From page to screen
As friendship is so vital to the story of "The Help," so was friendship vital to how the film became a reality. Director/Screenwriter Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett, author of the book "The Help," were childhood friends who grew up together in Jackson, Miss., in the 1970s.
Taylor and Stockett's longtime, trusting friendship formed the basis of the film's journey and along the way they added another friend, Jackson native Brunson Green, to their mix, who Taylor had met at a blues festival in Jackson some 18 years prior. Then another friend, Octavia Spencer, joined their pack. Taylor met Octavia Spencer in 1996 when they were both production assistants on "A Time to Kill."
After the movie wrapped, Taylor and Spencer packed up and moved to Los Angeles together. Taylor, Green and Spencer all hung out in Los Angeles, with frequent visits from Stockett, who was off getting married, having a baby and living in New York City.
After taking five years to write the novel, which Stockett started right after 9/11 when she was in New York, and facing over 60 rejections from literary agents, Stockett was close to giving up when she gave it to Taylor for a read. As Taylor recalls, "I started reading the manuscript and was blown away. I was moved by the truth of the story, about these unlikely women coming together to create change in Mississippi in 1963. I called Kathryn and just said, 'This is fantastic. You cannot give up…this will be published. If it doesn't, I'll make it into a movie.'"
The authenticity of the story of "The Help" resonated with Taylor from the moment he opened the manuscript. "This was our childhood. Kathryn and I weren't quite raised like the characters in the book because we were raised in the '70s. But our mothers were single moms who had to work. And they, like the women in the story, needed to get help with the children. Kathryn and I like to refer to the women who raised us as our co-mothers. Mine was Carol Lee and hers was Demitri."
Excited by the prospect of making "The Help" into a film, Taylor started the ball rolling by sending the manuscript to their mutual friend, producer Brunson Green.
Green recalls, "I was in New York and Tate said 'I am going to send you this book. Read it immediately. We need to make it into a movie.' I read it on the flight home and I was crying on the plane. It reminded me of my Grandmother's housekeeper Mary and their rich, lifelong yet complex relationship."
With Stockett's blessing, Taylor, with the help of Green, acquired the film rights to "The Help" and Taylor began to adapt the novel into a screenplay.
Taylor definitely had a feel for the material as he committed himself to bringing the complex, inspiring and surprisingly humorous novel to the big screen. "These women would not be allies at that time for reasons of race and class," says Taylor. "It's easy to be quiet. You think that there is no benefit from speaking up, or maybe you are just lazy and want to go with the status quo. But, I think what this book shows people, and I hope the movie will show people, is that the smallest thing can affect change."
The challenge for Taylor in writing the screenplay was to be honest to the voice of the novel and condense it into a two hour movie. As Taylor comments, "The technical issue for me was getting the first 200 pages of the novel into 20-25 minutes of the script. But, I know this material. I read the book about 13 times and I would circle the things I really liked in the novel.
"Once I starting writing, it just began to flow. Kitty [Kathryn Stockett] and I have the same sense of humor and we tell stories the same way. She was generous enough to let me run things by her."
About a year later, in 2009, "The Help" was published by Penguin Books. Spurred by passionate word-of-mouth from readers, "The Help" stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 103 weeks, six of which were in the No. 1 spot.
Tate Taylor happened to be traveling through Alabama with Kathryn Stockett and Brunson Green following a book signing in Jackson, Miss., and en route to Atlanta, the last stop on the book tour, when Stockett received a call from her publisher. They quickly pulled over at a truck stop to hear the news from the publisher--"The Help" was debuting on the New York Times bestseller list.
Green recalls, "I snapped a photo of them celebrating in front of the truck stop with their Smirnoff Ices. Kathryn was literally on the phone with her publisher and very excited."
At that point, Taylor and Green worked actively to find a veteran producer to partner with them on "The Help." They realized that their primary filmmaking experience had been in the world of independent film, so they looked at bringing in another producing partner with studio credibility.
"We started with baby steps, in the development of the script, in getting the right partners. We really needed someone who had the legs, someone who had done huge movies like 'Harry Potter' and that was Chris Columbus and 1492," explains Taylor.
And it was only natural that Taylor would take the project to Producer Chris Columbus as he had known him for some time. When Taylor asked him to read the book, Columbus agreed. "I read the book and it was phenomenal," Columbus says. "It was so complex and socially relevant for our time."
Columbus was also impressed with Taylor's screenplay and felt strongly that Taylor was the best choice to direct the project. As he explains, "Tate's the only guy who could have directed this movie because he lived in this world; he grew up with these people. He understands every detail, every nuance. And that's what you look for in a director."
The next step was to find a studio that would support the filmmakers' vision of turning "The Help" into a feature film. This was not an easy process as Taylor and the producers found themselves also meeting rejection, just as Kathryn Stockett had with the book.
Then what they all worked and hoped for happened. "DreamWorks came in and really supported Tate directing the film and that really was the kick off," says Columbus.
"DreamWorks' Stacey Snider [Partner, Co-Chairman, CEO] said, 'I can't let this go,"' Columbus recalls. "And it was because of Stacey and Steven Spielberg, who stepped in and agreed to make the movie, that we were able to fulfill Tate's vision."
Green adds, "DreamWorks came on board, which was phenomenal. They care about the filmmakers and they don't want them to feel compromised in any way. They give the director the freedom to tell his story."
Just as the novel attracted millions of readers around the world, the filmmakers are hopeful that the novel's universal themes will resonate with moviegoers. "I think the key to the book's success is that the subject matter is finally being told from the point of view of the most obvious people, which are these women. I think it takes us back to a time and place that has been forgotten and that is still really important to us," says Taylor.
The art of adaptation