Traversing racial and historical divisions on the Deep South location of The Help, shot by Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC
For a story set in 1960s Mississippi, the place is just as important as the people. Which is why the man who directed the DreamWorks Pictures film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s popular novel, The Help, set in Jackson, Miss., was bound and determined to shoot on location in the Magnolia State.
“I wanted Mississippi to be a character in the film,” asserts director Tate Taylor, Jackson, Miss., native and friend of the author. “The movie deals with the sacrifices of people who faced economic and social hardship and I wanted to give back to a place that still is dealing with these issues.”
To everyone’s surprise, particularly with tax- and incentive-friendly Louisiana just next door, Taylor won out and the production was shot on location in Greenwood, about 100 miles north of Jackson.
“When I came onto the film — before any studio involvement — I was convinced that Tate would be forced to shoot the film in Louisiana for the tax break and tried to prepare him for this fact,” recalls Mark Ricker, a long-time friend of Taylor’s and The Help’s production designer.
“We went down to Greenwood and the surrounding area as a pre-scout in December so he could show me the area and get my opinion on it,” Ricker continues. “It was perfect for shooting from an architectural and historical point of view as at least one example of everything we needed was basically right there within 10 minutes of each other. And they were all very shootable locations – rooms with size and interest, etc. I think any time you can shoot where a story actually takes place, the project will be influenced positively in all the ways the location seeps into the process.”
Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC, agrees, saying he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “The architecture, the landscape, the heat – everything in this film was available in Mississippi. How wonderful.”
Mostly wonderful, that is, except the conversation turns to the Deep South weather.
“There were certain scenes I wanted in end-of-day light that were fine in May when we did our initial scouting,” Goldblatt laughs. “But in June and July after mid-day they’d have that sheet grey sky and no sunlight at all.” And, oh, yes, intense heat, and thunderstorms every day.
“We could do exteriors between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., before we were battered by the heat and had to move,” he continues. “Luckily, the light was always beautiful in the morning. We had to be more efficient and survive.”
One example was an outside scene Goldblatt had prepped actors Emma Stone (Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan) and Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly Holbrook) for early one morning during production. However, when shooting day arrived, “it had to be [shot] in the afternoon and they were horrified,” Goldblatt recounts. “We had to take it to a gallery [a shaded passageway or porch, for all you non-Southerners] for some protection.”
Weather aside, Mississippi locations added loads of production value to The Help’s modest $27-million budget. Ricker says the budget would have been a factor in building any of the larger interiors as stage sets. “In Greenwood, stately homes were available for shooting at a cheaper price than in Jackson itself,” he explains. Only the interiors of two of the housekeepers, Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), had to be built because the real thing would have been impractical to shoot in.
Ricker’s preparation for the period project was meticulous. “I’m partial to the fact that all the main characters in the film are seen in and represented by their own homes,” he describes. “This was a great opportunity to research, accumulate and put into action the specific character choices that gave each set its own character, and to actualize what colors and set decoration would give each set a clear personality. I compiled quite a thick ‘bible’ of references, which my entire crew received. We had to scour the counties and surrounding area for all the set dressing, but that comes with the territory and it’s a lot of fun — akin to a great scavenger hunt.”
Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo and Ricker shared an office surrounded on all sides by bulletin boards pinned up with colors, fabrics, wallpapers and furniture choices that played an important role for costume designer, Sharen Davis.
“Before I even met Sharen, I sent her photos of those walls, showing specific choices for each character,” Ricker recalls. “It was a good introduction for us. After that, as is my experience with most costume designers, we just ‘feel’ what the other is doing. When Sharen came by to see how the set [for the character of Elizabeth Leefolt] was shaping up, she said, ‘Oh, I’m doing exactly the same thing…’ So when it works, it works. I think sometimes the success of collaborating with a costume designer in creating a ‘lived in – real’ world, is not to collaborate too much.”
Ricker’s approach mirrored Davis’ since she also was creating a distinct look for each major character. “Usually I use one artist and one palette,” Davis explains. “But I had to throw all that out because each girl was so different. They all had their individual color palette.” Ricker’s “little prep room was the inspiration for it all.”
Davis based the start of her research five years prior to 1963, when the story takes place. “We don’t throw away our clothes every year and get a new closet,” she laughs. “So I started in the late ‘50s,” which informed the wardrobe of mothers and grandmothers who “would wear what they want.” For the girls, she was influenced more by Seventeen than Vogue. “This was the small-town South.”
Roughly 65 percent of the wardrobe was designed, with most of the outfits of the lead character, Skeeter, made to order. Davis also created the maids’ grey uniforms were based in part on her own 90-something-year-old grandmother, Mama Nellie, who herself was a “domestic”. “I thought, why is my grandmother wearing this silly uniform?” Davis remembers. “She worked for nice people and seemed happy, but I didn’t know how my grandmother really felt. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t have her experience.”
Davis, a two-time Oscar® nominee for Dreamgirls and Ray, says her favorite outfit was the “scandalous” hot pink sparkly Christmas dress worn by Jessica Chastain as Celia Foote. “Stephen gave me so much time with that,” she smiles. “He did an amazing job of lighting and setting up shots – [the outfit] came off very Marilyn Monroe-like.”
Period accuracy also played into Goldblatt’s mindset. “You’re not going to be using photographic techniques associated with a period 50 or more years later,” he explains. “There was some talk of shooting digital, but I wasn’t going to risk that. Film gives you way more latitude.”
The cinematographer says even an “old-fashioned” crane contributes a different look; so in lieu of using the ultra-contemporary (and expensive) Technocrane, he chose a Chapman. It not only produced the right feel, but was less expensive and available for a longer time. “A Technocrane tempts an unwary DP into shooting something too fancy,” he relates. “I wanted something that was visually representative of the period. It helps establish the feeling of the time – a classical look with prime lenses.”
One piece of contemporary gear that did come in handy was deployed for a shot introducing audiences to The Help’s singular world: Skeeter running into her family home and straight up the stairs to see her mother. “I wanted to bring her through a real front door of a real house,” Goldblatt recalls. “As she runs to and up the stairs, the camera rises vertically and as she turns corners, the camera rotates 360 degrees, with no cuts.”
It sounded great in theory. But on the day, Goldblatt confesses, he thought he’d bitten off more than he could chew. “There was no room to use a traditional crane on the interior,” he laments. “We needed a camera that could rise vertically as if on a pedestal and then turn.”
Enter A-camera/Steadicam operator Will Arnot and dolly grip Andy Crawford, who tracked down a MAT–TOWERCAM®
to adapt for the sequence; the rig’s lens height range is 5 to 15 feet — just higher than they wanted to start the shot and just lower than they wanted to finish it. Crawford and key grip Charlie Saldana made it work by mounting the MAT–TOWERCAM to the boom arm of the Chapman Hybrid dolly.
“We could vary the distance between the lens and Emma as we needed,” Goldblatt explains. “The Libra head couldn’t make the last 30 degree of turn on its own, but we could do it on the dolly.” Arnot finished the sequence using a Steadicam®.
Quips Ricker: “[Stephen] devised that rising 360 shot through the stairs that introduces Skeeter’s house, at which point I told him ‘Ok, you can stay’.”
“It’s a beautiful shot and looks very simple. I’m very proud of it,” Goldblatt demurs.
Though The Help’s writer/director isn’t new to the screen (he’s directed a few small movies and had acting roles in Winter’s Bone, Queer as Folk, Six Feet Under and others), this was his first time at the helm of a major studio release. How important was it to work with a seasoned veteran like Goldblatt? “Vital! I learned so much from him and gained a true friend,” Taylor states. “His expertise and healthy ego allowed me to do my most important job – work with the words and actors.”
Goldblatt says the two had an immediate rapport. And he encouraged Taylor not to sit back at video village during filming, but rather stay by the actors to see acting “from the other” side.
“Because this was Tate’s first big film, I wanted real dailies,” Goldblatt continues. “I wanted to be able to sit beside him and the editor [Hughes Winborne] and Mark [Ricker] and see what they were seeing. We all had that communal experience of watching dailies and could fix what was wrong or applaud what was right. This is a way of working that’s perhaps unfashionable, but you can catch your technical issues. You can re-shoot and fix and you won’t get three minutes of out-of-focus footage that you don’t know about until the set’s been torn down. If you don’t get real feedback you can’t correct or get better.”
Working within a tight-knit team framework is vintage Goldblatt.
“The director’s your primary focus,” he adds. But you also “have to make the production manager your friend because enmity between the two of you cannot help the team. Same with the production designer. [He and Ricker have collaborated before, most recently on Julie & Julia]. You should all hang out in the art department. That’s where you can head off many problems.”
So successful was the director-DP pairing that Goldblatt and Tate will team up again for a soon-to-be-announced project. “I believe he’s going to have a great career,” the cinematographer predicts. Adds Taylor, “I can’t imagine ever doing a movie without him.”