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'The Help': On the set

We’re in Mississippi as a great cast brings the beloved runaway best-seller to the big screen.

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It’s a relatively cool summer’s day in Greenwood, Miss. In other words, it may be 100 degrees out, but at least it’s not 115. The cast and crew of The Help are filming a ’60s-era baby shower in a garden belonging to a character named Hilly Holbrook. Hilly’s a self-righteous — and racist — society lady played by Bryce Dallas Howard. But the heart of this particular scene belongs to a stoic maid who’s helping out even as Hilly humiliates her. The maid’s name is Aibileen. And she’s being played by Viola Davis, who’s currently dripping wet — in part because she’s wearing panty hose and extra padding to fill out her costume. ”It’s jungle weather,” says the actress. ”But it actually aids in my character’s frustration.” Davis is unusually devoted to the role: When she first read the Kathryn Stockett novel on which the movie is based, she was so moved by it that she wanted to option the book herself. Davis wasn’t able to, but she did succeed in snagging a role that many actresses clamored for. ”I literally met every famous black person in Hollywood, from Oprah Winfrey to Whoopi Goldberg,” says director Tate Taylor. ”I wanted Viola the whole time.”

If you haven’t yet read Stockett’s engrossing debut novel, you can be sure that your mother, grandmother, or girlfriend already has. It’s a poignant, painful novel shot through with gallows humor — a book that manages to evoke the urgency of the civil rights movement by examining the complex relationships between white Southern women and their maids. The Help debuted on the New York Times best-seller list back in March 2009, and has resided there for 81 weeks. Now DreamWorks is filming an adaptation that will hit screens on Aug. 12, 2011. Taylor, who not only is directing The Help but also wrote the screenplay, has only one feature film under his belt and — perhaps more significantly — has been a friend of the author’s ever since they grew up together in Jackson, Miss. He was canny enough to option Stockett’s book before she even had an agent. As Stockett herself remembers, ”At the time Tate asked me for the rights, I was just hoping the novel was going to get published! I laughed it off and told him, ‘I’m not giving you anything.’ In the end, I’m glad I did.”

Taylor’s success story — an untested filmmaker with enough conviction to hang on to a hot property even as Hollywood sharks circle round — is an improbable one, to put it mildly. ”I started reading the book on a plane from New York to Los Angeles,” Taylor says, while taking shelter from the unrelenting heat between scenes. ”And somewhere over Ohio I saw how this whole thing was going to play out: I’m going to get the rights, I’m going to make the movie with Kitty, and we’re going to do it. We never looked back. It took that determination because nobody wanted me to have it.” As he talks, Taylor wipes himself down with a paper towel, a more or less constant necessity. ”I knew I had to write a really good script, knock it out of the park, in order to be taken seriously,” he says.

While holed up for a year in an apartment that he and Stockett share in New York City — for work purposes, not romantic ones — Taylor condensed a 451-page tome with three narrators into a two-hour script. His screenplay was indeed a home run, and it helped land him a protective godfather in director-producer Chris Columbus (the first three Harry Potter movies). ”Tate’s the only person who could have directed this film,” says Columbus. ”He knows this world. He knows 90 percent of the people in this town. He’s slept over at their houses, he’s been in the weddings of their children. He’s at the heart of what’s going on here.”

Taylor got everything he wanted for the film, from the location to the cast members, who seem to have responded well to the South: They’ve slowed down a little, centered themselves, drawn close as a team. To play the pivotal character of aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan, who encourages the town’s black maids to tell their secrets for her book, the obvious choice for Taylor — and everyone else — was Emma Stone (best known for this fall’s Easy A, and soon to be romancing Peter Parker in the Spider-Man reboot). For the mischievous matriarch Mrs. Walters, he snagged Sissy Spacek. And for the role of the outspoken maid Minny, he cast a friend of his and Stockett’s, Octavia Spencer (Seven Pounds). Spencer was the author’s inspiration for the Minny character, and had already voiced the character for the riveting audiobook — but the actress still denies being the only possible choice. ”We’re coming off the heels of Taraji Henson, Jennifer Hudson, and Mo’Nique,” she says, referring to their performances in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Dreamgirls, and Precious. ”They didn’t need me to do Minny.”

As for the location, Greenwood lies two hours away from Taylor and Stockett’s hometown of Jackson. The once-populous agricultural town — where even the branches of the ancient elms seem to bend a bit lower from the weight of the humid air — took a downturn in the ’60s and never fully recovered. The Help is filming in mostly preexisting locations: cotton farms that still run, sprawling homes with wide-open front yards, and a main street where the traffic lights dangle from a wire. During another break on set today, Emma Stone sits with a pulled pork sandwich and a sweet iced tea, having unbuttoned her constricting garden dress to make room for the snack. ”My mother cried so hard when she heard I was playing Skeeter,” she says. ”This book really means something to people, and to be in the movie version of it is staggering. I realize it could all very quickly go away.” She laughs. ”I could eat too many of these sandwiches and not fit into this dress.”

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