For Tate Taylor, working on a studio movie had to be a dream. That he adapted the book The Help, which was written by his high school buddy Kathryn Stockett, likely made every day seem like a dream. As we sat down to do the interview Kathryn passed around a picture of the two of them at prom together. Both had very intimate feelings for the material, and it shows. Check it out.
Was it because of your history that you really felt you could trust Tate with your material?
Kathryn Stockett: In retrospect, absolutely, but at the time I was a little nervous. We have different versions of the story of how it came to happen (laughter). Tate said…the thing that really kind of broke me, and it wasn’t like a huge argument that we had about whether he would make the movie. What really got under my skin was he said, “Katy if you don’t give me the rights to The Help some kind of Hollywood type or I mean God knows like a Canadian might will get them and chances are they will try to make this movie and they’ll get scared and it will sit on the shelf and it’ll never be made.” And I think he was right because he pushed through a lot of walls to get it made.
Tate Taylor: If you think about it, you gave me the rights in June of 2008 and three years later (that was before the book was out) it was written, the book came out, and the movie’s finished. That’s quick. Maybe I was trying to scare you a little bit. But I’ve just been out here and you hear of these great projects…I think The Secret History, that’s one they put expensive writers on and then people don’t like it and then they bring on another expensive writer and all these people get involved and gets whittled and ugh. I didn’t want that to happen.
KS: There was a well-known writer and studio that was trying to get the rights and Tate told me how many projects that they had sitting on the shelf. They love to take great books, buy the rights, and never make the movie.
TT: And I just thought that this is so potentially sticky and scary for Hollywood that…
KS: Well also I knew that you would make it in Mississippi.
When you were writing this was the movie playing in your head or was that not even a thought?
TT: Ohhh, don’t say the “M” word.
KS: I don’t go to the movies.
TT: She doesn’t.
KS: The last movie I saw in the theatre was “Seabiscuit.”
TT: And she’s not kidding. She doesn’t watch movies.
KS: Mmmmm, I don’t. I read! So no. But while I was writing the manuscript and Tate was reading it he kept saying, “Oh good, in this scene we’ll do this…” And I kept going, “Tate it’s not a movie – it’s a book!” I didn’t even have an agent and Tate said, “well listen when you shoot this scene…” We’re just very different writers. But it was really exciting to hand this project over to Tate because I knew he’d get it. We grew up in the same circumstances. It’s amazing how parallel our lives were. Both of our mom’s were divorced.
TT: Our mom’s were Celia’s. Honestly they were not accepted in Jackson society at all. We both saw the pain that it caused them.
KS: So the woman that we would come home to was the black woman that was working for our mom’s because our mom’s were working in an office.
TT: It was a different dynamic because my mom and Carol – the woman that raised me, who’s also in the movie… When Aibileen comes into the church and says, “who are we clapping for?” and the woman says; “They’re clapping for you” that’s the woman that raised me. But she and my mom had a really great relationship.
KS: That was more of a partnership.
TT: Yeah, but that was like Celia and Minny. My mom was a single mom trying to support me being a real estate agent and three months went by and she had not sold anything. Luckily it was at that age where franks and beans is gourmet so she just kept opening up the cans. But she had Carol. Carol was a single mom with three kids and it was really cool because Carol would take care of me and sometimes mom would take care of Carol’s kids. They would come spend the night with us one weekend. So that’s what spoke to me in the book – that bond between like Mae Mobley and Aibileen and then that going against the grain relationship, which is still against the grain, a black woman and a white woman being friends in ‘70s and just taking care of each other. But I know my mom – if you print this she’ll kill me. She had her hysterectomy and Carol came and lived in her house and took care of her for a week and then Carol had hers and mom did the same. So it was really cool – but don’t tell that one. Please.
KS: It was much more of a hierarchy. After school I went to my grandmother’s house and it was her maid. But still, we came home to that face and those arms around us.
So did you guys know anyone like Hilly?
TT: Hell yes!
I mean obviously you must have based it on somebody…
KS: It’s fiction…
TT: Well, you suffered some social persecution by some of those girls you ran around with at the High School. We both did, we were just oddballs. We also liked to create tension. We were always getting in trouble and messing with the system and pushing the buttons and it was always fun.
KS: It just found us. Trouble found us. It still finds us.
TT: Thank God.
KS: We get bored.
Can you guys talk about the casting ?
TT: It was just weird for Katy. Seeing the scenes come to life.
KS: Yeah. But Octavia had actually toured with me when the book first came out. And you know when I first started writing the character of Minny I just kept thinking about Octavia. You know she is very well educated, she’s a writer, she writes poetry – she isn’t Minny. But there’s something about Octavia’s mannerisms that can really take you and the way she looks you in the eye and you know exactly what she’s thinking. And so I loved to draw on that when I was writing the character of Minny and so you know as she toured with me it was so cool to hear her read those lines.
TT: Octavia had the part period. Octavia’s been in everything I ever directed – same with Alison Janney. I was so excited when I was reading her book and I was like, “Oh my God Charlotte Phelan. this can be Alison!” So that was there and I always wanted Viola and I mean really I prepared myself for this never happening again quite like this. The whole experience from everybody you’ll probably talk to – we just had the greatest time. Dreamworks was amazing, they just did not rock the boat, they saw this dynamic we all had as life-long friends and luckily people were talented in our group and they said, “Okay! Please, this is great.” So it just worked out.
KS: And my daughter plays young Skeeter. That’s one of the perks of having your friend be the director.
You mentioned Octavia – did you meet her just on the book tour?
KS: She lived with Tate.
TT: She was my roommate for five years until last October. So, it’s very incestuous and friendly. I did a short film called “Chicken Party,” it’s the first thing I ever did, and we were doing the sound mix and Larry Blake did our sound mix and we picked him because he was in New Orleans so we could have a reason to go to New Orleans for a sound mix. And then Katy said, “I want to come meet everybody!” And so she came to New Orleans in 2003 and she met Octavia. And Octavia was being Octavia and she goes, “You know that book I’m writing? Do you think Octavia would mind if I modeled a character after her?” And I go, “Just do it, just don’t tell her about it.”
KS: No, not modeled – we have to kind of step carefully on that one.
TT: Oh, true.
KS: Just kind of drawing on the way she uses her hands and her eyes and her mouth.
One thing that comes through in the film and sitting here talking with you is both the fondness for the time and the place but also the awareness for everything that was kind of wrong. That was a very delicate balance to strike in a film which I think you did achieve. Can you talk about that essential dichotomy of the south that feels like that ugly side bit the celebration of it as well?
KS: The very thing you’re speaking of is why the cast and crew fell in love with Mississippi. I mean my DP – they all came down there knowing the bad things and all the preconceived notions of the South and there are elements of that but there’s also all this beauty and love. It’s so confusing! And they said, “this place is just so something, there’s just somethingness everywhere.” But being a Mississippian – you said this in your book about the right to poke fun at your own mother and then no one else can – so since I’m a part of it there’s things that might upset some people, but I’m from here and I can talk about it. And it happened. What I was really joyful about was there was a part of me that thought people were going to be pissed off in Mississippi and we went to Green Wood which is really stuck in time and everybody, even like the Jr. League, Old Miss…I had to get permission and everybody celebrated what they had become. And I was really proud that no one said, “don’t put that in there, you’ll make us look bad!” So, I think if you’re going to grow and change you have to, not celebrate, but give attention to and acknowledge where you were. And everybody did it.
How much were you on set?
KS: Well I was there a lot.
TT: She wasn’t on-set. She was off to sleep. She was there for the evenings when we were through with work. I would tell her, ‘come see this scene today,’ ‘Ah, I get it. I’m going to get in the pool – what are we doing tonight?’
KS: Y’all worked late into the night though.
Being from that region makes you the police to the actors on what works and what doesn’t.
TT: These women did their homework. I have some acting in my past and I’ve been on set and you can tell when someone shows up stumbling through it and figuring it out. No way. They all took their work so seriously and really just – not because of me – but just felt the sense of privilege that they were getting to be these women and they showed up so prepared. And on-set, think about nine competitive actresses in an ensemble in 110 degrees sharing menstrual cycles, you’re just wondering when this is going to blow up. I’m you’ve probably seen they’re all best friends and they’re all so giving.
KS: But part of that was Stacy Snider too. She had a lot to do with…I think people just want to please her. It’s amazing they all just wanted to make sure they walked on to that set prepared and ready for Stacy to be excited.
Did you ever change things and say: Can you do it like this because this is how I remember it?
TT: Oh gosh yeah. No, I was changing things on the set – writing. I remember there was this one time where Viola and I rehearsed a scene and we got to set the next day and we rehearsed it for camera and I kind of got this sinking feeling and she and we kind of looked at each other and all the actresses and I had that relationship and I said, “let’s go talk.” And we went in her trailer and we realized that it was too much, what was written. You know when she says in the movie, “Mrs. Leefolt should not be having babies, write that down.” It was a whole long thing I had written and we rehearsed it and thought, “do we need all this?” And I said “what if you just say this?” And she said, “I love it.” And to have an actress say “let’s cut out that monologue” speaks so highly…I mean that’s what I’m talking about she’s such an efficient, smart, powerful actress – they all were.
This seems to be Emma Stone’s moment in time.
TT: Well we didn’t know! That was what was so great. I read Skeeter as a young Joan Cusack who I just think is hysterical and that’s who I wanted to find. Who’s Joan Cusack at 20? Somebody find me that and I met Emma Stone in this hotel, I felt so naïve and green, I thought I was going to look stupid because she is the first person I ever met and we met for drinks here and I thought, “I’m gonna look so dumb saying I met Skeeter with the very first person.” I thought, “should I tell them, they’re gonna think, ‘oh he’s such a green horn he thinks he’s found his lead,’ but I did though!” And I met other people and I said, “Oh it’s Emma.” And Dreamworks said, “great! We don’t know her but lets watch some stuff she did!” Her range was just incredible. And then she became Emma Stone. I wish we could say we planned it but that’s just how everything with this movie has worked out.
The Help is out now in theaters. Check it out.