Tate Taylor has a lot of fight in him. It’s the only explanation for how the Jackson, Miss., native was able to hold on to the option for his childhood friend’s bestselling novel “The Help,” write the script himself and persuade DreamWorks’ chiefs Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider to finance the $30-million project and let him direct — his first feature at such a budget.
Of course, it would have been challenging for even a veteran to take the wildly successful novel written by Kathryn Stockett, about the complex relationships between white Southern women and their black maids during the civil rights movement, and turn it into an entertaining drama without losing the story’s painful edges.
“I knew this couldn’t be watered down or sugarcoated,” says Taylor, who previously helmed the 2008 comedy “Pretty Ugly People” and had a small role acting in 2010’s drama " Winter’s Bone.” “I just had to keep reminding people that for this movie to have street cred, especially within the African American community, I needed to represent them and not sugarcoat it.”
Taylor says he fought for every detail of the production, including hiring Emma Stone, whom he describes as a young Joan Cusack, to star as protagonist Skeeter Phelan and shooting the movie entirely in Greenwood, Miss.
In fact, it wasn’t until studio bosses saw early footage featuring Leslie Jordan, the diminutive Southern actor best known for his scene-stealing roles in television shows such as “Murphy Brown” and “Will & Grace,” who plays Skeeter’s newspaper editor boss in the film, that Taylor’s uphill battles began to subside.
“He was a bold choice who made everyone nervous,” says Taylor. “But I didn’t want a brash, ‘shut the door’ kind of editor. I wanted a Southerner. The studio saw the dailies, and said, ‘Oh my God, this is better than we even imagined.’ And slowly it got cooler and cooler and they said, ‘Do your thing.’”
Taylor, 41, says he was especially moved by the African American church scenes that took place on location in the middle of a Mississippi summer. Viola Davis playing Aibileen Clark, Octavia Spencer ( “Dinner for Schmucks”) as Minny Jackson and Aunjanue Ellis (“The Taking of Pelham 123") as Yule Mae Davis played opposite David Oyelowo (“The Last King of Scotland”), who served as the pastor.
“Just being there and watching these black actresses who had been filming in Mississippi, where even though things have changed, Viola even said, ‘It’s still very intense.’ To see them with 200 African American extras in a congregation singing and crying while David is preaching, they weren’t performers anymore. They were in church. It was the coolest moment in the movie.”
Now, Taylor is knee-deep in the unenviable task of cutting together his film — “killing babies” as he puts it — to make an Aug. 12 release; the same end-of-summer slot has done well by other female-riented literary-themed movies such as “Eat Pray Love” and “Julie & Julia.”
Taylor believes, though, that his movie will reach a broader audience. “There is shock and discomfort in this film that will separate it from chick flick,” he says. “I think men will come and I really think young people will come. I know this is bold, but this movie is for everyone, especially the African American community.”