By a Provencal mile, the most controversial film in Cannes is Paperboy from Lee Daniels, the director of Precious. Nothing else even comes close. Based on a darkly comic novel by Pete Dexter, it all unspools as a wild, unhinged southern gothic potboiler that upends whatever notions you may hold about four major Hollywood actors. Matthew McConaghey plays the investigative journalist with a raw sexual secret—and his character is investigating the story of Nicole Kidman’s “sexed-up Barbie,” a bodacious, horny gal who gets off on writing sexed-up letters to violent convicts. Zac Efron plays McConaghey’s younger, tightie-whitie-wearing brother, a naïve horndog who falls for the babe, despite the fact that she’s getting married to a swamp-dwelling racist psychopath. Many critics who were expecting another Precious have been disappointed. Others are embracing the film as an instant trash-cinema cult-classic. Everyone is arguing, but one thing is clear: When Matthew McConaghey does violent on-screen bondage, or Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron to heal his character’s jellyfish wound, it’s news. In Cannes, GQ asked Lee Daniels to explain the festival’s wildest film.
GQ: Hi there.
Lee Daniels: First, though, GQ is my favorite magazine. I got a lot of GQ posters in my college room in the ’70s….
GQ: What was your favorite cover?
Lee Daniels: When they put that homeboy on the cover with the mustache. It was it. It was the end. He’s my hero. Anyway…
GQ: Great. Well, Congratulations on being the most talked-about man in Cannes.
Lee Daniels: Am I? Really? Dude, it’s crazy…
GQ: How’s it feel?
Lee Daniels: Well, I should have never told my mom about the Internet, because she sent me this interview 15 minutes before I’m about to walk on the red carpet. As I’m putting my socks on! She says, “Why would people be writing about this you?” I don’t read reviews. I learned that from Shadowboxer. Now I’m scrolling down and reading it and starting to shake. My heart’s beating and I’m sweating and I’m nauseous and I really don’t know what I feel like, because I’ve never felt that way. So I call Nicole, shaking. I’m on the phone, I say, “I don’t know if I’m going to vomit. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” She said, “Lee, you know they boo people sometimes at can. They really boo.” I said, “What?! ”
GQ: Ha! Thanks, Nicole…
Lee Daniels: Yes. My experience with Precious was having an eight-minute standing ovation. And I have this experience of walking down the carpet, going inside, not even watching the movie. And then we get a 16-minute ovation. And I don’t know what it all means. I’m still processing. I know what I thought the movie was about and what I thought, and I know these are the harshest critics in the world. I’m processing. And I haven’t shared that with anybody yet.
GQ: Some films get put in a box immediately, but this is the kind of film that people are going to argue about for months.
Lee Daniels: What would you say the reaction is like out there?
GQ: There are a lot of passionate supporters and—I’m not going to sugarcoat it—there are a lot of people who hate it, who think it’s horrible.
Lee Daniels: Would you say it’s fifty-fifty?
GQ: I don’t know. Some prominent critics like it, others don’t.
Lee Daniels: I think, too, that, and it’s so politically incorrect to talk about racism—you simply can’t—but I think that if it were Pedro Almodovor or some Italian director telling the story we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in. I should be doing Precious—urban stories that make sense for me. How dare I step out of my comfort zone and tell a story like this. That’s the way I think it is. But, that’s not my destiny.
GQ: I wonder if part of the racism is that you’re a black director taking one of the most adored white actresses of our era and you make her squat and pee on Zac Efron. And even what you have Matthew McConaughey do for you…
Lee Daniels: And you know what? They love me. As much as I love them. And they trusted me and they believed and we’re all working together again. I don’t know what it all means. It means: Get ready, it is what it is. Am I really the most talked-about?
GQ: Of course. It’s not like people are arguing over Moonrise Kingdom: Are the kids cute are not? Everybody agrees that the kids are cute
Lee Daniels: You are very funny. As long as people are talking and some people get it… But, you’re worried about the film?
GQ: I’m not worried about you. Critics are going to love arguing back and forth for a long time, and that’s going to generate some heat.
Lee Daniels: And I don’t do it for shock. The thing is, people are taking this too fucking seriously. It ain’t deep. It ain’t that fucking deep, yo. My inspiration is Almodovar. My inspiration is John Waters. My inspiration is Spike Lee. I’m a combination of all of those filmmakers. They live in me. And I’m not here to shock anybody. I love seeing what we don’t see ordinarily. We, as the American public have been brainwashed and people continue to underestimate what we want to see. I mean, I’m down with The Avengers. I’m down with Spider-Man. But I also know that I need to be stimulated. Even if I don’t like a movie, I want to have something to think about. I could do 50 movies for the price of some of those movies.
GQ: Well, if you think about what we all talk about over drinks with friends that doesn’t get talked about much in movies, it’s sex.
Lee Daniels: Period!
GQ: And you go after sex in a way that very few filmmakers do.
Lee Daniels: I don’t run away from things. I run right into them. I am not afraid. And I’m not afraid to not edit myself. My mom always told me that would be my problem, but the moment I start editing myself, I will cease to exist. The moment I start editing myself, the lies begin. You think I’m an idiot? Fine. But I’m going to tell my truth, and tell the actors my truth. And I’m going to tell them they suck if they suck and if they’re great I’m going to fall to their feet and kiss them.
GQ: A lot of actors say no to things like what you ask them to do in this film.
Lee Daniels: All the time. And the truth is polarizing. I don’t even want to hear it. Please like my movie! I don’t want to hear what you really think. It is what it really is.
GQ: The big headline going around the Internet today is: “Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron.”
Lee Daniels: Is it?
GQ: Of course. Because you have Nicole Kidman pee on Zac Efron. That’s the puerile way the Internet works. Three other women offer to pee on Zac Efron’s jellyfish wounds and Kidman says, “If anyone’s gonna pee on you…”
Lee Daniels: “…it’s gonna be me.”
GQ: Funniest line of the festival. Tell me about that scene. Why did it have to be in there?
Lee Daniels: Well, I got nervous at the end, after we shot it. So I called Nicole. First of all, it was really hard to shoot. It was the third day. The first scene we shot was the sex scene with John [Cusack and Kidman]. I like to get that right out of the way. The second day was the telepathic sex scene in the prison. And the third day of shooting was the piss scene.
GQ: Ha! You front-loaded it, so that way if they try to back out…
Lee Daniels: I got it! Yes, I got it! Yes, see ya! …But, when right before I sent it off to Cannes, I called Nicole at three in the morning. I said, “Nicole, I can’t do it, I’ve gone too far. I can’t put that scene in the movie.” She said, “Lee, you made me pee on Zac Efron, if you don’t put that in the movie, you’re out of your freakin’ mind. I did it! I did it!” [A publicist interrupts with a two-minute warning.] No, not yet, yo! This is GQ, this is my favorite magazine. We gotta keep talking… What was I saying?
GQ: You were talking to Nicole.
Lee Daniels: She said, “No way, you’re out of your mind.” So we put it in. That was the one where I thought, “Oh… No…” When you’re doing the script it makes sense, when you’re shooting it, it makes sense, but then you see the totality and you’re like, “Woah. Woah.”
GQ: What was it that made you worry? Walk me through it.
Lee Daniels: Look, the dude [Efron] gets a hard-on because he’s sitting there staring at [Kidman's] ass. But I couldn’t go there because I refused to show the hard-on. I wasn’t going to do that. Then she says, “Take that hard-on and go over to those other girls [nearby on the beach].” In the book, he goes into the water to swim off the hard-on, but I had to reconstruct the scene because it was too much.
GQ: So you’re thinking, it’s already toned down…
Lee Daniels: It’s already way down, dude! Way down. And then he goes swimming and he’s attacked by jellyfish. And how you fix it is with urine. And it’s brilliantly written by Pete Dexter.
GQ: But, let’s be honest, then you go for it! It’s not like it’s framed by a palm tree and you barely see it. You zoom in on Nicole’s thighs and we see the golden shower! There’s no cut-away. You went for it, c’mon.
Lee Daniels: Let me ask you something, dude, what did you think?
GQ: I howled. Of course I did: It’s Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron.
Lee Daniels: Ha! And if you could have watched Zac’s face: He’s supposed to be passed out and [while she's peeing] he’s just got this smile on his face. I’m like, “Zac, pretend like you’re dead!” And he’s just got this crazy smile on his face. The whole thing’s crazy.
GQ: Just listening to you talk about it, it sounds like you had a really good time.
Lee Daniels: I absolutely did. It was a party. And I think people are taking it absolutely too fucking seriously. You cannot take this seriously. Yes, we do hit on some serious tones. You know how many white men I dated in the Seventies and early Eighties who were like, “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me.” And then we’d walk outside and they wouldn’t even look at me? I know one white cat who committed suicide because he was from Alabama and his parents couldn’t stand the fact that he was dating a black boy. I had to bring my truth into this world. Anita [Macy Gray's character, who plays the house servant] is based on my mother, my aunts, my cousins, all those—What the fuck is The Help? Anita is the help. I can’t show anything fake, that’s not true. That’s the reality that I know. I can’t show anything fake that’s not true. My brother just got out of prison. I took care of his kids and raised them since they were two days old. They’re 17 years old. He was in jail for a long time and women would write them these letters: Pussy, pussy, pussy… And I had to show them to John to show him that all these people are people who I am intimate with. So even if people think these characters are fictitious or unbelievable or outrageous, as I have been told… But no more outrageous than Precious, a 400-pound black girl dying of AIDS. No, that’s the fucking truth. What’s outrageous is that we’re not seeing enough of it. You should be able to have a good time. I’m not a fucking auteur. I’m a filmmaker. It is what it is.
GQ: And you also seem to love that pulp impulse: Plot. Reversals. Twists. Sex. Violence. Murder. You make films where things happen.
Lee Daniels: That’s the way life happens. And it don’t wrap up in a pretty bow.
GQ: And let’s talk about Zac Efron’s tightie whities. He couldn’t look any better.
Lee Daniels: I was just like, how can I make him look ugly? I couldn’t. Matthew [McConaughey] is handsome, at least, is older, so I could rough him up, but fucking Zac? It was hard. I kept twisting the camera but he always looked good. The tightie whities?
GQ: What was the inspiration for that?
Lee Daniels: Me. I sat in the house with nothing but my tightie whities on. My mom would say, “Put some clothes on. Why are you walking around the house in your underwear?” But unfortunately I didn’t look like Zac Efron.
GQ: And Matthew McConaughey is one of the big stories of Cannes: Two films here, after Killer Joe and Magic Mike, and in your film he’s bound and tied on a hotel room floor in a very rough sex scene.
Lee Daniels: That was the hardest thing. Really hard. I don’t rehearse. And he had a robe on, and he came up next to me, and he disrobed so he could show me the welts [that make-up had applied for the violent sequence]. And I said, “Could you please put your clothes back on, sir.”
Lee Daniels: Because it was very… It was too much. It was very… And I…
GQ: Very what?
Lee Daniels: He was, uh, physical perfection. And with those welts… What he does is courageous. Breathtakingly courageous and a testament to our relationship and it made me feel very proud to be doing this with these movie stars who put their trust in me. And I’ve gotta deliver for them. That’s why it hurts when I read these reviews. Because it stops them from going on their next journey to go on and do that for their next director.
"I’d like to be wise. You have to go through a lot to get there, but I’m willing to go through a lot." - Nicole Kidman