In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine that a film as critically and financially successful as The Butler faced such an uphill battle to production. Then again, it’s easier for execs to say no than yes, as most filmmakers know all too well.
Pamela Williams, president of Laura Ziskin Productions, worked for over a decade with Ziskin before she passed away in 2011. The Butler was one of Ziskin’s passion projects, and she pushed the film towards production even while extremely ill. It’s that unending drive and dedication that remains with Williams today, even inspiring her to hang a sign in The Butler’s production office that reads, “There is no other option.”
Williams, director Lee Daniels, and producer Cassian Elwes, worked tirelessly to make the movie happen, and the result is one of the year’s most talked about films. SSN spoke to Williams about The Butler’s difficult road to production, what she learned from Ziskin, and the “wild ride” of working with Lee Daniels.
SSN: What made you want to make this film, and what do you think it is about this story that speaks to so many people?
Williams: Basically every studio in Hollywood [passed] on the movie, and that was really hard for me to understand. I just knew that this movie would speak to so many, and it has, and that’s been a huge reward to that uphill battle. At the center of the story is a universal father and son story—it could happen in any generation, any ethnicity—but there’s that central generational conflict.
SSN: The film is also doing well overseas—did you expect that it would have such international appeal?
Williams: I love how well the movie is doing internationally. Cecil is such an underdog, starting out with so little and rising to the highest realm he could, working at the White House. I think that underdog story speaks to people.
SSN: Why do you think the studios shied away from it, even when you had attachments?
Williams: Right now the studio world is very much about international sales and knowing that you have that component to offset the risk of the domestic. It doesn’t surprise me, with this being an African-American story, with this being U.S. politics, with this being a period piece, that there would be sensitivities that it wouldn’t travel overseas. As a studio movie it would have been expensive to get cast, and the appetite was immense in terms of the scope of the movie. I can understand where the models don’t seem to make it easy to step up and say let’s make this.
SSN: Your Huffington Post piece about Laura Ziskin was beautifully written. What lessons have you taken with you from working with her?
Williams: Everything. She was an amazing force of nature. I talk about how she really did continue to produce this movie even after her passing because she was such a definitive personality … That’s why I’m so thrilled that the PGA recognized her as a producer on the movie, as I knew they would. The movie got made ultimately, unfortunately without her, but because of her it got made.
SSN: What was your experience like working with Lee Daniels?
Williams: He was the perfect director … [and] working with him is an extraordinary, wild ride. He’s so spontaneous and instinctual and what kept me awake at night as we were prepping was Lee saying, ‘From their head to their toes, every extra has to read as part of that period.’ We had over 2,000 extras. Every morning Lee was examining those extras and the set and everything that went into it. His eye for detail was extraordinary. On set his love for spontaneity and truth is constantly keeping everybody on their toes. It’s a wild ride, which is a lot of fun.
SSN: He’s known for much edgier films, as far as content and style. Did you have any reservations? The final product isn’t dark or edgy, but did you have any concerns at all?
Williams: It wasn’t reservations. I understood why he made Precious and The Paperboy, and he certainly does have that dark, edgy side, no doubt, [but] he also understood that this needed to be a PG-13 movie. For me it was really important because I wanted school kids to see [it]. If you don’t know your history you’re doomed to repeat it, so for many reasons this needed to be a mass audience movie. From the get-go Lee had no qualms. Certainly we did have conversations about, ‘You can’t say that word,’ and he’d be like, ‘But why? I say it all the time.’ We’d tell him, ‘Well yes, Lee, you live in an R-rated world.’
SSN: Now that you’ve been able to take a breath and reflect on the process of making the film and seeing all of the positive reactions to it, what has been your favorite part of the journey so far?
Williams: Because so much of the journey has been so hard, I do have to say the best part is when the baby is birthed and you get back together with the family and watch it and get to talk, so the screening process has been a wonderful time for me because it brings back family.
SSN: Are you working on any new projects now?
Williams: I’m working on a much smaller one—the under $10 million level—to take back to New Orleans that Terrence Howard is attached to. I come out of the television world, and I love that TV is now doing a lot of limited series, so I have a few of those that I’m setting up, and I’m looking forward to straddling both worlds for a while.