At the sprawling downtown apartment of Lee Daniels a few days before Christmas, the director was chatting with Danny Strong, the writer behind such politics-themed pieces as Recount, Game Change and, of course, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
The two had recently reunited to create Empire, a soap opera set in the hip-hop world. With its Shakespearean story of money, music, a dying mogul (Terrence Howard) and his dysfunctional family, the drama is Fox’s great midseason hope when it premieres Wednesday.
“We do fight. Danny is very firm about what he believes in, and I respect that,” said Daniels, who also directed the race-themed Precious, in describing their collaboration.
“He doesn’t back down. And I don’t back down,” he said with a laugh, alluding to his reputation for artistic stubbornness.
Strong said, “Disagreements happen. It’s not a contentious relationship.”
Daniels replied, “We’re Salt ‘n’ Pepa.”
Empire concerns the street-thug-turned-rap-magnate Lucious (Howard), who, on learning his days are numbered, must decide how to divide his business among his three children. One is gay, one is a slacker and one is an MBA without musical chops — which for Lucious means none of them is perfect. The patriarch’s long-incarcerated spouse, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), has also turned up on the scene, throwing curveballs galore.
Strong, an avowed hip-hop fan, conceived of the show while driving in Los Angeles (he’s from Southern California but now lives in New York). He immediately called Daniels, with whom he had collaborated on Butler and who is avowedly not a hip-hop fan. (The director had to be told who Timbaland was when the artist was brought on to oversee music for the show.)
Several days later, Strong and Daniels were hashing out ideas for Empire at Daniels’ apartment, an eclectically decorated space that, among other flourishes, included a hammock lined with an animal print.
The two would sit at the living room table, Daniels spitballing stories of his own upbringing in Philadelphia — of complicated relatives, of a father intolerant of his son’s homosexuality.
“When Lee told the story about how as a child he came in the room in high heels and his dad threw him in a trash can,” Strong said, “I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m putting this in the show. I’m just not telling him right now.’”
“I was so uncomfortable,” Daniels said.
Daniels and Strong are a Bert ‘n’ Ernie pair: black and white, gay and straight, imposing and diminutive, blunt and diplomatic.
The partnership began when Daniels came on to direct Strong’s script of The Butler (it was not yet titularly Lee Daniels’). Despite their different entertainment backgrounds — Strong, 40, came up as an actor in shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer while Daniels, 55, is known as a hard-driving filmmaker who first gained notice producing the interracial drama Monster’s Ball — the two found they had a certain kind of creative flow. Daniels helped develop the script for the civil rights drama; Strong spent time on set.
Asked about their dynamic, Henson said: “Lee likes to sit on it a little, cut that in half, half that. They both write very challenging stuff. And Danny would surprise me. That line [in an early episode], ‘Why’d you marry that white girl?’ That’s Danny. I thought it was Lee.”
She added, “They’re Pinky and the Brain. They’re going to take over the world.”
One of the distinguishing aspects of Empire is the way it gets at a heightened world of money and music that exists only in, well, hip-hop songs while hitting on common notes of the American family. There are complicated children, a self-made but emotionally stunted father, a brassy but caring mother.
Daniels said this was the result of a specific autobiography.
“Lucious is a lot of my father and a lot of me,” he said. “Lucious had to do what he had to do to get where he got. And that’s my story.
“There are things that I’m not proud of, that I regret,” he added, without elaborating.
The show is produced by Imagine Entertainment, whose Brian Grazer is a big hip-hop fan. The L Word executive producer Ilene Chaiken serves as show runner on the Chicago set. Daniels directed the first episode and, like Strong, serves as executive producer. Strong, who has directorial ambitions himself, made his first-ever screen directing effort with a recently shot episode.
Daniels said some elements of the pilot discomfited him.
“When we finished writing the script, I felt very similarly to when I walked away from Precious. I felt naked; I felt vulnerable. I felt I didn’t know if I want white America seeing this; I didn’t know if I want black America exposed like this. It was an uncomfortable feeling.”
There are evident challenges in a show about a gritty world that, because of its network platform, can’t take advantage of maximum grittiness.
Strong played down the concerns. “We both liked the idea of it being a network show, because that means we’d need to make the stories very compelling. We wouldn’t be able to swear and have nudity, to have a crutch. We’d have to zero in on the drama. There’s something cooler about that.”
Daniels began discussing the idea of risk-taking. He said he passed on directing Brokeback Mountain because people in Hollywood told him it wouldn’t make any money. “Sometimes earlier in my career they would tell me no and I’d go against my gut and believe the no.”
Strong mentioned a movie he had turned down that went on to become a hit. Daniels said, “You … idiot. You … dip …” on hearing what the film was. He continued to whoop and holler. Strong explained that it didn’t bother him to see the film succeed. Daniels interjected. “C’mon, Danny. We both think we can outdo whomever. That’s what drives us.”
Daniels himself had decided against directing Selma because he didn’t want to make another civil rights movie right after Butler. But he hopes Empire can break similar ground, particularly by showing upper-middle-class African American characters in prime time.
A moment later, Strong said, “See, but for me the idea of Empire was less to do with race and more to do with money and class status that money brings. It’s about the American dream.”
Daniels said, “I love him for that.”