Exclusive Interview: The Help Director Tate Taylor
Seeing so many bad movies come from great books, I have to think that any author would be hesitant to let their work fall into the hands of Hollywood. The Great Gatsby, considered by many to be the greatest book of all time, has been adapted three separate times and not a single one has been comparable. In some ways Kathryn Stockett took a similar risk when she sold the movie rights to her book, The Help, even before it came out, but she had one leg up: the man she sold it to and who would end up both adapting and directing the film is her best friend, Tate Taylor.
A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting down with the filmmaker one-on-one to discuss his newest film, which comes out this Wednesday. Check out the interview below in which Taylor talks about working with Kathryn, how he came to know and cast Octavia Spencer and filming down in Mississippi.
The first question I want to ask is, I know that you actually auctioned this book to become a movie and you had a great relationship with Kathryn. Iím curious, when did you start seeing potential in the book as a film?
Literally halfway through reading the manuscript. Kathryn gave me the manuscript, she had no agent or publisher, we were in New York and she said, ďOh I want you to read it. Just tell me what you think, no one wants it.Ē I started reading it on a plane to LA about somewhere over Ohio I started to get this tingle. I didnít finish it of course, itís only a five hour plane ride, but I called her and I was like, ďKathryn, I donít know the publishing world, but trust me, someoneís going to wise up. Itís beautiful.Ē Sheís like, ďI know, I donít know. I gotta get comfortable if no oneís going to make it.Ē I said, ďLetís talk about it,Ē and thatís when the dialogue began. I knew over Ohio.
She mentioned earlier that sheís not too familiar with the film world, how involved was she? Like when you were working on the script, how involved did she become with that process?
Not really involved, she didnít want to be. Sheís like, ďI donít understand movies, I donít understand scripts.Ē I just told her, ďWhen I outline the whole thing before I began writing dialogue, I want to sit with you and tell me what you think.Ē So we met up in Central Park about a month after that and I went over what I planned to do, what wasnít going to be in the movie, and sheís like, ďThat makes sense.Ē Then I let her read the final copy and she really liked it. Then she came to Mississippi out of support and just wanted to watch it. There was never a monitoring situation, she just loved everybody, she can tell all just genuinely love each other.
Just listening to the cast talk, when youíre sitting in the rooms and hearing people in the hallways, you really get the sense that you established this family atmosphere.
Itís like summer camp. We all, we had the best time. We all rented houses and stuff. We would all be over someoneís house having dinner and then weíd have too much to drink, we would be talking and someone would say, ďI just want to stay at your house tonight.Ē ďOkay!Ē It was just crazy, it really was a family atmosphere.
Yeah. The nightcap. Thatís my dad.
I heard that actually there were some other people that you knew too.
Oh gosh, yeah. I peppered the movie with friends and family. The woman that raised me with my mom, Carol, is in the movie. Kathrynís daughter plays the young Skeeter in the flashback, my mom is in the movie. Remember one of the first bad dates Skeeter has, ďThereís Lieutenant, letís go say hi,Ē and they come over there, thatís my mom who plays the Lieutenantís wife. And my dad was in it, yeah it was fun.
Did you find that that kind of, just that personal touch kind of added to that whole atmosphere?
Not really that, it was just fun for me, from my nostalgic point of view, to know that I can go back in time when Iím older, at the end of my days, and watch the movie. It just makes it fun to have faces in there that you can remember conversations with.
I know that, on that same kind of note, Octavia mentioned that you were her roommate. Iím curious, how did you approach her? Because I also learned that the character was based on her, but how did you approach her, or did she approach you about playing a character in the movie?
It was just understood. We really are best friends. We were both PAs together on A Time To Kill, came to Mississippi, became buddies, and moved to LA together in 96. So I donít know, when you have someone that close in your life that you share everything with, it was just, ďOh!Ē It was more getting Dreamworks to let me do it. Because that was the worry, she had no big credits and everybody wanted to be in this movie. Especially when thereís not so many roles for African Americans. Then I said Iíd like to see Octavia do the part, so I took her down to my casting director. She went on and did a scene, showed it to everybody, they went, ďSheís amazing.Ē
Like a goal? It was not. Iíve always been attracted to female characters, as an audience member, so I can just tell you that I was excited to mind, you noticed, which I appreciate, the possibilities, and draw out every ounce of opportunity from each of the characters of this book into the script. I didnít want anybody just to be a, ďThis person is Leeroy, Minnyís husband,Ē and in the book you meet him and you know what he looks like and he has scenes. You know who he is. Heís the wife, heís drunk, and so I donít need to know him. Iíd rather have more room for these women that I like.
That actually leads me to another question. Obviously this is a four hundred-plus-page book, youíre not going to be able to put in everything, and also it comes from three different perspectives. Iím just curious, for starters, the breakdown of the point of view, in the book itís separated into Minny, Aibileen, and Skeeter, in the film you have the narration only done by Aibileen. Iím curious, was that always the case?
I knew from the start that I wanted only one person to tell the story. I said, what made this book special to me and what makes it special, period? And I realized, it was because the subject matter was dealt with and told through the eyes of the most important person, the African-American, during this time period. And Iím like, no one has really thought to do that, and thatís what it should have been the whole time. So it was a no-brainer. Itís Aibileenís movie. Thatís why I had to add Skeeter near the end, she just kind gracefully...I didnít need, itís Aibileenís story.
DYou see so many movies where you have stories about minorities that are only told through the eyes of a white person. I love that this film actively goes against that.
What Iíve loved hearing some people say, we screened for a mainly African American audience in Chicago a while back and they went, ďItís so great, usually these are about civil rights leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, but this is about normal, everyday African American women doing something.Ē So I think that resonated too.
Iíve went and talked to people. Only just to hear them talk. A really touching thing, and sheís since passed away, I met this woman who was a hundred, this housekeeper, a hundred years old, I interviewed her. She just told me about her whole life, sheís like, ďI canít read, I canít write, I can tell you who I was working for, and I can tell you the year, but who was president?Ē It was so cool. But she shared with me a story, loosely, I put a thing in the movie about it. You know when the maid tells Skeeter about the man who bought the land so she could walk to the water tower? She told me the story. I thought that was so special. It was like, in the twenties. It was a white man. I wanted to get that in there, that there were moments of taking care of each other. So I researched that way.
All of the actresses mentioned that you basically handed out copies of Eyes on the Prize. Iím curious, what was it about that documentary that you thought was so important for them to see?
Because I included, you study this during high school, and listen, youíre just trying to get through the day. I thought the images, and having it all refreshed in our heads again, would just be powerful. Itís easy to forget history or give it a cliff notes. The cliff notes of history. But mainly, so much of what happens in Eyes on the Prize happened in Jackson, Mississippi. Jackson, Mississippi isnít really known for any other touchstone to the movement, other than Medgar Evers being killed. There were sit-ins and riots and atrocities. I just wanted them to know so they would wear it on their skin when they went back there. I also knew that it would make it kind of eerie to go there.
It definitely was a hotspot, so Iím curious, would you have made the film if you couldnít have made it in Mississippi?
Well, once we were green-lit, of course, I would have done it. No, but I think, it would really, I think the film would have suffered. Not what it ended up as, but what it could have been. I just knew, I knew. Again, it goes back to Dreamworks and Chris Columbus and all of those guys, if it aint broke, donít fix it. Nobody tried to fix something that didnít need fixing. It just didnít. It worked, I mean I know it sounds like itís made up. It was just a great experience.
Well I went and found all of the locations myself before we even had financing or a studio. I knew I wanted to film in Greenwood, I knew it was going to be a struggle to get people to come to Mississippi. So I got Mark Ricker, my production designer who wasnít even hired yet, and I brought Brunson Green, the producer, and I said, ďGuys, I think I know where weíre going to film the movie.Ē Markís like, ďWhoís paying for it?Ē ďOh, itís not set up! No one even knows about it. But I think we need to go here and present a look book.Ē So we went, and we found, I grew up among a lot of those homes, so we photographed it and Mark Ricker made a book explaining the character of Mississippi. So when I met with Steven Spielberg and heís like, ďWhere do you want to film it?Ē I went, ďHereís the book,Ē and I handed it to him. He was like, ďWow.Ē So thatís kind of, I knew I had to do that. That was one of the things I knew. I knew I had to write a good screenplay to be taken seriously, and I knew I needed to present Mississippi on visuals instead of just saying, ďHey I wanted to film it in Mississippi.Ē It would seem like it was a hometown boy just wanting to be home.
Did you find that as you were filming Mississippi really bled into the film?
Oh gosh yeah. I love what Mark Ricker and [Stephen] Goldblatt, my DP did. I said, ďGuys, weíve got to make it a character.Ē Whenever we can, how do we put Mississippi in here. Steven came up with that amazing shot, when Skeeter goes home, with the crane pulling up and her going up the stairs. Then Mark realized he was doing the shot, and they all talked about different things to place. Yes, it was a huge character.
Just the production design, I mean obviously youíre setting the movie in a different era. Just looking at now versus the sixties, weíre in a completely different universe. Were there any, was it difficult setting that up? Or did the town actually do a lot for the work for you?
No, the town didnít do any work. Again it goes to tireless dedication from Mark Ricker, our production designer. He designed everything. I mean, those houses were in place, but what happens with the south was, every home felt like it was a set already, but all the sets looked alike. Itís all antiques. So he had the challenge of differentiating these grandson homes to fit each character, which, in a contemporary film, you just have a lot of crazy art. Or something dark, black. But you canít here. You have to do this very surgical, precise way of differentiating. He did an amazing job.
Well, we donít, it was never, thereís really no inserts at all in the movie. Thereís the shot of the pie when Hilly looks at it, but we were very careful not to do that. We wanted to make people go there and just be in Mississippi. I knew I loved Steven Spielberg when he was like, ďPlease donít do close ups and donít do all that close, I donít want to because youíre gonna be great.Ē And he didnít. A lot of things played wide, and then youíre seeing this home. You can just feel kind of voyeuristic instead of doing that TV, choppy, blah, blah, blah. You just go there. Itís not intrusive. Unless we try to do them, which is often if not always.
This obviously comes from the book as well, but the tone of the film, obviously there are some moments that are absolutely hysterical, but at the same time, it also has some dedrama, and it is dealing with a very serious subject matter. When you were writing the script, how, was it difficult to find the proper balance between that?
I think again, I had the upper hand because Iím a southerner. In the south, we tell stories. We tell stories if youíre in a sales position, if youíre in a retail position, you lure your customer by telling a story. You just do. If you were to bargain from a retailer, you tell a story. So we all just have this way of talking, and often for a southerner to be affected, you create highs and lows that are back to back, just to kind of have people, you donít want to rip them. So I just kind of knew that would be important. If you have a piece of material that could potentially be message-y or medicine-y, always love a reversal in writing. Like when, and I think it works, when Mae Mobleyís on the toilet in the yard, and itís so funny, and then in four seconds, sheís having her ass beat by her mother. The audience just went, ďUGH!Ē Thatís what youíve got to do. I think itís your job as a writer, to not let the audience get ahead, or feel a rhythm. So itís kind of the way we talk as southerners, and itís also, I think, your duty as a screenwriter.
There were just scenes that I didnít need. Thereís a scene where Hilly kicks Skeeter out of the Junior League, thatís in the book, and I shot it. Itís a great scene, itís one of Bryceís strongest performances. But we knew already, once she put the toilet in the yard, you just know their friendship is over. So when I took it out, and then Skeeter eating alone in the drugstore and all of her friends come in and sheís not included, thatís so much more painful as an audience member, to imagine that conversation to have happened and to see the aftermath versus, ďYouíre kicked out. I canít believe you did that to me.Ē And thatís a great scene, I hated to lose that one. Just because Bryce was so good, she was really upset and vulnerable. Ultimately it wasnít efficient.
I keep saying this, and I mean to say it in the greatest way possible, but to talk about Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly Holbrook, when it comes to characters that you really just want to punch in the face, I havenít felt this way since Election. Whatís great about it is that you never let her get too cartoony, it never gets to some stereotypical place. Iím curious, what was the relationship, how did you work with Bryce Dallas Howardís character?
She is one of the most fearless and un-sensitive people in the world. When I met her she says, ďTate, I donít get sensitive. Beat me up. Donít sugarcoat anything.Ē So we had this great, great banter back and forth. When Iíd want to try something, sheíd want to try something. But really, she did so much in so many different ways. In each take, it was embarrassing to cut together. We didnít really, sheís so smart. She has a mother from Louisiana so she has a touchstone in the world, too. I just couldnít believe her body language, I donít know where she went and learned it when she showed up with it. Her hands and everything, and Sissyís so smart, she copied her. That was all, when they walk out, Sissy saw her, and itís like Mas. Theyíre just great actresses, I take no credit for that.
Do you know, what are you working on now?
Iíve got some irons in the fire, Iím writing an original screenplay now, just to do it.
Whatís it about?
Itís a dark comedy.
Actually, as usual, it is female driven.
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