Brunson Green was on airplane when his eyes began to well up while reading “The Help,” and it wasn’t because he was in the middle seat.
“I’m sure the people [around me] thought I was insane,” said Green, who would go on to produce its big-screen adaptation. “But I didn’t know that I reacted so emotionally to the story because I’m from [Jackson, Mississippi] or if it’s something that universally people relate to.”
He wouldn’t know for a while, but after 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, he’d know for certain it wasn’t just him. As one of the earliest audiences for Kathyrn Stockett’s novel about a group of African-American maids who reluctantly participate in a tell-all book about their white employers in the midst of the civil rights era, Green could read “The Help” unencumbered by the fanatical frenzy and controversy that’s followed it around since it became an unexpected phenomenon in 2009.
Yet the story of how Green got that early galley of “The Help” is nearly as compelling as Stockett’s novel, the product of a community of artists who came together to tell the tale of a community divided by race, and parallel each other in that they’re both driven by the passion of people intimately familiar with each other. By now, how Stockett met the film’s writer/director Tate Taylor when the two were five and growing up together in Jackson has become something of legend, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Amongst the film’s cast, Octavia Spencer, the film’s breakout star, inspired the character Stockett created in her novel, and Allison Janney has been a constant presence alongside Spencer throughout Taylor's short films leading up to "The Help." Then there’s Chris Columbus, the “Harry Potter” helmer whose daughter was best friends with Taylor’s niece and ultimately became the film’s guardian through his production company 1492 Pictures, and Kerry Barden, Green’s former boss who came aboard to cast the project and tipped the filmmakers off to the feisty redhead in “Zombieland” who would become Emma Stone a year later in “Easy A.”
As the shepherd of these small, blessed twists of fate, Green explains below how “The Help” may be a Hollywood production, but its pieces began to come together miles away from its borders years before, built on friendships and favors that manifest themselves into the warmth that radiates on screen.
Usually, I ask how this started from the beginning, but it’s really the beginning in this case, isn’t it?
Tate, Kathryn and I all grew up within a mile of each other, but I went to a rival school, so our parents knew each other, but because we went to different schools our whole career, we never met. [Years later] Tate had moved back from New York and was building a couple houses in Mississippi and he wanted to get into the film business, so our mutual friend says, “Well, Brunson just got back in town and he works in film. Y’all should meet.” She introduced us and basically, I said, “Well, if you want a job, ‘A Time to Kill’ is coming to Jackson. Just walk in there and tell them you want to be a [production assistant]. He did and he was an office PA and then he eventually got promoted to assistant to the producer. He’s such a go-to guy and does such a great job of figuring out how to get things done. From that experience on “A Time to Kill,” he met Octavia Spencer because she was the extras PA on “A Time to Kill,” so when “A Time to Kill” was done, they both got the acting bug and they both moved to L.A. at the same time and I had just moved to L.A. about two months earlier, so we all kind of grew up in Los Angeles, really.
But you actually got your start in Austin at a time when production was really starting to pick up there. What was that experience like?
I loved that. I graduated from college in San Antonio and my only connection in film was with a location manager who worked on “Lonesome Dove” with Bill Witliff. So he hooked me up as a props intern and right then, Austin was really starting to develop a crew and a great film industry, so it was perfect timing. I did all kinds of freelancing in different departments, just to get a gauge of what I wanted to do. I thought producing was something that would work, but I wanted to learn all aspects of filmmaking so that you can appreciate why a location manager needs a certain amount of time for something and why wardrobe needs whatever. So Austin was my own little film school.
Was it around the time you met Tate that you started your own production company?
Exactly. I started producing some shorts and the first short I ever produced [1997’s “Stick Up”], I cast Tate Taylor in the short and Josh Hopkins [who would later star in Taylor’s “Pretty Ugly People” and now appears on “Cougar Town”]. That’s how Josh and Tate met and they’ve been friends ever since. Tate did a horrible job of riding a horse…it’s a long story, but it’s a great little short. That’s when I [realized], okay, I kind of like this. Then what happened was I was on “Austin Stories” and the script supervisor said, “You know what? My friend’s coming into town to shoot a feature and you should probably produce it because I think you’d be great.” That was “Fool’s Gold,” which got into Sundance, which was kind of fun. After that, I thought I can do this.
How did your collaboration evolve?
Tate introduced me to Kathryn maybe 12 years ago and Octavia. So we’ve been friends ever since. And then Tate was doing Groundlings and a lot of commercials and in his spare time started writing. He wanted to do a short film called “Chicken Party” that would be a showcase for all our friends as actors and for him as a writer/director. And so I was like I’ll help you out with that. It became this labor of love — Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, Melissa McCarthy, Josh Hopkins, Ben Falcone and Tate [are] all in the short and all of them are doing great now. We did the festival circuit and I still get e-mails all the time from all over the world, for people that want a copy of the DVD and they have “Chicken Party” parties. From that, Tate was, “I want to do a feature.” So we did this feature “Pretty Ugly People” with Melissa McCarthy…
Just all our friends. That was a great experience. [Tate] really learned how to tell a long-form story and Kathryn Stockett came up to visit while we were shooting to hang out and she helped us with some cooking and stuff because this was a pretty low-budget movie. I think she really was just checking out Tate to see how he does as a director because then she revealed she had written this novel and if it ever became an actual published book and maybe a movie, then maybe Tate would direct it.
As a producer, was there a change in how you went about things between “Pretty Ugly People” and “The Help”?
One of the things we learned from “Pretty Ugly People” was the marketplace was changing, as far as independent film. Unfortunately, we finished it right as the economic collapse happened in 2008, so it was a long road to find a home for it. We did the festival route for over a year — I think 34 festivals — and Tate had had some other quirky scripts that we were thinking about doing next that were along the independent vein. But I figured we really needed to try to do something reasonably commercial and “The Help,” we saw the potential. It’s not a typically commercial film, but it has the potential to appeal to a lot of different people. We were thinking of just doing it independently and it started that route until the book really became huge.
Even though the film took on a larger scale, it still seems incredible that a lot of the foundation for it already existed with people you had already worked with.
It was the same thing as “Pretty Ugly People.” Tate crafted the characters based on…a lot of himself is in there, but also the people he knows. He did some slight adjustments from the book to screenplay and put in a little bit of those kind of natural things that he knew Octavia and Allison are so good at and would make him look great as a director. [laughs] That’s where there’s these little kinds of quirks [come from] that Tate always puts in his movies. “The Help”’s not a straight period drama and I think that’s what makes the film so fun is that you’re crying and you’re emotionally stabbed in the heart sometimes, but then to give you a little breather, there’s laughs.
What struck me about both “The Help” and “Pretty Ugly People” is that they feel like they’re the films you wanted to make, even though they could’ve each made concessions to be more commercial — “Pretty Ugly People” could’ve cut out a few curse words to make it a PG-13 or “The Help” could’ve filed down some of its edges.
[On “The Help”] Tate spent so much time meticulously figuring out every beat of the script and there were those quirks and the kind of realness that he wanted. He didn’t want it to feel too sappy and saccharine and what was cool is that DreamWorks was onboard with that and didn’t try to soften the blow. I think it really pays off because it kind of gives that emotional authenticity that’s lacking a lot of adaptations of novels these days.
As one of the first films that’s been produced by DreamWorks since they moved to Disney, were there any complications?
Stacey [Snider, DreamWorks’ CEO] was a big fan of the book. Six months before we met with them, they were restructuring, so they had to get their bearings and figure out the more commercial type films, so they did “I Am Number Four.” When the book hit #1 [on the bestseller list] was the week we actually met with DreamWorks, which is January of 2010 and DreamWorks was in a really comfortable place to go ahead and make a movie that’s not necessarily a slam dunk at the box office. It was brave of them to go ahead and roll the dice on the film and on Tate and me and it hopefully paid off.
There have been situations like this in the past such as “The Lovely Bones” where a filmmaker of a smaller stature was overwhelmed by a more powerful one, despite not having the rights to the source material. Did you ever feel similar pressure?
The good thing is we had heard about that story and Tate was very realistic in the fact that he was going to be considered the weakest link because he didn’t have a huge track record. But we all knew he was extremely talented and probably the only person who could really tell the story the way it should be because of his relationship with Kathryn. That’s why we decided to team up with [Chris Columbus’] 1492 Pictures, who had done 15 studio features before and knows how to navigate those waters really well. They really wanted to protect Tate and make sure he was able to tell the story he wanted to tell and not feel pressured that he was going to get fired at any minute. If anybody else but Tate had done it, it wouldn’t nearly have the flavor and authenticity that it has.
Since you had personal experience to draw upon, were there things that went beyond your traditional producing duties you worked on?
A lot of the elements in the film, the details that you probably don’t notice as far as the products that they use and all that stuff – a lot of the brands don’t exist anymore, so it’s fun to dig up all those old products and get the clearance for them. [In one instance,] I literally called up somebody I went to high school with and see if we could get their grandfather to sign off on the products. And Brent’s Drugs [the five-and-dime that’s a hangout in the film], that’s where I would get my chocolate milkshakes and grilled cheeses and same for [Tate and Kathryn]. So we got to rebuild Brent’s Drugs in the original location because it’s been closed down. We spent a small fortune to basically recreate our childhood favorite burger joint.
How satisfying has it been to be able to go back and pump money back into the local economy as this production did and hire people who one hired you?
It’s been very satisfying to call and not say, "Could you please…but we would love you to…?" It’s great that all those people that have supported over the years, we actually get to give them half-a-decent paycheck. It makes the producer’s job a lot easier.
"The Help" is now open in theaters across the country.