- The Washington Times - Friday, November 13, 2009

Lee Daniels, director of the festival-circuit fave “Precious,” alternates between outgoing excess and quieter introspection, sometimes swinging between the two poles in the same sentence. Sitting in an interview suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, he explains between bites of bacon and sips of apple juice how he pulled such critically acclaimed work out of his cast.

“I come from theater, and you simply cannot get a performance from people if there’s no trust,” he says, explaining that he laid himself out there for all the cast members to see. “I just open myself and say this is my past, this is my drug addiction, this is what I’ve done. Sometimes it’s not cool; it’s like this is too much information. But it gets them to trust me, to do whatever it is that I get up on-screen.”

Whatever it is he’s doing, it’s working: Critics have raved over the performance of the film’s young lead, Gabourey Sidibe, and Mo’Nique is a shoo-in for a supporting-actress nomination at the Academy Awards this year. Mr. Daniels even pulled a winning turn out of Mariah Carey, the pop star whose previous film work (the notorious bomb “Glitter”) had become an industry punch line.

“Mariah’s in her bubble, she’s in the Mariah Carey bubble,” the director says. “That’s a strong shield that makes an enormous amount of money for her. I’m in the bubble with her, and in the bubble, she doesn’t have any makeup on; she’s laughing — she’s not the person that y’all know.”

Paula Patton, one of the film’s stars, explains how Mr. Daniels moved the actresses out of their bubbles.

“What he does is create a very safe environment for his actors,” she says in the hotel’s Degrees Bar & Lounge. “I mean, a director has many things to think about on set. But he made me think the only thing he worried about was my performance and the girls’ performances, even though I knew he had many other concerns — set design, lighting, camera angles.”

Also important is the film’s feeling of spontaneity and surprise, which Mr. Daniels accomplished by keeping the cast surprised.

“There’s a moment in the film,” Miss Patton recalls, “where a fight breaks out in the classroom … he just whispered in [Miss Sidibe’s] ear, ‘Hit her upside her head.’ We didn’t know, and you get a great reaction out of your actors because we’re unaware of what’s happening. This is a testament to great directing.”

“I don’t believe in rehearsal at all,” Mr. Daniels says of his desire to keep things fresh on the set and on the camera. “Nothing is rehearsed, I don’t believe in predictability at all.”

Showing sacrifice on the big screen

Is there a more fitting way to spend the weekend after Veterans Day than with a film examining the sacrifices made by members of the military and their families? Just such an opportunity presents itself with the release of “The Messenger.”

“The striking thing for us, and this is why we wanted to make this movie, is that for most Americans, there is no relationship with the military, with the wars,” says director Oren Moverman of his and co-writer Alessandro Camon’s motivation for making this film. “There’s really not a level of engagement that a country at war should have, at least [compared to] where I come from.”

Mr. Moverman was born and raised in Israel, serving time in the Israeli army during the first Lebanon War in the 1980s. Even on the phone, his incredulity about the difference between American and Israeli attitudes toward war comes through.

“For a lot of people, it’s not personal: There’re only 2 million people in uniform out of over 300 million, so that’s a tiny percent of the population,” he says. “Most people when they see this movie just say, ‘I had no idea, I had no idea that this is going on; I had no idea that soldiers are dealing with these kinds of things.’”

“The Messenger” shows just how intense “these kinds of things” can be: The movie follows two soldiers who must deliver casualty notifications to the families of the deceased. The reactions vary from stunned shock to anger to rivers of tears; it’s a side of the conflict that is rarely seen.

“We were surprised initially that it’s not part of the conversation, that they’re not getting the exposure, the care and the treatment that they deserve after making these sacrifices,” Mr. Overman says of the families and the fallen soldiers.

“That’s the initiative — to shine a light on these people, the families of returning soldiers. They’re dealing with a lot of problems, and we felt that it was our responsibility to show that.”

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