Hollywood is full of filmmaking collectives — camps of creative people who met at the bottom and carry each other, hopefully, to great heights.
Particularly sacred (and occasionally fraught) is the relationship between producer and director, a delicate balance of trust and honesty. Approaching nearly 20 years in that dynamic are Oscar nominee Lee Daniels and producer Tucker Tooley.
Having met in the early aughts, the pair just released the Golden Globe-winning “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” at Hulu, and is prepping for the April 2 release of the TIFF player “Concrete Cowboy” with Idris Elba at Netflix.
While studio jobs and streaming riches have come to them more recently, they met as fringe players trying to make a film about the life of actor Montgomery Clift, which never materialized. That led to Daniels’ 2005 directorial debut “Shadowboxer,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren.
During a recent sit-down with Variety, Daniels and Tooley reflected on their working relationship, evolving egos, sacrifice, and friendship.
How did the two of you meet?
Tucker Tooley: My partner and I were trying to make a film about Montgomery Clift, “Monte,” that Michael Easton wrote. Lee was going to produce it with us, and Billy Hopkins was going to direct it. I think we had Wes Bentley interested at the time, it was a long time ago.
Lee Daniels: Great script. I was managing at the time, and my partner was directing. We were going to seriously do that, and I don’t know what happened to it. But Tucker was a class act, I fell in love with him. He got my crazy at the time. And that parlayed into “Shadowboxer,” but I don’t know how.
TT: You said, “I want to direct a movie,” and then sent me the script. You said, “I want your help.” At the time we were raising money for the film, and I went out to Philly and we were in pre-production but also getting financing together at the same time.
LD: There was an energy about him that I trusted and I felt like he would roll with me, and that I could be me. That was interesting at that time, because that me was a little crazy. I came into the business in a back alley sort of way. I didn’t go to film school. Learning how to work the camera, leaning the sets. I learned through managing actors. I produced “Monster’s Ball” and “The Woodsman,” and I learned a lot from those experiences, and I was a bit of a prima donna. I had come off of two very critically-acclaimed films. I wasn’t quite ready to direct. I still haven’t seen [“Shadowboxer”] but people say you can see remnants from it in all of my work. Tucker knew how to navigate the money people, deal with the crew, with my crazy ass, the talent. It was really fun.
TT: Being able to understand his crazy is also what makes him brilliant. I could see that immediately, in terms of finding interesting moments on the day with the actor in ways that they probably never thought about. There’s some unbelievable scenes and acting in that film. You have this incredible scene between Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr., crazy scenes –that immediate and intuitive take that Lee has with the talent that made it interesting and fresh to watch. As the storytelling part of Lee has evolved, that too has evolved, and you’re either born with that or not.
LD: I don’t know why, he can talk me into things. I’m pretty stubborn. Everybody is too afraid to tell me shit half the time. No one wants to say no! It’s about someone having the nerve to tell me no. He told me no to shooting on film for “Billie.” I had this very clear vision of what it would be. I’ve shot every one of my movies on film. He said, “It’s a $350,000 hit, and you want that money, Lee. You’ll be able to get something else with it.”
But I didn’t listen to him, I didn’t care. And now where are we? We’re in COVID and it didn’t open in theaters in America. I ate my hat, because it’s one of the few times I didn’t listen to him. I did listen to him when he told me I couldn’t afford a zebra on “Shadowboxer.” But I wanted to show that a character was outrageous, and he said, “Can you try something else?” But I got the zebra. So I guess I didn’t listen then, either. But most of the time I listen!
TT: The zebra thing is actually in the behind-the-scenes features on the “Shadowboxer” DVD. For me, first it’s about understanding the film that Lee wants to make. Understanding the macro of what that is and what’s important to him and the story. Then, being able to step outside of that and see where the bogeys are. Usually, Lee is going 100 mph in the direction he’s shooting in, and we’re down the road ahead of him. I want to bring the future into the present for him in many different ways.
LD: He’s really great at knowing my intent. He’s really great at writing and suggesting things that are really solid in helping us figure out what is wonky. That’s a specific skill, and a creative skill.
Tucker, what was the hardest “no” you’ve ever given Lee?
LD: He said yes, then changed his mind — and I called him out on it — on a car chase where the cops shot up Billie’s car. I was really married to the scene, where the feds and the cops were coming after her in Philadelphia, right before she’s arrested there was a chase scene that actually happened. They shot at her car, and she wasn’t in the car. She had a bait-and-switch. It really pissed the cops off. We shot stuff that led up to that which was a waste, but I was OK because it was so cold in Montreal in the middle of the night.
TT: We got longer days and extra time. A lot of this is seeing eye to eye on good material. “Concrete Cowboy,” for instance. It’s a Philadelphia story and Lee read it and responded to it and agreed to produce it with me. I respect him as a producer as much as a director, because he has a whole unique perspective.
LD: He knew I would respond to “Concrete Cowboy,” too, being from Philadelphia. I hadn’t produced anything in film in a while, and it was nice to nurture new talent on a story I didn’t know anything about. It was good for me to use another muscle that I hadn’t, a project that wasn’t all about me, it was really healthy. I do it in TV a lot, but I don’t really do it in film.
The next one we’re doing together, we have to do something I’ve never done before. Each one doesn’t look the same. “Precious” doesn’t look like “The Butler.” And “Butler” doesn’t look like “Empire,” which doesn’t look like “The Paper Boy.” I try so hard not to repeat myself. I don’t want to stop working [in film]. I hadn’t worked since “The Butler,” it had been almost ten years, you get caught up in TV land.
How do you both feel about the state of the industry, as we look at reopening?
TT: I think it’s going to get easier, knock wood. You never know with the variants, but certainly the protocols are all in place, and insurance, which has been the key factor in not having films up and running on the indie side, you’re starting to see some product on the marketplace that you can buy to get your films insured. That’s incredibly important right now. I’m really optimistic about theatrical coming back. Maybe not forever, but people are going to want to get out.
LD: It’s not going to be the same, Tucker! When you walk into a theater after we experience what we’ve all experienced, I don’t care how many vaccines you have. you’re looking over your shoulder, sorry. This is very subliminal, what we’ve been through. I think it’s going to be a long time until I’m comfortable around people. It’s done something to me, I think.