Producer Brunson Green of Harbinger Pictures talks to Jeremy Kay about adapting international bestseller The Help into an Academy Award hopeful.
Kathryn Stockett’s beloved book The Help has won millions of fans for its moving and gently provocative story about an aspiring journalist in 1960s Mississippi who encourages two women to write about their experiences as black maids.
On the eve of the film’s release in North America, Stockett’s producer friend Brunson Green talks about adapting the book club favourite into a potential Oscar contender for DreamWorks Oscar and worldwide distributor Disney.
Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain star. Actor and filmmaker Tate Taylor – a close friend of Stockett and Green who all grew up within a mile of each other in Mississippi – directed the adaptation. Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures, Participant Media and partner Imagenation Abu Dhabi produced with Harbinger and DreamWorks. The film is out this week in the US; Disney is scheduled to release The Help in the UK on Oct 28, with the rest of the world rolling out through early 2012.
How did you get involved?
Tate and Kathryn have been friends since they were five and he was one of the first people to read the book and thought it would be perfect to make. He sent it to me immediately and we figured we’d just be making this small independent film. We had an emotional connection to the story, but I’m not sure if that was because we’re Southerners and it reminded us of home. I guess the book resonated with more people than we thought it would. We got the rights from Kathryn before the book was published [in 2009].
I hear Octavia Spencer inspired Kathryn to write the character of Minny.
Yes, Octavia knew Kathryn through Tate, whom she’d met on the set of A Time To Die. Her mannerisms and personality inspired Kathryn to write the character in the book. Kathryn already had in mind the character of Aibileen but needed a counterpoint who would speak her mind. Minny does that. Octavia went on the whole book tour [late 2008-early 2009] with Kathryn and read the part of the African-American maids.
What happened after the book tour?
We developed the screenplay and got it into people’s hands. The book started to get traction from book clubs and word of mouth. I’ll never forget the day I was driving back with Kathryn and Tate from an event at my mother’s bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi. There was a tornado, so we pulled over for two hours and once it had passed we drove to a truck stop to eat. Just then Kathryn’s publisher called to say the book had debuted at #23 in the New York Times bestseller list. I took a photo of her then and remember thinking her life would never be the same again.
How did DreamWorks come on board?
As the book became huge we approached Christopher Columbus, who loved the book but at the time didn’t think it was the right project for 1492, so Tate set to work on the screenplay. In August 2009 we got the screenplay into Christopher’s hands and he came on board. We took the screenplay to an agent friend at WME, who liked it and pushed it out to other people in September/October. 1492 head of development Jenny Blum sent out the script to the studios and we went to pitch them around Thanksgiving. The timing was perfect because the book was climbing to number one and it was during the holidays when people relax and read books. Other studios had passed and DreamWorks were the last studio we saw as the book reached number one. It was great timing.
How did Participant get involved?
I’d given the book to them when we acquired the rights because I felt it would be a good fit. When 1492 came on board I got a call from Participant saying they were interested and they could see the book was doing great. We met with them and when DreamWorks came on board, Participant came in with some financing, which helped us up the budget and spread out the risk. Because international markets are so important these days and it’s unknown how this would do internationally, DreamWorks were quite reasonably being cautious. Participant helped out. Imagenation is a production partner of Participant and got involved through them.
Given Octavia’s part in the creation of Minny, can we assume she was a shoo-in for the movie? What about the other cast?
When we were doing the rounds of the studios we’d say to people that Minny and Charlotte Phelan, the character Kathryn wrote with Allison Janney in mind, were already taken. We were able to book Emma Stone before she got booked up forever and Viola Davis came on just after she’d been on Broadway with Fences, which earned her a Tony award.
How did Tate tackle the screenplay?
While Tate had written a screenplay before he’d never adapted a novel, so knew he had to create an outstanding adaptation because fans of the book would have expectations. That’s why the script is a little longer, because he wanted to get character descriptions and evoke a lot of emotion. At first he and Kathryn got together in New York. Tate had already read the manuscript 12 times and his main focus was to condense the first 230 or so pages of the book into about seven pages of script. He created situations for the characters to speed up the process of getting to know them. He spent a year on the script and there were about 60 versions. After we got the greenlight there were probably about 15 revisions.
Where and when did you shoot?
We shot in the summer of 2010 for about 60 days, entirely in Mississippi. We were adamant about shooting there even though the tax rebates then weren’t quite as good as they were in Louisiana or Georgia. Now they’re the same, but then there was a 5% gap. But we wanted to shoot in Mississippi because culturally it’s different and it looks different. There hadn’t been a production in Mississippi for about 10 years. We knew we would make up for that 5% gap in production value. So we went on a scouting trip in December 2009 and we came to Greenwood. It’s a tiny town of about 15,000 whose heyday was in the 1960s before the cotton collapse and architecturally it looks like Jackson in the ’60s, whereas Jackson has gentrified and expanded.
Our meteorological insiders tell us that the summer was a scorcher…
It was particularly hot in Mississippi. For the final confrontation scene on the porch it was 112 degrees in the shade. Poor Bryce [Dallas Howard] was in these tight blue pants sweating profusely because the sun was so hot that day. So we modified the script to take that into account. We also had to make some exteriors interiors because of the heat.
How do you personally relate to the story?
My mother raised me. When I was growing up it wasn’t as common [to have black maids]. The generation in the ’60s who were maids worked hard and their children became doctors and lawyers. When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s there was a really prevalent African-American middle-class. Some of my mother’s fondest memories growing up were of the maid in her household. The story of the film made me reflect on my life. We were shooting in Jackson at a store where we would go and get malt shakes as kids and I ran into my old school librarian. We went shopping together because I hadn’t seen her in a while. She passed away four months later so I got to say goodbye. Everybody has somebody like that in their life and I was grateful that somebody like that was in my life who helped make me the man I am.