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Interview with 'The Help' Producer Chris Columbus


A scene from 'The Help'

A scene from 'The Help'

© DreamWorks Pictures

[July 11, 2011] - Kathryn Stockett's bestseller The Help is set in the South in the 1960s and tells the story of a strong-minded young woman nicknamed Skeeter who returns to her small Mississippi town after graduating college to discover she's grown apart from the women who used to be her closest friends. Skeeter wants to be a writer, wants to escape the world she grew up in, and after being encouraged by a New York publisher, she approaches Aibileen, the maid of one of her friends, to collaborate on a book exposing the lives of African American maids who work for white families who never acknowledge them as individuals.

Filmmaker Tate Taylor is close friends with author Stockett and knew her book could successfully make the leap from the printed page to the big screen. He brought the book to producer Chris Columbus' attention with the intention of writing and directing the project. And after being convinced by his wife to actually read the book, Columbus agreed to producing the film.

Bucking the trend, Taylor wanted to shoot the movie in Mississippi, not Louisiana where tax breaks make that state studio-friendly. "It really has to do with Tate's original concept and vision for the film," explained Columbus. "When he set out to do this, when he first came down here to scout locations, he was convinced that this movie was going to be shot in Greenwood. I spent most of my life on the East Coast, or in California or the Midwest, and I don't know this part of the world at all. When he called me and told me that most of the locations were within 5-10 minutes of the hotel, I was skeptical. This has never happened to me in my entire career, where you can wake up in the morning and get to the set in 5 minutes. When I came down here and saw that in a sense some of these locations are frozen in time, it felt like this guy really knew what he was doing. I was very impressed with all the locations he chose. We're shooting 95% of it in Greenwood, and hopefully that will pave the way for some more tax breaks. There are only a handful of films that have shot here - the old Steve McQueen film The Dreamers. I haven't seen it in like 15 years. I think Ode to Billie Joe was shot here. It's a really exciting place."

And as Columbus says, the Greenwood neighborhood used for most of the key scenes in the film does indeed look straight out of the '50s or '60s. DreamWorks Pictures arranged for a small group of journalists to visit the set and watch filming, and the experience was like taking a step back in time. With the temperature in the low 100s and bugs chirping in the trees, we observed key scenes from the book coming to life in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Greenwood. Columbus joined us in an air-conditioned tent behind the scenes to talk about the film adaptation of Stockett's The Help.

Chris Columbus Interview:

Since you're used to the East Coast and California, what has it been like to be in Mississippi for you?

Chris Columbus: "For me, I was just kind of amazed at the excitement of the community, that this picture is being shot here, and the pride everyone has. And truly, having spent about 17 years of my life in Manhattan, the friendliness of everyone. I'm one of a few people who think New Yorkers are always there to help you out, but these people, they invite you to their homes, they want you to have dinner with them. There really is a sense of community. And everyone knows what everyone is up to at all times, so everyone really behaves themselves."

We just walked on the set without anyone asking who we were or if we were supposed to be here. No nametags, no security.

Chris Columbus: "It's fantastic. My nametag that was handed to me my first day was a picture of the original Christopher Columbus. Which I found funny, but I haven't used since. I don't really want to be related to that guy; I don't want any connection whatsoever."

You said the area is frozen in time, but still you had to make some adjustments for the period.

Chris Columbus: "Based on the budget of the film - it's a modest budget - we were fortunate in this situation that we couldn't build sets. We had to find locations that could be modified. The house we're shooting in now was probably built in 1959 or '60, but when we walked into the house it felt a little older than it needed to be. Back when this picture was being shot it felt brand spanking new. It would have had a shimmer of newness about it. Our production designer, Mark, was really helpful about polishing up some locations. Others were perfect when we walked in - plenty of light to work, plenty of room to shoot. Mark just had to go in and dress most of the locations."

Aside from the fact that Tate knew the author, what made him the right director to handle this?

Chris Columbus: "My relationship with Tate goes back... It's an odd thing, because I was living in San Francisco and my daughter Violet was going to school with Tate's sister's daughter, and they were best friends. You get this from time to time, working in this business, she came up to me and said, 'My brother is an actor in LA and he's trying to be a director. He did this short film called Chicken Party, would you look at it?' I brought it home and was watching it with my wife and we were laughing very hard, it's a 20-minute film. Then I met with Tate and said, 'If you have anything else you're interested in, bring it our way. We like to support young directors.'"

"He had this picture called Pretty Ugly People, an astoundingly low budget [film], and the picture looked very good. It was very funny, and Tate and I kept meeting through the years. At one point he came up to San Francisco and said, 'The thing I really want to do is this book.' It hadn't come out yet, and I think it was the uncorrected proof of the manuscript and he gave it to me. I thought it was interesting, but thought 'That's a woman's book.' I went home and gave it to my wife, and she read it over the weekend and she said, 'This is an amazing book. You guys should really think about doing it.'"

"I read it and it was an amazing book. Tate's other films didn't show a sense of the subtlety - he basically did two broad comedies. I was very intrigued as to what kind of screenplay he would write. And it was fantastic. That was the point where we said we want to make the movie. He said to me that Kitty Stockett said I was the only person who could direct it, and I just bought it. I've known Tate for so long and trusted him, I thought he seems to know this world. After seeing 5 weeks of dailies, I don't think anyone else could have directed this film because he knows this world inside and out. It's what they used to tell me back in film school: write about something, direct something that you really know well. And he really brings authenticity to this movie."

This movie is based on a bestseller, so in some ways it's a sure thing. But it also tackles some real issues that require the audience to deal with some ugly history along with this great story. What's the challenge in selling that?

Chris Columbus: "I think the characters are so intriguing. It's sort of like any film that's based on historical events that are happening at that time. Granted, World War II is a very exciting time in our history, but if you take a movie like Saving Private Ryan, that's all about the characters and World War II is part of the backdrop. That's what I think is happening in this film. These characters are so interesting, and these parallel storylines you're constantly intrigued by. You leave one storyline and get to the other and want to know what's going on with these women. It's a very light cloud that is over this film. We don't want it to be American history; you don't want it to be a PBS special. But I think the characters themselves are so intriguing and so exciting that the history is really just part of the story. We're treating it with kid gloves in a sense. We want the audience to be aware of what was going on at the time because it creates a tension and danger to what these women are doing. But at the same time you don't want to do too much, because you don't want to take away from these characters."

What were you most worried about getting right from the book?

Chris Columbus: "Again, I think casting. Sometimes in a film like this you have to absolutely believe these characters are real. It really bears no comparison to Mad Men except in time era, but if you look at that particular series, that show works really well because none of these actors were really well known before the show. You really believe that these actors are embodying these roles. Some of our actors are really well known, like Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson. We're just really looking for actors who can become these people, so they're taking the audience into the world and you believe these women are the real characters from the book. Being faithful to the integrity of the characters."

Is that one of the reasons Octavia was cast, because she wasn't a big name? She was saying that Queen Latifah and all these other huge actresses could have been up for the role.

Chris Columbus: "I think there's a certain point where it feels like there's too much Hollywood, and when there's too much Hollywood the authenticity starts to disappear. I equate Tate to a young John Ford, in terms of his ability to surround himself with actors that he uses again and again. Two of those people, Octavia and Allison Janney, he's used in his previous two films. He really looks out for those people. He's written for those actresses. I'm sure Kathryn Stockett had no concept when she was writing the book, first that it would be a movie, and second that Octavia would play Minny."

Emma Stone isn't who you'd immediately think of for Skeeter. She's not from the South, she doesn't have that crazy hair, but you guys have a lot of faith in her.

Chris Columbus: "She's an amazing actress. Again, Skeeter is supposed to be tall and have horrible hair - but she's a direct contrast, she's very naturalistic and very real with these very sprayed beehives. Emma brings a real sense of reality to that character. She feels more authentic, and I think you see Emma in a way you've never seen her before. She kind of disappears into the role."

Is the movie only aimed toward women audiences?

Chris Columbus: "I think women will bring their husbands and boyfriends to the movie. I think the movie does not feel as soft. It's not too sweet, too soft. It's very edgy and kind of dark at times. Tate fills it at times with a little twisted Southern humor here and there. My reaction to the book before it was published was, will it be one of those chick lit things? And it's not, it's pretty hard edged."

The cast is almost entirely female. Does that change the energy?

Chris Columbus: "It does change the energy. But there's so much subtext going on, from Kathryn's writing and what's going on in these scenes. You've got what's going on socially, casting this shadow over things, but the characters are working out their own relationships. These women are such interesting characters. There's so much conflict going on, it's really kind of fascinating. I'm watching dailies and I'm delighted. On this picture I"m planning to be here almost every day, because I just love being involved in this part of the process on this movie. I love what Tate's doing, I love all these performances, I want to be as involved and helpful as I can be. I love being here. It's very inspirational."

Are you looking to make this film something like The Blind Side, which seemed to have kind of a limited appeal but then blew up into something huge?

Chris Columbus: "You can only hope. I just hope the picture connects with people. What's going on now in film, it's kind of depressing. I've been part of that wave, the wave of big-budget fantasy adventure films. This has been a soul-searching thing for all of us, saying, 'Why can't we make the types of movies that were so inspirational to us when we were growing up?' Everyone refers to the '70s, but even the'80s with movies like Ordinary People. It's such a rarity to make a film like this. It's just being able to make a film that feels different from everything people have seen in the last few years. This is something unique and original."

It won't be a franchise then.

Chris Columbus: "Well, I can't say what Kathryn is planning."

What makes these characters so appealing to you?

Chris Columbus: "Just that they're very real, very three-dimensional. There's a certain contemporary feeling to these characters, even though the time is 1963. They're very relatable to women today. The same types of social situations continue to go on, in a different way. But I do think they're very relatable. Times haven't changed that much, in terms of the way we deal with each other as people."

Are there specific films you tried to emulate with the vibe or the look?

Chris Columbus: "I know Tate is a big fan of Places in the Heart. That was a film that was very inspirational to him. For me it was Sounder, which is a wonderful film. You learn from all types. It's almost more of a generalization in terms of films that are character-driven and story-driven and conflict-driven, not driven by visual effects or comic books. Types of films that we took for granted. When I was a kid I would have loved to see Spider-Man or Star Wars on the screen, but that didn't exist. I was 'stuck' seeing Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, Serpico, and those were all character-driven films. That's what we're going for, and God willing we will get to some version of that. It's a very strong character-driven movie. It's about putting story ahead of everything else."

Does this experience change the kind of projects you want to produce from now on?

Chris Columbus: "I still think there is a feeling and an insentience from Hollywood, in terms of our company 1492, that we still provide films for a family audience. I think we'll still make those films as well. In terms of what I want to do, I'd love to be able to pursue it. I need support from the studio, a script that is really strong and is really about something. I don't want to be too precious about it. It's a very funny film as well. Kathryn has a great sense of humor. There's a scene in the movie that I don't want to give away, but it's in the book...we shot it a couple of days ago, and it deals with a pie. The scene performed with Octavia and Bryce Dallas Howard and Sissy Spacek, and in dailies people were literally crying. It was one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen filmed. I'm hoping when it translates to an audience, there will be an audience that has read the book and knows what's coming, but the people who haven't read the book…"

You came onto the project before it was a huge bestseller. How does that change the chemistry of your negotiations with the studio, to go in with an unknown project vs. a known property?

Chris Columbus: "Remember, when we first handed in the script, it was slowly climbing up the charts. It was climbing; it was not the phenomenon that it has become. So a lot of people said no. Eventually, thanks to DreamWorks and Disney, they stepped up to the plate and decided to make the movie with a relatively first-time director. This is the first time Tate has been involved in a big studio movie. I think it took a lot of guts from those guys to do that. I knew it was pretty special when I was in Mexico and I was walking along the beach and every woman was reading the book."

Did they ever try and convince you to direct?

Chris Columbus: "I think one person asked, and I was committed to my relationship with Tate. I had to support him. I told him from day one that there's no way that's ever going to happen. There's also a great security for him. I still think I'm going to get fired on every job I'm doing. For me, getting into this, if I were him I would have thought, 'Oh, they'll just fire me at some point and have Chris step in.' And I said, 'You're protected because the Director's Guild would never allow the producer to step in as director.' That was a great security blanket for both of us."

What advice did you give him about directing?

Chris Columbus: "I didn't have to give him much advice. A lot of that stuff I consider extremely personal. He is an incredibly, incredibly fast learner. I defy anyone to walk on the set and think this guy hasn't directed 5 or 6 movies. He has a tremendous amount of confidence, and he's given us dailies that not only have we fallen in love with, but DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg and everyone who sees them loves them. I really think he is a very quick study. That probably comes from being an actor."

They're moving really fast through the camera setups from what we've seen today.

Chris Columbus: This is the third film I've done with Stephen Goldblatt, and that's one of the things that Tate was intrigued by. He's all about moving very quickly, keeping the energy of the set moving."

Is it interesting to work on a set where everyone has so much respect for each other, and there's so much history?

Chris Columbus: "I think there's a certain amount of feeling safe. At the same time, there's no getting around the fact that you have an enormous studio overlooking everything you see. They're calling me, calling Michael Barnathan, calling Brunson [Green]. There's a tremendous amount of discussions, not anymore but prior to, discussions about hair, about locations, about length of the script. That was, I think, for Tate's baptism by fire in this business, that was probably the most difficult part of this whole thing, right before we started shooting. When you're making a low-budget film, you're making the decisions. Your budget is $100,000 so your investors aren't overseeing every aspect of it. This was really taxing on him, and he came through like a champ. He stayed true, stayed strong, stayed true to his vision."

Did he have to cut the script down?

Chris Columbus: "It was a fairly long script in terms of what they're accustomed to. It was probably 20 pages longer than your average script. At the same time, it was very difficult to cut the script because it was a very engaging script. As Roger Ebert says, 'No good movie is too long, no bad movie is too short.' This was really solid. We massaged it a little and got it down to a certain length, but that's not indicative of how long the film will be. I have no idea how long the film will be. But the script really worked at its length."

What's been the biggest surprise so far in this process?

Chris Columbus: "I think the biggest surprise for me, one of the things I've always wanted to do is be involved a movie where you start to feel real emotion, if it's hatred or anger toward what would be perceived as the villain of the piece. It's taken 7 Harry Potter movies to start feeling that hatred toward Voldemort, but in this movie Bryce Dallas Howard, who is one of the sweetest, nicest people I've ever met, turns in a performance that's reminiscent to me of Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. She kills you with kindness. I'm watching the monitor and I want to kill her. I want to be Randle Patrick McMurphy. 'How can you destroy people's lives like this?' I think the audience is going to relish this performance. That's a big surprise, how much anger I have toward that character. It's great."

How do you decide what kind of role you're going to play on films you produce?

Chris Columbus: "You just have to respect the director's vision. I'm extremely impressed when I'm watching what's going on, because it's a world I don't know. It's like, 'Oh yeah...' You can go back and direct a Western, you can direct a film about the Vietnam War, but most directors haven't really been there - and this guy has been here. There are all these little nuances and things about the South that I never would have picked up on. Thankfully he's here, and he knows that. It's learning an entirely new culture. For all the great work that's been done, there are obviously still some issues in this part of the world."

What kind of nuances has he picked up on that you wouldn't have?

Chris Columbus: "Things like accent, things like food. I said to him, 'You guys ate this when you were kids?' I grew up in an Italian-Czechoslovakian household, we didn't fry everything, we didn't have ham with the pineapple slices and the maraschino cherries. There were times when the studio was talking about a cookbook, but I don't know if anyone wants to cook these things. Southern food is much better, but when they're not eating these fancy, baby showers and things, the food they served is horrendous but it's real. I had to ask Tate the other day, we did a scene and Sissy Spacek said, 'Do you have any ambrosia?' and they explained it to me. It's that sort of thing. It's the wardrobe, when I saw some of the wardrobe I said, 'People wear this kind of stuff?' and Tate told me about Ole Miss games where they put up tents with chandeliers, and it's 90 degrees and women wear fur coats. In terms of directing, you've got the right guy."

Are you setting up a directing project for yourself in the middle of this?

Chris Columbus: "I have no idea. I'm writing something. I'm extremely hard on myself, and I"m not going to change the course of my career, but I'm really looking...we'll see where it goes. I've done enough of one kind of movie. I don't know what it's going to be. It's got to be a great story, and inspiring to me."

Are there movies out now that you think are going in the right direction?

Chris Columbus: "So far there have been three films this year that I really think [are]. One is Toy Story 3, one is Inception, and Kick-Ass, which to me was just amazingly brilliant. I love Kick Ass, I've seen it three times, and not a lot of people went to see that. I was disappointed by that. That's a very interesting, very unique superhero movie. But it's been kind of a depressing summer otherwise."

* * * * * *

More from the set of The Help:

Emma Stone ('Skeeter') | Viola Davis ('Aibileen') | Octavia Spencer ('Minny') | Writer/Director Tate Taylor | Producer Brunson Green

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