Author Kathryn Stockett, left, and director/screenwriter Tate Taylor joke around while speaking to reporters at a benefit screening of ‘The Help’ July 30 in Madison, Miss. The film is based on the New York Times best-selling book by Stockett about the lives of three women in the 1960s Mississippi.
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LOS ANGELES -- The story of how the bestselling novel The Help made it to the big screen this summer actually began back in 1974.
That's when author Kathryn Stockett met writer-director Tate Taylor. They were 5 years old at the time, classmates at the Mothers' Morning Out preschool in Jackson, Miss.
Close friends ever since, they supported each other on the rejection-strewn road to creative success, and now they're celebrating a dual big-screen achievement: Her first book, The Help, has become his first big studio movie.
Opening Wednesday, The Help stars Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Bryce Dallas Howard. It's a story about the relationships between black maids and their white employers in Mississippi in the 1960s, and three women who form an unlikely alliance in the name of social change. In an age where white women marry as soon as they finish college and black domestic workers keep their homes and raise their kids but don't share equal rights, Skeeter (Stone) is more interested in finding a journalism job than she is a husband, and she begins a secret writing project about the maids and their lives.
It's a film about friendships, as is the story behind it.
The Help became a sensation when it was published in 2009. It debuted on the New York Times best-seller list and spent more than 100 weeks there. Book clubs loved it and word-of-mouth made it a must-read. Practically every studio in town was interested in the movie rights, which Taylor had secured from Stockett before the book was published.
"I was bugging her about how I was going to make the movie before she was even through," he said. "She was like, 'Oh God, let me finish the book.' "
Taylor was among the first to read the unpublished manuscript for The Help after Stockett left her advertising job in New York City to try her hand at fiction. He urged her to continue even as the book was rejected again and again -- more than 60 times in all.
"I was kind of sharing the pain with Tate because he was going through the same thing on the other side of the United States trying to break into the film world," Stockett said.
"The only difference is, in Kathryn's work, she gets the courtesy of a nice letter," Taylor said. "We just get ignored and sent away."
"I didn't get a nice letter, I got a form letter," Stockett shot back.
"Well, at least you got something," Taylor said.
(This is the kind of chemistry and quick-comebacks the two have shared for more than three decades.)
Stockett spent five years working on The Help, revising it every time it was rejected. She waited until she had "a pretty complete story and felt pretty good about it" before she gave it to Taylor, "and of course I couldn't breathe for the next four days while he was reading it," she said.
Meanwhile, he saw the movie version coming together in his mind as he read.
He thought of his own childhood and housekeeper Carol Lee, who helped raise him. He thought about his colorful hometown and all the people whose lives had been touched by a nanny or housekeeper who didn't enjoy the same privileges they did. What were their lives like?
"It was just so nostalgic for me, and I was like, 'Oh my God, people need to see this,' " Taylor said. "I just wanted to tell this story."
He convinced Stockett to give him the film rights and he immediately went to work on the screenplay. By the time The Help was published a year later, his script was ready to go. Hollywood came calling, and Taylor was repeatedly asked what he intended to do with the coveted rights to the hit novel.
"I'd say, well, I've written the screenplay and I'm directing it," said Taylor, whose previous Hollywood experience was limited to a few small acting parts and a little indie feature he wrote and directed. "They would look at me like I was nuts, and so doors shut."
Taylor turned to his friends for support. Fellow Southerner and longtime pal Brunson Green already agreed to help produce the film, but they needed a heavyweight in their corner. They found him in Chris Columbus, a writer, director, and producer who worked on the Harry Potter movies, among others, and whom Taylor knew through his sister. Columbus read the book and became an instant fan. Taylor showed him the script and said he had the author's support to make it into a movie, and Columbus agreed to back him too.
"I had never really read a screenplay that I thought was this beautiful," Columbus said. "I thought if I'm going to devote myself to anything, this seemed to be the right piece of material."
He shopped the script around and, through a prior relationship with Steven Spielberg, got studio backing from Dreamworks.
"This is a film that's based on -- certainly the epicenter is Tate and Kathryn's friendship, but it blossomed from there," Columbus said. "It's of a remarkable story in terms of the friendships that caused this film to be made. Forget about my friendship with Tate, it also goes deeper than that. It goes into Tate's friendship with Octavia Spencer and his relationship with Allison Janney."
Spencer, a friend and roommate of Taylor's since the mid-1990s, stars as Minny, one of the film's main characters. Janney plays Skeeter's mom, a woman who wants nothing more than to marry off her daughter.
"No one else was considered for those roles," Columbus said.
The product of so many friendships and such a beloved book, The Help is already getting positive reviews from fans and church groups that were treated to early screenings, and some in the entertainment industry think it's destined for Oscar consideration.
Taylor says he's not thinking about awards. He and Stockett, both 42, say they just hope to keep doing what they're doing: Writing, telling stories and sharing them with their friends.