You can practically smell the swamps and suffocating heat, not to mention the sex, in The Paperboy, a dark, and very dirty, film based on a novel by Peter Dexter written in 1995 that opens October 19. Set in the summer of 1969 in the backwaters of race-charged Florida, reporter Ward Jansen, played by Matthew McConaughey, returns, along with his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), to his hometown, where his father owns a newspaper and his brother Jack (Zac Efron), a college swimmer–and dropout–delivers them. (Warning: Efron is in his underwears for a good chunk of the film.) They’re there to investigate a case involving a death row inmate, played by John Cusack, whose only champion is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a sort of death row groupie.
When the movie had its world premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival, reviews were mixed. (You can read what my colleague Brian D. Johnson had to say about it here.) Indiewire even made a poem using all the descriptors that critics used when they wrote about the film. But director Lee Daniels, who directed 2009’s Precious, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Maclean’s sat down with Daniels, along with stars Zac Efron and David Oyelowo, while they were in town for The Paperboy’s North American premiere at TIFF, to talk about the critically polarizing film.
On working with director Lee Daniels:
Efron: What was fantastic about working with Lee is that he doesn’t really have any clear guidelines of what exactly he needs; he just knows it when he sees it, that moment of truth. It’s sort of experimental…To be in a movie that was challenging to me as an artist, is something that I was really serarching for. I believed in him to take me on that journey, and it just happened to be a dark and twisted fun journey with Lee. We had a really great time.
Oyelowo: Lee is very much driven and inspired by and motivated by performance, and primarily the truth. And so this group of chracters that he brings together, they are so damaged and layered. And the swamp is the perfect place to place them because they are swampy. In the distance they look a certain way and when you start to dig, there’s really quite some dangerous and murky things in there, and I think that ultimately that’s what Lee gravitates towards: the characters. And we as actors, that’s what was the most fun for us to play and explore who these people are and how they get revealed through the course of the film.
On the story and how it differs from the book:
Daniels: This is not a universal story. It is what it is…After the success of Precious, I had a lot of studios interested and movie offers and stuff. And I went back to what I was passionate about. And the story was just so mindbloggling and so powerful, potent, humouress–without trying to be. [It was] sexy, gutteral, violent, nasty, racial. And it encompassed so much that I thought, I gotta do what I gotta do. I gotta direct a world that I understand, and people that I understand. Hence The Paperboy….There’s tonnes of bullets you can shoot in this plot–it’s more of a character study. There are tones of holes in the book too, but it’s facinating and I knew that jumping in, and that the murder investigation was sort of secondary. It wasn’t really about following the A to Z of an actual murder investigation. I try to sew it, hem it as best I could. But I was more fascinated by the chracters because I knew everyone of them, as I did in Precious. I can’t direct something if I don’t know that something or have a life experience with that person.
On the characters:
Efron: I think at the beginning, Jack is very lost. He doesn’t really fit into this future that his dad has planned for him. He made all the right choieces, to a degree, and at the beginning of the this movie, he still wants something more, and he doesn’t know what that is. I think that through these chaacters on this journey, he really finds out the innersworksing of people and what makes them tick….There are moments that could have been uncomfortable but really that’s why we’re here. That’s what I was looking for with the part. You know, with Lee, it was all a bit scary. But it was fun. that was part of the reason that I did it.
Oyelowo: In Dexter’s novel, Yardley is not black. Lee and I were trying to get another film off the ground that was largely set in the world of civil rights in the ’60s so when The Paperboy came along, we wanted to continue exploring that, and he just felt like he couldn’t do a film set in the ’60s in the south without exploring that. And so I think that as he made that choice, and we went in that direction, he started to see more and more of himself in Yardley. What we started to discuss was how to justify this character being in this movie without it all being about race? What Lee and I have found as being black people, who are largely a minority in a white industry, you find yourself morphing in order to be excepted and in order to inhabit these spaces. He talked a lot about how he has to be with studio heads, financiers as apposed to being just back home in Philidelphia with his family. And that sort of inspried the diplicitous nature that you see with Yardley. The idea is not that Yardley is gay, but he will do what he needs to do to get where he wants to get.
Daniels: [there is a piece of me in all four leading characters.] Every one of them. Not just a piece of me, but people that I know and people that I’m intimate with. Macy Gray’s character [the Janson family maid] was my grandmother, my aunts. After watching The Help, I felt like that wasn’t the truth. My aunts and my grandmother would come home with the most outrageous stories about the people they were working for. I couldn’t write it, and so Macy executed it to perfection. It’s also set during a time of racial tension that I was very familiar with. The character of Nicole–my sister wrote men in prison, and I had many friends growing up who wrote men in prison–so I understood that character and I put Nicole into a room with my sister…and Nicole had to understand her. Yardley’s character was written white. That was the only character I didn’t udnerstand. But I know he succeeded by misleading people and early on in my career I remember–and I talked about this in the New York Times article–the two faces of African Americans in the ’70s and ’80s. We had to put on a specific face to pretend we were what we weren’t in white America to succed. And Yardley is really an hommage to my experience as an African American in during that time: pretending about having gone to Harvard, being embarrassed about the projects I grew up in, pretending that I had wealthy parents, so that I would be accepted. It wasn’t until I embraced the beauty of my origin that I was able to really rise to the top. With Matthew’s character, I dated many men who were white during this time in the ’80s who had issues dealing with their own sexuality, especially those who were dating black men in the south. They weren’t just dealing with the homophopia but also that they were doing the ultimate taboo–liking black men. And it’s really dedicated to a man I used to date who committed suicide because of it. And so all of the chracters are people that I identify with, that I know and the reactions they have are actions in my heart that I honestly connect to. Otherwise I couldn’t direct them.
On the reaction to the film during Cannes:
Efron: To juxtapose where we were filming this and the expense we went through for being in Cannes at that moment was just unbelievable. I really enjoyed that it’s a polarizing film. People either really love it, and get it, or some people just want to go home and take a shower. And that’s neat. I can’t imagine a better outcome or a better result, to be in a challenging movie at this stage and to play this character. It’s everything that I dreamed of.
On the corruption of journalism, a key plot point in the film:
Oyelowo: Yeah, we definitely talked about it, and I did research into it. The fact of the matter is, is that we are back there. The world that we now live in where everyone can publicize something, whether it be on Facebook, Twitter–presidents are using Twitter–the sheer barage of information and how quickly that’s assimiliated as truth is kind of what we explore in our film. It’s the beginning of that, in terms of the Information Age, especially when the brand of information you’re giving can be equated with wealth. You win a Pulitzer Prize, that leads to a book deal, so in a sense, my character and Matthew’s character are polar opposites. He is integrous. He is old school. Whereas I want that next suit. [My character] has somehow rationalized it: I’m a black man in America and I’m gonna get what’s mine and I don’t give a f–k. But the result is bad journalism.
After the round table, we met up with the three (sort of ) again on the red carpet before the film’s premiere: