Rapid Round: 'The Girl on the Train's' Tate Taylor on Adapting a "Character Study" Into a Thriller
The director of 'The Help' and 'Get On Up' also reveals why he wanted to venture into a thriller and what the future holds for 'The Girl on the Train's' main characters.
[Warning: The following story contains spoilers about the Girl on the Train movie and novel.]
When director Tate Taylor showed his adaptation of The Girl on the Train to a test audience, he started to realize that the film's ending — when Rachel (Emily Blunt) kills her cheating ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) after he threatens her when she discovers he's been gaslighting her and was having an affair with and killed his nanny Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) — was hitting a nerve with viewers.
One woman raised her hand when they asked if she liked the movie, Taylor says, then explained, when asked why she liked it, that it was "because that asshole Tom, that motherf—er, got what he deserved. My husband just cheated on me, and everybody thought I was crazy, and I wish I could've screwed —"
"And she wasn't even being funny," he said. "And I went, 'OK, this is definitely a theme.'"
Indeed, at a recent press screening, the audience had a similarly satisfied reaction, with some audible cheers emanating from the crowd along with some gasps earlier when Tom's violent behavior was revealed and a loud, "wow," at one of Tom's more manipulative statements.
While the thriller would seem to be a departure for the director of movies like The Help and Get On Up, Taylor tells The Hollywood Reporter that he relished the opportunity to shock the audience and do a deep dive into the novel's richly portrayed characters.
And one of the ways in which the film, based on Paula Hawkins' best-selling novel, keeps the audience guessing involves Rachel's reliability and figuring out the truth about what happened to her, specifically, during her walk into the tunnel. That also created a challenge for Taylor of visually representing various tunnel possibilities and a scene that would lead Rachel to the truth about what happened to her.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Taylor about dealing with this and other production predicaments as well as what he sees for his characters' future and how the director of the twist-filled movie avoids spoilers.
On the surface it seems like such a departure for you to do a thriller because that seems so different from The Help and Get on Up. What were you thinking as you approached this movie?
My choice in projects always begins with character, period, and in the past when I'm presented with something that falls into a strict genre, usually you read them and the characters are two-dimensional at best. Holly Bario [president of production at DreamWorks] called me and said, "We bought this book, (which I'd never heard of). It's a thriller, will you read it?" I said, "Yeah, okay." And then 100 pages into it, I was like, "Yeah, this is a thriller, but this is an amazing character study. And I can't believe that I could potentially also, with my best friend, which is character work, get to be the new guy that [makes] a thriller." And I think that's what made it the perfect one for me to do. This was having my cake and eating it too. And it was fun! I had a lot to learn, and it was a fun thing to do to think, "My God, I'm going to make them jump right now." This is so cool. I've never gotten to do that.
What would you say was your most challenging moment or scene on the film?
All of the work we did in the tunnel. Paula did a great job of creating the idea that something's happened but you don't know what it is, so it was a lot of fun. I had to come up with what happened that night. If you think about it, in the book, Tom's like, "You hit me," whatever. And you don't ever really truly know the chain of events in the novel because you just find out he's a liar. So he just lies about everything but then I realized, "No, we have to construct a chain of events." So that was fun and challenging and kind of unexpected. It hit me in pre-production. I went, "Wait a minute, Paula didn't really tell us exactly what played out," so that was a fun challenge. Also knowing that I was filming all of the tunnel sequences without the advantage of having edited the movie, and this is definitely a movie made in the editing room. We just shot the daylights out of the tunnel and came up with ideas that weren't scripted. … And it's fun when you just go at it like that with the hope of a possibility. … Anticipating what I would need in editorial was the most challenging.
One of the things that the movie plays with is the reliability of the narrator of Emily's character Rachel. She seems very unreliable at first because she's been drinking, but she ultimately figures out what happens and is right. So can you talk about making that switch and dealing with the audience's perceptions?
I wanted it to be really confusing and messy and this was why Emily was perfect for Rachel. Even though you know she's f—ed up and making the worst decisions — lying, going to [Megan's husband's] house — you just want her to be right. You just look at her and you just want to rescue her and take her away for the weekend and have a big talking to. But at the same time what I had to do was have her trick us, so for me a lot of that was not knowing when she was drinking or not. Especially in [the therapist] Dr. Abdic's office. He goes, "You've been drinking today haven't you?" and she just looks at him. She doesn't answer. She has this little smirk on her face. And you're like, "Has she? So she's not telling me everything." It's moments like that. Like when I had her pack … I made the decision for her not to take her purse or anything. What is she doing? She just walks away. So I did stuff like that. And then as far as the gateway to the truth, that's why I created the Lisa Kudrow character of Martha. In the novel, which is great, Paula just simply got to write, "Rachel remembers." You don't get to do that. So I was like, "What am I going to do, because this is an important part?" So I went back into the book and I scoured it and I found a simple line where Rachel mentions to us in her narration that Tom used to tell her that she would embarrass him at office parties that he had. And I just grabbed it and I ran with it. And then casting Lisa Kudrow. I cast her because I had to trick the audience and trick Rachel and she had to seemingly appear to be this Upper East Side rich bitch, and you don't mess with her party. And then, of course, she's this sweet person underneath that would aid the anger and relief that Rachel has and we have. That's why I filmed [Martha] leaning over [Rachel] in the bed and offering to have [Rachel] spend the night. A lot of it would often happen on the spot. I didn't write "Do you guys want to spend the night?" You just have to keep servicing every moment you have.
What do you think the future holds for Rachel and Anna, Tom's wife, played by Rebecca Ferguson?
I think that Anna, not that she's about to be a drunk, I think that she's about to embark on the journey that Rachel just finished. She's got some soul searching to begin. I think Rachel's character is going to flourish. I think she's going to do the very thing that we all need to work on, which is look at what you have and just live a true real life. And I think happiness is a choice, and I think it's one of the hardest choices to make because of the very demons that we all have within us that stamp that aside. I think she's going on that journey.
This book and movie are so twist-filled. I was curious in your own life how do you avoid spoilers for movies and TV shows you're watching?
I came to Breaking Bad really late. I watched it for the very first time while I was making this movie and everybody forever had been telling me, "You're going to love it, it's so you." Believe it or not, you asked me if this was such a departure, this is more in my wheelhouse than The Help or Get on Up. I'm a dark person and I love it. I guess the way I avoid it is like anybody. When I was watching Breaking Bad, there was a lot of "lalalalalalalala" [puts his fingers in his ears].