Fact, Fiction, and 'The Butler': A Q&A with Danny Strong

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’/Image © The Weinstein Co.

Actor-turned-screenwriter Danny Strong, most recently of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” knows just how touchy people can get about “the truth.” You don’t take on the most contentious election in American history (“Recount”) or the implosion of a major party’s presidential campaign (“Game Change”), while all the principals are still alive, without expecting to stir up a certain amount of brouhaha. “The blowback is just the nature of trying to tell these kinds of stories,” he says.

That makes it especially strange to hear Strong declare that his latest work won’t provoke such criticism. Inspired by Wil Haygood's article A Butler Well Served by This Election, which ran in the Washington Post right after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, “Butler” takes in all of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of a man who serves eight presidents over thirty-four years in the White House (1952-1986). Based largely on the tenure of Eugene Allen, who was eighty-nine when the article was published, the film follows Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his family (Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo) as the great struggle for racial equality wracks the nation. Throughout, he watches each new president (Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as Nixon) grapple with the violence and injustice erupting across the South — all while his eldest son, Louis, protests, gets beaten in the streets, and repeatedly lands in jail. The scope, presidential portrayals, and racially charged subject matter practically scream “renewed debate.”

But Strong says he read dozens of books, interviewed many former White House staff members, and collaborated extensively with director Lee Daniels to capture the “essence” of those dual experiences — the invisible servant of white power and the explosive young agent of change. The result is a uniquely comprehensive vantage on the era, with great historical moments played out on an intimately personal level. “For all my projects that I’ve worked on, I love people’s memoirs,” says Strong. “Even when you know they’re fudging at times, they still give you a point of view and anecdotes that are just great for a movie.”

Signature: What was your initial approach to the material in terms of fact versus invention?

Danny Strong: I knew pretty early that if we stuck to the absolute truth there would be no movie, because butlers are pretty tight-lipped. I didn’t know how to tell the story. Then I started researching, reading memoirs of people who worked at the White House. I interviewed butlers, house men, engineers, former chief ushers, family members of the first family. Through the course of these interviews, I realized I could create a composite character through which I could utilize different stories from different people. And that’s basically how the Gaines family came to be.

SIG: How did the narrative come together?

DS: There were two big breakthroughs. It was a story that took place over many administrations. As soon as I realized that this was going to be a story about the Civil Rights movement, and that was going to be the spine of the film, that was the first breakthrough. In all these administrations, there will be a common theme going on as we travel through the eras. And then the second breakthrough was [creating] a son who was a Civil Rights activist so that we could actually be in the center of the action while those events were happening. That created this really great triangle of the butler trying to get his son out of the Civil Rights movement and the presidents dealing with the crises that his son is in the middle of as the butler is serving those presidents. It made the story emotional even when the butler wasn’t speaking in the White House, and it created what I thought would be a very interesting generational story between father and son. It keeps everything personal and emotional as opposed to a history lesson.

SIG: Did you talk to Eugene Allen at all?

DS: I did. I was able to interview him, and I spent a lot of time with his friend Charles. There was this moment when I interviewed Eugene that was so crucial. I knew it was going to be about the Civil Rights movement at that point, and I asked him, “How did you feel about the Civil Rights movement as it was happening?” And he said, “I was too old for it.” And in that moment, I felt like, OK, that’s Cecil Gaines, that’s the character. So much was sparked from that.

SIG: Was he able to provide any of the specific incidents that you used, or were those pure invention? Because when you’re watching it, you feel like you’re really getting this view inside the Oval Office.

DS: The Jackie Kennedy story is from Eugene. Jackie Kennedy gave Eugene Allen President Kennedy’s tie on the day he was assassinated.

SIG: Wow. Unbelievable.

DS: Yeah. Really powerful, isn’t it? It’s important to understand, there’s a reason why the character’s name is Cecil Gaines. Because this is not the Eugene Allen story. We were hoping to capture the essence of Eugene Allen, and I think we did. But it’s not just about him. It’s about several other people I spoke to that worked at the White House as well so that the film would create this universal truth for many people of what that experience was like, as opposed to being handcuffed by the exact incidences of his life.

SIG: On movies like this and “Game Change” and “Recount” that weigh so heavily on the actions of real people, do you worry that too much invention will undercut the emotional impact of the story or distract those critical of the film from the truth of the story?

DS: No, because I think anyone who has seen this movie that is taking a scorecard on what exactly happened and what didn’t is completely missing the spirit of the film. We’re not trying to set out a word-for-word retelling of historical events. We’re trying to tell the story of the Civil Rights movement through a prototypical American family and how they experienced those turbulent times — through the mother whose son was getting arrested, whose husband was gone for many hours working at the White House, through the eyes of a father who didn’t want his son to be in the movement. These people existed. These were incredibly common. When you read memoirs of people that fought in the Civil Rights movement, they talk about how their parents didn’t like what they were doing, they didn’t want them there. So we were much more concerned about a universal truth than we were about people criticizing if Eugene Allen did X, Y, or Z.

SIG: But then you have moments where President Reagan says certain things to Cecil, for instance, and once you include a figure that’s that high-profile, it brings with it some expectation of authenticity.

DS: I think that’s a totally legitimate point. In the case of the presidential portrayals and the portrayals of the historical figures, the history is all accurate. Did Reagan say this at that point? I don’t know. But did Reagan veto the sanctions on South Africa? Yes, he did. Was Reagan incredibly amiable with his staff, was he close to his butlers? Yes, he was. When people would write him that they needed money, did he personally send them checks? Yeah, he did. There’s always going to be dramatizations in movies with historical figures, they’re never a word-for-word re-creation of history. The question is, are you fairly representing these characters, and are you accurately portraying what they did and their points of view? I think the film is spot on in all of that.

SIG: What outside sources did you use for research? Any books or presidential biographies?

DS: Oh, so many. My 21 Years in the White House by Alonzo Fields and Upstairs at the White House by J. B. West were really helpful. John Lewis’s autobiography Walking With the Wind was a huge source for Civil Rights sequences, because John Lewis was at the center of all of them and is much of the inspiration for the character of [Cecil’s son] Louis — that’s why he’s named Louis. If you’re interested in reading about the Civil Rights movement you won’t do any better than that book. It’s amazing. The guy was there for everything! [Ted] Sorensen’s book on Kennedy was helpful. I read a [Robert A.] Caro LBJ book, although I had already read them. For Reagan, there was one that was really cool written by former speechwriter [Peter Robinson] called How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life. Books that are written by people that were actually there I find are incredible sources for these kinds of movies.

SIG: What would you say to someone who would criticize the production for having a white man write a movie so concerned with the feelings of blacks during the Civil Rights era?

DS: Well, look, as far as that blanket criticism, it’s kind of antithetical to the job of the writer. I wrote Sarah Palin, but I’m not a woman who was a governor of Alaska. As far as this particular project, getting the authenticity to the level that I think the film gets to, a lot of that was incredibly influenced by Lee Daniels. I spent a year on it before he was on it, and then once he came on board we worked on the script together for years. As far as the authenticity of the African American voices and that world, his ideas on that were endless.

SIG: What revs your engine about these types of real-life movies with high-profile figures that would seem to invite a lot of scrutiny?

DS: I love history, and I love documentaries. I love reading nonfiction. They are incredibly dramatic stories. You are dealing with stakes that are so high that they’re just so ripe for drama. And I spent ten years as a stage actor. So many plays that you work on are political in their nature or have political themes and deal with really important social issues. I think just spending ten years working on plays like that is what interested me. And as far as the scrutiny goes, I know that people are going to attack things. I feel like if I was responsible, if I got the story right and was truthful, then I’m not so worried about the blowback. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of blowback on this one. It’s not a “Game Change”-like docudrama that’s taking you through the beat-by-beat blows of a specific historical event.

SIG: I wouldn’t underestimate how anything dealing with race — especially a story involving a black man subservient to white people in power — will inevitably spark some kind of criticism.

DS: Right. But is it criticism or is it a healthy debate or discussion? With “Game Change,” when Sarah Palin’s aides started attacking the film before they saw it, it gave the movie a ton of attention and it helped propel the film to be as zeitgeist-y as it was. So it’ll be all good.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" hits theaters Friday, August 16.