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Podcast: Writer-Director Tate Taylor on The Help

Through his childhood friendship with author Kathryn Stockett, Tate Taylor saw The Help long before the rest of the world made it a New York Times best-seller. He didn't know then that the film he imagined as a grassroots indie would become a major release, backed by the muscle of Disney distribution, opening on August 10.
Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in The Help.

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, and Viola Davis in The Help

He ain't a woman and he ain't black, but Tate Taylor wrote and directed The Help. He's leaving it to audiences to decide if he did justice to the best-selling novel by the same name. Taylor’s childhood friend, author Kathryn Stockett, penned the story of black maids working for white families in a Jim Crow-governed Jackson, Mississippi. An aspiring novelist (Emma Stone) urges black maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) to speak about out the racial injustices inflicted on them during this tumultuous time. So, what’s a white guy from Mississippi got to say about it? A lot apparently. Taylor was raised by a black maid, and although that doesn’t make him an expert, it gives him an insight into a story he says isn’t necessarily about civil rights. It’s about “humanity and friendship,” he says. It’s about “taking chances and getting out of your comfort zone.” Script sat down with writer-director Tate Taylor to talk about racism, growing up in the South, and adapting his best friend’s novel.

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SCRIPT: How does a white dude get a gig like this?

TATE TAYLOR: The author and I have been best friends since we were about five or six years old. We grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and have always supported each other, or egged each other on creatively. And, we found ourselves as adults, and she had written this novel, The Help, over five years. She was reluctant to share it with me because, you know, we all least want to be chastised by our friends and family. She shared with me that she was kind of at the end of her rope. She’d been turned down by 60 agents, and she kind of thought this was going to be a labor of love, but nothing would ever happen with it. So, she said, “You know what, I’ll let you read it.” Finally. So, she gave me the manuscript, and I just could not believe what my friend had created. It just touched me to the core. She and I were both raised by single moms, and who we called our co-mothers, women that our mothers had to bring into their life as working women to help with us. So, it just really spoke to me and … I said, “You know, I gotta make it into a movie.” And she said, “I know. I’ve known this was coming ...” So, I got the rights to it with her blessing -- obviously she has to give them to somebody -- a year before the book was even in print. I got it when we just all thought it was going to be this manuscript that she wrote. I started adapting it right away, knowing that if I wanted a shot at making this, I had to do a good job. The stuff kind of all just grew from there. And she did get an agent. A wise agent who was like, “Wait a minute, this is good.” Then, she got a publisher, and the book came out. It debuted in the top 25. I was perfectly poised with having the adaptation done.

SCRIPT: Being that you’re not black and this is about black women primarily, did you struggle with how you could connect to the story?

TATE TAYLOR: There’s an old saying, “Write what you know.” But I think by the way I described my love of the book, it represents why I was able to do this. I’ve been pretty much raised by women. They were just the only people and forces in my life as a child. And Carol Lee, the African American woman that came into my home, she taught me a lot of things. I spent my days with her while my mom was struggling, trying to make a career in real estate. So, it’s the only thing I’ve ever really been around, especially in my formative years … women, and in my case, a wonderful woman named Carol Lee.

SCRIPT: Describe the adaptation process. How did you make this script your own?

TATE TAYLOR: Well, it’s funny. I read the novel a ton of times. My process is this: I have to really really really know who everybody is and what they think. And that just comes from a place of just reading it and really studying these people and what makes them tick. For me, it’s almost as if I want to be so familiar with the characters and the story that I could continue writing the novel. And just pick up with what happens the day after Aibileen is fired. So, before I begin anything, that’s what I have to do for me. I almost make sitting down and writing scenes a great wonderful reward for that work. So, what I do is I prepare like that. Read the book. Read the book. Read the book. And, structurally, I want to keep as much of the novel in place, because I knew how many fans there were going to be. And being a book reader myself, I’m the first to put my nose in there about screen adaptations. So, I have that pressure going for me.

SCRIPT: How do you manage expectations from fans?

TATE TAYLOR: My first draft of this was at 200 pages. I have to flesh out the entire novel. It may seem wasteful to people, but I have to do it for me. I have to say, “OK, let’s just say we’re gonna film this book in its entirety.” Of course I end up with these 200 pages, and I’m like, “OK, what’s gonna go?” But having gone through the process of writing every scene in the dream world that I could have if it was a four-hour epic movie with an intermission, I can then get creative in saying, “OK, I have to kill this scene. What was it that I liked about this? What was it that made me want this in this fantasy screenplay?” And, you usually identify an emotion, or a line or a feeling and then I can go to scenes that I have to have, “brick and mortar scenes,” I call them, and you can often find a way to put that feeling or emotion in scenes that they were never intended to be in. Hopefully, you’re satisfying the reader because there are things in The Help that take place at certain parts that no one seemed to notice was not ever there. They just know, it was in the book. And that it’s been satisfied. That itch has been scratched.

SCRIPT: What were your expectations for the script?

TATE TAYLOR: I was adapting this with the idea that I was going to, with my producing partner Brunson Green, go make an indie movie. We thought we were gonna take this unpublished manuscript and go raise money and make an indie film called The Help. I was writing this for free for myself on spec, so I didn’t have a gazillion producers or people telling me, “We don’t want to write that scene,” or “Don’t do that,” or “You have to have the script done by this amount of time.” No, I had all the time in the world, and I said, “I’m gonna write an extremely long version of my friend’s book.” And then, go back and shake it down and move some stuff around and spice up stuff or get rid of stuff that had to go.

SCRIPT: There are quite a few comedic moments mixed in with the dramatic ones. How did you find that rhythm?

TATE TAYLOR: There’s no such thing as a two-line joke in the South. We automatically kind of have this rhythm of baiting and switching and reversals. We lure and seduce people in the South. I think it comes more natural to Southerners, that if you’re gonna rip someone’s heart out, you better make ‘em laugh right before, because that’s really gonna hurt ‘em. It’s just how we operate. I mean look at the crazy cast of people that come out of the South. I think it’s innate in Southern people.

SCRIPT: Speaking of nice, when dealing with a touchy subject like racism, how do you make your characters well-rounded, sympathetic and real?

TATE TAYLOR: As far as Hilly, our villain, for me, what was really important, was to really show that perhaps if she had been born in a different time and era, she wouldn’t necessarily be this person. I mean, she does some horrible things, but she really believes them to be true. She really believes that it is the way things are. She’s not just set out to be this evil person. She believes what she’s selling and what she’s thinking. There’s a point in the movie when she’s getting onto Skeeter because Skeeter has on her person a book that lists all of what are essentially the Jim Crow laws. Some cindery material. And Hilly comes up to her as a worried friend, and tells Skeeter, “You can’t walk around with stuff like this. There are real racists out there who would find this questionable that you’re even looking at this stuff.” It’s just ignorance.

SCRIPT: What are you most proud of in this movie?

TATE TAYLOR: I think, for me, what really really I’m most proud of and Kathryn did so beautifully in the novel, that I wanted to keep in the movie, was the relationship between Minnie and Celia, played by Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. I didn’t want this to be about poor treatments of blacks, and I didn’t want it to be a civil rights movie, I wanted it to just be about relationships and people taking chances on each other and forging friendships that aren’t necessarily, or don’t easily fall into place, and what can happen as a result. So, I’m really proud of the work these ladies did and what it says. It makes the story about humanity and friendship and taking chances and just getting out of your comfort zone and being friends with somebody you’re not normally friends with and what can happen. I’m really proud of that and for me, the work that Allison Janney and Emma Stone do together when we find out what really happens to Constantine. I think that really shows how complex this [society] was back in the '60s, and how hard it was and why people made the decisions that they made. You understand why Allison’s character Charlotte did this horrible thing. You don’t forgive her, but you understand why she felt she had to due to social pressures.