing that scene on that day?

My sister is an extra in that scene. And actually I told Danny [Strong], my partner, the story, and I didn't know that he was actually going to bring it to life in a flashback. It was very powerful reading it, and sort of disturbing, and then it came time to shoot it and I couldn't do it. It was the first time that I choked behind the camera.

My sister, who was a part of the story, and ironically a part of the scene, instinctively knew what I was going through, and she got up and directed that kid to walk in front of his father, because I was behind the camera, sobbing.

That sounds like a hard day. Do you think that black audiences will watch the show differently than Caucasian audiences, and if so, how might they?

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter, because it's entertainment. I remember showing "Precious" at the Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem, and it literally played like a comedy. The following week, I played it at Sundance in front of an entirely white audience, and you could have heard a pin drop. It was like a piece of art.

It will be viewed and understood differently, but under it all I think the story is universal: it's a family that's fighting in a very dysfunctional way, which is something that, as Americans — black, white, Chinese, or whatever — we all do.

"Empire" premieres Wednesday, January 7 on Fox.

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