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Creating The Look of "The Help"
It was important that Tate Taylor be not only surrounded by a cast that would support his vision, but also that he have a really talented crew to create the authenticity he wanted. Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan and Mark Radcliffe had worked with Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt ("Batman Forever,” "Closer”) on "Percy Jackson,” who in turn had worked with Tate Taylor's choice for a Production Designer, Mark Ricker, on "Julie and Julia.” For costume design they chose Sharen Davis, who had been nominated for an Academy Award® for her work on "Dreamgirls.”

Taylor was thrilled to be working with both Ricker and Goldblatt. "Since Mark Ricker is from the South, I knew he was the perfect choice,” says Taylor. "Then luckily I got Stephen Goldblatt as my DP, who is just phenomenal and whose body of work speaks for itself. But what I loved most about those two as a team is what they did together on ‘Julie and Julia,' turning Brooklyn into Paris in the '50s.”

Production Designer Mark Ricker also appreciated having the chance to work with Tate Taylor, whom he has known for years. "Tate was an immediate ally. He was open to my ideas and that comes from friendship and familiarity…and trusting each other. It was great,” says Ricker. Ricker found that shooting in Mississippi was a little like shooting on a back lot. "Everything is so close together that I can be physically and emotionally in one space. If someone needs me I will be on set in one environment, and in 45 seconds I can be two blocks away, and then run off to another location that is another three blocks away,” says Ricker.

Creating interior sets that honestly reflected the characters and paid homage to the book was an important element in the production design for Ricker.

"Because Skeeter is so different from Hilly and Hilly is so different from Aibileen and they are all so different from Elizabeth that you see it in the sets. That is the way we are supporting the characters…in the details. The details, aside from the classic elements of furniture and draperies, are injected with contemporary elements from 1963 and back into the '50s,” says Ricker.

"I think there is a responsibility to the readers to get it right,” continues Ricker. "I do take that seriously. I want to put visuals in the film that are going to be as rich as what anyone can imagine. That's one of the things that was so unbelievably perfect about the locations in Mississippi. Skeeter's house, for example. We rolled up to the location for the first time and I thought, that's exactly what I imagined when I read the book.”

Things being what they are, Ricker had to completely redecorate the interior of another home to become the Skeeter's family home as only the exterior worked for the film. The same was true for Aibileen's house where the exterior worked, but the interior had to be designed from scratch and built on a stage.

Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt felt strongly about the look of the film. "I don't like a period film to be cloaked in the cliché of romanticism or desaturation,” Goldblatt says. "It's nonsense to think that people didn't live as fully thirty or forty years ago. These were the Kennedy years and everything is bright and colorful and I didn't want to take that away. If anything, we've gone to saturated colors. It was a time in America where color was vibrant and saying something about America.”

Costume Designer Sharen Davis had deep feeling for the project as well. Davis says, "There is something in this story that is deeper than the help or the domestic; it's something about the relationships of these women in the South at this time—some people lived it and for some it's a secret that has been let out.”

For Davis honoring these women and the book was of utmost importance. "I don't want the wardrobe to ever pop out, or for someone to say, ‘Oh, that's a cute dress,'” Davis explains. "I want you to believe that is Hilly; that is Skeeter. It's really important to me that the wardrobe plays the character and not the clothing playing the character. And, I want all these girls' clothes to read different personalities.”

"Sharen brought the characters to life. It's so true. This is how people dressed and carried on in Mississippi back then,” says Taylor.

Another attention to southern detail was the responsibility of the Prop Master Chris Ubick. Southern cooking plays a big part in the film and it had to be authentic. As Ubick elaborates, "To a certain extent, with the food, it was more about creating an era than a location, but it's the way people cooked. We had three chefs that we worked with: Martha Foose, who is a cookbook author and a wonderful lady; Lee Ann Fleming, who is a local chef, cookbook author and writes a column in the local newspaper; and another local chef, Mary Hoover.”

Along with creating the congealed salads, deviled eggs and caramel cakes of the day, the chefs had to also deal with two of the actresses' food requirements. Jessica Chastain, a vegan, had to eat fried chicken in a scene and Bryce Dallas Howard, who doesn't eat wheat or sugar, had to eat Minny's infamous chocolate pie.

Ubick explains, "For Jessica, Martha Foose took soy hot dogs, put them on a stick, wrapped vegan turkey slices around it, rolled it in vegan flour and almond milk and fried it up in vegetable oil. You could not tell the fried chicken from the vegan fried chicken!

"For Minny's pie, it was a little bit more difficult because when you use sugar, wheat and butter, it browns up beautifully. And, when you take all those things away, it is not quite as pretty. So we cut a slice of Bryce's pie and put it into the other pie, so that when she cut it out she could eat it. The way the camera was angled you can't see that her piece is hidden in the pie.”

"I would suggest people come to the movie having had dinner or lunch because they are going to be starving about ten minutes into the film. Fried chicken, okra, black eyed peas, cakes and pies. Great pies.” —Tate Taylor, director

Taylor was also excited about all the period details, including the automobiles. Taylor comments, "I have been the most excited about the period buses. One of the buses we have for the maids to travel to and from work in was actually a bus from Selma, Alabama, from that time. Everything is authentic. We have 70 period cars pulling up in front of the Robert E. Lee.”

Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt sums it up, "This film has been blessed with great luck and great actors and great weather. When we got rained out, we just stayed in the same place and sure enough the clouds parted, the rain stopped and we had beautiful last light just when we needed it.

"Some films are dogged by misfortune. It doesn't seem to matter what you do—the dog dies, the actor gets sick, the camera gets stolen. It doesn't happen on this film. Quite the reverse. Everything good that you wish for seems to happen every time,” Goldblatt concludes.

One can triumph in very quiet ways and become a hero in their own life.

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