An Interview with Danny Strong – By Kirsten Walsh

Danny Strong always knew he would have a career in film. Starting back in his days in Manhattan Beach, California, where Strong would sit in the local video rental store and have conversations with then-store-clerk Quentin Tarantino, film flowed through his veins. He attended a prestigious film school, and auditioned for anything that came his way. By working on and off again with Joss Whedon and his creative team for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, Strong became a loved part of the mysterious world of Sunnydale, and kicked off a promising acting career. He went on to appear in films such as “Pleasantville”, “Seabiscuit”, and “Sydney White”, as well as roles in “Nip/Tuck”, “Gilmore Girls”, and most recently, “Mad Men”. Writing screenplays had always been a joy for him, but it wasn’t until HBO picked up “Recount” that his writing career skyrocketed. He became one of the top writers listed on Hollywood’s “Black List” for screenwriters, and HBO picked up his next script, “Game Change” for 2012, which went on to win a handful of Emmy’s (including Strong’s Emmy for Outstanding Writing), a handful of Golden Globes, and several other awards. On Strong’s plate now sits “Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2”- the final films in “The Hunger Games” series, set for release in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Also, he is listed to be attached to the next Dan Brown adaptation for “The Lost Symbol”, starring Tom Hanks.

But set to be released this year is Strong’s first major theatrical release (for screenwriting): “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”, an original screenplay that follows the life of one African American White House Butler through his career and how it affects his family. Strong took a moment from preparing for the release to talk to us about the film.

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KW: First of all, of course, there’s a lot of controversy going on with “The Butler” right now, with the name going through legal issues concerning copyright. Where does it stand right now in regards to the title?

DS: It’s been resolved now, with the move being called “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”

KW: So you wrote the film, and you were also a producer on the project?

DS: Yeah. I’m executive producer on the project, and was involved in a producerial capacity, but I was far from the lead producer. Pamela Williams was the lead producer and there were quite a few producers on the project that did an excellent job.

KW: Sounds like a lot of talent gathered in one place! Now, as far as your writing career, you have just broken boundaries, and obviously you have an Emmy now- Congratulations, by the way-

DS: Thank you.

KW: You’ve really just been blazing through. What brought you to the point where you are at now?

DS: I don’t know really. I’m really flattered that people seem to like the work I’m doing, and keep hiring me and reaching out to me to write movies for them. I think I work real hard, and I think I’m very collaborative, and people like working with people that are collaborative, so opportunities just keep coming up. But at the end of the day, it just takes a lot of hard work and perseverance.

KW: This is obvious from how in depth your scripts are like “Game Change” and “Recount”, which are both excellent. “The Butler” is still political, but it is journeying away from what you have been doing with the past two films. Is there any reason why you chose “The Butler” to work on?

DS: Yes, I thought it was a beautiful story. I thought it would be an amazing film- this sweeping epic through history, through the eyes of a White House butler. With his wife and his son, you could have this really intimate, personal story of this African American family, and you’ll see how the tides of history interact with his family life. And by him being a White House Butler, you can see how those decisions that affected this family’s life were made by the presidents who made them. Because the butler is literally serving the presidents as they are making decisions, you see in extreme detail things that are going to affect his family’s life forever. And I thought, this could work, it could be a very sweeping, emotional epic film.

KW: Very cool. It definitely looks that way through the trailer and the images that have been released. This is your first time working with Lee Daniels, (“The Paperboy”), as the director of the production. What involvement did he have with you during the writing stage? Did you guys collaborate at all leading up to pre-production?

DS: We had a really terrific collaboration. I had written four drafts of the script before he came on board as the director. I was just working with the producer Laura Ziskin and Pam Williams who took over for Laura after she passed away. And I had been working with the two of them on the script for about a year and then when it was in a good enough place where we wanted to get a director attached, we sent it out and Lee signed on very very quickly. Then he came on board and we worked on multiple drafts together. We had an excellent director to writer relationship.

KW: That sounds excellent. So both “Recount” and “Game Change” both had a lot of political controversy surrounding them in their release. You have come out saying that you are very open to easing the political mind. Let’s say in the example of Sarah Palin, who you offered to let watch the film before the release for “Game Change”, and she refused and there was some lashback from some aides who were working for Palin regarding the film. Was there anything like that for this film?

DS: Not yet. We’re still about a month from coming out. I’m not really sure. I don’t know if there’s going to be anything like that. Those movies (“Recount”, “Game Change”) were really hot button political films about events that had literally just happened. This film is sort of this epic journey from 1926 through the Reagan administration. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are certain people that maybe come out and say “x, y, and z”, after the film comes out, but I don’t know if there will be any controversy pre-release. In the case of “Game Change”, Sarah Palin’s aides came out and attacked the film very loudly before the film’s release, you know, but they said they hadn’t seen the film yet, but they know it’s all lies. That was just a very odd situation to have happen around a film they hadn’t seen. I wouldn’t imagine that happening in the case of this film, but you never know.

KW: Right. So of course with your history in political films, it appears that you are changing directions now with some upcoming projects. Can you talk about those?

DS: Well, I can’t really say much about them. I worked on “Hunger Games 3” and “Hunger Games 4”, which are “Mockingjay part I and part II”. That’s really all I can say about it. It is very much like Ft. Knox over there, you know?

KW: Of course. But with the process of changing directions in the style of writing and working more in a fictional place, has that been beneficial to you?

DS: Well, I’ve worked on other projects similar to this vein, they just haven’t been made yet. The great thing about HBO is that you turn in a script and if they like it, they go make it. But when you’re in the studio system, it can take years and years and years for your film to get made. In the case of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”, I started writing that in 2009, and now it’s 2013 and the film is finally coming out. There are multiple projects that I have been working on for various studios for the last several years, so it is not like a massive departure for me, but I can see how it would be perceived that way, because the only two films that I’ve had made were the two political films.

KW: And as far as your process goes, what exactly gets you to the point of writing the full script? You said you worked on four drafts of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” before Lee signed on. What is your process like? Especially because “Game Change” was an adaptation, and “Recount” is an original story idea, can you tell me what differentiates the process in those?

DS: Sure. Well, “Recount” was an original script, and it was based on tons of articles and reports and interviews I did with the actual people that fought the battle. “Game Change” was an interesting project. Some projects, you stay very close to the book, and other projects you veer wildly away from the book. But for me, a lot of stuff is very much inspired from the research process and in the case of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”, it was a lot of research. I read countless books on not just the presidencies, but also autobiographies of people who had worked at the White House before, memoirs of people who had worked there, and I interviewed several former White House staff members, children of presidents, African American historians, presidential historians, and African American presidential historians! It was just a number of people so I could try and get much information as possible to write a script that encompasses many eras. It is a very complicated story to do, and even more to research. There were so many more different administrations that I was having to go through and learn about.

KW: Yes, that sounds extremely time consuming!

DS: It actually was. I think I spent from five to six months just on the research, before I could write the first draft. That is rare though. That was kind of a rare instance, in which you have to do that much research, but it was just very complicated. It was a beautifully complicated script to put together.

KW: I know that many people are very much looking forward to it.

DS: I hope so!

KW: Now, before you became known for your writing career, you did a lot of acting. You’ve continued to do blurbs and bits here and there as your writing career has picked up, but not as much as before. Are you planning on retiring your acting career, or will we be able to keep seeing you in surprise cameos?

DS: I wouldn’t say I’m done with acting- I was on “Mad Men” this season, and I was on that show for season 4, and “How I Met Your Mother” last year, and “Grey’s Anatomy” the year before. I am definitely still acting in stuff; I’ve just become much more selective as to what I’ll do. Whereas before, acting was how I paid my rent and my insurance, and now it’s my writing. With the acting, I’m now in the position where I don’t have to take everything that comes my way, and I’ve just become very selective, and will pick projects that I know will be good, or that I really like. So it’s just been really cool actually. To be on “Mad Men”, that was a thrill. It is literally one of my favorite shows of all time, so I was very excited to be on it.

KW: Cool! That is a great show! Well, thank you for taking the time to talk to me! We will definitely keep an eye on your ever-growing career! Congratulations on the success!

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“Lee Daniels’ The Butler comes out August 16th in theaters nationwide, and more information can be seen on the IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1327773

More information about Danny and his upcoming projects can be found on his IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0834960