Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tate Taylor Talks - The Help

Over the course of summer KCET has been hosting a Cinema Series at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California. Nine special nights showcasing eight new movies before their theatrical release along with one classic Johnny Mercer scored film. Each screening will also include a Q&A immediately following the film with actors and filmmakers hosted by film critic Pete Hammond. The eighth film screened was "The Help" written and directed by Tate Taylor. "The Help" was adapted from the New York Times Bestselling novel of the same name and tells the story of three women who become unlikely friends in Mississippi during segregation of the 1960s. It is a touching and universal film about the sparks of change during a turbulent racial time in American history. Following the film was a stirring Q&A with writer/director Tate Taylor and actress Allison Janney. Take a look at the highlights below...

Tate Taylor has had the rights to "The Help" before the book had ever been optioned. Taylor, who grew up in Mississippi, has been best friends with author Kathryn Stockett since they were little kids "orbiting outside the norm." Ever since she was little Tate said, "she wanted to be a writer." After the events of 9/11 Kathryn called Tate and said the only way she could feel better was to talk to her nanny/maid growing up, Dimitri. Kathryn began to write short stories just to hear Dimitri talk. Five years later, Kathryn had finished The Help and began shopping it around to publishers. Tate Taylor said, "after over sixty rejection letters" she gave the book to him to read. Tate said he instantly fell in love with the story. He connected with it first and foremost because he had a woman who co-raised him with his single mother but more importantly Tate said, "Kathryn found a true point of view on a subject that had been done to death."

Tate began developing a script to "The Help" a year before the book had even been published. The biggest gift of all, Kathryn gave Tate "complete rights." So further down the road, after the book was making money and studios would begin calling, they would be told it had already been optioned and were given Tate Taylor's contact information. Tate said it was "very weird to hang up on the names that were calling and asking" about his intentions. Before I get ahead of myself, it is important to note Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett's original intentions. Tate said, "I believed I was going to write a script and make an independent film based off his friend’s un-publishable manuscript." The notion was they could make a really good independent film, "and maybe the book would get published." Little did they know the book would indeed be published and go on to be on the New York Times Bestsellers List. Another aspect that paid huge dividends for the quality of the script is Tate began writing "without a gazillion cooks in the kitchen, without fear, without you can’t do this and that or market won’t like this" type of attitude." He had the "freedom" to write what he truly wanted to write. Tate says his first draft "was over 200 pages." He defended writing so much because he wanted to get to know all the characters and develop them.

Without loyalty and friendship "The Help" could have ended up a much different film. Once the book took off and studios were finding out the book was optioned by Tate Taylor, "they all second guessed" him says Taylor. Multiple studios said with Tate Taylor at the helm there was no way they would back the film. Then Chris Columbus came along. Tate says, "Chris really liked the script and believed it could happen." Still, studios balked and said, "No way. All female cast. Bi-racial period film. No one is gonna go. We don’t care how successful the book is." Then Dreamworks, Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg came along. Tate said that Snider called him saying her "inner voice" was telling her she couldn't let "The Help" go. Tate Taylor then met with Dreamworks and laid out his exact plans. Tate told the crowd Steven Spielberg looked him in the eyes and said, "we'll have to trust you" and sent him on his way to shoot on location in Mississippi. It is a testament that Dreamworks really allowed Tate Taylor creative control. The film is one of the most powerful films I've seen all year and it really pleases me to see a story like this come to fruition. Especially considering the friendship that is behind it. Kathryn Stockett could have very easily decided to give away the rights to the highest bidder, yet she remained loyal to her good friend.

One aspect director Tate Taylor stresses that helped make "The Help" such a triumph is rehearsal time. Tate pointed out he believes while filming the movie, "everyday starts with the actor." It is important to him that everyone is prepared and had time to figure out their roles with the rest of the cast. He says, "its cheaper in the long run" because there is no need for re-shoots. Much like a play, they all were able to explore the characters and script. Actors were able to develop shorthand with each other as well as the director. Tate was able to do re-writes realizing something was off in rehearsal. Once again he stressed, "it is a better way to make a movie," because "you know the material."

Tate Taylor was asked how Mississippi treated the crew considering the context of the film and shooting on location. Actor Allison Janney chimed in and said that "everyone greeted us with open arms." She went on to say that they "became a family" hanging out after shooting. Tate Taylor reinforced Janney's statements by saying that the town liked the project and embraced them but more importantly, being there in Mississippi was essential to the film. "You can feel it" Tate Taylor stressed. Being in the natural environments helped to make the characters. He's absolutely right, I can't imagine what this film would look like had it been made on some sound stage. Tate Taylor and Allison Janney stressed how much of a family the cast and crew became while making "The Help" and it comes through on screen. While audiences might know that most of the cast and crew were already friends or family, it comes across on screen without error. This is a emotional powerhouse of a film that is certain to get some attention come award season.

A final note needs to be made about the cast. Yes, "The Help" is a primarily female cast. Men, please do not let that be some reason of rationalizing not to see this movie. While you may look at the poster or and see a female driven cast, it is not a female movie. Tate Taylor said it best by saying, "there is so much humanity, perseverance and struggle. Every scene is driven by that and yeah the characters are women." This is a movie about people figuring out themselves and figuring out relationships that happens to also have a female cast but the themes and concepts are universal to us all. "The Help" releases August 10th in wide release around the United States. Make sure you get out and see this movie and stay tuned for my full review of "The Help."