By Dan Goforth
His first short film was a festival favorite. His first independent feature was followed by a studio-backed worldwide release that grossed over $200 million. I asked writer-director-actor Tate Taylor to reflect on his experiences in order to provide The Help you need in making your own film.
Script: You’ve blazed a trail as a filmmaker, both writing and directing. What is on the horizon for what we’ll be seeing from you?
Tate Taylor: All signs are pointing to my directing the James Brown story this fall in Mississippi.
Script: You’re one of the rare “triple threats” in the industry: successful writer, director and actor. Is it sometimes difficult juggling different careers (even if they are in the same industry)?
Tate Taylor: No, I studied and trained at The Groundlings when I first moved to L.A. These three hats were always worn simultaneously. We wrote, directed and acted in each of our own sketches. So in a weird way, I have to pursue and utilize all three areas at the same time for each or all of them to work. It’s how I was trained and I love it. Each serves the other in a huge way. I advise everyone in this biz to train at The Groundlings no matter what you think you want to do.
Script: As a screenwriter, how do you handle starting a new story? What is your process to work toward finally typing “THE END”?
Tate Taylor: Outline, Outline, Outline. Then I figure out a favorite scene in each act that I can’t wait to write. I make getting to these scenes the goal as I fill in the other, more tedious work around them. That being said, throw my advice out the window and just start. Know you will write a bunch of crap first but you have to write crap in order to see what’s good.
Script: Do you have a daily routine when you write? If so, how hard is it to continue that routine with all the other demands on your time?
Tate Taylor: No routine. I like to take on a bunch of writing projects simultaneously. I like to freak myself out that I will never get it all done in time. This is a great motivator. Also, writing several things at the same time is great for the creative brain. You often find ideas for projects other than the one your focusing on popping up at the strangest times. All the characters from the various projects are all part of a big family you’re in charge of. I feel like a school principle walking the halls passing classrooms of characters representing each project I’m working on. I never know which classroom I’m going to enter or for how long.
Script: The studios invested more than $20 million for you to helm The Help. That obviously could not have happened without you having previously successfully directed Pretty Ugly People. And before that, the festival favorite short: Chicken Party. How did you get your start as a writer/director – what spurred you to make that leap?
Tate Taylor: Well, that takes me back to The Groundlings. While training, I was auditioning as and actor and wasn’t getting enough work to feel creatively fulfilled. In addition, I kept writing sketches in which my character work/acting participation kept dwindling within. At The Groundlings, I was clearly most interested in writing and directing and creating a world on it’s stage. I found being in these sketches distracting as I couldn’t keep my eye on the entire ball while performing. That’s when I decided I needed to make a short film to see if I wanted to be a filmmaker. The first day of filming my short, Chicken Party, the dye had been cast. I loved it and was annoyed when I would have to act within certain scenes. I wanted to stay behind the camera. That being said, I’m best suited as an actor when I’m asked to perform in something that I have nothing to do with beyond acting.
Script: You’re known for showcasing talent. Academy Award nominees Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain, plus Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (who appeared in all three of your “written & directed” films), were respected as actors before The Help, but their visibility definitely increased exponentially with that film. Allison Janney, of course, had picked up a couple of SAG awards before you cast her in Chicken Party (and had a mess of Golden Globes and Emmy Awards between that and The Help). There’s the always-busy Missi Pyle when you were directing Pretty Ugly People. You cast Melissa McCarthy in both Chicken Party and Pretty Ugly People long before she became a marquee name. How do you identify and attract this kind of talent to films (especially a first short film)?
Tate Taylor: This goes back to your point of being a “triple threat.” When you, yourself, are a trained actor, it exponentially sharpens your tools for selecting the best person for a part. Casting is more a feeling I get about a person. I look for depth and life experience within the actor. If I feel there is pain and secrets within that person, I get excited. It informs my writing and directing as I’m truly collaborative with talent. I need them and they need me. I only cast people that I feel have a desire to please, work hard and are open to exploration. The other rule that I apply to both cast and crew is… I have to want to break bread with them. If I don’t want to get to know potential hires on a personal level, then chances are I won’t work with them no matter what’s on their resume. This business is too hard to be with someone you don’t care about. Melissa, Allison and Octavia were all good friends of mine way back in the day. We all supported each other and did whatever we could to further each others career. (I met Melissa during my training at The Groundlings) I was very lucky that these close friends of mine happened to be wildly talented. I didn’t know Missi when I cast her in Pretty Ugly People. But I met her and fell in love. She’s now a dear friend. Jessica came in for The Help and just blew me away. I also love breaking bread with these ladies except for Jessica. She’s a vegan so we just drink together.
Script: Looking back to your first short film, is there anything you’d say to that guy in the hot seat directing Chicken Party?
Tate Taylor: Tate, you were right. Your instincts never lie and must always prevail. Don’t let anyone question them. Once you do, you’re doomed.
Script: Is there any advice you could give to first time filmmakers in the way of putting a film together, or “keeping it together,” during shooting? Any helpful tips you could share?
Tate Taylor: Be unwavering in your dream and vision. And you have to be confident, borderlining on arrogant. If not, fear will creep in. Also, be willing to face financial ruin if you fail. You can’t pussyfoot around. Go for broke. If you don’t, you will end up with a safe, mediocre piece of crap and have only yourself to blame.
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