Film: The Un-Shyamalan

A certain Philly filmmaker has made a career by ending his movies with gimmicky twists, but Lee Daniels — with a little help from actors like Halle Barry and Kevin Bacon — is bringing Hollywood back to reality

Shadowboxer is on its final day of shooting in July, and the only sight drawing anywhere near as much attention as Cuba Gooding Jr. walking through Rittenhouse Square in a tight dress and heels is Lee Daniels, paisley shirt open to a point just north of his stomach as he hollers orders to two young actors. They’re his brother’s kids — the twins, Clara and Liam, who are just shy of nine. He’s raised them, and though they call him Lee, he’s their father. Next to his director chair is one for each of them, with their names in bold white on black, like his. After a botched take, he leaps up and shouts, “Tell these kids I’ll kill ’em! Just because they’re in the shot doesn’t mean I won’t kill ’em!” That’s parenting, Lee Daniels-style. He’s no less boisterous with his kids, no less open and honest, than he is with the Lenfests, or his Radnor friends, or his old West Philly neighbors. “They’re the reason Monster’s Ball was made,” he says of the twins. “They really gave me a purpose. It wasn’t just me. I had two kids.”

In 1997, when Daniels set up his production company in New York City, his goal was to find a screenplay that was as genuine as the sets in Burbank are fake. He read one about a poor black woman and the small-town white-racist warden who falls in love with her after executing her husband. A little farfetched, perhaps, but complicated, and that’s life. It was exactly what he was looking for — the problem was, folks like Oliver Stone and Sean Penn were lined up to make the film themselves. But when those A-listers dropped out, Daniels, as he’s known to do, spoke up. “You’re thinking too big with this,” he told the screenwriters, who in turn gave him three months to fund and cast the project himself. He used his L.A. contacts to raise cash, drew Billy Bob Thornton, and rolled the dice with an unknown foreign director. Berry, P. Diddy and Peter Boyle followed, all deferring up-front fees to participate in a $2.5 million indie that spoke to them, as actor types like to say. “It’s very edgy, very organic and real,” as Berry described it. She did her own makeup on-set. Diddy came to work sans entourage, and called the producer “Mr. Daniels.” Cut to Daniels sitting with Berry at the 2002 Oscars.

Success didn’t dull his instincts, thanks to his newfound connection to New York and Philadelphia, where his family still lives. Offers to produce everything from art-house films to a black adaptation of The Jetsons came in, and when “no” wouldn’t suffice, Daniels did what perhaps only he can do. “I had a pair of high heels,” he says, “and anytime there were freaks in the office, it was like, ‘Go get the pumps!’ Ain’t nobody gonna talk to you if you’re sitting in an Armani suit with pumps on.” Can’t argue with that logic. Being close to home also rekindled his love for the city where he grew up. He wanted to film Monster’s Ball here, but couldn’t within his budget. Two years later, all the studios who said they’d produce a phone book with him balked at The Woodsman, so he went back to knocking on doors, convincing actors and investors to believe in him again. Bacon and wife Kyra Sedgwick signed on, and the city became a character in the film — dialogue about the hapless Phillies, scenes in the Northeast and the Navy Yard, Patti LaBelle singing “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” a cappella as the credits roll. “You can’t go out on these streets and not be real with these people,” says Daniels, who now splits time between his posh Delaware Avenue apartment and Harlem. “Hollywood is not like that at all.”

Daniels can’t avoid bringing a little Hollywood with him, though. When Shadowboxer was running low on cash, he called Mariah Carey and told her to get her ass to his set. Carey not only showed up in Northern Liberties, she floated Daniels six figures to keep the cameras rolling. Serena Williams opened her wallet, too. Daniels wore white tails, as required, to Starr Jones’s monster wedding. Then there was the visitor to his New York office last year: “I looked out my window, and there is Bill Clinton sitting on my stoop!” he recalls. The former president was a Monster’s Ball fan, and after recruiting the producer to shoot a voter-registration commercial, he took out a full page in Variety, congratulating Daniels on The Woodsman. “He hasn’t done this for Harvey mothafuckin’ Weinstein!” Daniels says about the ad. “That was the only time I was starstruck. Meeting Clinton.”

He pauses, as if he knows what he’s about to say will blow his cred. But he just has to say it. “And, uh, Erica Kane from All My Children.”