Today we continue our coverage of The Help, the period drama adapted from the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, starring Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, and Sissy Spacek. As an intimate look at the relationships between African American maids and the white families they worked for in the 1960s South, The Help opened this Wednesday with an impressive start, earning an estimated $5 million it's first day in theaters, and $25.5 million over the weekend.
Earlier this month we had the opportunity to sit down with novelist Kathryn Stockett, director Tate Taylor, songwriter Mary J. bilge (who wrote an original song for the film) and the cast of The Help to talk about bringing these characters, and this tale, to life on the big screen.
Last week we brought you the story of the intimate ties between the novelist and director which led to the development of the film. Today, we continue to untangle the interpersonal weave that connects the creators of The Help.
First, take a look at the synopsis for the film below:
Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
Casting The Help: Life Imitates Art And Back Again
In addition to the bond between the screenwriter/director and the author of the source material, the very woman Kathryn Stokkett used as inspiration for Minny (one of the central characters in her book) would eventually end up playing the role in the movie. Octavia Spencer and director Tate Taylor met on A Time To Kill and moved to Los Angleles together, where they were roommates for five years (the two continued to live together as late as this past October). Spencer met Stockett when the author came to visit Taylor in New Orleans, as he and Spencer completed the sound mix on his first short film, Chicken Party.
Spencer describes the circumstances thusly:
"At that particular time I was a 100 pounds heavier, on a diet, and we decided to go to New Orleans...in August...let's just say that all of those elements, being hungry and grumpy led to her (Stockett) finding the idea of what Minny should be."
Stockett elaborates on the tie between Minny and Octavia:
"Octavia had actually toured with me when the book first came out. And you know when I first started writing the character of Minny I just kept thinking about Octavia. You know she is very well-educated, she’s a writer, she writes poetry – she isn’t Minny. But there’s something about Octavia’s mannerisms that can really take you and the way she looks you in the eye and you know exactly what she’s thinking. And so I loved to draw on that when I was writing the character of Minny, and so you know, as she toured with me it was so cool to hear her read those lines. And for me that’s really what locked it in. I didn’t have any say so over casting except that."
Take a look at the featurette below which highlights some of the characteristics that are essentially Minny in the film:
"Octavia had the part period," Taylor elaborated on the whole of the casting process. "And then Ally…You know Octavia’s been in everything I ever directed - same with Alison Janney – so I was so excited when I was reading her book... I was like, ‘Oh my God Charlotte Phelan -- this can be Alison!’"
As to the remainder of the casting, Tate Taylor says he is prepared for this to be a singularly remarkable moment in his career where he (almost effortlessly) has been afforded the ideal cast. In addition to the gift of having a synchronistic evolution of Spencer and Janney's roles, the director always wanted to have Viola Davis for the leading role of Aibileen - a role the actress says was quite a boon in that there is a notable lack of rich roles for women, and African-American women in particular.
"The deprivation. The deprivation is something else, and so every black actress came out of the woodwork, who shall remain nameless."
As to the welcome (but unforeseen) blessing that Emma Stone's current notoriety has been for the film, Taylor had the following to say:
"Well we didn’t know! That was what was so great. I read Skeeter as a young Joan Cusack - who I just think is hysterical - and that’s who I wanted to find. Who’s Joan Cusack at 20? Somebody find me that... and I met Emma Stone in this hotel, I felt so naïve and green, I thought I was going to look stupid because she is the first person I ever met and we met for drinks here and I thought, ‘I’m gonna look so dumb saying I met Skeeter with the very first person.’ I thought, ‘Should I tell them? They’re gonna think, 'Oh he’s such a green horn he thinks he’s found his lead.' I thought, 'But I did though!’ And I met other people and I said, ‘Oh it’s Emma.’ And Dreamworks said, ‘Great! We don’t know her but lets watch some stuff she did - and “Paper Man,” we were able to watch that one day, and then the next day “Easy A” and her range was just incredible. And Dreamworks went, ‘you're right lets do it, she’s going to be fantastic.’ And then she became Emma Stone. I wish we could say we planned it, but that’s just how everything with this movie has worked out."