Shortly after Barack Obama won his first presidential election in November 2008, journalist Wil Haygood wrote for The Washington Post the profile of a singular man: Eugene Allen, a black butler who worked at the White House for more than three decades, through the eras of segregation and the civil rights movement. Allen witnessed eight administrations and eventually rose to the highest White House butler position.
Sony Pictures quickly bought the rights to the story, and producer Laura Ziskin (“Pretty Woman”) asked writer-actor Danny Strong to do the screenplay. Strong had previously acted on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Gilmore Girls.” He also wrote the acclaimed HBO drama “Game Change.” After four years of work, three in collaboration with director Lee Daniels (“Precious”), and a battle for financing, Strong’s screenplay for “The Butler” was shot under Daniels’s direction. It stars Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) as a butler named Cecil Gaines, whose fictional story draws from Allen’s real-life tale. Oprah Winfrey plays the butler’s wife, and others in the unconventional, star-studded cast include Cuba Gooding Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Terence Howard, John Cusack, Robin Williams, and Jane Fonda.
During a recent visit to Boston, Strong, who has since worked on the screenplays for “The Lost Symbol” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” two-part finale, spoke about bringing the story of Eugene Allen to life.
Q. You pitched “Game Change,” but “The Butler” came to you.
A. Laura Ziskin, who’s no longer with us, approached me. She said, “I have this article; I want you to write the script, what do you think?” I thought there was absolutely an amazing movie here, but I had no clue how to do it or if it could even work. Because how do you tell a story about a butler over 30-odd years of US history? Where does that story begin? What do you focus on? The whole thing just seemed overwhelming. And a butler is a passive character. He’s not the one driving the action in movies. In movies, the main character normally has to drive the action. But I was convinced that if I could figure out how to do it, there could be a very special movie.
Q. How did you overcome these obstacles?
A. I had two major breakthroughs. One was when I decided it needed to be about the civil rights movement, which seems obvious now, but when you have an article that’s a profile on a White House butler, you could do anything. I was reading through different events of the ’50s and the ’60s, and I kept on getting drawn to the civil rights battles. And then it popped into my head: to tell the story of an African-American butler in the White House, and to tell the story of the civil rights movement, seeing it from his eyes and through the eyes of the presidents — I realized that it had to be that. I continued with my research, and I was so drawn to these battles — to the sit-ins and the Freedom Riders.
Q. What was the second breakthrough?
A. I had read about some White House staff members who had family members in the civil rights movement. And then it hit me: Why not have the butler have a son who is a civil rights activist? And once I came up with that, then I had the movie. We have the butler in the White House, his son in the field, the butler trying to get his son out of it, and the president dealing with the crisis that the son is in the middle of, while being served by the butler. It’s this perfect triangle.
Q. Did you speak with Eugene Allen while he was still alive?
A. He was 90 or 91 when I interviewed him — I spent quite a bit of time with him in his basement. He had pictures of himself with presidents and first ladies, and a watercolor by Eisenhower. He had a hard time remembering events because of his age. There was a great moment when I asked him about the civil rights movement, and he said, “I was too old for that stuff,” and I thought, “That’s it, that’s Cecil Gaines; that’s going to be at the center of this movie.”
Q. What films inspired you while you were writing the screenplay?
A. I specifically do not revisit films while I’m writing, because I used to do that and I felt like I was too influenced by other movies instead of just sitting down and writing a story for its own sake. The only thing that comes to mind is “Forrest Gump.” It’s a generational story, with intersecting historical characters. I told the producers that I see this much more like “Forrest Gump” than “Remains of the Day.”
Q. How did you react when you heard who had been cast?
A. Forest Whitaker was the guy I always thought should be the butler, so that was amazing. I had this idea of who I wanted it to be, and it ends up being him. And then Oprah Winfrey. That blew my mind. That would blow anybody’s mind. To be told that Oprah Winfrey is going to star in a script you wrote, when she hasn’t acted in 15 years, and she’s one of the most famous icons in the world? Her performance is so amazing too.
Q. How did Oprah come to join the cast?
A. Lee Daniels got her. The funny thing about Oprah coming back to acting in a Lee Daniels movie is that Lee Daniels is a very brave, edgy artist. What a cool way to decide to come back. He’s on the edge. You look at “The Paperboy” and you look at “Precious” — these aren’t conventional American films.
Q. We tend to associate Oprah with the comfortable mainstream.
A. Lee is the opposite of that. But this is a more traditional film that he’s made — it has a more classical kind of quality to it, which I think shows what amazing range he has.
Q. The movie ends on a hopeful note, bringing viewers back to the way many people felt just after the 2008 elections. By most accounts, things have soured substantially since then in terms of the way the nation feels about Obama. And the narrative of racial injustice in America did not end with the election of Obama. Does any of that worry you?
A. Not at all. The ending has nothing to do with Barack Obama as an individual or his policies. It’s about the achievement of America electing the first African-American president. And it’s a stunning achievement, particularly when you look at the events of the civil rights movement. . . . When you see how far this country has come, its something we should all be proud of as Americans. But we certainly still have a long way to go.
Interview was condensed and edited. Benjamin Soloway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.