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In November 2007, flying home to Los Angeles from New York, Tate Taylor fell in love. The aspiring writer-director had just left his friend Kathryn Stockett — who’d received 60 rejections from agents alone for The Help — and now he was reading her novel for the first time.
“I have never had my skin feel so electric in my life,” he says of the manuscript, about two African-American maids in the 1960s and the young white woman who writes their story. “I could not believe what she had done. And I started thinking of how much I loved Carol Lee [the maid who helped bring him up] and how she made me the man I am today, and all these women in the South who made so many senators and doctors and lawyers the men and women they are today.”
How Stockett’s novel became a global best-seller and how her childhood neighbor from Jackson, Miss., Taylor, 42, turned it into a movie sensation is already the stuff of lore. But the filmmaker’s journey was more complicated than most people know.
It involved standing firm when major studios tried to pry the book from him; persuading DreamWorks that this man — who had only made one short and an $800,000 feature, 2008’s Pretty Ugly People — could handle a $25 million period piece; convincing the Mississippi legislature to throw in almost $3 million; and borrowing $10,000 from actress Allison Janney so that he could avoid foreclosure.
It also meant maintaining faith in himself as he approached the age of 40 and believing that the decision he had made way back when he was 24 to give up everything for his career was right — a decision that followed an icy February night, when he fell over the railing of his New York tenement building and “was in a coma and in the hospital for five weeks and supposed to die. It was a miracle I survived.”
Throughout, Taylor was convinced the story was great and he was the man to film it, given that he grew up in the world Stockett wrote about. “I just really believed in this material,” he says. “That old cliché, make what you know, had never been more true.”
Even though the book still hadn’t been published when Taylor read it, Stockett’s advisers were adamant she shouldn’t hand him an option.
“It was scary, because everyone was saying I couldn’t give him the rights,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I love you, buddy, but no.’ And I didn’t just say it offhandedly — my shrink, my mother, my agent, my [then-] husband, my best friend all said no.”
For months, she hesitated. But one point Taylor made swayed her: That if her book were optioned by a big-time producer, it might sit on a shelf or be adapted disastrously. Sensing she was leaning his way, Taylor gathered his key partners. “[Executive producer] John Norris and [producer] Brunson Green drew up an option on our computer and sent it over with a paltry amount of money — $10,000,” the filmmaker says. “And she said, ‘Oh my God, you scrounged all this money together!’ And then she said, ‘F– ’em!’ and she gives us the rights.”
It was May 2008, and now the novice plunged into his screenplay, which wasn’t easy: Stockett’s novel is told through three voices — Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the young journalist; Aibileen Clark, a quiet maid; and Minny Jackson, the outspoken maid who joins Aibileen in recounting her life.
After toying with Skeeter as narrator, Taylor opted for Aibileen, thinking of his own maid, Lee, now 63, as he wrote. “My parents divorced when I was 6, and we lived in a shitty duplex and my mom was faced with a dilemma: How do I work and take care of my child?” he notes. “And that’s when Carol came into our lives. She had such love and affection and care for me, and we would laugh all the time.”
With a clear vision of her and Stockett’s own childhood maid, Taylor brought in his initial draft at more than 200 pages, almost twice the length of an average screenplay, and even then had to reduce the first half of the book to some 25 minutes of film.
“Meanwhile, I’m going broke because I realize I have to make this work,” he says. “And I was borrowing money from everybody — Allison, my dad.” (Janney had worked on his first feature, alongside Melissa McCarthy, with whom Taylor is now writing a comedy, Garden of the Gods.) “But they all believed in me.”
Chris Columbus also believed. Taylor had met the Harry Potter director years before and quite by chance when he discovered that Columbus’ daughter went to the same San Francisco school as his niece. Through her, he’d managed to get his 2003 short, Chicken Party, into Columbus’ hands.
Now, halfway through his script, Taylor told Columbus about The Help and asked him to read the book before it came out (it was picked up by Penguin) with an eye to becoming one of the producers. “I gave him two copies of the galleys and said, ‘You might want to give the other one to your wife,’ ” Taylor remembers.
Initially, Columbus passed without reading the book. “He said, ‘This just isn’t really for us,’ ” Taylor explains. “And then his wife read it and told him, ‘You’re crazy! Get on board!’ “
After that, “I spent all day Monday reading it in my office,” Columbus says, “and thought, ‘This is really great.’ But I realized it was a difficult adaptation.” And so he didn’t give a firm yes to becoming a producer until November 2008, when the screenplay was finished — and even then he wasn’t fully aware that it would consume so much of his life. By that time, the novel was making the rounds in galleys.
“Huge people would call Brunson and John and say, ‘OK, you have the rights, what are your intentions?’ ” Taylor recalls. “They’d say: ‘Well, Tate has the script, and he’s going to write and direct.’ And the other guys would go, ‘No, but what are you really going to do?’ And the book isn’t on the shelves yet!”
Rejection followed rejection. Stars such as Anne Hathaway saw the work but declined to become attached — and so did others, even after the book was published in February 2009 and slowly developed a fan base. The team started to despair, except for Taylor.
“It quickly became apparent that nobody wanted me,’ ” he remembers. “But I just knew — like when I read the book — what was going to happen. I’d bet the farm. I thought, ‘If I am going down, I am going down with this one.’ “
So as the rejections piled up, he started assembling a support group. Former Los Angeles roommate Octavia Spencer — who’d worked with Taylor as a PA on A Time to Kill, and on whom Minny partly was based — and Janney were in from the start. At the same time, Columbus introduced Taylor to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, who signed on, advocating that the picture be shot on film rather than digital and go for vivid colors rather than the desaturated look of many period films.
Three budgets were compiled, ranging from bare bones to mid-budget. But so little did Hollywood believe in Taylor, he never even got to present them to backers. Still he pressed on.
In December 2009, he embarked on a road trip through the South with production designer Mark Ricker, co-producer Sonya Lunsford, set decorator Rena DeAngelo and Green, searching for locations. All were unpaid.
“We met in Memphis and first drove down to Clarksdale, Miss., and stayed at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club,” Ricker says. “Then we drove over to Greenwood and Jackson. Tate had an idea Greenwood would be ideal” to represent Jackson, where the story takes place.
In early 2010, things shifted. Taylor, who had eked out a living as a lifestyle journalist and as an actor after training with the improvisational group The Groundlings, drew attention at the Sundance Film Festival for his role in Winter’s Bone. Meanwhile, Stockett’s book had become a phenomenon.
“But it was still a tough movie,” he says. “And it was me as director, and I wouldn’t let it go.”
Companies such as Sony, Universal, Warner Bros. and Summit Entertainment toyed with the project but never signed on.
Then DreamWorks stepped in. CEO Stacey Snider had loved the book; reading Taylor’s script, she was equally impressed. The day Winter’s Bone won the grand jury prize at Sundance, Taylor’s partners called saying, “Stacey wants to meet us on Monday.”
A second meeting took place days later with her colleague Steven Spielberg — and Taylor came armed, bringing a mini-documentary he’d created purely as a selling tool, featuring real-life Southern maids. “I gave him that and the ‘look book’ [compiled during his trek through the South].” Snider had been so encouraging that Taylor felt confident and says they all wept when they saw his documentary. “Then things started to move real fast.”
On Feb. 2, 2010, over breakfast at Claridge’s hotel in London, where Spielberg had flown to see the stage play War Horse, the filmmaker told Columbus he was ready to move forward — with one proviso: “He said, ‘You are planning to be on set the whole time, right?’ ” Columbus recalls. He took a deep breath and said yes — and Taylor got his green light.
Now he had to face the reality of a shoot. DreamWorks had committed $25 million (a third coming from co-financier Participant Media); but that meant filming in Louisiana with its generous tax breaks. Taylor, however, was determined to make his movie in Mississippi.
“I got the head of economic development and the film commissioner for the state of Mississippi to fly out to meet with us,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘We have an opportunity to bring this to Mississippi. But you are going to have to match Louisiana’s tax credits or it’s not going to happen.’ “
Mississippi arranged $2.75 million in funding and used the film as a guinea pig to see if such subsidies actually brought in revenue; its study would later reveal that the project fed $17 million into the local economy, after which “the legislature made their rebate completely on par with Louisiana’s,” says Green.
Casting already had gotten under way as the script and budget were being finessed. Spencer was locked in as Minny, with Janney as Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte. But finding the feisty young woman to play Skeeter herself was another thing.
So Taylor met Emma Stone, whose prominent roles largely had been in comedies such as Easy A and Friends With Benefits.
“It was at the Four Seasons bar, on Jan. 20, 2010,” Stone remembers vividly. “I didn’t even know about the book until an hour prior when I called my mom, and she was flipping out!” The meeting was such a success, another followed at New York’s Gramercy Hotel, and Stone got the part.
But Aibileen was more problematic. From the start, Taylor knew he wanted Viola Davis (Doubt), but “she had committed to doing Fences” on Broadway. “I was distraught,” he says. Through a series of miscommunications, neither side realized the dates might actually fit — until a mutual friend, actor Nelsan Ellis, mentioned the project. “We were having a party at our house and he screamed across the room, ‘Viola, a friend of mine is looking for you for The Help‘– and I had just finished the book,” she explains. “He said, ‘Let me get him on the phone right now.’ He got Tate, and Tate said, ‘Viola, I want you for my movie!’ And that was it.”
Shooting began July 23 in Greenwood, Miss. — 13 days after Davis wrapped Fences.
Taylor had taken Goldblatt’s advice, committing to two weeks of rehearsals with the actors. This preparation allowed the cinematographer to film quickly when the sun was coming up, meaning the actors had to start work at 5 a.m. most days on exterior shoots, and at twilight, letting the outdoor scenes be shot when the light was most beautiful.
Many locations were mere blocks apart; even interiors were constructed nearby, inside a warehouse in the middle of a cornfield. Thanks to all this, the 59-day shoot was almost frighteningly smooth — no obvious achievement with a 152-page script.
Big challenges such as obtaining the right locales were aided by an enthusiastic local populace; little ones, such as tracking down the grizzly bear that looms in the vulgar but touching Celia Foote’s (Jessica Chastain’s) house, were facilitated by the Internet.
“We found him in Wisconsin,” says Ricker. “We ended up paying $10,000, but we had him for six months.”
For Spencer, the only bad part of the shoot centered on scenes when she had to cook — something at which she excels in the movie, but not in real life. She was paralyzed by fear. “You can tell when I’m really nervous,” she says. “I literally start dripping with sweat.”
Suffocating heat may have contributed to it.
In one scene, Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard, as the racist Hilly Holbrook, had to sit on a porch when it was 110 degrees with 100 percent humidity. Stone laughs about the “crotch sweat” her friend developed — and was impressed that Howard splashed her dress with water in exactly the same place when the scene continued the next day.
The actors’ passion matched Taylor’s. One night, convinced he’d overlooked some key passages in the novel, Davis stormed over to his house in a fury. “We had a heated conversation, and that’s when we became close friends,” Taylor recalls. “But we figured out a compromise.”
“I know I was driving him crazy,” Davis adds. “But I came with a mission. He said [he didn’t want the changes], because he knows this woman, because she’s Carol Lee. And my argument was, ‘I was born from this woman, so I know her on a whole different level.’ “
Davis’ mother had worked as a maid, and so had her grandmother, who lived with her 11 surviving children (she had 18 in all) in a one-room sharecropper’s house, where Davis was born. “I went in understanding the responsibility,” she says. “It fueled my creativity.”
Shooting wrapped Oct. 13, 2010. When Snider saw how good the material was, she added $1 million for elements including Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But the completed film still came in $700,000 under budget.
The Help screened for the first time in Kansas City, Mo., in mid-December 2010. “It just killed,” Taylor marvels. Since its Aug. 10, 2011 opening, it has earned more than $200 million worldwide.
Now the filmmaker is under way with another project for DreamWorks, while Stockett is one-third into her next novel, set in 1930s Mississippi, which will reteam her with her friend.
Success has allowed Taylor to return all those loans.”I spent four weeks paying everybody back,” he says proudly — Janney among the first. “I got $10,000 in $20 bills and put them in a shoe box and wrapped it up and went to her house. And she said, ‘Wow! Nobody’s ever paid me back before!’ ”
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