Best buddies give screen life to bestseller

In Hollywood, they say it’s not what you know, but who you know. But in Jackson, Miss., it’s also about friendship and the good book. In the case of one group of friends who came to Hollywood, a really good book.

Actor-writer-director Tate Taylor and producer Brunson Green are both getting their first big break by adapting old friend Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller “The Help” for DreamWorks. The two men are far from novices: each spent more than 15 years toiling behind the scenes in quirky indie films, including Taylor’s 2008 feature directorial debut, “Pretty Ugly People,” and 2003 short “Chicken Party,” both produced by Green.

While these low-budget projects (and Green’s other feature, the 2001 Western “The Journeyman”) have little in common with “The Help” — the tale of two African-American maids (played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) in 1960s-era Jackson who reveal their life stories under segregation to a first-time author (Emma Stone) — the material in Stockett’s book wasn’t necessarily a bad fit for the filmmakers to someone who knew their shared background.

“My (then) husband, agents and all these authority figures in my life kept saying, ‘You can’t give this to someone whose never made a film that’s made money,'” Stockett says. Admittedly never one to be told what not to do, she explains that “deep down, I knew Tate was the one that should be doing (the movie).”

Stockett was well aware of the leap of faith she took optioning the project to her best friend since age five, Taylor, who in turn took a risk by choosing his close friend of 16 years, Green.

It wasn’t because the two films Tate made were so different from ‘The Help,’ it’s because he just hadn’t had any success yet,” says Stockett with a laugh.

On paper, his hire might not have made sense, admits Taylor, who playfully reminds Stockett that she hadn’t had much success either when she optioned the project to him, “but she just understood this had to be told by a Mississippian who had these relationships. I told her that someone else with more experience could do it, but chances are it’d be wrong.”

Both Stockett and Taylor grew up with African-American “co-mothers” similar to the working women in the book, Taylor says. (Stockett’s late caretaker Demitri inspired the novel, and his own, Carol Lee, has a small role in the film). Green’s Jackson childhood would prove helpful in lending the Greenwood, Miss., locations an authentic civil rights-era look.

Stockett’s visit to the set of “Pretty Ugly People” helped seal the deal, Green says. “It’s my guess that Kathryn came to kind of spy on Tate and see how he works as a director, and that’s when she got it into her head that she really wanted him to make ‘The Help’ if it ever became a movie. I helped negotiate the option with her agent, and Tate asked me to produce it. We’re all really good friends, so it was kind of a natural fit.”

The fates started to align shortly after Penguin published the book in 2009. Green was planning the film as an indie-level production, and Taylor was just finishing the screenplay. The first hint they got that the project might have more than just regional appeal came in a phone call from Stockett’s publisher that the book hit No. 23 on the New York Times bestseller list the day it was released. The three friends had been driving from Jackson to Atlanta for Stockett’s last book-tour party.

I snapped a photo of (Stockett and Taylor) holding wine coolers and was thinking, ‘Kathryn’s life is never going to be the same,” Green says. “Maybe this book is going to be much bigger than we anticipated and maybe we can make a bigger movie.'”

The Help” quickly went from an underdog manuscript rejected by 60 publishers to a property attracting interest from several major studios, thanks in part to the popularity of Taylor’s script among execs and agents. Nevertheless, convincing a studio to bankroll a period women’s drama about segregation with multiracial leads and no behind-the-camera name talent proved no easy task.

It was here that another close connection paid off for Taylor. His niece had gone to school with Chris Columbus’ daughter years earlier, and passed along a copy of “Chicken Party,” which Columbus loved.

Initially Columbus thought a project like “The Help” was a bit outside his 1492 Pictures’ wheelhouse, Green recalls, but after Taylor finished his script adaptation — the same week the novel hit the New York Times top 10 — Columbus and his 1492 partner Michael Barnathan joined Green as producers.

Jennifer Blum, a 1492-based exec producer, and Green’s friends at Participant and WME began pushing the project around town, and talkshow host Nate Berkus helped connect the team with financiers, in the process scooping his first credit as an exec producer.

I think Chris really sheltered me, because we kept getting ‘no, no no,’?” Taylor says.

Initially, Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks showed interest, but they had to pass on the risky project because DreamWorks had just restructured. “Stacey was really honest and said, ‘Guys, I can’t do this. I’m going to look crazy,’?” Taylor recalls.

Six months later, however, with the book continuing it run up the bestseller list, Snider called up Barnathan and asked for a meeting. “The day we had our first meeting was the day the book hit No. 1,” Green recalls. “She said ‘You know what? Y’all are great guys. The script is fantastic. I think it would be a great movie. Let’s do it.’ It was that easy. It was the most casual, fun meeting we had with any studio.”

With additional backing from Reliance Entertainment, Participant and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, the project attracted a topnotch cast, including Jessica Chastain, Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Spencer, Stone and Cicely Tyson.

But perhaps fittingly, the film’s breakout performance comes from another Jackson friend, Spencer, who met Taylor when the pair worked as production assistants on “A Time to Kill” and has acted in several Taylor and Green projects. She also helped out longtime friend Stockett on the book tour by reading passages featuring its African American characters.

Judging from the strong early buzz on the film, which opens Aug. 10, this is one family of friends with no regrets about the risky bets they made on each other’s talents.

Like in the novel,” Taylor says, “it was about trust and taking leaps of faith.”

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