Portraits in black and white
Friends, old and new, reconnect during making of 'The Help'
The story behind the making of “The Help’’ - stories is more like it - may well offer more unexpected plot elements than the movie itself. The adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel opens Wednesday.
Heading a large cast are Emma Stone, who plays Skeeter, the novel’s spunky heroine, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain (the mother in “The Tree of Life’’), Allison Janney, and in small but key supporting roles Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson.
Stockett’s saga of racial conflict and conciliation in Jackson, Miss., in the early ’60s is like a version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,’’ with women’s club luncheons subbing as courtroom. It wasn’t even a book when director Tate Taylor bought the rights. It was still just a manuscript. “If the movie was good enough,’’ Taylor recalled on a visit to Boston last month, “maybe it would help my friend get her book published.’’
Taylor, a highly expressive talker, was better known as an actor. He’d directed just one feature, the comedy “Pretty Ugly People’’ (2008). Still, it’s no surprise Stockett would have entrusted Taylor with the rights. They had been friends since they were 5 - approaching four decades now.
The book would go on to spend more than 100 weeks on The New York Times’ Best Sellers list. It’s currently number one on the trade paperback list. So by the time filming started, the artistic dynamic was reversed. The novel’s success was now driving the project. That didn’t change the basic equation between Stockett and Taylor. “She wrote the book, but she let Tate make the movie,’’ said an approving Stone. She was on hand for the promotional tour, too, as was Octavia Spencer.
Spencer plays a cook and housekeeper, Minny. Her presence in the cast added a double twist to the back story. She and Taylor have been friends for more than 15 years. “I met Tate on the set of ‘A Time to Kill,’ ’’ where they worked as production assistants, she said. “We became fast friends and remained fast friends. Or maybe slow friends.’’
Fast or slow, they were housemates for five years after moving from the South to Los Angeles (Taylor grew up in Jackson, Spencer in Alabama). They display the relaxed, bantering interplay of people who’ve shared living quarters, right down to Taylor teasing Spencer about her shortcomings in the kitchen. When she admitted that she can’t cook, Taylor chimed right in. “You can’t even make a PB&J! I saw you rip the bread once using cold peanut butter.’’
Taylor’s the opposite of Minny in that regard. Minny’s cooking so well plays a crucial role in the narrative - and her cooking badly (on purpose) plays an even more important role. Culinary arts aside, Stockett drew on Spencer as an inspiration for Minny.
“It’s true,’’ Spencer said. “I met Kathryn about eight years ago. It was while she was fleshing out the story. I think it was only six hours [they spent together], over the course of a weekend. But it must have made an impression. The part of Minny that came from me was her physicality and an ability,’’ she smiled sweetly, “to say what’s on her mind.’’ Enhancing that ability, both in person and on the screen, is Spencer’s rich contralto. Taylor’s agitation is a bit exaggerated for effect, one suspects. Spencer’s unflappability is not.
These real-life personal connections and unanticipated bonds are apt. They mirror the workings of Stockett’s narrative. The density of one of Minny’s chocolate pies is nothing compared to the density of human interaction among the maids, among their employers, and between the two groups.
“The focal point isn’t civil rights,’’ Spencer said. “It’s these very complex relationships that are borne out of necessity and, actually, they progress, for lack of a better word, to very strong friendships. What I love more than anything is the sense of hope we’re left with at the end of this movie - not to give the ending away!’’ she said, laughing.
“You have this great palette of all these great women,’’ Taylor added. “This movie is all relationships.’’
Reflecting that centrality of relationships is the fact that “The Help’’ is very much an ensemble piece. No one character, or performer, stands out. To the extent the movie has a star, it’s Stone. But she was especially vocal in arguing for the merits of ensemble, her Jodie Foster eyes widening and husky voice rising, the Diet Dr Pepper she’d been nursing set aside.
“That is absolutely the ideal work environment,’’ she said. “It’s such equal weight and everyone is so supportive of each other because everyone is part of a machine serving something greater than them. That’s really a beautiful experience to have. It eliminates any ego.’’
It’s suggested that not all actors might agree with that, and that with another cast, an ensemble situation would make ego an even bigger factor.
“You might be right,’’ Stone said, “but not these women! Man, it was such an incredibly supportive environment. Everyone was trying to tell the same story. Sometimes you go to a movie set and the director’s trying to tell a different story from the lead actors, trying to tell a different story from the writers, from the studio. Everything felt enmeshed here, which worked in favor of a greater good, a singular movie.’’
Taylor was equally vehement on the subject of ensemble. “That is a common thread in the movies I’m a fan of, the directors I’ve liked. I just love Altman. I love that very thing - people! I’m fascinated by ensemble. People who normally wouldn’t put each other out if they were on fire are intermingling and have to be together for a reason - and they don’t want to be together. I just love that natural humanistic tension of people who are not of like minds having to come together and figure something out. It’s just basic conflict, but it can be done so well with ensemble.
“Ensemble makes the editing room such a magical place. It’s so easy for a film to get stuck with just two principal characters. Here you have an embarrassment of riches.’’
He looked over at Spencer. She looked right back, appearing not at all embarrassed.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.