Twenty-Year Overnight Success

November 01, 2011

A struggling, unknown filmmaker and an unpublishable novel: these are the ingredients of a modern Hollywood success story that holds valuable lessons for aspiring film professionals.

Writer-Director Tate Taylor (far right) and Executive Producer John Norris (right) of the film "The Help," which was screened at the 2011 Doha Tribeca Film Festival, visited Northwestern University in Qatar to share advice with students on how to make it in the film industry. Also pictured, Prof. Joe Khalil (left).

Tate Taylor, a self-described “no-name actor turned director,” is Hollywood’s latest golden boy with the success of his film The Help, an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. But the road that led him to the box-office success that has raked in a gross of $175.7 million is less about red-carpet glamour and more about long years of perseverance and preparation, a childhood friendship and, above all, a passion for his work.

John Norris, Executive Producer of The Help, who joined Writer-Director Taylor for a visit with students at Northwestern University in Qatar this October, described it, “Tate is what we call a twenty-year overnight success. He was working hard, cobbling together budgets for short films and trying every position [in the film industry] before he got his chance. It’s really about hard work and certainly about relationships.”

The two, in town for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, shared the story behind the making of The Help and with it the secrets of their success.

The long path towards The Help’s production began when a 25-year old Tate Taylor decided to quit his successful job selling jet fuel in Tennessee more than 15 years ago. “I got a raise and a promotion and realized, ‘I don’t care,’” said Taylor, “I wanted to make something.”

He found the inspiration for that “something” the very same week when he heard that the Tom Cruise flick The Firm was being filmed in Tennessee.  He began “hiding in the bushes” every evening after work to observe.

Struck by a new-found passion for filmmaking, Taylor quit his job and threw himself into the show business.

During the next nearly 20 years of Taylor’s career in Los Angeles and New York, he worked in any facet of the film industry that would employ him – as a personal assistant at commercial shoots, on the set of A Time to Kill, and landing a few minor roles as an actor in films.  As a director, he produced one feature, “Pretty Ugly People,” that bombed in 2008.  His short film, “Chicken Party,” was more successful and made the rounds at some film festivals.

“I’ve worked on some horrible things and shot some bad, bad short films,” Taylor told students, adding, “But if you don’t have the desire to be bad so you can be good, and go broke and spend money you know you won’t get back just so you can learn, then it’s not really what you want to do.”

“If you’re going to get a chance, you’ve got to be ready, and that involves the 20 years of preparation.”

Taylor’s big break started clicking into place when a childhood friend and first-time author, Kathryn Stockett, shared her novel, The Help with him after receiving her 60th rejection letter from publishers. He fell in love with the idea of turning the manuscript into a movie and quickly optioned the rights. “I started adapting the screenplay with the idea that I was going to be making an independent film based on my friend’s unpublishable novel,” said Taylor.

The Help was published a year later by Penguin and was soon a bestseller.  The movie rights now were in high demand, and Taylor saw his chance to go bigger than another independent film. He and executive producer John Norris began shopping the script around to major studios.

“None of us had made a movie at a studio like this,” said Norris, “Everyone liked the book and the draft, but they were definitely sizing up Tate.”

So how did he end up landing a deal with Stephen Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios to direct The Help as his first big-budget major motion picture?

Before he ever had financing or a studio, Taylor had already scouted out all of the locations where he wanted to film, created a “look book” and put together a short documentary of interviews with people in Mississippi as an inspiration for the film. So when DreamWorks asked where he wanted to film The Help, Taylor was prepared.

“I’ve got writers that I work with regularly who argue with me because the company wanted them to write the first draft on spec and not pay them. I think of Tate and how he wrote his first movie—he  wrote it on spec and he didn’t get paid for it,” John told the rapt student audience.

There are a number of lessons that the duo from The Help would like students to harvest from their story. Chief among them is the idea that hard work and perseverance in a field that you love will pay off eventually.  The message was repeated in different words and contexts a multitude of times during their session with students.

“You’ve got to be super stubborn, and you have to be compelled to write, so be really honest with yourself,” Norris said. “You have to love what you’re doing.” Taylor added a favorite phrase of his own, encouragingly, “If you don’t quit, no one can say you failed.”

Norris didn’t leave students with any illusions about what it takes to make it in the film industry. “[It] means getting up every morning and putting your boxing gloves on and getting ready to fight for your vision.”

In response to a student question about the necessity of attending film school, Norris described how valuable his time studying film in college has been to his career in the industry.  “That being said,” he went on, “You have to leave school to get into film, going into story departments at agencies, getting a job and getting your butt kicked in business—It’s a good thing though.”

As the two said their goodbyes to the students and prepared to move on to the next appointment on their tight DTFF schedule, Taylor repeated his mantra once more, “If you don’t quit, no one can say you failed.”