Exclusive Interview: Filmmaker Tate Taylor on The Help

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One of the biggest phenomena of 2011 was Tate Taylor’s The Help, an adaptation of his childhood friend Kathyrn Stockett’s book that took a look through the eyes of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi around the time of the Civil Rights movement. It’s an incredibly honest portrayal of women of that time and place and how they interacted, the spoiled rich Southern socialites and their put-upon maids raising their kids for them, but rather than being a tough drama, it’s a film with warmth and humor and laughs as well.

It mostly focuses on two particular maids, Viola Davis’ Aibileen
And Octavia Spencer’s Minnie, both whom fall foul of the town’s controlling social leader, a hellion by the name of Hilly Holbrook (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who constantly feels the need to put “the help” in their places. Returning home from college, Emma Stone’s Skeeter is a budding journalist assigned to write a cleaning column who turns to Aibileen and Minnie for help and discovers their own stories are far more interesting than their cleaning tips, so she sets out to write a book from their perspective. The Help also stars the year’s most prestigious actress Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote, who has been exiled from Hilly’s social circle, but whose immediate connection with Minnie allows them both to get their due.

The story behind the film’s production is almost as remarkable as the film itself since Tate Taylor, a filmmaker with only one other feature under his belt, got the rights to adapt the book from Stockett, a close personal friend since childhood, long before it was released and became a bestseller. It’s pretty impressive to see such a powerful film that has touched so many women’s lives come from out of the mind and vision of a white guy, but the movie really connected with moviegoers, becoming one of the biggest hits of the late summer, opening in second place but then subsequently sitting at the top of the box office for three weeks as it amassed $170 million. The amazing story of The Help isn’t over yet as the film’s already been getting a lot of awards attention with many thinking that it’s likely to bring Taylor and Davis and Spencer to Oscar night early next year.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Taylor last week to talk about the phenomenon on the even of the film’s release on DVD and Blu-ray.

ComingSoon.net: This is a pretty amazing story and it keeps getting more amazing every minute almost, as today, Octavia was honored by the DC Critics. You’ve known each other for so long and created almost a home-grown movie. I know you’ve known Kathryn for a long time and probably knew her novel before anyone else so what did it take to convince her and everyone else to let you direct it?
Tate Taylor:
The gift of the whole thing was that I got the rights from Kathryn before she had a publisher, and she didn’t even know the book would get published and if it did get published, if it would do anything, so the real gift and the miracle of this movie is that I got to go off and adapt my friend’s screenplay unencumbered, by myself, and just write it from the heart and write it as a Mississippian and write it as a guy that had the pleasure of having an African-American woman in his life, Carol Lee, the woman who co-raised me with my mother. So I just got to tell the truth and write from the heart. Once the script was done and the book came out, that script kind of served as the calling card. Believe me, it was not easy. I’m not an established guy and many people said no, but ultimately this script and the authenticity between my heritage and Kathryn and my friendship is what led DreamWorks to believe in it. Steven said, “If this guy wrote this screenplay that I like so much the we have to believe he can direct it.” And we were off!

CS: It’s kind of amazing this was written by a guy because there were so many strong women in the movie and there are other male writers who can write strong women but it’s not that common, and not a movie that women generally love. Did you just tap into your own childhood and memories for your maid?
Taylor:
You know what? It’s weird. First of all, I’ve always been surrounded by female energy. I was raised by a single mother and an African woman named Carol Lee and I have sisters. Octavia Spencer and I lived together for four years. She lived with me while I was adapting the book, so I’ve always been comfortable around women, and engaging them, but more importantly, I just don’t look at the sexes of the characters, I just never have. It never enters my consciousness of “Oh God, this is all women.” I just shoot the core of the character and their truth and that’s what it is. I often say, “This is a movie of unremarkable women doing extraordinary things” and “Oh, yeah, they’re women!” That’s just how I feel.

CS: Just having the foresight to option your friend’s novel early on is pretty amazing. We all have friends who write stuff and ask us to read it, and it must be hard to separate your friendship with knowing whether it’s really good and that it would make a great movie. What in the novel jumped out at you that this could make a great movie?
Taylor:
I’ll tell you exactly what it was. It was the reason why the book was so successful. Knowing these women and being touched and being raised by one. When I started reading Kathryn’s book, when I got to go into their lives and their homes and actually see this be told from their points of view, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done this way before, to this degree. I just found myself going into Aibileen’s house and going with her and Minnie to church, and hearing their conversations as women, not maids. Just hearing the conversations of these great women as human and going, “God, that is so cool.” In most stories, these women just facilitate wide characters and you don’t get to know them so that depth and the discovery and humanity behind these women who are often thought of as maids, yeah, they’re human beings and they’re courageous and great people. It was so fun going back and being with them, and that’s when I went, “This is going to be an amazing movie. I haven’t seen anything quite like this before.”

CS: When you start adapting a book, you must get to the point when you have to branch out from the book, especially in something like this when you have three or four stories going on at once, so was Kathryn reading every single draft you wrote? At what point did you want to give her something to read?
Taylor:
Kathryn famously gave me the rights and said, “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m done with this book. Go do your thing.” So no, she was not involved. Of course, when I finished it, I let her read it ’cause I wanted her blessing, but I just wrote it really long on purpose so I could really ingest the entire story, and then I slowly started pulling out the scenes that I didn’t think I needed and since I’d written it, I was able to take out aspects of scenes that were being taken out and sprinkle them into scenes that were staying. Nuance, sets, looks, glances, jokes, so that’s what I did. I wrote it really long as an exercise first.

CS: How many pages was your first draft?
Taylor:
Well, over 200. I never intended that to be a shooting script. I wanted to write every scene in her book into a screenplay so that I could have them in my conscience and give room for improv and discovery later. I wanted to go through that process.

CS: How did Chris Columbus get involved? Did you just know him from your acting work on other things?
Taylor:
Chris was a big fan of my work. I had done a short film and a feature film and he had seen my short film and had loved it and had seen my feature film, and we were always just trying to find something we could do together. I came to him with the galleys of “The Help” and said, “This is what I’m doing. I got the rights to this and I’ve written the screenplay,” and he came on board.

CS: This was before the book even came out?
Taylor:
No, no, no, he came on board after the book came out.

CS: What about the casting? You obviously knew Octavia and about Allison already because you already had relationships with them, but I was interested in Jessica Chastain, because she was in so many movies right now that she’s shot over the course of years. At what point did you find and cast her? She’s also very different in your movie from the other things she’s doing, because she’s this really fun and light character.
Taylor:
Well, I cast the movie the old-fashioned way. I just met a ton of women. She just walked in. No one knew who she was. She walked in after a string of women, sat down and blew the doors off the audition room and got the part. It was the purity and the sweetness in her demeanor that I wanted to bring to the character of Celia. I didn’t want Celia to go into the sexpot cliché Jessica Rabbit way, and Jessica knew how to bring her pain and her discomfort with who she was to that character.

CS: You also have Bryce Dallas Howard playing the antagonist of the piece and we haven’t really seen her play anyone that awful really, since she’s play a lot of nice women in the past. What convinced you she’d be a good Hilly Holbrook? Again, just an audition?
Taylor:
No, really, people were reading for Hilly and Bryce was filming “Twilight,” the one she was in, and she wanted to meet me and she flew herself on a Saturday down from the set of “Twilight,” came in the room and blew the doors off as Hilly. She came dressed in a period dress, had her hair up. She got the part and that’s what’s so great. Everybody got the part. No part was just given to people. The best women stood (out) on screen, and that’s the best way to make a movie.

CS: It’s really an amazing cast, and I was at CinemaCon when DreamWorks did a presentation there and I was already sold on the cast.
Taylor:
No, it was crazy. When I’d give them the list and I’d have Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson and Viola Davis and Mary Steenburgen, it was just crazy. You’re right. I still can’t get over it.

CS: I was curious about some of the deleted scenes on the DVD. You explain on the DVD why you didn’t include the scene of Minnie after she was beaten, and it could have taken the movie in a completely different direction. Were a lot of these decisions made in the editing room?
Taylor:
Absolutely. There’s the movie you write, there’s the movie you shoot and the movie you edit, and often, you find that you’re getting the same information out of a scene that you already have and a scene that’s actually more powerful, so you have to make the tough decision to take it out. It’s about repetition and beats so when you write a screenplay, you can never know how powerful and good the actor is going to be, so in certain scenes where you think you’re keying up an emotion, they actually do it all in that one scene so when you have another scene that hits on that same beat, the audience psychology is such where we’ve seen this, we know this.

CS: Any thoughts what you might do next? I understand you’re doing something with Melissa McCarthy, so is that something you’re gearing up to do next year or soon?
Taylor:
Melissa McCarthy and I are currently writing an original script together, and at the same time, I am adapting a novel for DreamWorks called “Peace Like a River.”

CS: Is this project you’re doing McCarthy the movie “Tammy” or something different?
Taylor:
No, it’s something she and I are writing together. I don’t want to talk about it because we’re still developing it, but it’s Melissa at her best.

CS: Are you generally steering more towards comedy now?
Taylor:
No, I don’t steer towards anything. I steer towards character and truth. If it’s funny then so be it. If it’s dramatic, so be it. I just steer towards characters.

CS: But we might see you starting another movie next year?
Taylor:
Well, I sure hope so. I’ve gotta do my work first! (laughs) And everything’s all about “The Help” right now, but that is the plan.

CS: Have you figured out whether you’ll be bringing Kathryn as your date if you go to the Oscars or do you think you’ll be going as Octavia’s date?
Taylor:
Man, I’m not going to be that presumptuous at all. I’m just trying to get to Christmas and get the DVDs out. Who knows? (laughs) It’s a long ways away.

The Help is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.