In addition to having a successful acting career playing Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Danny Siegel on Mad Men, Danny Strong has quickly climbed the ladder of success as a screenwriter. Over the past few years he has written two critically acclaimed HBO political dramas, Recount and Game Change, the ladder of which gained Strong his first Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special. Transitioning now to the big screen, Strong brings audiences an emotional look into the Civil Rights Movement as seen through the eyes of a White House butler. Lee Daniels’ The Butler, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, explores the life of Cecil Gaines, a butler who serves seven White House administrations while living in a country tearing itself apart over racial inequality. Here’s what Strong had to say about his latest project:
RR: What did you think of the final product?
DS: I love the movie! I think Lee Daniels did such an amazing job and the actors are just tremendous. I just think these performances are tremendous. I’m really proud of it, I think Lee’s really proud of it, and we’re really excited to just get it out there.
RR: What struck you about the article the film is based on and how much did you draw on from that article?
DS: Well it is an article, right? So it’s just a few pages and it was just the concept of a character in the White House through the decades. I thought, wow! There could be something really special there. I have no idea what it is, I have no idea how I’m going to write this, what the story is, but just that very concept seemed to me like it could be something really great and it was very difficult. It was the most complicated scripts I’ve ever written and just figuring out some of the basics, I mean, when you see the movie, it seems so obvious, it’s going to be a movie about the Civil Rights Movement, of course that’s the story. I didn’t know that’s what it was going to be when I started. It was just this article and it could have been anything. The whole movie could have been one administration, we could’ve done anything we wanted. And there are so many historical events, so which ones do you cover politically, because it does take place in the White House. If you’re not covering history and politics, what’s the concept of it being about a White House butler, it could just be about anything. So figuring out that I was going to make the spine of the movie the Civil Rights Movement was a big breakthrough for me and figuring out the father/son dynamic, that it was going to be a father/son story. When I came up with those two things, I thought, well ok, that’s the story and so that was kind of where it began. So once I came up with those things, a whole bunch of ideas flooded into my head really fast, so it went literally from having a blank slate, no clue what I was doing to kind of having a basic sketch of the movie, I wouldn’t say quickly, but just feeling like oh wait, I think I can actually do this.
RR: What kind of research did you do for the film?
DS: The research was the most extensive thing I’ve ever done research-wise because I had to know the Civil Rights Movement, I had to know each administration, I had to know life inside the White House. So the number of books, I think I read like 30 books, which is a lot of books and I’m really a slow reader too, so this took forever. I interviewed about 25 people, a lot of those being White House staff: former butlers, former ushers, chief usher, housemen, engineers, family members of the Presidents, I got to interview a few, so that was pretty cool, and a ton of documentaries. I like those because you can just watch one and it will take like an hour and a half. I think I did 6 months of research before I even wrote a word, and it takes me about 4 months to write a screenplay, so that’s an entire time period of the time it would take me to write a script was completely focused on research.
RR: You come from an acting background, how does that inform your writing?
DS: I think it’s a crucial part of my writing in the way that I portray characters because I think that I get into the mindset of a character as an actor and as I’m writing, I’m literally playing the parts in my head as I’m writing their dialogue for them and that’s how I write their distinct voices. I remember reading an interview with Aaron Sorkin where he said that he plays all the parts as he writes and I was like, oh, I do that too and you’re the greatest screenwriter of our time, so that’s kind of cool. I think for me, it’s a crucial element of my own writing and I was an actor long before I’d ever written anything, that was my whole existence for so many years. A lot of actors turn into writers, I have a number of friends of mine that were actors that became writers. A good friend of mine named Michael Bacall wrote 21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and Project X, and we were actors together, auditioning against each other for years and partly the reason I started writing was because he sold a script and I was jealous of him. He was taking meetings with executives and I was still auditioning for Frosty Nut Crunch commercials.
RR: Did you have an opportunity to interview Eugene Allen’s son or anyone in the family?
DS: I interviewed Eugene Allen and I spent a lot of time with his son. And I still talk to his son Charles. I love Charles. A lot of stuff from the movie comes from my conversation with Charles about black history that didn’t necessary relate to Charles himself. Another element that was very helpful was memoirs of people that worked in the White House. One that was particularly helpful was My 21 Years in the White House by Alonzo Fields. In the case of Charles, who loves the movie by the way — and what I loved about Charles, was early on after I’d written the scripts, how much he was on board with the fact that it wasn’t going to be his dad’s exact life story, that the character of Cecil Gaines had created this composite character. He so funny, he said, “Oh, I never thought people would want to see Gene and Helene watching the Game Show Network, I didn’t think that was going to make a movie.” But nonetheless, there’s still quite a bit inspired by Eugene Allen. I remember in my interview with him, I asked him about the Civil Rights Movement and he said “I’m too old for that.” To me, that’s the heart of Cecil Gaines.
RR: Where does this poetic license come from? How did you decipher what was real and what you would fictionalize?
DS: Once I named them the Gaines Family, it was all about the movie. It wasn’t about Eugene Allen and his wife and trying to capture that in any specific way. It became this universal story about this White House butler and what it was like for a White House butler and what it was like for people in general, black or white. It was never our goal to try and capture, it was our goal to create what was hopefully a powerful movie, a great piece of entertainment that represented and captured the essence of what it was like to be a White House butler, to live through that history and to live through that era.
RR: And did you ever believe that this film would come out at a time when our country is dealing with the Voting Rights Act and Trayvon Martin?
DS: I think if it wasn’t these events, it would other events. The Voting Rights in particular is a very huge issue. With Trayvon Martin, clearly this is a tragedy, but there would be another Trayvon Martin because there has been and that’s part of this cycle of history. In our film, it’s Emmett Till and he was kind of the beginning of this generational shift between Louis’ generation and Cecil’s generation where, because of Emmett Till, these 16 or 17 year kids said we’re not just going to sit back here, we’re going to actually do something about this. That was, to me, what was so inspiring about the SNCC kids, that they were 18, 19, 20, 21, and they said we’re going to go into the South and we’re going to sit in and we’re going to ride buses and we’re going to do it non-violently. It’s very moving and what’s surprising to me is there has so few movies and TV shows made about this. World War II, that’s pretty famous, the Holocaust, that pretty famous too, well why isn’t the Civil Right Movement? This is our own country and it’s incredibly dramatic and there’s this profound injustice with this group of people who said we’re going to fight this injustice. I remember when I started researching and decided that I was going to make the spine of the movie Civil Rights, I was thinking, why isn’t this more famous?
RR: You have a film about the Civil Rights that isn’t about the white person, which is actually pretty rare.
DS: That’s a thousand percent what I wanted to do. I said to the producer that I didn’t want to make a movie about the kind-white-person helping the African American and almost every movie about race is that. So that was the creation of Louis, that he was an African-American who’s going to do it himself and about the SNCC kids doing it themselves. With the butler, I thought it would be an interesting way to tell the Civil Rights story through the eyes of a conservative father against the Civil Rights Movement, I thought, well that’s just going to add another layer to this, it’s going to make it, hopefully, a more dynamic, interesting story, and I want the audience to be on his side too. It’s not just Louis is right and his father is wrong, you can understand how a father would feel that way and how a father would be concerned and scared because he’s thinking I don’t want my son to get killed, how could he not get killed doing what he’s doing? It seems impossible and when you look back upon it, it seems impossible that there weren’t more people killed because there was so much violence during this.
RR: What would you like people to walk away from in respect to everything going on in America today?
DS: A better understanding of the history of race in America. I don’t think people know our past that well. I said that to Lee Daniels at our first meeting. And he said, “That’s why I’m doing this. But I’m not doing it for white America. I’m here for black America.” He said, “My daughter who goes to a private school in New York City knows more about the Holocaust than her own history and I want to make this movie for her. “
RR: As someone who studies Screenwriting and Political Science, I was wondering how you go about taking these historical lessons and giving them entertainment value.
DS: For me, it’s absolutely imperative that they’re not historical lessons because then its not a movie. I’m not a historian, I’m not a documentarian, I’m a screenwriter and I’m trying to write really good movies, now I may not succeed, but that’s what I’m trying to do. So the goal isn’t that I want to teach you something, the goal is that I want to create a vibrant, exciting that deals with themes that are elevated and thought-provoking and the key to that is trying to, as effectively as possibly, put the audience in the moment-by-moment mindsets of the characters, so it doesn’t feel like a bird’s eye view, but like you’re actually in the middle of it, living it as it’s happening, and that way, even if you know how it ends, which you do in a few of the films I’ve written. Because we’re in it beat by beat with the characters and all of the obstacles they’re facing, you just get caught up in the story. I just try to get it where you’re with the characters and then you have a few moments where it’s a bird’s eye view and you do a reflection on the entirety of the story. In the case of this movie, it’s Martin Luther King’s speech to Louis, which all of a sudden is a bird’s eye view saying, “Hey, I want you to think about this”, then we get right back into it with the assassination and Cecil in the middle of the 1968 Washington DC riots, just trying to get home.
RR: Out of all the features in the movie, what was the most important part to you?
DS: That’s a really good question because there are all these different chapters. I’ve always been particularly moved by the SNCC kids and the sit-ins and the Freedom Riders. There’s something about that because they were so incredibly brave and in that time, so wildly radical, what they were doing. Now we look back at it and say, “Oh, they got on buses and went into the South, it was very brave”, but in the moment, the insanity of getting on the bus and going into the South, where it was completely lawless. They know it’s lawless, they know that they could get killed and there will be no repercussions for the people who killed them, to say, “No, we’re going to do this because this is our right”, I found it so powerful and so moving.
RR: Why would you say that Forest Whitaker’s character in the film is a cause for change, despite also being against the movement?
DS: I sort of think that’s what the Martin Luther King speech is about, that he is a cause for change just by being dignified, just being hard-working and just being who he is, is a cause for change, but how many of us in our lives are Louis? We’re not, we’re all Cecil, most people in this country, that’s what they do, they read the paper and grumble about it. It’s clearly what his arc is; he’s someone who’s against the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of people in the African American community at that time were, especially from his generation, because the kids were going to cause problems. There’s the scene with Terrence Howard where he says to Louis, “You’re gonna get us all killed”. That was a sentiment felt by many people.