A period drama set amid the explosive racial politics of the 1960s South. An all-female ensemble cast. An inexperienced director.
It sounds like a recipe for a movie that would send studio executives running. Yet "The Help" -- a complex tale of white women and their relationships with the black maids who clean their houses and care for their children -- didn't just get made. Arriving in theaters Aug. 10, the DreamWorks film is vying for the attention of audiences more interested in substantive fare as Hollywood begins to shake off the popcorn movies of summer.
Based on Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel, the film project had one thing going for it: the book's popularity. Reviewers loved it, and readers couldn't finish it fast enough; it stayed atop bestseller lists for close to two years.
Still, there were prominent detractors. Some critics carped about a white author writing in a black dialect for a pair of maids who serve as two of the book's three narrators. Others felt the white narrator -- an idealistic college grad named Skeeter Phelan, who persuades the black maids of Jackson, Miss., to tell their stories to her and causes a sensation when she publishes their tales anonymously -- was too much of a savior.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 31, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Help": An article in the Calendar section elsewhere in this edition about the new movie "The Help" said the film was the first in which actress Bryce Dallas Howard played a villain. She played a nefarious character in 2010's "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse." The error was caught after the section went to press.
Before the novel hit big, Stockett's childhood friend Tate Taylor -- a white, Southern actor who wrote and directed the 2008 indie "Pretty Ugly People" -- optioned the work, determined to direct the film himself. When Hollywood came calling, trying to take the property away, he held on tight, set to work on a script and enlisted the support of producer Chris Columbus to make the movie. DreamWorks and Participant Media came aboard, and improbably, Taylor, 42, had a greenlight.
With so many juicy parts for women, casting his leading ladies was not particularly hard. Octavia Spencer, best known for her small but powerful role in "Seven Pounds" starring Will Smith, came aboard first to play Minny Jackson, a sharp-tongued maid with an abusive husband. Taylor had introduced Spencer to Stockett, and the author actually wrote the novel's character with the actress in mind after the three of them, along with producer Brunson Green, spent a memorable day walking around New Orleans before Stockett finished her novel.
"I'm not the nicest person when I haven't had my coffee or if I'm starving. I was 100 pounds heavier then and on a diet. I needed some breakfast and I was complaining," Spencer, 39, recalled with a laugh. "So the complaining back and forth and the ability to speak up for herself, I know that part of Minny really, really well. Plus the fact that we are both short, chubby, gorgeous women -- I know that part of her really well too."
Oscar nominee Viola Davis ("Doubt") was more circumspect about agreeing to the role of the stoic house servant Aibileen. After all, it was 2010 and this was a role as a maid -- in a uniform, no less.
"There is huge responsibility within the African American community. I mean huge," says Davis, 45. "There are entire blogs committed to saying that I'm a sellout just for playing a maid."
Taylor persevered, spending hours making Davis feel comfortable with the role and ensuring that "The Help" would not be a watered-down portrayal of race relations in the 1960s South.
"My key objective was to give this movie street cred especially within the African American community, to represent them and not sugarcoat it," said Taylor.
Taylor found his Skeeter in 22-year-old Emma Stone ("Easy A"), while Bryce Dallas Howard, 30, landed her first role as a villain, playing against type as Hilly Holbrook. As head of the Junior League, Holbrook starts a segregationist initiative to encourage whites to install separate toilets in their homes for their black servants (an effort, she says, intended to stem the spread of germs).
Jessica Chastain, 30, seen opposite Brad Pitt in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" this spring, rounds out the cast as Celia Foote, an unpolished white woman who marries into wealth but can't win acceptance into the Junior League crowd.
Taylor was determined to film in the South to give the production authenticity. The movie was shot primarily in the small town of Greenwood, Miss., population 15,000, some 100 miles north of Jackson.
History lurked around every corner -- the nearby Tallahatchie River, for instance, is where in 1955 a group of whites dumped the body of a 14-year-old black boy, Emmett Till, who reportedly had whistled at a white woman. The slaying helped mobilize the civil rights movement.
Last week, the five actresses gathered to discuss their roles, race and the challenges for women in Hollywood. Some highlights:
What did being in Greenwood do to your performance?
Spencer: I went back in May, after the film, and I realized I liked it a lot better. But while we were down there, I was not happy.