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In the current issue we feature Gabby Sidibe, the star of Precious. Here, we speak to the director of what is shaping up to be one of this year's most controversial films

No film in recent memory has divided critics and audiences, stirred up debates and encouraged discussion quite like Precious. It tells the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), an illiterate, obese black teenager living in 1980s Harlem, New York who is verbally and physically abused by her demanding and neglectful mother (Mo’Nique) and pregnant with her second child by her father. After being suspended from school she begins attending an alternative school and is soon inspired to take her life in a different direction.

Featuring cameos from Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey, the film has been tipped for Academy Awards but that hasn’t stopped the growing criticism. Detractors proclaim it negatively portrays the lives of African-Americans and drags audiences through “the lower depths of the human experience”. During the London Film Festival, we grabbed the producer-turned-director Lee Daniels for a quick chat about turning the super-controversial novel by Sapphire into a movie, and getting Mariah Carey to leave the glamour at home.

Dazed Digital: Initially, the book’s author was against a film adaptation, and yet you won her round…
Lee Daniels: I Love her for that. It took me nine, probably ten, years to stalk her. I have stalked her for ten years! Sapphire is a scholar. She is a genius. She is a poet. She is an intellect beyond belief. She doesn’t give a fuck about Hollywood. She just doesn’t. I think that even if I had made a bad movie, it would not affect her brilliant masterpiece, and I think that she saw the difference in both. She finally realised it and I was there the right time stalking her.

DD: Did she come to the film set?
Lee Daniels: She came down once or twice. I think she had to watch some of what I was doing because I am dealing with her very profound book. She laughed at something that only Mo’Nique and I thought was funny and she was laughing with us because she got it. She understood that there is humour and that she was still the creator. There was a moment when Mo’Nique was laughing at something and I was laughing at something and Sapphire was laughing at something, and we realised that nobody else was laughing but us, and that we were on another plane. It was a surreal moment.

DD: What was the moment?
Lee Daniels: It was the scene when the mother tells Precious about the HIV. Precious says, ‘Do you have it?’ The mother says she doesn’t, so Precious says, ‘How do you know?’ and the mother answers, ‘Because we didn’t do it up in the ass!’  No one else thought that was funny. I don’t think it was funny but it was this brilliant delivery of it. I think we were laughing at the execution. It was exactly how Sapphire wrote it in the book, so there was this triangle of understanding between Mo’Nique, Sapphire and myself.

DD: It is a tough film but also a very tough book. You have had to soften the delivery a little, and add a few more rays of light…
Lee Daniels: If I had done the book it would have been X-rated. Not that I have a problem with doing X-rated films but it would have lost an audience. I think that the audience should be entitled to breathe. I think with the book, if it gets too much, emotionally, you can put it down. It affected me so that I had to stop. I had to digest it. I put it down and picked it up again later on and I think that the sequences and the touches of humour that we put in the script really do it justice. We had to let the audience breathe. If you’ve read that book you will know what I am talking about.

DD: You’ve said that you knew people who were moments away from being characters in this story…
Lee Daniels: I knew these people when I was a kid. I know these people now. Everybody in that movie is someone that I have known. And I find it surprising that people don’t know them. I know that if you live in New York City there is no way you don’t see Precious. And I often see Mary. I am down in the grocery store and I am watching mothers yank on their kids, and just really fuming at them, with a cigarette dangling from their mouth. It doesn’t matter if they’re black, Puerto Rican, white or Chinese. Each woman exists.

DD: Was it a tough sell to get Mariah Carey to play the Ms Weiss character with no make-up and glitz?
Lee Daniels: I said, ‘Mariah, you’ve got to come solo. You can’t come with your posse, you can’t come with a scrubbed face, there’s no make-up. We’ve got to make you more ugly!’ I think that she embraced it with gusto. She was so excited to be on an independent set and I am just so proud of her, because you don’t know what it is like to step outside of that bubble that she’s in. Bringing her out of that bubble with all of those people, and that machine she has around her, and getting her into my cocoon was a triumph for me. I knew she could do it, but I didn’t think she would go to where she went. And though I feel validated about Mo’Nique, I feel extra validated about Mariah and Lenny Kravitz, because those characters really are not the people that they are. It’s a massive jump for the rock star that I know, and the diva that I know.

DD: Finally, what was the most important thing that you wanted to convey with this film?
Lee Daniels: That never again should we look at Precious and not see Precious. When you stumble across this girl you will acknowledge her. Because I have cousins that are her, friends that are her and even having friends and cousins that are her, I still disassociate myself. It is so important for me that I embrace this girl with all my gusto, because she is embracing me. The other important part of this story is about learning to love yourself, and accepting who you are. Those are the two big points I hope people will walk away with from this film. Who knows if they will? But I pray to God that they do.

Precious: is released in cinemas across January 29 2010
Read the feature on Precious star Gabby Sidibe in the Dazed February issue out now.