With four Oscar nominations — three for actors and one for Best Picture — as well as a big win at the SAG Awards for best ensemble, actress and supporting actress, The Help has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner. The Disney-distributed DreamWorks film took late-summer box office by storm, holding first place for three weeks and ultimately grossing over $167 million Stateside. With its mix of comedy and 1960s civil rights drama, Hollywood has likened The Help to the 1989 Best Picture Oscar© winner Driving Miss Daisy, which also charmed the masses ($106.6 million domestic). As heartwarming as The Help is, so was its journey to the screen. Author Kathryn Stockett wanted none other than her childhood best friend from Mississippi, Tate Taylor, an untested helmer in Hollywood, to direct. Enabling their dream was another mutual friend from the Magnolia state and Taylor’s producer, Brunson Green, who worked with Chris Columbus to push the project forward in Hollywood.
AWARDSLINE: Tell us the back-story of how The Help made its way from manuscript to the big screen.
GREEN: Kathryn Stockett wrote the manuscript and Tate Taylor was one of the first people she allowed to read it. After reading it, Tate immediately called me and said “This is a movie I’m dying to make.” It was something we both knew that we had to get the film rights on. After a couple of months of negotiation, Kathryn agreed to option the rights to us before the book was published.
COLUMBUS: I met Tate in San Francisco in June 2008 concerning a couple of other projects. However, he was really interested in directing a film based upon this book The Help. I gave it to my wife who read it in two days and said “You have to make this movie.”
GREEN: We never thought this book would become a sensation. No one wants to make a movie from a little book about the South. As it gained popularity in the top 10, it served as perfect timing as Tate had just finished the screenplay. We met with [Columbus’ company] 1492 in San Francisco and basically got in business together. Over the next few months, we met with several studios and the movie was a tough sell. It’s a Southern story and lot of those movies don’t have a huge international appeal. DreamWorks took a leap of faith with the material. Participant Media came in and provided us with additional financing to make the movie.
AWARDSLINE: This is Tate Taylor’s first studio feature. Why did DreamWorks take a chance on him with a period film?
COLUMBUS: Tate wrote a brilliant screenplay and development executives put a lot of stock in that. Both Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider read it. They asked for a commitment from me to be in Mississippi during filming to oversee the production. Stacey really took a leap of faith saying “make this movie with the best possible cast.” The picture’s budget wasn’t huge [Editors note: $25 million] but it’s not easy to greenlight a period piece set in 1962 that’s also female driven. It’s not a commercial project and it took an enormous amount of courage on DreamWorks’ part.
AWARDSLINE: And how did Tate actually pull off such a big production?
COLUMBUS: It’s actually what any director who has worked for 20 years would do: Tate surrounded himself with an excellent crew and a great DP [Stephen Goldblatt]. I always try and tell filmmakers “make a film that’s personable.” I don’t think anyone else but Tate could make this film. He lived this life and the nuances and visual touches are there.
AWARDSLINE: Typically the Academy bestows Best Picture on a film that makes a big social commentary. That said, what is The Help’s message?
GREEN: People can make a positive change in their communities in small steps, which can eventually make an impact on the world. The Help has now opened in more than 12 countries, and we had no idea that it would even cross the shores. One line that resonates is when Viola Davis’ character, Aibileen, says “Once I told the truth…I felt free.” A lot of the film touches and affects people’s emotions on different levels.
COLUMBUS: I’m still naïve enough to believe that people will take this movie at face value and vote for the film that they’re most moved by. If they feel that strongly about The Help – I can’t be so cynical to think that they’re politically motivated. The strength of the film will either make it succeed or fail.
GREEN: Look at the swell of support that The King’s Speech received and the momentum after everyone had seen that little film.
AWARDSLINE: And what was the response from the Academy screening of The Help?
GREEN: We had Southern cooking at the reception and people were still talking about the film afterward which is a good sign.
COLUMBUS: The ultimate test was our early preview audience in Kansas City. We knew we had something then that connected with moviegoers. It didn’t matter who saw the movie; we saw people wiping their tears.
AWARDSLINE: Disney/DreamWorks sold The Help as a comedy in trailers, but it’s a pretty serious drama. Didn’t this misrepresent the film?
COLUMBUS: I was asked this before the film opened and my response was “Let’s talk two weeks after the movie opens and see if these trailers took effect.” The art of making a trailer is different from making a film. I don’t know how to make a trailer, but if I was cutting one for The Help, it would be more dramatic and emotional. However, Disney knows how to sell a movie and knows that a little bit goes a long way. The movie performed well because word of mouth spread. People didn’t feel betrayed by the trailers.
AWARDSLINE: Even though Disney reached out to black leaders and obtained the support of the NAACP’s chairwoman, there was still some controversy in the African American community over the film’s subject matter.
COLUMBUS: The film is about powerful female driven characters and their courage. Whether or not you’re African American, the movie strongly follows what the characters choose to do with their lives at this particularly dangerous time in American history. I think when you deal with a subject matter like this, it’s going to cause some controversy and we expected this. But it’s always good to have a dialogue, and with the endorsement of the NAACP and the strong support from everyone in the African American religious community, I believe that the dissenters are small in number.