We hate it when our friends become successful, so the saying goes, but try telling that to Tate Taylor, whose adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel “The Help” arrives in theaters Wednesday.
Who is Taylor? You’re hardly alone in asking. The 41-year-old actor, screenwriter and director, for whom “The Help” is his first studio production, grew up with Stockett in Jackson, Miss.
Like Skeeter, one of the heroines of the fledgling author’s story about African-American maids and their complicated relationships with white families in early-1960s Mississippi, he and Stockett were looked after as children by black housekeepers.
So who could be more qualified to bring Stockett’s story to the screen? As it turns out, Hollywood executives were wondering the same thing.
“I got the rights to the novel a year before it went to print,” says Taylor, who was allowed to read his friend’s manuscript only after her 60th rejection. “We worked out a plan for me and my producing partner to make an independent film, and we figured, if the film’s good, maybe she’ll get published.”
Three weeks later, Stockett secured an agent and a publishing deal, and “The Help” was suddenly one of Hollywood’s most wanted properties.
“People started calling,” says Taylor. “They wanted to get the rights from me, all these people I’d been trying to talk to for years, and I’d tell them, ‘I wrote a screenplay, I’m directing the movie, and if that doesn’t interest you, don’t call back.’ Then we’d hang up and wonder what the [heck] we were doing.”
Even after he hooked up with a name producer — “Home Alone” director Chris Columbus — the studios were hesitant to embrace Taylor, whose first feature, 2008’s “Pretty Ugly People,” had grossed less than $7,000. But once DreamWorks took the bait, the pieces fell into place.
Taylor and Stockett got their first choice to play Skeeter, Emma Stone. Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard and Oscar-nominee Viola Davis (“Doubt”) soon joined her. Taylor’s longtime friend Octavia Spencer successfully auditioned for the pivotal role of Minny, an outspoken maid fed up with the local white establishment.
Looking back, Taylor can laugh at the trials he endured bringing “The Help” to theaters, and though he’s tickled that a no-name outsider was able to infiltrate the Hollywood elite, he doesn’t begrudge studio executives their skepticism.
“This is a risky movie,” he says. “It’s a period piece, with an all-female, biracial cast, in an industry driven by robots and 14-year-old boys. Howard said, ‘Tate, you made a ’90s movie!’ At first I was offended, but she’s right. They don’t make these kinds of movies anymore.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Emma Stone, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer
Written and directed by Tate Taylor
Running time 2 hours 17 minutes