Written By February/March 2012 : Page 26
Gentleman Southern Paul Selvin Award–winner Tate Taylor’s The Help grew from deep Mississippi roots. PoRtRAits BY ToM Keller D evotees of To Kill a Mockingbird know that novelist Harper Lee based the character Dill on her Geor-gia childhood friendship with Truman Capote. But avid readers of The Help, the best-seller about black maids in Mississippi during the early 1960s civil rights movement, probably do not know that its successful film adaptation was written and directed by novelist Kathryn Stockett’s childhood friend Tate Taylor. In fact, you could say that neither book nor film would exist without their friendship. Their lifelong allegiance is reconstructed in the interview that follows this introduction. Taylor left their hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, at the same time Stockett left, he to Hollywood to “tell stories,” she to New York to become an author. Taylor toiled more than two decades in Los Angeles be-fore “making it.” He took every kind of work to learn the business, from production assistant to actor, including act-ing with the Groundlings comedy troupe. His “mini movie” Chicken Party became a mini-under-ground cult favorite. After writing and directing his original Pretty Ugly People, the brief box-office life of that indepen-dent feature seemed to bode ill for greater opportunities. But unexpected help arrived in the form of an unpublished manuscript. At the Writers Guild Theater, Taylor spoke with Loui-siana resident Robert Harling, whose initial breakthrough into Hollywood came after adapting his own play about Southern belles, Steel Magnolias. Since that debut, Har-ling has written the hit Soapdish and adapted Olivia Goldsmith’s novel The First Wives’ Club. He made time 26 • WG AW Wri TT en By FEBRU AR Y/MARCH 20 12 for this interview between postproduction work on the forthcoming ABC series GCB (controversially known as Good Christian Bitches). —Richard Stayton Robert Harling: All adaptations are journeys. Yours has been extremely singular because you were childhood friends with Kathryn Stockett. Tate Taylor: Yeah, I threw rocks at Kitty when we were five years old, seriously, and she didn’t run away… too far. We were just these two oddballs in Jackson, Mississippi. Both our mothers were kind of “Celias.” We were raised by single moms with questionable pasts who were not accepted in the Jackson society. And we just had an affinity for each other. We were best friends throughout elementary school, junior high school, and high school and supported each other. And I came out to L.A. to become a… Well, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just wanted to tell stories. So I came out here and started acting, writing, directing—did the whole thing—and she was in New York trying to become a writer. We sent our stuff back and forth and gave each other hon-est criticism—honest. Finally, on 9/11, she started writing this book. And all she would tell me is that it was about our hometown and housekeepers, and she was a little em-barrassed about it. She didn’t want to tell me much more. This went on for five years. She cut me off from the process. And five years later she had finished and she said, “Tate, I’ve gotten 60 rejection letters from agents. I will let you read it now. Tell me what’s wrong.” I read it, and I could not believe this was my friend—that she had done this. And I
Paul Selvin Award–winner Tate Taylor’s The Help grew from deep Mississippi roots.<br /> <br /> Devotees of To Kill a Mockingbird know that novelist Harper Lee based the character Dill on her Georgia childhood friendship with Truman Capote. But avid readers of The Help, the best-seller about black maids in Mississippi during the early 1960s civil rights movement, probably do not know that its successful film adaptation was written and directed by novelist Kathryn Stockett’s childhood friend Tate Taylor. In fact, you could say that neither book nor film would exist without their friendship.<br /> <br /> Their lifelong allegiance is reconstructed in the interview that follows this introduction. Taylor left their hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, at the same time Stockett left, he to Hollywood to “tell stories,” she to New York to become an author.<br /> <br /> Taylor toiled more than two decades in Los Angeles before “making it.” He took every kind of work to learn the business, from production assistant to actor, including acting with the Groundlings comedy troupe.<br /> <br /> His “mini movie” Chicken Party became a mini-underground cult favorite. After writing and directing his original Pretty Ugly People, the brief box-office life of that independent feature seemed to bode ill for greater opportunities.<br /> But unexpected help arrived in the form of an unpublished manuscript.<br /> <br /> At the Writers Guild Theater, Taylor spoke with Louisiana resident Robert Harling, whose initial breakthrough into Hollywood came after adapting his own play about Southern belles, Steel Magnolias. Since that debut, Harling has written the hit Soapdish and adapted Olivia Goldsmith’s novel The First Wives’ Club. He made time For this interview between postproduction work on the forthcoming ABC series GCB (controversially known as Good Christian Bitches).<br /> <br /> —Richard Stayton<br /> <br /> Robert Harling: All adaptations are journeys. Yours has been extremely singular because you were childhood friends with Kathryn Stockett.<br /> <br /> Tate Taylor: Yeah, I threw rocks at Kitty when we were five years old, seriously, and she didn’t run away… too far. We were just these two oddballs in Jackson, Mississippi. Both our mothers were kind of “Celias.” We were raised by single moms with questionable pasts who were not accepted in the Jackson society. And we just had an affinity for each other.We were best friends throughout elementary school, junior high school, and high school and supported each other. And I came out to L.A. to become a… Well, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just wanted to tell stories. So I came out here and started acting, writing, directing—did the whole thing—and she was in New York trying to become a writer.We sent our stuff back and forth and gave each other honest criticism—honest. Finally, on 9/11, she started writing this book. And all she would tell me is that it was about our hometown and housekeepers, and she was a little embarrassed about it. She didn’t want to tell me much more.<br /> This went on for five years. She cut me off from the process.And five years later she had finished and she said, “Tate, I’ve gotten 60 rejection letters from agents. I will let you read it now. Tell me what’s wrong.” I read it, and I could not believe this was my friend—that she had done this. And I Told her, “Those were 60 crazy idiots.This is beautiful, and I have to make it into a movie.“<br /> <br /> We’ve all had people that say, “Hey, would you like to read this?” Did you have any apprehension? What were you feeling when you picked it up? And when did you know that you and the rest of the world would be entranced by it?<br /> <br /> When I got to the part about Aibileen and Mae Mobley. For those of you who have not read the book, it’s told in three different, distinct voices. I was raised—co-raised— by an African-American woman named Carol Lee, who I actually put in the movie. And that relationship was so strong to me in the book, and it reminded me of my youth and Carol, whom I love very much and who made me the man I am today. That’s why I wanted to tell the story. Because Kathryn found a way to go into these women’s homes and take them out of the kitchen and see who they are.<br /> <br /> So you read this unpublished manuscript and you’re completely blown away. There’ve been 60 rejection letters. What fired you up, other than passion for the material and an understanding of how to bring it to life?<br /> <br /> I just realized she had cracked something. She had actually gone into these women’s homes and told it from their point of view. I was like, Why have we never gone into these women’s homes and seen who they are? It made me think Of the times I would go home with Carol Lee and spend the night with her at her house. My relationship with the woman that raised me was quite different [than those in the book]. My mom was a single mom trying to figure out how to feed and clothe me. So my mom and Carol’s relationship was much like Celia and Minny’s. It was about equality and friendship and bonding. That’s what really brought me to it.I was so excited to go into that world, and I wanted to bring it to the screen. I told Kathryn I wanted [to option it], and everybody in her life told her she was crazy. Even though she didn’t have a publisher. Her husband, her shrink, her parents, all of her friends—some of them my friends—said, “Do not let him have it.” She wanted me to have it and finally we came up with an agreement. And I got the rights a year before it hit the shelves. And that is probably the greatest gift I gave myself. I wrote it for free, I went broke, but to write about that period, with no fans, no studio, no book in print, was such freedom. In my mind I was going to write an independent film to help get my friend’s book published. So, it was great, just me in L.A. at my computer, and I wrote it long.<br /> <br /> Was she a part of that screenwriting process?<br /> <br /> No, she wanted nothing to do with it. She famously does not like movies. The last movie she Saw before The Help in the theater was Seabiscuit. I’m not kidding. She goes, “You have the rights, I trust you—here.Here are my notes—go. I don’t know movies, I don’t understand them, but I know you’re going to do a good job. Have fun.” Really, pretty much that was the case. For those of you who’ve read the book, there were four main things I changed, and I told her about it, and she goes, “Oh yeah, you should do that. I should have done that in the book.” She’s so egoless with her material.<br /> <br /> Honoring a Gift <br /> <br /> This is such a gift. And it’s much easier to adapt a piece of work that is not well-known. How did you find the difference between adapting something that already existed and just creating something out of whole cloth?<br /> <br /> It was the first book I’ve ever adapted. With adaptation, I learned you’re less likely to go off the rails in your crazy mind when you somewhat have a guidepost. We’ve all been there.You’re writing an original script, and you just go crazy with a certain storyline or a character. But with an adaptation, it’s like a Rubik’s Cube. I love puzzles, and her book was tough and long, and I loved that challenge.<br /> <br /> The miracle of this achievement is there’s so much story. The book is so dense, with the different, shifting POVs. Did you just sit down and [write]?<br /> <br /> I gave myself another gift. Again, I wasn’t being paid and it was just me and my time. Instead of trying to figure out what to cut out, I just went ahead and wrote the son-of-abitch long—way, way long. It was well over 200 pages, the first draft, which I knew was not going to be the shooting script. But I wanted to go through the process of adapting and writing every scene of the book. When I was culling out stuff and chopping it down, you have written everything, it’s in you and you can find a way to take out a scene, but then that scene you’ve written stays in your mind, and all of a sudden you remember a way to sprinkle it in.<br /> <br /> All right, the screenplay is done, where did it go?<br /> <br /> Of course, Kathryn got a publisher and we still didn’t know if anybody was going to read it, but I knew that I’d better have the script in good shape. The book came out February , and I started getting phone calls. “Are you Tate Taylor?” “Yeah.” “You have the rights to The Help?” “Yes.” “What are your intentions?” “Well, I’ve written the screenplay and I’m going to direct it.” “Okay, what are your real intentions?” “I own the rights, I’ve written the screenplay, and I’m going to direct it.” And we would take these phone calls and have to say, “Well, this is the deal, and if you’re not interested don’t call us back.” We’d hang up the phone and be like, “Oh my God!We’ve been waiting to talk to that person for 10 years.” So that went on for a while, and nobody wanted to make it with me.I get it, on paper: Come on, it makes no sense, these movies don’t get made, period. That went on and on and on and on.<br /> Chris Columbus had been a fan of my previous work, and I sent him the screenplay. He wasn’t really interested, and then his wife read it and said, “You should get on board.” So he got on board with Brunson Green, my producer, and I, and still: crickets. The book is number one and I’m still getting, “What are your intentions?” And it came down to DreamWorks. I had gone to Mississippi and interviewed some maids and put a documentary together. And I came in and told them my vision for the film and showed them my documentary. Bottom line, they said, “If you wrote this screenplay and you adapted this, we have to think you can direct it,” and they took a big gamble and gave me my shot.<br /> <br /> An Ensemble of Riches <br /> <br /> The book is so unique. You can make movies that have two people and they’re in love and stuff happens, and then they’re not in love, and then they’re back in love again. But when you have this tapestry of all these characters and then they’re also vibrant, yet some even shimmer even brighter. I know a lot of that is magic in a bottle, but you, of course, are the one that brought the bottle. So, how did you get it all in there? When Viola [Davis] and Octavia [Spencer] read these scripts, how did they approach it? It’s not our most glorious part of our history.What did they do? What did they say to you?<br /> <br /> Well, I got the entire cast to watch Eyes on the Prize [the award-winning civil rights documentary]. Octavia, first of all, she was my roommate the whole time I was adapting the novel. We lived together. And Allison Janney, we’ve been friends for 15 years. So when I got the rights I wrote the part of Minny for Octavia, and Charlotte was always going to be Allison Janney. Octavia’s from Montgomery, Alabama, and her mother was a domestic, and Viola’s mother and grandmother were domestics, so they embodied that history. They knew this. They knew what this story was. But I also brought everybody down to Greenwood, Mississippi, a month before we began filming, and we all lived there and we broke bread there and we walked among the ghosts of my state’s past. We were on the banks of Tallahatchie River where [murdered civil rights activist] Emmett Till was pulled from, down the stream from Monty, Mississippi, so we were there. This movie could not have been made like this in L.A. I mean, we had to be there and had to go there. I brought all the actresses down, and we rehearsed in all of the practical locations. Many of them dressed. It was much like theater. And we just talked, and we found a bond and a trust amongst ourselves and talked to the locals. And Mississippi’s changed, but you still feel it. You know, it’s the same with Louisiana—it’s there.<br /> <br /> Oh, yes. So the heat was real. You saw the sweat.<br /> <br /> There was never any glycerin sprayed. The scene where Hilly comes to tell Charlotte about her daughter, the confrontation, it was 108 degrees—in the shade. And Bryce had crotch sweat and we laughed, and we had to finish the scene the next day, and she had the water bottle spraying herself to match it. It was so hot—hot, hot, hot! Many of our shots were at 5:30 in the morning just so we could get it done.<br /> <br /> Once the cast came onboard, did the script work continue, or was it they just came in and sort of assumed the script as written?<br /> <br /> I’m an actor too, and I’m hands-on with my actors. That’s the best part about rehearsal. I was always changing stuff, absolutely. Especially with Viola, she’s so powerful, she’s so efficient, so majestic. We would rehearse a scene and I’d go, “Don’t say half of that. Cut that out, cut that out, cut that out.” Just like the scene where she says, “Miss Leefolt should not be having babies. Write that down.” I had a whole monologue written for her, and she did it, and I went, “She’s so powerful. We’re not saying that. Say this,” and we did it. That happened all the time with Viola. I cut stuff quickly. You know how that is. “Oh, I wrote that? Ugh. Don’t say that anymore. Ugh.”<br /> <br /> Sometimes amazing things happen on the day. Any happy accidents?<br /> <br /> Oh, yeah, like at the end of the movie when Viola calls Bryce, or Hilly, a God-less woman. We rehearsed that scene, and Viola said, “I want to tell her she’s God-less.” And I said, “I like that.” I had written this entire other monologue, but I said, “You know what, say that and just ask her If she’s tired,” because all this happened on the day, and she goes, “I like that.” I said, “Just ask her if she’s tired. Just say, ‘Ain’t ya tired, ain’t ya tired?’” And we did it. That’s how I like to work, and luckily with these amazing actresses, we did it a lot of the time.<br /> <br /> As a Southerner, it’s just incredible to see something regional portrayed so authentically and be brought to life so vibrantly.Did the studio ever pressure you to change things?<br /> <br /> DreamWorks was amazing and pretty happy with the script when they came onboard. The term they used was, “Let’s get greedy. Let’s really try to make it really great.” So we tried things—and I write fast, much to my own dismay, because they’d give me notes and I’d turn around a day later and go, “Here they are.” I’m not precious with what I do, and I love to get feedback. A lot of the work I did on rewrites was just to explore and see what else we could line out. There was initially a little bit of—I wouldn’t even say pressure, but encouragement to bring in more of the racial history lesson, to feel the danger. And I just stated my case of how I really wanted this to be about relationships and that [racist danger] to be the background. In Kathryn’s book, this is a story about women. Kathryn wrote in her novel, “Women ain’t like men. They don’t beat you on the head with a stick. They have a shiny set of tools that they use.” So that wasn’t really applicable to my story, to be seeing the KKK or people being chased by dogs. What is most horrific in our story is Aibileen being forced to use the bathroom in a pine box in a garage while a white woman is tapping her foot saying, “Hurry up.”<br /> <br /> That’s a real accomplishment the screenplay gave us, a sense of jeopardy without going through the car chases. You felt the tension and you felt the height of the stakes of the character’s dilemma. This all happened in an earlier era. When writing, what infused your process in figuring out an era that was before you were born? Did it come from stories from your housekeeper, from your maids?<br /> <br /> A lot of it for me came from South Carolina. I spent every summer there as a child, surrounded by housekeepers of my grandparents and my aunts and my uncles who were from that generation. And I just remembered. When Sissy Spacek asked Minny if there’s an ambrosia in the refrigerator, that line came to me on set. That was South Carolina, where everyone made ambrosia. But mainly for me, the way I wanted to tackle Kathryn’s book was about the relationships. It was about the love. It was about the dynamics between these people. And the history and the racism, while it is prevalent, was the backdrop.<br /> <br /> You recently bought a place back home. Is your mother still with us?<br /> <br /> Oh, gosh, yes. Very much so. I spent Christmas there.Just so you know, the first time Carol’s in the movie is when Emma goes to Aibileen’s house after Yule May’s been arrested And the maids are all waiting for her. The very first woman who says, “I’m going to help you with your stories,” that’s Carol, who raised me. In Jackson, Mississippi, the theater had five screens and was the number-two performing theater in the country. But what really warmed my heart is that my mom, who saw it five times, said in the theater the audience was completely mixed race, all ages, and then afterward everybody congregated in the parking lot of the theater and just stayed there and talked and shared stories.<br /> <br /> I live in Louisiana, so it’s not too far from Jackson. And I was in Natchez, Mississippi, over the holidays, and of course everyone was talking about The Help. And the greatest compliment, I think, is that the Mississippians all feel ownership of it in a way. When you’ve created something, taken it away, turned it into art, and then people can look at it and reach into it and say, “Yes, I know that person”—when they can do that, that’s sort of the ultimate compliment to your work.<br /> <br /> I convinced [studio executives] that Mississippi is a character and you just cannot fake the South and you cannot fake Mississippi. So I really worked hard to get it brought there.Ninety-five percent of the locations were practical locations. I knew these homes. Skeeter’s house—I threw up in that house in college. That’s my college friend’s parents’ house—the Franklins. That stairwell: Oh, yes. I grew up in the house that Celia lived in, I grew up hunting and fishing on that land. I was told to never go on that land because the Lady Cat would shoot me—Cat Williams who owns the house. So, all this is personal. You had to go to Mississippi to get that feel.<br /> <br /> A question you get asked a lot is about being a man writing women characters.<br /> <br /> I was raised by a single mom and an African-American woman, and I have three sisters. I lived with Octavia Spencer.I grew up with a dad who was a traveling salesman and sold only to women. He sold women’s clothing. Women have been around me my whole life. When I write characters in scripts and they’re not working and they’re a male character, I’ve always found if you change the character to a female, it works better. But I don’t think of the sex of a character or an actor. I really, really don’t. The Help, to me, is just a bunch of amazing, brave characters who happen to have high-heel shoes on.