By Emily Goodin - 08/15/13 09:00 AM EDT
Danny Strong faced a daunting task when it came to writing the script for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”: turning a 2,000-word article into a full-length feature film. [WATCH VIDEO]
Strong said when he was offered the chance to write the script, the idea “intimidated” him.
“I was horrified,” he said. “Normally when I feel that way, I just don’t do it. I literally just pass.”
“I just was so taken by the idea of a White House butler, so we could be in the room with JFK, and we could be in the room with Eisenhower while he’s dealing with Little Rock, with LBJ — I mean all of them. It just seemed like the potential was so exciting.”
Strong, an actor known for his appearances on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Gilmore Girls,” has made a name for himself writing politically themed movies.
It started with “Recount,” his 2008 HBO movie about Florida recount in the 2000 presidential race and continued with “Game Change” — the 2012 HBO film about Sarah Palin’s addition to the 2008 GOP president ticket.
He’s found another political subject with “The Butler,” which opens nationwide on Friday.
The movie is based on a 2008 Washington Post article about Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents as White House butler. But readers of the original piece will notice major differences between Allen’s story and the Hollywood retelling.
The movie has expanded and changed the tale: the main character is called Cecil Gaines, and his work in the White House is interspersed with scenes of his son’s work in the Civil Rights movement.
Strong says the film is “not inspired by a true story, it’s inspired by many true stories.”
In addition to interviewing Allen, the screenwriter talked to children of former presidents, former White House ushers and staff, and historians. The colorful anecdotes he heard made him think, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could combine all these stories into a character who was a composite?”
The idea came together in a script that has been translated to screen by an A-list cast.
Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker plays the composite character of Gaines, while Oprah Winfrey portrays his wife.
The White House scenes, which are few but memorable, feature cameos by Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, James Marsden as John Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan. (The Truman, Ford and Carter administrations are skipped).
Strong said he broadened the story from that of White House butler to a history of the civil rights movement because it was the best choice for the film.
“I decided, OK, instead of just hodgepodging any historical event I want, I’m going to make this about the history of race in America as seen through the eyes of a family, but one of those family members happened to work at the White House.”
The film depicts several well-known moments in civil rights history: a sit-in by students at a Walgreens counter in Memphis; the Bloody Sunday March in Selma, Ala.; and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“These are just amazing, amazing historical moments, and then I thought OK, well I’m going to give the butler a son who’s there,” Strong said.
“The father works at the White House serving presidents who are dealing with the crisis that his son is in the middle of. And it keeps everything very emotional and very personal.”
Unlike other political-themed movies like "Lincoln," "The Butler" did not have an official Washington premiere and, according to a senior administration official, it will not getting a screening in the White House.
At Wednesday’s press briefing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he didn’t know if President Obama had seen it.
The film took nearly four years to make, and Strong gives director Lee Daniels much of the credit for the final product.
“We collaborated on many drafts together,” he said. “So many brilliant ideas in the movie came from him and he was just an integral part of the writing process.”
Strong credits a play with launching his career as a political movie maven.
He had already written a script for himself — a comedy — that got good feedback from producers, who wanted it — with one catch.
“I gave it to a few producer friends and they all said the same thing, which was, ‘Wow it’s really good, can we run with this without you attached as the star in it?’ And I said ‘uh no, absolutely not, I’m going to stay attached.’ The film has never been made, by the way.”
But it was enough to get the creative juices flowing. He wrote a few more comedy scripts, which were never optioned, and then he saw a play, “Stuff Happens,” about the buildup to the Iraq War.
“I walked out of the theater completely inspired, and then I thought, that’s what I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to write something like ‘Stuff Happens’ and then within, I swear to you, 30 seconds — and I remember where I was standing — I got the idea of what about the Florida recount.”
“Then all of a sudden people started offering me political movies,” he said.
Before "The Butler," Strong and director Jay Roach teamed up for "Recount" and “Game Change.” Strong said they marveled at the effect the latter movie had on the 2012 race.
“The [Mitt] Romney campaign kept putting out that, ‘We’re going to pick someone who’s responsible and qualified’ and who does he pick? He picks a brilliant policy wonk. You know he clearly went the opposite direction of the charismatic Sarah Palin-like figure,” he said.
He admits that he watched the 2012 race with the idea of script in the back of his mind. But he wouldn’t talk specifics, nor would he ruling out being involved in a “Game Change” sequel.
“I definitely have been kind of keeping my eye out, and but I’m waiting for [Game Change authors] John Heilemann and Mark Halperin to finish their next book.”
—This post has been corrected from an earlier version.