'Precious': An unlikely indie phenom -- The movie follows a plus-size Harlem teen on a harrowing journey

Sapphire can’t even keep track of all the people who wanted to turn her novel Push into a movie. She just remembers that she turned them all down. ”There was this really earnest college student with his backpack on who wanted to do his first film,” remembers the author of the brutal, moving book about an obese, illiterate New York City teenager named Claireece Precious Jones. ”Then Madonna wanted to produce it. I was like, ‘Madonna? I don’t think this is her film.’ Then I remember this one producer told me that he had found Precious — and it was going to be Brandy. Excuse me? I literally almost hung up on him.”

Her pickiness paid off. In the hands of filmmaker Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire has become the film-festival smash of the year thanks to its unforgettable performances, directorial flourishes, and ultimately uplifting plot — not to mention the film’s two high-profile godparents, Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. (See review, page 76.) But the road to becoming one of this season’s top Oscar contenders was as dramatic as the film itself.

Two years after the 1996 release of Push, Sapphire encountered the man who would shepherd her unflinching story to the screen — though she didn’t immediately connect with him. Lee Daniels was a former theater director who had transitioned into managing actors such as Nastassia Kinski and Wes Bentley. Reading Push, which takes place largely in a tenement house in Harlem, he was reminded of his own rough upbringing in West Philadelphia. ”I understood the DNA of it,” Daniels says. ”The smell of Raid spray laced with perfume. The pigs’ feet cooking. The staleness of the refrigerator.”

Still, Sapphire wasn’t impressed. ”I so was not feeling him,” she says of their initial conversation. ”I said ‘I need to see your work.’ And he hadn’t done anything.” But Daniels’ subsequent efforts as a producer (2001’s Monster’s Ball) and director (2006’s Shadowboxer) won her over. ”He touched on interracial sex, intergenerational sex, murder,” Sapphire marvels. ”It was this whole montage of risk taking. That’s what I knew someone would have to do with Push.”

Daniels populated his adaptation with friends and former colleagues, including stand-up comedian Mo’Nique (as Precious’ mother) and singers Mariah Carey (as a social worker) and Lenny Kravitz (as a nurse). But his greatest casting challenge was the lead role, an overweight 16-year-old beaten down by a father who repeatedly rapes her and a mother who abuses her physically and emotionally. ”I started off by calling Hollywood agents and realized that they don’t have these types,” says Daniels, who then decided to find his Precious through open auditions.

One attendee was Gabourey ”Gabby” Sidibe, a then 24-year-old whose only acting experience was in a handful of musicals at New York’s Lehman College, where she was a student. Sidibe, who’d read Push years earlier, mined her closet for the most age-appropriate garments: a headband and a hoodie. ”I showed up, like, seven minutes late,” remembers Sidibe, a happy-go-lucky young woman who is nothing at all like her downtrodden character. ”I hate being late. But I already was like, ‘I’m not getting it, so whatever.’ There was one other girl who went in after I did. Guess she wasted her time!” After a callback audition — this time Sidibe appeared in ”a pink hoodie and a shirt with monkeys and hearts on it” — she landed the role.

Once on set, the cast faced the challenge of bringing Sapphire and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher’s often harrowing story to life. The brunt of the rough stuff fell to Mo’Nique. In perhaps the film’s most squirm-inducing moment, she shoves her toddler granddaughter off her lap while sitting on a sofa. ”The moment Lee said ‘Cut!’ I had to grab that baby and the baby’s mother,” Mo’Nique says. ”Even in the moment, as it was happening, I was like, Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God. And the little voice inside me was saying, ‘Do it. You’re acting.”’

Mo’Nique’s shocking performance helped the film triumph last January at Sundance, where it won both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes. Around the same time, Daniels sent a copy to actor-director Tyler Perry, himself a victim of childhood abuse. ”I was watching, like, 60 or 70 percent of my life played out on screen in front of me,” Perry says. ”I was sitting in my house, in my screening room, taken back 25 years to my childhood, looking at Mo’Nique’s character and knowing that that was my father, and still to this day, it’s the same way. So I was like, ‘People have got to see this.”’

And by ”people,” he meant his pal Oprah Winfrey. Watching the film, Winfrey managed to hold herself together until Daniels’ end-of-film dedication — ”For Precious girls everywhere” — flashed on the screen. ”I just started sobbing,” Winfrey tells EW. ”I realized that, Jesus, I have seen that girl a million times. I see that girl every morning on the way to work, I see her standing on the corner, I see her waiting for the bus as I’m passing by in my limo, I see her coming out of the drugstore. And she’s been invisible to me. I’ve done exactly what the people in this film did to her. I’ve seen her and not seen her. And I thought, That will never happen to me again.”

Winfrey and Perry soon signed on as executive producers, helping distributor Lionsgate with its marketing plan and promoting the film in September at the Toronto Film Festival, where it picked up the audience award as well — a prize won last year by Slumdog Millionaire. Now, as the film opens in theaters, its cast and crew are among the most sought-after players in Hollywood. Mo’Nique has launched a successful talk show on BET. Sidibe is set to appear opposite Laura Linney in the Showtime pilot The C Word. And Daniels, who is besieged with offers for his follow-up film, could become only the second African-American filmmaker (after Boyz N the Hood‘s John Singleton) to score an Oscar nomination for Best Director. But for mental health purposes, he’d rather not jump too far ahead just yet. ”We got a movie about a fat black girl financed, we got Oprah involved, and we won Sundance and Toronto,” Daniels says. ”If I die tomorrow, I feel like there’s been an angel looking after this movie.”

Mo’nique gets frank about the Oscars

Usually it’s hard to keep an actress with Oscar chances away from a big premiere. But Mo’Nique was conspicuously absent from Precious‘ Toronto and New York film festival debuts, and reports surfaced alleging that she had been demanding fees to appear. The actress herself fanned the flames by telling the New York Daily News, ”I couldn’t eat that Oscar. Everybody needs money, baby!” Mo’Nique, who talked to EW in July, wouldn’t comment for this story. But her director, Lee Daniels, is quick to defend her. ”She’s a comic!” he says. ”I want to reach across and say, ‘She doesn’t mean it like that.”’ Though Mo’Nique’s performance is certainly strong enough to score a nod, most Oscar watchers agree she’ll have to campaign at least minimally to have a shot at actually winning. Fortunately for her, she did show up at an AFI Fest screening on Nov. 1. Says Daniels: ”She’s being educated.”