[July 11, 2011] - DreamWorks Pictures' The Help is the first major studio production Tate Taylor has directed. And not only does he tackle the job of helming the film based on the bestselling book by Kathryn Stockett, Taylor also had the task of adapting her novel for the screen. Taylor caught on to just how cinematic Stockett's story of racial tensions between African American maids and their white employers in the South in the 1960s was way before anyone else in Hollywood. The reason: he and Stockett are good friends and have been for years, long before The Help ever climbed the charts.
But aside from being Stockett's good friend, producer Chris Columbus - who took a chance on saying yes to producing the film and to Taylor directing it - believes Taylor was absolutely the right filmmaker to bring The Help to life on the screen. "After seeing five weeks of dailies, I don't think anyone else could have directed this film because he knows this world inside and out," explained Columbus. "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."
DreamWorks Pictures extended the opportunity to be on the Greenwood, Mississippi set of The Help to a small group of online journalists. On the day we visited the set, Taylor was busy directing Viola Davis as Aibileen in a scene in which she takes a phone message from Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain). We also got to watch the reunion of Skeeter (played by Emma Stone) with her friends Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Jolene French (Anna Camp) at a bridge party hosted at the home of Aibileen's employer, Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O'Reilly).
The house the production used as Elizabeth's home needed very little in the way of renovations, according to Taylor, in order to accurately reflect the way homes in the South looked in the 1960s. Wallpaper had to be replaced and the oven had to be switched out, and members of the community were extremely helpful when it came to coming up with authentic items from the '60s. That Southern hospitality extended to the cast and crew, with Greenwood embracing this Hollywood invasion of their small town.
During breaks in filming, Taylor joined us in an air conditioned tent (the temperature was in the 100s) in the backyard of Jolene's house to talk about the challenges of shooting The Help.
Writer/Director Tate Taylor Interview:
Did you have to fight hard to film in Mississippi and not stay in Louisiana for the tax breaks?
Tate Taylor: "I don’t want to dis Shreveport, but being from Mississippi, I grew up coming to Greenwood and Greenwood kind of stopped in time in '63. Besides wanting to film in my state and give back and bring money to it, I knew we would be basically living on a backlot, which is what it feels like. Mark Ricker walks home at night, our production designer. He lives down at the end of the street. I knew that for the characters it would be good to kind of be thrown into a communal throwback to the time. Like Allison Janney called me last night, she got back to LA and she was stuck on the 405 in traffic and she said, 'This is really weird. This is really hard coming back here. I’ve been in Greenwood and I love Greenwood, the pace and the life.' She‘s like, 'Ewww, I don’t want to be back there.' So I knew that would happen."
"We had to fight for it. Even before I even had financing, I brought Mark Ricker, our production designer down here last December because before I fought for it, I wanted [to show him] the look of the film, for him to come and look and see what I’ve got. He’s like, 'Oh my gosh, you’ve got to film it here. You’re never going to find these homes, these locations and these trees,' and we're joking our furthest location is 15 minutes. We took pictures and we put together a ‘look book’ of all the houses we found so when I we went to DreamWorks, they’re like 'Oh, where do you want to film it? Vancouver? Shreveport?' I said 'No, here!' I literally gave it to Steven Spielberg and he went, 'Wow!'"
"Then I had to work with the state economic development board, and their incentives are not as good. So when you have economic development, you can’t delay and I had him meet with us in 1492 [the production company] and I said, 'If you want this, this is what you guys have to do.' They made a bunch of exceptions for this film. This is the guinea pig film to see if they’re going to then, when we’re all done, maybe amend some stuff and make some changes. So far they’re thrilled."
"Even then I had a fight because - not DreamWorks, but all studios - if they’ve filmed somewhere before, if it’s not broke don’t fix it. They’re afraid of somewhere new. When we found out there was a memo that went out about Greenwood wondering if they would be able to get office supplies here. I was like, 'Yes, were not going to Guam.' [Laughing] But that’s just normal. People have a job to do. If something works, if it's not broke, don’t fix it. But now everybody’s thrilled."
What do you think people don’t understand about Mississippi that they will understand when they see this movie?
Tate Taylor: "It’s just like anything you don’t know. They just don’t know. My whole life I’ve been asked if we have malls here. People just don’t know. They just don’t. It’s just that people are extremely friendly and we have all the necessities of life and then some. But I kind of like that, when people come here with an understandable ignorance and they come down here - and it’s been so fun to watch everybody. Even my D.P. Stephen [Goldblatt] had some concerns about using all of these practical sets because you know generally they can be small. We walk into these homes. This dining room is 30 x 40. They say, 'Yeah, this is great.' People just don’t know."
Do you get a kick out of watching people who don’t know the South deal with the heat?
Tate Taylor: "It’s funny. It’s also funny to watch people acclimate to it. [...]You just get used to it. Nobody has wrinkles here until you're really old. It’s fun. What I’ve really enjoyed is people coming here the first week, then it’s weird. They don’t understand a lot of people being so nice. 'What do they want?' Then everybody starts to kind a slow down and everybody’s relaxed. You just gotta be."
Has the town been welcoming to the production?
Tate Taylor: "Oh yeah, they’re loving it. [...]A lot of people everybody have apartments in New York. There’s money and wealth and prosperity here. People want to live [here], they want this feeling. Morgan Freeman lives 40 miles from here, full-time, in Charleston, Mississippi. He was born and raised in Greenwood."
Can you talk a little bit about creating the era? The town hasn’t moved on a lot but still the homes have microwaves and other modern appliances.
Tate Taylor: "Mark Ricker, our Production Designer, he and I started off as production assistants in New York. We used to be P.A.’s on J. Crew catalogue photo shoots together. We would be in the Hamptons, going out looking for oatmeal cookies for a hundred bucks a day. He’s got such an eye, and he's from the South. As he’s been coming up in the ranks, he’s been doing some great work. He and Stephen Goldblatt worked together on Julie and Julia and that was this period. It looked so great and that was in Brooklyn. Brooklyn for Paris - they did such a great job. I wanted to hire all friends that we’ve all come up together with. I didn’t have to fight for Mark. He’s in LA right now. He’s nominated for an Emmy for the Kevorkian show. It was great. It was not hard, because look at his body of work."
You talk about working with your friends but you're also adapting a book written by your friend. You’ve got to try to make a movie that’s good while staying true to the book and honoring what your friend has made. How hard is that to get yourself in director mode and be able to change things? You have to change some things.
Tate Taylor: "We have a great relationship, Kathryn and I. It could have gone poorly, but when I outlined the movie from the book, we met in New York and I said, 'This is what I’m going to do.' There was only one thing she didn’t agree with and she was right."
Can you say what it was?
Tate Taylor: "I didn’t think we should talk about the Jim Crow Laws because I felt like people know what that is and she told me when she wrote the novel, her editors in New York - highly educated people - had no clue about Jim Crow Laws. I go, 'Are you kidding me?' I know, I swear! You think people know. They don’t. So she goes, 'I’m telling you put it in,' and I did. I thought, being a Southerner, it was too much. 'Oh really? Of course there’s Jim Crow Laws.' That was the one thing."
What are some of the biggest changes you had to make to adapt the book into a movie? There's a voice-over?
Tate Taylor: "In the book we hear from the first person voice of all these women. There was always one person who I wanted to tell the story. They’re all equally present, but it would be too confusing in cinema to have three different narrators."
Was it challenging taking a book where there is so much internal dialogue and making it cinematic?
Tate Taylor: "Nothing’s hard about making her book cinematic. It’s just which things to cut out or to cut down. Mainly I had to get the first 200 pages into 30 pages of a screenplay. That was the toughest part. But the first 200 pages of the book was when Minny talks and Aibileen talks and them talking, describing their lives a lot. So I got to figure out, 'We can see this, we can see that, we can understand this.' I just had to whittle down and then get to what they were saying that needed to be said. It took two years, but that’s what I did."
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More from the set of The Help: