Trivial pursuits of The Help

Posted on November 23, 2011

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Now that the film is soon to be released on DVD (I think I read early December), I thought I’d list some of the contradictory quotes from a few of the principals associated with the book and the movie. Yes, while they may appear to be trivial to some, to others the information could “help” give a clearer picture behind the scenes.

But first, I’ve got scenes from the film which play upon the angry, scary black woman stereotype:

Over done angry black woman pose featuring hand on hip

Shaken and startled Skeeter as a result of an angry black woman

Over done angry black woman pose of a full stare down

Angry black woman results in second frightened look by Skeeter

This scenario is repeated in the movie. Black people scowl, and Skeeter jumps. Oh my, those scary black people!

Now, on to more trivial pursuits:

Back in 2009, here’s what Kathryn Stockett stated about creating The Help. Notice what I’ve put in bold:

Why did you decide to write The Help?

“I started writing it the day after Sept. 11. I was living in New York City. We didn’t have any phone service and we didn’t have any mail. Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick — I couldn’t even call my family and tell them I was fine. So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up. She later became the character of Aibileen [in The Help]. I sent the story to my mother and she was sort of like, “Hmm, that’s good.” As I wrote, I found that Aibileen had some things to say that really weren’t in her character. She was older, soft-spoken, and she started showing some attitude. That’s [how another character] Minny came to be. After a while longer, I decided to make it a book.”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1937562,00.html#ixzz1eSL6g0Cm

 

 

Lest you think Stockett’s Time interview somehow, someway, mis-quoted her, here’s another earlier interview:

WOW: And was there an “aha” moment where you thought, “Wait a minute? I should tell this story”? What spurred you to think about her in this way?

KATHRYN: I was living in New York and I was in magazine publishing, just working my rear end off, and I finally threw in the towel and said, “I need about a month just to do something creative.” I was working on a story that evidently was not going anywhere. So I holed up in my apartment downtown in New York and then about two days later came 9/11. And I’ll tell you, it’s the most homesick feeling I’ve ever had; we didn’t have Internet, we didn’t have landline service, our cell phones had been cut. There was no way I could call my family in Mississippi and just say, “Hey, we’re fine.” And I think to comfort myself, and to meet this homesickness, I started a new story in the voice of Demetrie. And I didn’t think much of it but it was kind of a salve to me, writing in her voice, and hearing her voice in my head. It was just like playing back a tape.

 

And here’s yet another 2009 interview:

“September 11 she was working in her apartment when the planes hit the twin towers, and due to some sort of power surge, everything was wiped off her hard disc, and she had no landline and no mobile phone reception. For two days she and her husband were completely cut off. ‘I felt so homesick, I’ve never been that homesick in my life, and on September 12 I started writing a story, in the voice of Demetrie, to comfort myself.’

Link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html

 

 

Remember that line about not having any phone service. Now read what director and screenwriter Tate Taylor said during a press junket for the film in August. I included the video for any non-believers:

“And what’s beautiful about the whole reason The Help exists is it did not start out as “I’m gonna write a book.” When 9/11 happened she and I were talking on the phone, and she like all of us was so lost and homesick how am I gonna feel safe. She goes ‘Tate I wish I could go be with Demetrie in my grandad’s kitchen. She would have the answers that make me feel better and she’s dead. . .’  and the help began that day when she started writing short stories as an exercise just to have conversation with Demetrie . .. the book grew out of love and longing for a woman.”

Spoken 1:37 into 9:55 minute interview

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFOPpdYPMIw&feature=related

 

 

And here’s yet another interview where Taylor repeats that he spoke to Stockett even though the author, for over two years stated she couldn’t get a call out to ANYONE.

How did you get involved in the project?


Well, my good friend Kathryn Stockett, we have known each other since we were five – grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. She wrote this novel, wouldn’t tell me what it was about when she was writing it. But I remember 9/11 and we were talking on the phone and we were both so distraught. And she said, “I’m so homesick, I just wish I could talk to Demetri, I miss her so much.” (Demetri was the African American woman who raised her.) She told me she had been writing these short stories where she and Demetri would just talk. Little did I know that Demetri became Abilene and five years later she had finished this book, which she still wouldn’t let me read.

Link: http://www.blu-ray.com/news/?id=7079

 

 

Just call me sorta skeptical of Taylor’s possibly telepathic “phone conversation” :)  BWAAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA

Now, why did he feel the need to add himself to the author’s prior, often repeated story (since 2009),  when he didn’t have to?

But more important, what else isn’t quite matching up?

 See, there was this plane:

“We had met in New York and she said, “Man, I just got my 60th rejection letter.” So I said, “Well will you now let me read it?” And she relented. I got on a plane, flying back to LA, and somewhere over Ohio, I was about 100-pages into it, and my skin felt electric. I couldn’t believe this person, my best friend, had written this. But more importantly, the relationship between Aibileen and May – I had that same relationship with a woman named Carol Lee, who is still alive. It made me look at her life and when she went home at night, she had friends and a sense of humor. I thought, “God I want to tell this story!”

After a month, Kathryn got comfortable with me getting the rights. And I got the rights a year before it was even in print and in my mind my partner and I were going to raise a couple million bucks the old school way, and make an independent film. That’s how it started. When the book got into print I had already written an adaptation and was controlling the rights.” – Tate Taylor

Link: http://www.blu-ray.com/news/?id=7079

 

Another “pages on a plane” story, this time from a close friend of the group:

As soon as he [Tate Taylor] read Kathryn’s manuscript, he immediately called me excitedly and said he had to make The Help into a movie. Little did we know that the book would become such an international smash. That posed some hard choices for Kathryn. Whether to go with her gut, or to listen to everyone in her life told her not to? Fortunately, she went with her instinct, and the result has been a phenomenal one.

When I first read The Help, it was a hefty-six pound manuscript. It was beyond massive. I was on a red-eye and stayed up the entire flight because I just couldn’t stop turning the pages.

Link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/08/13/the-help-behind-the-scenes-on-the-movie.html

But what inquiring minds want to know, is how Taylor managed to write the script to a book that hadn’t been edited or proof read yet. A script that follows the book almost to a T. Remember now, he says “After a month, Kathryn got comfortable with me getting the rights. And I got the rights a year before it was even in print and in my mind my partner and I were going to raise a couple million bucks the old school way . . . When the book got into print I HAD ALREADY WRITTEN AN ADAPTION.”

 

 

For any skeptics out there, here’s another interview where Taylor brags of having the rights earlier than first reported:

Tate Taylor: The gift of the whole thing was that I got the rights from Kathryn before she had a publisher, and she didn’t even know the book would get published and if it did get published, if it would do anything, so the real gift and the miracle of this movie is that I got to go off and adapt my friend’s screenplay unencumbered, by myself, and just write it from the heart and write it as a Mississippian and write it as a guy that had the pleasure of having an African-American woman in his life, Carol Lee, the woman who co-raised me with my mother. So I just got to tell the truth and write from the heart. Once the script was done and the book came out, that script kind of served as the calling card.

Link: Exclusive Interview: Filmmaker Tate Taylor on The Help – ComingSoon.net http://www.comingsoon.net/news/movienews.php?id=84880#ixzz1j5esR8MC

 

 

Now, note what Stocket says AFTER the book was PUBLISHED:

 

Your friend had very little directing experience. What convinced you to give him the film rights?

I had so many people telling me, look, you cannot option this to Tate. He doesn’t have enough film experience. Tate was asking me for the rights and I’m pushing back because of all these voices… I said no and everything went silent between me and Tate for two weeks. Tate called me and it was a last ditch effort. I told him who else was asking for the rights, other filmmakers who had a lot of punch behind their names. Tate said, ‘Look, this is how many books this person has optioned and they’re sitting on the shelves and don’t get made into movies…It will either not get made, or be really bad because they’re not from Mississippi.’ I realized oh my gosh, Tate’s got to make this movie.

Link: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/08/10/author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-real-story-behind-the-help/

 

 

Stockett tried sticking to the script (or whatever story they’d agreed upon to keep the timeline intact) but Taylor couldn’t help himself. He had to brag about getting the rights BEFORE IT WAS PUBLISHED and CRAFTING THE SCREENPLAY.

In many of Taylor’s subsequent interviews, he never states that he had to change anything to conform with the finished novel. And he doesn’t mention waiting until the published book came out in order to remain faithful to what had been published. No, he only states he had no further contact with Stockett during the time period he edited the manuscript (in other published interviews). I find that hard to believe.

Because Stockett already has an interview where she’s admitted her publisher Amy Einhorn worked dilligently with her on page after page. And Stockett had a second editor that she thanks in the the back of the book. As well as two copy editors.

 

 

In the same interview with Speakeasy, here’s what else Stockett says:
How involved were you in the screenplay?

“Tate would call me every couple of weeks with another draft or piece, and I would look at it I would nod and give my two cents. I really didn’t want to interrupt that process…It was crucial for me to hand it over to Tate and let him write his story.”

Link: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/08/10/author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-real-story-behind-the-help/

As a poster on Amazon.com suggested, perhaps the screenplay was written before the book.

Maybe. My theory is Stockett and Taylor, and perhaps an additional party worked on making the novel more appealing to agents. And once Stockett landed an agent, any changes were funneled to Taylor as he worked on the screenplay.

And yes, there are other interviews with Taylor where he repeats something similar to “I got the rights and was working on the screenplay even before the book was published.”

No, it’s not as big a gaffe as the Medgar Ever’s error where the book claims Evers was “bludgeoned” and Stockett follows it up by earnestly repeating that Evers was indeed bludgeoned in three known audio interviews. Read more about the error here

Error on Evers in the Paperback version of The Help

 

 

 

And its not as bad as Stockett making Skeeter the editor of a fictional student newspaper, then having her claim to know nothing about James Meredith’s attempts to enroll in Ole Miss in 1961, which would have made Skeeter a junior at the time. Ole Miss happens to have archived copies of  their real student newspaper, The Rebel Underground saying some pretty nasty things about Meredith in Feb. of 1962. According to the novel, Skeeter graduated in May of 1962. Read more about Skeeter’s amnesia while at Ole Miss here

Feb 1962 Rebel Underground student paper insults James Meredith

On to another trivial pursuit. So, what’s the big deal with saying Minny is based on Octavia Spencer if its such a great character?

Q. Of the three women—Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter—who is your favorite character? Were they all equally easy or difficult to write? Were any of them based on real people?

Aibileen is my favorite because she shares the gentleness of Demetrie. But Minny was the easiest to write because she’s based on my friend Octavia. I didn’t know Octavia very well at the time I was writing, but I’d watched her mannerisms and listened to her stories at parties. She’s an actress in Los Angeles, and you can just imagine the look on her face when some skinny white girl came up and said to her, “I’ve written a book and you’re one of the main characters.” She kind of chuckled and said, “Well, good for you.” Skeeter was the hardest to write because she was constantly stepping across that line I was taught not to cross. Growing up, there was a hard and firm rule that you did not discuss issues of color. You changed the subject if someone brought it up, and you changed the channel when it was on television. That said, I think I enjoyed writing Skeeter’s memories of Constantine more than any other part of the book.

http://us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/help.html

Now, notice what Stockett warns Tate Taylor about in this interview (items in bold are my doing):

TT: She was my roommate for five years until last October. So, it’s very incestuous and friendly. I did a short film called “Chicken Party,” it’s the first thing I ever did, and we were doing the sound mix and Larry Blake did our sound mix and we picked him because he was in New Orleans so we could have a reason to go to New Orleans for a sound mix. And then Katy said, “I want to come meet everybody!” And so she came to New Orleans in 2003 and she met Octavia. And Octavia was being Octavia and she goes, “You know that book I’m writing? Do you think Octavia would mind if I modeled a character after her?” And I go, “Just do it, just don’t tell her about it.”

KS: No, not modeled – we have to kind of step carefully on that one.

TT: Oh, true.

There’s also video of this interview. If I recall where I saw it, I’ll post the link

Again, there are a number of previous interviews where Stockett repeats that Octavia Spencer was the inspiration for Minny. And even Octavia Spencer seemed to have no problem with it during the initial round of interviews in 2009 (items in bold are my doing):

“Good thing Octavia Spencer is an actress. She needed all her stagecraft to hide a horrified look when her friend, Kathryn Stockett, asked her to read her new novel, “The Help.” Stockett told Spencer she based a character on her.

“My face just got hot,” Spencer says, “and I thought, ‘What are you talking about?'”

It got worse. The character was a short, loud black maid who spoke in a Southern dialect and never seemed able to keep a job because of her big mouth, which didn’t go over well in the white neighborhoods of Jackson in the early 1960s.

“And I thought to myself, ‘If this is Mammy from ‘Gone With the Wind,’ I am just going to call her and tell her,'” she recalls. “I think by Page 3, I realized what she was doing and I realized how intelligent these women were.

“Oh, honey, to me it’s an amazing journey.”

Link: http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/30306809/ns/today-books/t/unexpected-hit-novel-help-pushes-buttons/

 

 

Contrast that 2009 quote to this more recent interview where there’s a bit of resistance from Spencer about being thought of as Minny in the flesh:

” . . . It was hot, I was on a diet, starving and grumpy, and we start on this tour,” she recalls. “And the complaints began from me. And from there, I think Minny was born.” In retrospect, it ended up being a very good day for Spencer. “What’s funny is, it was the worst possible day for Kathryn to meet me, but it turned out to be one of the best occasions of my life, because I think she used these characteristics to help build the character of Minny.”

Spencer is quick to point out that Minny is not based on her—”That would be a disservice to Kathryn, who built this amazing character”—but Spencer and Minny have things in common. “I say it jokingly, but it’s true: Minny is short and round; I am short and round. Minny speaks her mind all the time; I don’t have a problem speaking my mind.” While Spencer was shooting Taylor’s feature film debut, “Pretty Ugly People,” Stockett told her she had finished writing her book and it was about to be published. When Spencer read “The Help,” she was shocked to find the character of Minny’s sister had been named Octavia. “I wept like a baby,” she admits. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, my name’s in a book!’ ” She eventually read the chapters told from Minny’s point of view in the book’s audio version.”

Link: http://www.backstage.com/bso/news-and-features-features/how-octavia-spencer-landed-the-role-of-a-1005312262.story

 

 

And here’s Stockett still trying to clean it up (wayyyy too late I might add. Over two years late and countless interviews) that the character of Minny now isn’t based on Octavia Spencer LOL):

“Yeah. But Octavia had actually toured with me when the book first came out. And you know when I first started writing the character of Minny I just kept thinking about Octavia. You know she is very well educated, she’s a writer, she writes poetry – she isn’t Minny. But there’s something about Octavia’s mannerisms that can really take you and the way she looks you in the eye and you know exactly what she’s thinking. And so I loved to draw on that when I was writing the character of Minny and so you know as she toured with me it was so cool to hear her read those lines.”

Link: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

Minny at the door with an apology and a pie

Hilly finishes her piece of poop

Hilly demands Minny give some pie to Miss Walters "DUH"

                               

Overacted barf scene once Minny tells Hilly she used that Good Vanilla and her own poop

                               
                                 

Miss Walters signals Hilly having two pieces. That's Oscar winner Sissy Spacek

On to another trivial pursuit, but still dealing with Octavia Spencer as Minny. In this 2009 interview with Diana Dapito of Audible. com, Kathryn Stockett says (items in bold are my doing and there’s no transcript available):

Dapito: And is there a movie version coming out of The Help? Did I hear that right?

Stockett: The movie rights have been sold to a fellow Mississippian Tate Taylor (inaudible) Green and I’m just so lucky that the book is in the hands of people, not only Mississippians but friends of mine from Jackson. They’re two filmmakers based in Los Angeles.

Dapito: Oh I can’t wait. Do you think they will cast Octavia and some of the other narrators?

Stockett: I think Octavia will be the part of Minny because ah . . (pause and laughter) you know, that was just the agreement. It wasn’t that hard of, it you know, there was no pulling hair on that one. She’s such a natural.”

Link: An Interview with Kathryn Stockett, Author of ‘The Help’ Narrated by Diana Dapito

 

 

Here’s what one article mentions Spencer was brought on board for (again, items in bold are my doing):

“. . . motivated in part by nostalgia for the maid who had helped raise her in the 1970s. “I felt like if I wanted to hear her again – she died when I was just 16 – the fastest way to do that was to start writing in her voice,” Stockett says. “Honestly, I didn’t think anyone was going to read the story.”

As a result, she wrote with “abandon,” letting her feelings lead her. It was only much later, when she decided to try publishing what had become a full-blown novel, that she started to get “very nervous that I had crossed a line that should never be crossed in America.”

To help cover her tracks over that line, Stockett recruited an actress friend, Octavia Spencer, to participate in her first book tour. “I would read the white parts and she would read the black parts and we had a lot of fun,” Stockett says, adding that Spencer’s free spirit was the inspiration for Minnie, one of her two black heroines. “She got it. She grew up in Alabama and she understood that world probably better than we do.”

Interview with John Barber for Saturday’s Globe and Mail

Link: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/kathryn-stocketts-southern-discomfort/article2012818/singlepage/#articlecontent

Stockett’s (and Tate Taylor’s) recruitment of Spencer to help “sell” the novel to the black community wasn’t needed imo and is nothing new. Back in the 1930s when Fannie Hurst wrote a similarly controversial book called Imitation of Life, Hurst enlisted her “good friend” Zora Neal Hurston, a black author who inturn tried to convince her friend Langston Hughes to promote Hurst’s novel which featured a black maid and the white employer she works for. And included stereotypical dialogue like this:

“Oh Lawd! Oh Lawd! Saw a brown spider webbing downward this mornin’ and know’d mah chile was a ‘comin home brown – Oh Lawd!” (The maid Delilah wailing when her daughter Peola rejects being black)

And this:

“Honey Chile, I’ll work for anything you is willin’ to pay, and not take more’n mah share of your time for my young un, ef I kin get her and me a good roof over our heads. Didn’t your maw always tell you a nigger woman was mos’ reliable when she had  chillun taggin’ at her apron strings? I needs a home for us honey. . .” (the maid Delilah selling her skills to prospective employer Bea in the 1933 novel Imitation of Life)

 

Just like in The Help, the black male paired with the maid Delilah  is maligned. Though he’s never seen, he’s referred to as a bigamist and called a “white nigger” in the novel. Its no wonder then that writer Langston Hughes switched sides, won over by the critics. He produced a play called Limitation of Life,  reversing the role of maid and employer by having a white domestic working for a black woman.  It’s interesting how Stockett’s novel appears to borrow elements from older books but its like they say, there’s nothing original anymore.

Actress La Chanze plays Rachel Jefferson, Constantine's daughter in the movie of The Help

Lulabelle is the light, damn near white character in The Help, while Peola, renamed Sarah Jane in the 1959 remake is the tragc mulatto. The storyline of Lulabelle being too light to live in Mississippi was wisely dropped, and the character was renamed Rachel. For more on how Kathryn Stockett color coded her maids, see this post.

 

Much like the maids were lauded in The Help by many white readers and some African Americans, the African American community was split in its opinion of  Imitation of Life, both the book and the movie. The black characters of Imitation of Life were derided, especially Delilah, the saintly maid. Just like Viola Davis is being praised for her overly docile domestic role, so to was Louise Beavers in 1934 and also Juanita Moore, who played the loyal, patient maid in the 1959 film.

The two versions of Imitation of Life, from 1934 and 1959

Getting back to the “agreement” Stockett alluded to, if there was a pact of some sort regarding Octavia Spencer landing the role of Minny, why did Spencer have to practically tap dance for the part? Based on quotes from Spencer where she stated she was afraid M’onique or Jennifer Hudson would end up playing the “sassy” maid, I haven’t seen anything that says they even were up for the part or read for it. Spencer quipped while on ABC’s 20/20 program about using a voodoo doll to thwart her competition, and there’s also this interview:

“Spencer totally understands why she couldn’t just be handed the role. “When you think about it, it’s an unknown director with a hot property who wants to cast an unknown in one of the leads,” she says. “Mo’Nique has just won an Oscar, Jennifer Hudson has just won an Oscar, and you have amazing actresses out there like Queen Latifah—why would they cast me? They were very gracious to allow me to come in and audition, and I was never made to feel like it wasn’t an easy decision for them.”

Link: http://www.backstage.com/bso/news-and-features-features/how-octavia-spencer-landed-the-role-of-a-1005312262.story

 

 

But there again, Tate Taylor is almost certain Spencer will get the role:

Octavia had the part period. Octavia’s been in everything I ever directed – same with Alison Janney. I was so excited when I was reading her book and I was like, “Oh my God Charlotte Phelan. this can be Alison!” I was so excited when I was reading her book and I was like, “Oh my God Charlotte Phelan. this can be Alison!” So that was there and I always wanted Viola and I mean really I prepared myself for this never happening again quite like this. The whole experience from everybody you’ll probably talk to – we just had the greatest time. Dreamworks was amazing, they just did not rock the boat, they saw this dynamic we all had as life-long friends and luckily people were talented in our group and they said, “Okay! Please, this is great.” So it just worked out.”

Link: http://screencrave.com/2011-08-11/interview-writerdirector-tate-taylor-and-author-kathryn-stockett-on-the-help/

 

 

It’s not known whether Allison Janney had to audition. But Dreamworks required Spencer to. Here’s a more recent quote from Tate Taylor, who explains why all Spencer’s earlier assistance (like going on tour voicing the “African American parts” – per another interview of Stockett’s – and popping up on the internet and articles to defend and promote the book) almost went for naught:

TT : But I said, I told Chris Columbus, way back, I said, Allison Janney and Octavia are in the movie, period. And he went, great. And then of course Octavia had to audition, ‘cause no one knew who she was. And I said, Octavia, you gotta audition, she’s like, oh gosh, and she did. And I showed her to DreamWorks and they went, done. So that’s–.

Link: http://www.ramascreen.com/listen-to-or-read-roundtable-interview-director-tate-taylor-and-novelist-kathryn-stockett-talk-the-help

 

Tate Taylor's "Chicken Party", starring Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney and a cameo by fried chicken, as all three land a part in The Help

The DVD has come out, and in order to claim that all this was still about “The Maids” the studio reportedly tries to combat criticism with a section called In Their Own Words: A Tribute to the Maids of Mississippi.

 

Unfortunately, the pre-meditated actions and shoddy research, to cocky, WTF quotes by the principals behind all this overshadow anything they attempt to clean up now. For as Stockett ironically states in the novel:

“There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.” -  Howell Raines quote referenced by Kathryn Stockett

 

 

To be continued . . .
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