When Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" premiered last August, the movie's charming writer-director, Tate Taylor, was a relative unknown — except to his close circle of Hollywood friends and pal-since-preschool Stockett. Taylor was an actor who'd written and directed the 2003 short "Chicken Party" and the 2008 comedy "Pretty Ugly People." Both movies featured Octavia Spencer, Melissa McCarthy ("Bridesmaids"), and Allison Janney. Like "The Help," which is the story of tightly woven relationships in Tate's hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, Taylor's real-life Hollywood story is built on relationships.
"This is a film that's based on -- certainly the epicenter is Tate and Kathryn's friendship, but it blossomed from there," producer Christopher Columbus told the Daily Mail. "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."
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When Taylor met Spencer, in the summer of 1995, they were both on the Mississippi set of Joel Schumacher's "A Time to Kill." They immediately hit it off. "Octavia worked in the casting office, and I worked in the production office. She'll admit she had a little bit of a crush on me, that's what started the friendship," Tate told Yahoo!. "I had long hair, to my shoulders, and I would deliver the call sheets and she and all the ladies would catcall. She objectified me, and that immediately turned into a friendship."
Another bond Spencer and Taylor shared was that they were both Southerners when the Hollywood filmmakers invaded Jackson. "She was from Alabama and I was from Mississippi, and we were allies when it got tough," Taylor continued. "I'll never forget, I was living in Jackson at the time and they had opened up the production office, and I got an interview with the production coordinator from L.A. and I had little experience. She said, 'Son, there are 400 people in L.A. who will do this for free.' And I said, 'Lady, you are lost without me.' There was a look of concern that crossed her face, and I got the job. Things are just done differently in Mississippi."
How so? "The way you deal with people in retail situations; there's a dance in the South when you communicate or do business. I conveyed to her that they needed me as an ambassador. I did get a lot of stuff. I was the like the guy in prison who could get cigarettes. The director, the actors would come to me and ask, 'How do you get this done down here?' So I said, 'I'll hook you up.'"
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The following January, Taylor and Spencer packed up their cars and moved to Los Angeles. "I joined the Groundlings, and I met Melissa McCarthy there. The very first day of class we became immediate best friends. We wrote a skit one time, when my name was Rooster and her name was Gert, and we still call each other that 15 years later."
When it came time for McCarthy to make her upcoming movie "Tammy," she tapped Taylor to direct —-- but that fell through. "We couldn't work that out on the dealmaking side," said Taylor. "They want to shoot it in April. I was honored that Melissa came to me. I adapted a book called 'Peace Like a River' for Dreamworks for Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B. I was her first choice to direct her in 'Tammy' but there was just no way."
Allison Janney was already an established actress with a hit show when Taylor arrived from Mississippi. "I met her out here soon after I moved to L.A. with Octavia. We were at a wedding and Allison was giving a toast. I'd always admired her work. When I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, I had my core people I wanted to use: Allison, Melissa, Octavia, and me. I acted in it as well. I was making these things for no money. Allison was filming "The West Wing" for 60 hours, and the characters I write for them were always fun. It was a great joy and departure to break away from C.J. at the time. She's fantastic."
Spencer, McCarthy, Janney, and Tate starred in his 2003 short, "Chicken Party." Five years later, the trio returned for "Pretty Ugly People," along with Missi Pyle of another Oscar contender "The Artist." Brunson Green, who will climb onstage if "The Help" wins best picture, produced all three films. And, while Josh Hopkins from TV's "Cougar Town" is also a member of the wolfpack, there wasn't a role for him in "The Help."
Taylor recalled, "When I was adapting 'The Help,' the two people I knew I was going to write for were Octavia and Allison. Allison has an ability to meander through pathos and humor. Kathryn [Stockett] let the mother storyline fade away. Charlotte never knows that Skeeter [played by Emma Stone] wrote the book. I knew Allison would pull that off, the scene where Charlotte tells her daughter Skeeter the truth about Constantine [their housekeeper] -- the messiness of race and bigotry and social pressures. Charlotte really cared about Constantine. It's messy. It was important that that actress be the best. I'm shocked Allison was not recognized for her work in 'The Help.'"
Along the way, Taylor continued to collect friends like Missi Pyle, who plays Constance in "The Artist." And many will attend this year's Academy Awards. "It's strange. Believe me, I know," said Taylor. "My first feature, I didn't know Missi at all. I cast her in that to play the role of Lucy, and we've become very dear friends. She asked me if she could play Skeeter. I said 'Missi, you cannot play 20.' And she said at least I should ask."
Of all his relationships, the one with novelist Stockett is the oldest, having started in Mothers' Morning Out preschool in Jackson. Has fame changed the pair? "We are just the same," Taylor confided. "I talked to her yesterday. She's down in the French Quarter writing her follow-up novel. We really are friends. We don't really talk about "The Help" that much. We talk about life. We tell each other stuff, deep dark secrets. We're unshockable with each other."
Taylor continues to expand his circle of relationships. Next up is the Pitt film "Peace Like a River," which was the second project purchased by Pitt's company, following "The Departed." Last month, Pitt told the Producers Guild of America, "It's just taken a while for it to gestate and find the right guy to tell it." That guy is Tate Taylor.
There are parts for some of Taylor's "harem of wonderful actress friends" in "Peace Like a River" -- but not all of them. "Octavia laughs because, she said, 'I gotta be in something Brad Pitt's around.' But it takes place in Minnesota in 1963. I told her only white people were dumb enough to be there."
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