THE BLOG

Laura Ziskin, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and Never Taking No For An Answer

08/12/2013 10:03 am ET | Updated Oct 12, 2013

Legendary film producer and Stand Up To Cancer co-founder, Laura Ziskin, never took no for an answer. When major studios failed to get behind the movie that would eventually become Lee Daniels' The Butler, Laura spent the last three months of her life fighting for independent financing to see this remarkable story come to life.

Inspired by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's missive -- if we want to change the culture, we have to make it-- Laura looked to prominent individuals within the African-American community to support us in breaking down the myth that films about African-American history don't have box office potential and don't "travel overseas." We first approached Sheila Johnson, entrepreneur and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), who saw that this was not just a film about politics, but family, and signed up to be our first investor. Little did we know then that Laura would live for only three more weeks.

We had our very first investor and Laura went looking for more-- she was willing to get this movie made any way she could. We met with a woman who won the lottery and had an interest in filmmaking. When I came to Laura's house on that Tuesday for the meeting I was devastated. I had seen her the Friday before and in just a few days Laura had become a shell of her former self. She was incredibly frail and could hardly speak-- her cancer had taken a turn for the worse. I said to her, "No offense, but you can't take this meeting." With that, I sent her to bed and told her Lee Daniels and I would take care of it. Low and behold, in the middle of our pitch, we hear this rustling coming down the stairs. It was Laura. She refused to give up, and needed to be a part of this meeting. She came in, pitched her little heart out like you wouldn't believe and then went back to bed. That was a Tuesday. On that Thursday, Laura spoke her last words to us. And on Sunday, the world lost an incredible woman, and I lost a great friend.

It took almost a full year from Laura's passing for the rest of the financing to fall into place. We would meet many terrific partners who joined us in picking up Laura's mantle for this story including Buddy Patrick, Michael Finley, Earl W. Stafford, Harry Martin, Charles Bonan, Film Partners and AI Films. We were blessed with an incredible cast led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and found the ultimate champion in Harvey Weinstein when The Weinstein Company came on as our domestic distributor.

I often talk about how making this film in many ways allowed me to live in great denial that Laura was gone. Because every day that I worked on this film, Laura was still very much alive--as if she were still beside me, guiding me. All I had to ask was, "What would Laura do?" and her powerful and definitive wisdom would come to me. At the film's premiere last Monday, I felt her presence. She was there with us.

As a person living with the disease, Laura played a key role in shaping Stand Up To Cancer's patient-centric vision. And after her passing, Laura's contribution to SU2C not only lives on in the impactful organization's mission, but with Stand Up To Cancer's Laura Ziskin Prize in Translational Cancer Research. Laura set aside funds to be used after her passing to develop this honor, which rewards scientists who are developing ways to attack the elusive form of the kind of breast cancer that led to her death.

Tonight at a special benefit screening of Lee Daniels' The Butler, we will come together to jointly celebrate Laura's two greatest legacies by raising funds for the organization she loved so deeply, through a film she fought so hard for.

Launch a star in memory of someone you love, or someone in the fight at su2c.org.

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