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The Help Helps a North Texan in Hollywood

by Jerome Weeks 8 Aug 2011 7:11 AM

Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help has already entered publishing legends and Hollywood lore. Rejected by 60 publishers, the novel about Jim Crow-era black maids became a bestseller – and now it’s a DreamWorks film release. Along the way, an outsider from Arlington helped The Help, and it may return the favor.


The Help is Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel about black maids during the civil rights era in Mississippi. The film version opens this week – and  KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports a North Texan makes his Hollywood studio debut – behind-the-scenes.

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[Crowd applauding, Tate Taylor: “We’ll really appreciate you coming. I know a lot of people are fans of the book …]

After a Dallas preview of The Help, the film’s writer and director, Tate Taylor, tells the audience he grew up in Mississippi with author Kathryn Stockett. In 2006, Stockett wrote a novel and then proceeded to get it rejected by 60 publishers and agents. She had been too embarrassed to show it to Taylor — but now, why not? It wasn’t going anywhere.

Taylor [left]: “And so she said, You can read this book now.  And she gave it to me, and I got on a plane and when I got to LA, I said, ‘They were 60 stupid people. This will get published, it has to and I have to make the movie.’ And that’s how it started.”

It’s already become something of a legend in publishing circles and now in Hollywood lore: Minor player lands a big fish that no one wanted; one childhood friend manages to write a bestselling novel, the other turns it into a motion picture, his first for a major studio.

At the screening at the Angelika in Dallas, John Norris [above] stands off to the side, grinning and chatting with old friends from Arlington. He’s one of the film’s executive producers. After Taylor read The Help, he quickly gave it to Norris.

Norris: “And I read the entire book in two days. And, you know, he said he wanted to do it, and I knew we had to figure out a way to make it happen.”

That was big talk. Together and separately, Norris and Taylor had worked in different jobs behind the camera on low-budget films for a decade, give or take. They had met while working in 2003 on a comic short called Chicken Story. Norris was the music editor; Taylor wrote, produced and directed it. As Norris says, Taylor is the kind of guy who kicks up a lot of dust.

But outside of Taylor’s minor acting career in such films as Winter’s Bone and 2001’s Planet of the Apes, they had no real track record with the studios. They were outsiders. It was a familiar position for Norris, even as he grew up in Arlington. His mother had died of cancer when he was young.

Norris: “So I had a lot of time on my own growing up, discovered music and became rebellious — like kids do. And my first high school friends, my first real friends — we were all outsiders.”

They bonded over new wave music and theater and bleaching their hair. Well, it was the early ’80s. They also made movies.

Norris: “We’d take Super 8 cameras out in the forest and tell stories about, you know, cats infected by viruses from out of space and just, you know, fun, crazy, great things.”

Norris studied jazz at UNT – and then left for LA to work in sound and visual effects for horror movies. He joined a group of film industry friends, tech people and actors. He eventually realized that if he and his friends ever wanted to make a movie, their group lacked one thing: a producer. The person who sells a project to the money people.

Norris: “I come from a family of salesmen, My father’s a salesman, my brother’s a salesman. And I always resisted. I was going to go to Hollywood and make movies. When I realized the vacuum in our group of friends, I thought, ‘Oh lord, here it comes. I’m going to be a salesman.’ And so I was. And that was my job, develop relations with money people and try to wrangle those relationships into financing.”

Then Stockett finally landed an agent — and The Help soon began its run of 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. What Norris and Taylor had planned as a small, independently financed film was now a potentially valuable property — if handled right. Otherwise, the whole thing could be snatched from them.

Emma Stone as a crusading young journalist and Viola Davis as the hired domestic she asks for help.

The Help is about the age-old, black-and-white, family-and-servant relationships in the Jim Crow South. Essentially, it’s a female-solidarity version of Driving Miss Daisy. But here, the African-American servants — the black maids and nannies and cooks — risk their livelihoods and rebel by talking to a young, white female journalist about what it’s really like working for wealthy whites in Mississippi.

[Scene from The Help– door slam]

Octavia Spencer as Minny: “All right, I’m going to do it. But I need to make sure you understand this ain’t no game we playing here. [waits] … I gotta come up with the questions, too?

Emma Stone as Skeeter: “Oh! …” [music continues under]

Regardless of her novel’s widespread appeal among female readers or nostalgic liberals, Stockett also plucked a deep emotional chord among certain whites: For generations, many of them, North and South, have been raised by hard-working African-American women. Stockett wrote the novel out of personal experience, remembering the woman who’d helped raise her, Ablene Cooper (who subsequently has sued Stockett for appropriating her name and image without permission). Taylor says one reason he immediately responded to the book — other than having grown up in Jackson and knowing the milieu and people — was that when reading it, he, too, recalled a domestic who’d helped his family.

And the same is true for Norris. Her name was Peggy, he says, and she helped the family hold things together during his mother’s cancer. People are brought back to their childhoods with such memories — moments that fuse together complicated, sometimes tender, sometimes bruising power relationships among black and white, children and parents, employer and employee, sick and healthy.

But there have also been objections raised about how the portrayals of the leading maids — one dutiful, one sassy — partake too much of old caricatures, especially in their dialogue. And how only one white woman is the center of all injustice, the ringleader racist, while the heroic white journalist is the narrator. (See, for example, Christopher Kelly’s reflections on the topic in the Star-Telegram.)

The fact is, though, none of this should have made much difference to The Help‘s fate as a possible screen project. None of it appeals to teenage males, the prime audience for Hollywood’s summer fare: explosions, car chases, special-effects and ribald humor. The Help also doesn’t have any major box office stars connected to it. So why would any studio be interested?

Studios have actually been counter-programming the past few summers, occasionally offering modest-budgeted films to attract older viewers, female viewers, in the midst of the Transformer sequels. So DreamWorks eventually picked up The Help. But Norris says, even with welcome studio involvement (or especially because of it), a chief goal was keeping Taylor (and himself) connected to the film. Otherwise, they’d be bought off and gain little credit for nursing the project.

Norris: “I thought, if I can help clear the way for Tate, pushing obstacles out of the way and backing him, he can make a phenomenal movie.”

Just how complicated the deal-making can be for the development of even a modest film like The Help is evident in the movie’s credits. Three producers are listed, one co-producer — and eight executive producers.

[crowd noises come back under]

Like other preview screenings around the country, this one in Dallas  was specifically designed to energize the book’s many devoted fans. And if they come see it, if The Help does well, it means John Norris, an Arlington outsider, may become John Norris, a Hollywood insider.

Norris: “The irony is, I always thought I’d be making monster movies. And then … Tate gave me this.”