How Lee Daniels Drew on His Own Life to Shape Empire, TV’s Surprise Hit

The creative force tells us what he's learned and what's next

Scratch the surface of Fox's monster hit drama Empire and you'll find a whole lot of truths that are based on the experiences of Lee Daniels, who created the series with his partner, Danny Strong.

Just as fictional hip-hop artist Jamal Lyon was beaten as a child by his homophobic father, so, too, was Daniels, who serves as Empire's executive producer, writer and sometimes director. (Unlike Lucious Lyon, Empire's father figure and head of a powerful music company—portrayed with steely-eyed grit by actor Terrence Howard—Daniels' father was a Philadelphia cop.)

Daniels' work has won fans and awards.  Photo: Sheryl Nields

The show's most popular character, stiletto-heeled Cookie (Taraji Henson), got some of her kick-ass qualities from Daniels' "corrupt politician" grandmother and his drug-dealing sister. Then, there's Daniels' mother, who once beat him with a broom for misbehaving, just as Cookie beat her son Hakeem.

Daniels shared these stories and much more in a recent interview with Adweek. Notably, he discussed the "trauma" he experienced creating the series for Fox, which involved a far different process than he had as maker of such movies as Monster's Ball, Precious and The Butler.

Adweek: How hard was it to sell Empire? Did it take a while for you and Danny Strong to feel the Fox love?

Lee Daniels: No. There was a bidding war. Isn't that crazy? We were red hot, Danny and I, coming off The Butler. We love working together. He wanted to do it as a film and I wanted to make money, so I saw it as a TV show. After The Butler, I was blown away by the amount of people who saw the story. It touched so many people's lives. So I thought, wow, what would happen if we told the story in people's homes?

Did you feel right from the start that it was going to be such a hit?

No. I don't pay much attention to numbers. I'm so busy working that I don't come out of my bubble to know the insanity and the "Cookie-mania." I'm nervous about what my next episode is going to be, or what my next season is going to be like. I don't read reviews unless my publicist tells me, "You really should take a look at this." I don't want it to affect the work.

But when I finally did come up for air, I turned to my mother and said, "Mom, what do you make of this?" And she said, "Well, you know, when you did your first movie [Monster's Ball], you got that girl [Halle Berry] an Academy Award. And that made history. So where else are you going to go from there?"

So now you're working on a biographical film about Richard Pryor?

Yes. And I'm simultaneously writing another TV show.

Do you see yourself as eventually becoming a Dick Wolf or Shonda Rhimes, with lots of series on the air at the same time?

Empire was a very traumatic experience for me. It was very schizophrenic, and it wasn't what I expected it to be. I think I've learned to become a better filmmaker because you have to make decisions immediately. You don't have time to ponder. And if you don't make those decisions, there are 80 people that will. And all 80 people have a say so. That, in itself, was shocking to my system.

I have a very specific way of working. I've never done a studio movie, let alone worked for a network. Every one of my films has been independently financed. I've been responsible for every frame that you see—and now I've got these people to talk to [laughs].

I had no intentions of going back [to television after Empire]. But I must be a masochist because once I looked at the success and all the people that were affected by it, I thought, OK, maybe the next time it will be easier.

I don't profess to be Shonda Rhimes by any stretch of the imagination, or Dick Wolf. They're icons. I'm a filmmaker. They've really done something and I guess I have, too, but I don't see myself as astute, with a body of [TV] work like those two people.