x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The movie The Help charts a path from humble beginnings to big success

As Kathryn Stockett's novel grew in popularity, visions for its cinematic adaptation expanded, too.

Emma Stone stars in The Help.
Emma Stone stars in The Help.

There's something to be said for being good friends with a best-selling author, especially if you're an aspiring filmmaker looking to get your big break. But nobody can accuse Tate Taylor of piggybacking off his friend's success. When he first acquired the film rights to Kathryn Stockett's The Help in early 2008, the book hadn't yet been picked up by a publisher and it looked a million miles from becoming a title that would spend 100 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.

"At first, I basically began adapting what seemed like my friend's unpublishable manuscript," says Taylor. "The original goal was to raise about US$5 million to $6 million [Dh18.4m-22m], which would be a luxury based on our other budgets, and make it independently. We thought maybe this would help our friend get her book published."

But Stockett didn't need any help, and since it was first published in February 2009, The Help has racked up more than five million sales and been published in 35 countries. Set in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, during the height of the civil rights movement, the story revolves around the relationship between African-American maids working for white families in a state known for its harsh enforcement of racial segregation at the time. Although fiction, the plot incorporates real-life events, such as the assassination of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963.

As the book grew in popularity, thoughts of the film adaptation being a low-budget independent affair were thrown quickly out the window. Hollywood came calling, but with Taylor's previous experience amounting to a few minor acting roles and a small independent feature, doors didn't open immediately. Finally, Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter) came on board, and with his help, they landed studio backing from DreamWorks. Taylor's indie film became a $25m feature.

"It's the first movie I've made with a budget, where I wasn't holding a boom as well as directing it."

And Taylor's first budget movie where he had someone else hold the boom has done rather well. Featuring the acting talents of Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help topped the US box office on its first day of release and when it screens at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday night will have already grossed more than $175m internationally.

"I haven't yet had an armchair moment where I get to drink and lay back," he says of the film's success. "It just keeps going."

Such has been the book's success that Stockett - who Taylor says has been his best friend since they were five year olds growing up in Mississippi - hasn't had a chance to sit down either. But whatever she writes next, Taylor is confident he'll get the film rights. "Of course, I'll have first dibs. If only I could get her to stay home long enough to write it."

  • The Help screens Thursday at 8pm at the Katara Opera House's Drama Theatre in Doha

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