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Wil Haygood on the making of a movie phenomenon (with video)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wil Haygood's stories on White House butler Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents over three decades, inspired a movie powerhouse.

But the film, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" needed a little help from its friends -- actors and filmmakers alike -- to become the success it is today, Haygood said Tuesday.

"One thing I was very touched by, it wasn't a large budget," said the Washington Post reporter and former Charleston Gazette writer and copy editor. "Right down the line -- six Oscar winners in this movie -- and everybody took steep pay cuts. Everybody who has been associated with this movie took steep pay cuts because they believed in it. And they thought it was going to be something special.

"It really showed me what artists can contribute to a project when they believe in it. It was just a wonderful collaborative effort on everybody's part."

Haygood served as an associate producer and researcher on the movie adaptation of his work, while also offering some insights to Forest Whitaker, who plays Cecil Gaines, the character adapted from Haygood's profile of Allen.

Before Whitaker had filmed his first scenes, the actor asked Haygood to visit him at his New Orleans home, the reporter recalled.

"He had a lot of questions about how Mr. Allen sounded, how he walked, how he talked, just little habits of his. It was very important to Forest Whitaker to capture as much of Mr. Allen as he could. So I filled in blanks where I could."

The possibility of the movie's success began to be revealed as the cameras rolled.

"You know, my hope for the movie was that people would give it a chance to breathe, to open in the theaters. Lee Daniels comes from such an artsy, artistic, auteur background as a filmmaker. And he wanted to make this sweeping epic.  I think it made everybody nervous to predict what might become of the movie on the movie set itself.

"But we knew when we were watching some of the scenes being filmed that there was amazing acting and directing going on. We just knew that. So that was a point of encouragement and hope at what was taking place on the movie set."

The movie's continued success has delighted all involved, said Haygood.

"Could I have imagined the phenomenal success that it has had? It has made more than $100 million at the box office. It's the first drama this year to be number one at the box office three weeks in a row," he said. "I just don't think any of us could have seen that. We're all ecstatic about it." Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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