How We Made 'The Help'
Memorable Moments From The Help
When I attended the premiere of our film The Help, I thought about how our labor of love has turned into quite a journey. It’s almost as if the film had a touch of that Southern charm that typically involves generosity and helpfulness. It seemed like every time we needed something, we’d turn a corner and there were the answers, as if it were all meant to be.
Here are a few of the great moments that come to mind.
Finding The Help and Its Charmed Life
As you may have already heard, Tate Taylor, writer and director of the movie, was one of Help novelist Kathryn Stockett’s best friends. Tate and I had worked on several indie projects together and had been great friends for about 15 years. As soon as he read Kathryn’s manuscript, he immediately called me excitedly and said he had to make The Help into a movie. Little did we know that the book would become such an international smash. That posed some hard choices for Kathryn. Whether to go with her gut, or listen to everyone telling her not to sell the film rights to Tate. What were the chances that she would stick by us when everyone in her life told her not to? Fortunately, she went with her instinct, and the result has been a phenomenal one.
When I first read The Help, it was a hefty, six-pound manuscript. It was beyond massive. I was on a red-eye and stayed up the entire flight because I just couldn’t stop turning the pages. By the last page, I was smiling ear to ear and crying at the same time. The two folks sitting on each side of me must have thought I was nuts.
There’s a common phrase that we kept hearing in regards to our group of friends sticking together on this project: “This never happens!” What’s been so refreshing about working on this film is that I knew everyone was in it for the right reasons. It’s one of those instances that remind you why people get into the movie business in the first place. The passionate reactions we received from everyone, from production assistants to DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg, couldn’t have been more sincere and encouraging.
Respecting a Vision
When the book cracked the bestseller list’s top 10, Tate had just finished the script. We approached 1492, which is the company of Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, and Mark Radcliff. Like Tate and myself, they have all been friends for years, and Chris had been a big supporter of Tate’s, since he was a huge fan of our earlier work Chicken Party and Pretty Ugly People. Before we started meeting with studios, 1492 had warned us that unlike the indie world, a studio would confront us with a lot of opinions from all sides during the process from script to screen. They did a brilliant job helping us navigate those waters and find the right home for the film.
Jenny Blum, senior VP of production at 1492, wisely warned that Tate’s baby—now growing to a healthy 167 pages—would probably have to be cut down to about 120. Two days before we were to begin shooting our 158-page script, Jenny said, “Usually they won’t start production on a film until the script is shorter. This never happens.”
Thanks to their shared passion to deliver a faithful adaptation of the book, Stacey and Holly Bario at DreamWorks let us start shooting Tate’s complete script. It allowed Tate and his talented editor, Hughes Winborne, to have the full scope of the book in order to craft an intricate storyline—without having to go back for costly reshoots, which are common on films of this size.
Selling Mississippi to Hollywood
Both Tate and I were really eager to bring The Help's production to Mississippi. It was incredibly important to us to keep it authentic, so we knew Mississippi wasn’t just the best place to shoot the movie, it was the only place. However, without a studio on board, we had to be extremely careful with our expenses. One of my talents as an indie producer has always been my ability to squeeze blood out of a turnip, and that came in handy from the beginning. With no studio behind us at the time, our friend Nate Berkus and I were footing the entire bill for the writing and development of the project. We relied on the generosity of our friends to help us in tremendous ways.
Mississippi is the “Hospitality State,” and our crew took on that same quality. We asked our production designer of choice (and longtime friend), Mark Ricker, to come down without a salary and scout locations to establish the look of the film. With Ricker came his set decorator, Rena DeAngelo. Now, Rena’s not exactly a Southern belle. She’s from New Jersey, and her family owns a bar ... in Jersey. She is all business. But when we asked her to come in the dead of winter to drive around tiny towns in Mississippi for free, she did it out of her true love for the project and said, “We never do this, but we’re coming down!”
Our ragtag, low-budget location-scout group included Tate, co-producer Sonya Lunsford, Mark, Rena, and me. Within an hour of arriving in Greenwood, Miss., we had found our “backlot” for The Help. Greenwood is a tiny farming community of 15,000 people, and we found about 70 percent of our locations within a three-mile radius. We also had the great fortune of meeting Bill Crump of the Viking Corp., the kitchen-equipment company that is based in Greenwood—a true Southern gentleman and a man of his word. He really held the keys to the city, not to mention the abandoned Elks Lodge that eventually became our Benefit Ballroom.
That scouting trip proved to be invaluable. When we finally had the opportunity to meet with DreamWorks, we knew exactly where we wanted to shoot and the precise look of the film. And as icing on the cake, Participant Media was able to come on as co-financier of the film. Its company mantra of promoting positive social change was a perfect fit for The Help.
The Thrill of Casting
One of the most satisfying moments during preproduction was actually getting to pay Barden/Schnee Casting upfront for its work. My first paid job in film was in casting with Kerry Barden. He’s been casting my indie projects for years, mostly with his payments being deferred. He has shown generosity beyond measure, and he has such a respect for actors who are constantly baring their souls to us for the love of their craft. It was an honor to finally be able to properly pay him for his work, and it is because of his incredible instincts that we have such an amazing cast, including Emma Stone and Viola Davis as the perfect Skeeter and Aibileen, respectively.
Octavia Spencer and Allison Janney are both phenomenal actresses. Tate and I have recruited them for countless films, the tiniest of projects, over the years. Some were just ridiculous videos that, thankfully, have either been lost or destroyed. They’ve stuck with us through thick and thin. Finally, with The Help, we were able to really pay them for their great work and have actual Teamsters pick them up instead of our moms.
When Bryce Dallas Howard came in to read for the part of Hilly, I remember Kerry saying, “Normally, someone at the level of Bryce would never offer to come in and read for a part, but …” There it was again, another magical exception had happened for the film. Bryce is probably the sweetest person I know in Los Angeles, and she did a stellar job of transforming herself into a cunning, manipulative villain.
Thankfully, Leslie Feldman, executive VP of DreamWorks Casting, took the lead on suggesting women whose acting fit the role, not just actresses who fit the wardrobe. This became evident with the casting of both Jessica Chastain and Ahna O’Reilly. After their first readings, we immediately knew we had found our Celia and Elizabeth, respectively. There was a true, transformative experience when Jessica started reading the role of Celia. It’s one of those moments when you know, without a doubt, that you’re casting the right person for the role. By the end of the session, the entire room was in tears. It’s still one of my fondest memories of the movie.
On Set With Family and Friends
One thing Tate and I lamented was that we weren’t going to be able to have the feeling of a family on set. On Pretty Ugly People, we made up for the luxuries of a big-budget production with creating a summer-camp atmosphere. With a crew of 200, we figured that there would be no way to have the same sense of community. Boy, were we wrong: Being in Greenwood provided the right recipe to re-create that feeling.
Over the five months there, some of the highlights were having Tate’s real-life maid/nanny, Carol Lee, cast in the movie with a speaking role. My mother, as well as Kathryn’s and Tate’s mothers, can all be seen as extras in the movie. Many of my mother’s good friends who had helped raise me were able to visit the set with their grandchildren to see all the action. Our first day of shooting had two of our great friends, Cleta Ellington and Leslie Jordan, join Emma Stone in the newspaper scene.
It was an absolute pleasure to share my house over the summer with Kathryn Stockett, where her daughter and my niece could play out in the pool in the backyard. I’d leave for work in the morning, and there Kathryn would sit at her desk writing her next masterpiece. Our other roomie, Laura Foote, was Tate and Kathryn’s first roommate in New York City. She came in to join the fun and work as Allison Janney’s stand-in.
Each weekend was filled with pool parties and barbecues. We even celebrated my father’s 80th birthday with the crew. At the end of each day, I never knew who would be dipping in the backyard pool to escape the heat when I got home at night. The great food that summer ended up putting 25 extra pounds on my frame. It was summer camp all over again.
One of the most rewarding experiences so far has been getting to create my own little premiere for my parents this summer. My mom has had some health issues this past year and ended up spending three weeks in Rochester, Minn., at the Mayo Clinic. I knew it was highly unlikely that my folks would be able to travel to the Los Angeles premiere, so Disney was gracious enough to provide a print of the film to screen in Minneapolis. With the help of some friends recruiting an audience, my folks were able to view the movie on a very special day, as it was also a celebration of their 50th anniversary. Being away from friends for their anniversary was hard enough, let alone having to endure a battery of tests wondering what the results would bring. It meant more to me than I will ever be able to fully express to have my parents see the film that I had worked on for so many years and to feel the positive reaction from the packed house.
One of the very special people we got to know in Greenwood was Sylvester Hoover, the backbone and unofficial mayor of the African-American neighborhood there, Baptist Town. Baptist Town is a vibrant part of the town, full of creative, artistic people. Due to the downturn in the economy in the Mississippi Delta, there is little opportunity to cultivate those talents. Inspired by Hoover, Chris Columbus led the pack (along with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) in helping to speed up the process of creating the Baptist Town Community Center, where kids in the neighborhood can go to study, use computers, and be tutored.
Bill Crump, along with his boss, Fred Carl of Viking, was already in the process of raising funds for a center. Having the movie as a draw, DreamWorks helped organize a charity fundraiser in Jackson. Once again, fate gave us a big hand when we heard, “They’ve never had a private fundraiser in the Governor’s Mansion, but”—there we were, screening the film for more than 1,200 people. At the governor-hosted post-screening reception, I spoke with Medgar Evers’ brother, Charles, and he mentioned how far the South has come in the past 50 years. It would have been unimaginable for him to attend a party at the mansion in the 1960s. Overall, the event raised more than $150,000 for the center.
One moment I will always treasure is when I was given the opportunity to say thank you to a woman who had a huge impact on who I am today.
An important theme in The Help is that we all need a person to tell us we matter, someone who encourages us and gives us the freedom to pursue our dreams. Just as Aibileen reminds Mae Mobley, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” one woman who always supported me and convinced me I could achieve anything was my school librarian of 12 years, Judy Kirkpatrick.
Ms. Kirkpatrick was the nerve center of my school, Jackson Academy. She seemed to always know what was going on and who was up to what. She knew of my love of movies, and would order books about filmmaking for me, and she constantly encouraged me to read them and to learn more. While we were shooting in Jackson, she happened to stop by the set on her way to the grocery next door. I stepped off set to walk with her down to the supermarket and help her pick up a few items. During our shopping, we’d catch up on family members, and she mentioned to me how proud she was of my bringing a “Hollywood movie” back to Mississippi.
I was finally able to tell Ms. Kirkpatrick that she had been a huge, helpful part of my childhood. School is never easy, especially for a dorky guy who loves movies more than sports, but I could always count on her support, and she had all the faith in the world in me.
That was the last time I ever got to talk to Ms. Kirkpatrick. She had been suffering from a long-term illness, which finally took her life a few months ago, but I’m so thankful that I got to tell her how much she meant to me while she was still with us.
Just as Ms. Kirkpatrick was my mentor, Kathryn’s inspiration for The Help was her childhood maid/nanny Dimitri. Unfortunately, Kathryn was never able to express to Dimitri how much she had meant to her. So what I hope audiences will take from this film is that time is precious—and so are people. Tell someone how much of a positive impact he or she has made on your life.