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Producers Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus high on 'The Help'

For co-producers Michael Barnathan and Chris Columbus, watching 'The Help' reap award acclaim is a satisfying cap to their early belief in writer-director Tate Taylor.

February 03, 2012|By Dawn C. Chmielewski, Los Angeles Times
  • Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in "The Help."
Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in "The Help." (DreamWorks )

In the long, photo-decorated hallway that leads to the terrace garden dining area at Soho House, producer Michael Barnathan paused to point out a black-and-white snapshot of him and his wife grinning broadly as they celebrated their three Critics' Choice Awards for "The Help."

Barnathan and co-producer Chris Columbus are unabashedly, pinch-me-to-be-sure-this-is-real giddy about the gathering awards momentum behind the film, which focuses on the lives of black maids in Mississippi at the start of the civil rights movement.

The movie, which DreamWorks Studios initially passed on because it was deemed too risky, has gone on to achieve surprising commercial success, with more than $205 million in worldwide ticket sales and robust DVD purchases.

Now the professional accolades are rolling in, with the Screen Actors Guild awarding three of its five film awards to performers in the drama — including the group's top honor, the SAG cast award — and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominating "The Help" in three categories, including best picture.

"Everything we've gotten so far is amazing," Barnathan said. "We thought we were helping a nice guy [writer-director Tate Taylor] with his career. We didn't think we'd be sitting here having this conversation."

What attracted you to writer and director Tate Taylor's adaptation of the novel?

Columbus: Probably three years ago, he came to San Francisco and we had one meeting where he said, "I think if I do have a chance to make a big Hollywood movie, this would be it." He gave me the manuscript to "The Help," which hadn't been published yet. He explained the story to me, and initially it just wasn't something I responded to. I gave it to my wife to read, assuming it would take her a week to read. She read it in a day and a half and she said, "You have to make that movie." That Monday, I read the book and we were all on the same page ... that we have to help him to make this movie.

Several studios refused to make the movie with Taylor as its director. Is that why you became involved?

Barnathan: Everybody was telling him that if they made a deal with him ... that he would get fired, because no one wanted him as the director. He basically said to Chris and me, "Will you guys support me as the director, 100% guaranteed?" Which we frankly couldn't do, because we weren't paying for the movie. But we said, "we would go to the mats for you as the director."

It seems like your confidence in Taylor and "The Help" has been rewarded. The film appears to be gathering momentum going into the Oscars. How are you feeling about the Academy Awards?

Columbus: On Sunday, I said to my kids, "I think if we don't win the [SAG] ensemble award, it's over. It's legitimately over for us. We'll go to the Oscars and we'll have a great time." Now, [after collecting three SAG Awards] it puts us in a kind of fun but muddled place. It's up in the air, more so than any other year I can remember.

How do you handicap the prospects for "The Help" collecting the Oscar for best picture?

Barnathan: We are extraordinarily proud of the movie, of what it is and how people reacted to the movie.... To have people laugh and cry at a movie, it's like someone said to me, "We've already won." It doesn't matter what happens, we already won.

What about the competition for actress in a supporting role? "The Help" has two nominees, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. How are you positioning these women who are vying for the same honor?

Columbus: I knew that DreamWorks was wholeheartedly supporting all the nominees.... The performances in "The Help," they go so deep. People have stopped talking about Allison Janney; she was fantastic. In another movie, she would be one of the lead contenders for supporting actress. You've got Emma Stone, you've got Cicely Tyson. Sissy Spacek.

For me, the most disappointing thing is that Tate Taylor wasn't nominated for director or adapted screenplay … particularly since I think the best director is usually the person who gets the best performances out of the actors. And he certainly did that time and time and time again.

Some films, like "The Artist" — a black-and-white movie reminiscent of a 1920s silent film — need the attention of an Oscar campaign to lure moviegoers. "The Help," by contrast, was a box office success. How does the film benefit from the nomination?

Columbus: We're starting to see the film screen in schools and in church groups and community centers all across the country. So the nomination will make more people around the country aware that the film is probably a good thing to show in classrooms, to get the conversation started. There's an awareness of race relations, there's an awareness of the civil rights issue, people are talking about it again, and it's as valid today as it was back in 1963.

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