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By Lee Daniels as told to Amy Elisa Keith
As a child, there were no avenues to study film. There was no way for me to discover or to put a name to what it was that I thought would be my craft. There were theaters, but how does one start? How does one begin a journey in the ‘60 from the projects to even know to become a director or producer?
So as an adult, my intention wasn’t become a filmmaker but rather to become a teacher, because I was so frustrated that there were no teachers who were teaching it to me. Then filmmaking was what ended up happening. When Ghetto Film School approached me about volunteering, the name spoke for itself and spoke to me.
Teaching and directing both fill my ego. When I’m teaching, I’m passing information on and you’re filling the minds of kids. When I’m directing a play or a movie, I’m filling the minds of the audience. I’m giving me, unedited, my spirit. It’s great to see the effect that it has on some of these kids. I hire a group as interns so they understand that nothing is better than on-the-ground experience. Sometimes it’s really embarrassing, but yet adorable, when I have to teach them how to answer phones because they’re mumbling. Therefore, self-esteem is first.
Next, I teach them how to present themselves in this world that is not their own world. For example, I lied when I was kid and pretended that I didn’t live where I lived in order to fit in. That led to bad behavior then drugs because I didn’t love myself. I had to learn to not be embarrassed about being impoverished, but to embrace that. They first have to make sure that they can come to terms with and use their life experiences to influence their storytelling. Don’t pretend. I teach, “You have to use what you have to tell stories because these stories are phenomenal and you are giving voice to people who are not heard and not seen.”
One woman intern, 16-years-old, was extraordinarily talented as a writer, but she could barely talk. She was like a lot of young people who are brilliant but simply cannot articulate properly so no one really took her seriously. But I read her work and was blown away. In spite of seemingly insurmountable domestic issues, there was a sense of survival about her. She was with me for three years and passionately committed to screenwriting, through it all. I’ve never seen anyone like that.
Therefore, whatever I can give, I must. When I was working on Precious, I had young interns working on that film and so many of them had HIV. I was in shock, but then I saw them laugh. Somehow, they still managed to find humor in life. They were like, “And? Life has gotta go on. You think I’m going to sit here and cry about it? No. I gotta keep it moving.” Every time I think I have it bad, I know that other people have it worse and so it makes me very grateful.
The main thing that I teach them all is to never take no for an answer. You cant! “No” is par for the course of being a filmmaker, no matter what color you are: Black, white, Asian, Puerto Rican, Jewish, Italian or anything else. But once you keep it moving and in your truth, it’s a good thing. I am a product of everything that I teach and so I am really blessed that it worked, at least for me.
Lee Daniels is an award-winning director, producer and writer whose most recent film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” was nominated for several Screen Actors Guild, NAACP Image & Critics’ Choice awards. Through internships and mentorship, his work with New York’s Ghetto Film School has influenced dozens of future filmmakers to capture their stories for the small and big screens.