Producing ‘The Butler’

Producing ‘The Butler’

'We thought this was an incredible story that had to be told. We never thought about winning awards.'

Matthew Salloway is an executive producer of Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” which took first place at the box office last weekend, bringing in $25 million. Based on a true story, the film, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, traces a man’s journey from the cotton fields to serving in the White House. The butler, named Cecil Gaines, works for several presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. Salloway serves on several boards of UJA-Federation of New York, is on the board of The Dror For The Wounded Foundation (which helps wounded Israeli soldiers) and did a fellowship at Manhattan Jewish Experience. An attorney who has represented athletes, actors and major corporations, he lives on the Upper West Side.

Q: You got to watch the film in Boston with the Kennedys. What was that like?

A: We held a screening for President [George] Bush Sr. in Kennebunkport and one for Patrick and Joseph Kennedy in Boston, and it was amazing. The film covers a butler who served in the White House for over 30 years. Kennedy was very much featured in that and Bush as the vice president for Reagan, so to have their input and to sit next to them was incredible. The Kennedys thought James Marsden played Kennedy very well.

Oprah Winfrey delivered a powerhouse performance. Were you surprised at how good she was?

No. She was amazing. Hopefully she will be considered during awards season along with Forest Whitaker and Danny Oyelowo, who plays the butler’s son. I think it’s a credit to Lee Daniels, who is such a talented director and brought out really authentic performances.

What interested you in the script and when reading it did you think it was Oscar-worthy?

It’s a great script by Danny Strong. The civil right issue is important to me. My mother was involved in desegregation of schools in Boston. She came right out of school and wanted to save the world. She was involved in marches as well and runs a nonprofit that helps minorities. When you’re making a movie, you never know about Oscars. We thought this was an incredible story that had to be told. We never thought about winning awards, we thought it was the right movie to be made and it came together incredibly well.

What do you think is the message of the film?

I think it’s about our nation and our history. It’s about a father-son relationship and the struggle of opposing ideas. I think it shows how far we’ve come as a country and it’s something to be inspired by.

Whitaker’s character, Cecil, who is the butler, works hard as a servant, while his son believes more drastic measures need to be taken to resist oppression. Do you see Cecil as a hero?

I do. I think he lived through a very difficult time and was able to break down barriers and was conflicted between the approach of his son and his own beliefs and being so close to the president. He was in a difficult position. You see his ability to change the status of minorities in the White House in the scene at the end, and improving pay and advancement. He did it in a stoic and non-violent way.

How were the actors that you met?

I didn’t get to spend time with Oprah unfortunately. Forest Whitaker is a wonderful person. He’s a real mensch. Cuba [Gooding, Jr.] is such a charming guy, just like you see onscreen.

There are some comical moments, including LBJ [Lyndon Johnson] shouting orders while on the toilet. Did the Kennedys laugh at that scene?

I don’t recall. But I did.

How did you get involved with film?

I worked in private equity, in mergers and acquisitions. I worked in two firms and then I went out on my own and I started my own firm, where I serve as an outside general counsel to a wide range of clients, directors, athletes and business executives. I represented investors in film and Broadway and then I eventually got into the business side. I did one [play] with Jerry Seinfeld called “Long Story Short,” with Colin Quinn, and then in film I was involved in “The Ides of March,” with George Clooney and “So Undercover,” with Miley Cyrus.

What has been the key to your success?

Of course, I work hard. I try to be honest, direct and up-front. In the film business, it might not be that common, but I feel that you have to be.

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