Join SBIFF for an in-depth discussion in this video Working with Actors, part of 2012 SBIFF Screenwriters' Panel: It Starts with the Script.
Anne Thompson> So speaking of actors, Octavia Spencer is also a roommate of yours apparently. Tate Taylor> Yeah. Anne Thompson> And so talk about that relationship. Tate Taylor> Yeah Octavia who plays Minny, she and I met in 1995. We both were PAs on "A Time to Kill" in Mississippi and just became best friends. And then we decided to move out to LA and become overnight successes in 1996. (Laughter) Whoa. And I have been in those financial...
And-- but no, she is a dear friend and I've put her on everything I've ever done. It's funny. Jim and I'd known each other, we've been friends, and Melissa Mccarthy, we all kind of started at the same time and it's been a really cool year. But Octavia lived with me. She was my roommate while I was adapting "The Help" and she always was going to be Minny and Allison Janney was always going to be Charlotte Phelan, because she was one of my best friends who has been in everything. So yeah, it was really cool. We, Octavia and I, packed up and went to Mississippi to go make our little movie at the same time.
It's so cool to see what's happening for her. It's just the greatest feeling for one of your best friends to do be able to-- for DreamWorks to let me cast my friends who are talented and for it to work and-- It's just been, it's been really cool. Anne Thompson> Four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. (Applause) So Mike, talk a little about Christopher Plummer and how you worked with him and how he helped make the movie what it turned out to be.
And here is someone else is doing pretty well in the Oscar. Mike Mills> And we were roommates. (Laughter) Tate Taylor> Were you beginners? (Laughter) Mike Mills> Well, there is so much to say about Christopher. Anne Thompson> Well, he wasn't your dad. He was an actor and what did-- how did he change what you had written? Mike Mills> Well, the funny thing-- you know the-- So Christopher is kind of playing a version of my dad and Ewan is kind of playing a version of me.
I was very worried with both of them that they'd feel what I'd be sort of a-- I don't know. You know, like sitting on them as a writer/director, with these very sentimental portraits of me and my dad. So I kept all the time saying "don't worry about us," and that really was sort of freeing. And I was very lucky in casting them. They are just the right ages and culturally or spiritually they end up sharing so much for the characters. My father was born in 24, Christopher early 30s. My father is an art historian. Christopher is pretty much like a dramaturgical historian.
My father is from sort of a blue- blooded, slightly refined world. Christopher's definitely from that. So the more I pushed Christopher, just like "What would you say, Christopher? What would you think?" and whenever they ask me a question I try to ask a question back. You know, "What would he do here?" "Well, what would you do here?" you know. And Christopher's instincts were so close to my dad's, it was little spooky at times. When Christopher first met me, he walked in and he said, "Thank God he has a wit." And I was like "That's so something my dad would say." I was telling him, I can tell some stories, I am going to tell later today.
But I was telling him a story about my dad, and he said, "Oh yes, let me steep myself on one of your father's stories" and I was like "steep?" you know. (Laughter) But that's so something my dad would have said. So they shared so much and it was very easy to let him go. And what Christopher brought I think... I think Christopher is a very hungry young spirit and I think Christopher feels, he wants to be freer than he is on some levels and he-- There is some level that Christopher, with all that he has accomplished, there is some biting, unsatisfied part of him.
And that was great and I think he brought all that to my dad's newfound freedom and newfound love and having all of his lights fully turned on. And that came very easy to Chris. That was something very one-to- one between those two people. Anne Thompson> Now, the romantic relationship with Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent, they play that part, in your-- are they a version of you and Miranda July? Mike Mills> No, it's more me and me.
It's like a weird homosexual, narcissistic… I am a hot French blonde. (Laughter) Mike Mills> It's true actually. Will Reiser> I have that too! Mike Mills> It's the most honest answer I can give you. Mike Mills> All of Melanie and Anna's stuff, and her emotional background, her emotional architecture and needs and stuff, it had to be me for it to work. I am not that good of a writer. I had to come from something I knew. But being very much in love with Miranda and being really challenged by Miranda and having our love kind of show me all of my shadowy parts that I can't deal with and all of the stuff that scares me and then like made me feel very bold, that was very inspiring and I was trying to capture that. But not directly us.
But that turf, that territory, the way that love can really change you. Anne Thompson> And Will, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt came in to play you, did you work with him, did you change it, did it get...?? Will Reiser> No, I mean, actually you know the original, the actor we originally cast to play the role of Adam was James McAvoy and we shot for a week with him and he had an emergency back in England that basically prevented him from finishing the film and we had five, four more weeks of filming and he was not going to be able to come back. And we we had this decision to make.
Were we going to put the film on hold and go back to LA and just wait and see if we can start back up sometime and figure out everyone's schedules and try and make, you know finish the film, six to nine months a year down the road or do we recast? And with James's blessing, we went out and we started thinking about who we could cast and we had a window of like two or three days to find a replacement.
And I remember I was driving home from set and we were at the Vancouver and Seth and I were living together, and you know we were-- you know the first actor that came to my mind was Joe. And he immediately agreed. I mean it was really, it was sort of like a no-brainer. It was like what actor can do both comedy and drama and walk that line in a real way? And there's very few young actors that can do it and Joe was just our number-one choice. And Seth called Joe. He told him the situation, he said "Listen.
Like, this is not ideal, we have to find a replacement in the next.." "By Sunday night we need a replacement" and it was Friday and you know. I mean it was like there was no bullshit and Joe said "Alright, just send me the script." Joe read it that day and then the next day he got on a plane, came to Vancouver, got drunk with everybody and then the next morning, he said "I'll do it." And he then had one week to prepare. He had one week. And the only reason he had a week is because it took that long to make his wig.
So literally. Because we had to shave his head, you know there is a head shaving scene in the movie and so then for most of the movie he is wearing a wig. And in that week we rehearsed and you know, I worked on stuff with him. But you know we really told him that he should make the character his own. I mean he should not look at me and try and do and an impersonation of me. He should really make Adam his own, his own character. And he did that and I mean we would work on scenes.
He would ask me questions like "What was it like for you when you're going through a situation like this?" and you know, "What was your emotional state?" But it was never trying to-- I never tried to enforce any ideas about who I am onto him. And yet despite that, most of my friends and family members when we're watching the movie say he does the most dead- spot-on impersonation, so go figure. (Laughter) Anne Thompson> Was there a therapist? Will Reiser> In real life ? I did have a therapist. In real life, she was in her mid-60s.
(Laughter) We did have a bit of a romantic… No. (Laughter) Anne Thompson> There is some serious transference. Will Reiser> Yes, yes, I am mortified to think, you know, what she thinks after seeing it. I have no idea, I can't even imagine. (Laughter) So humiliating, I stop seeing her. (Laughter) Anne Thompson> So, when you guys were writing the screenplay, did you have George Clooney in mind? Jim Rash> No, not really because I think-- Tate Taylor> Did you-- Jim Rash> It was me, and I had a horrible screen test.
(Laughter) I tried an accent, it did not go over well. But oddly I'd said the same thing to Clooney, "Don't look at me and don't.." Same thing happened. (Laughter and applause) I said them, "I know this book is not about me, but don't play me in this movie." Tate Taylor> And yet he is exactly like him. Jim Rash> He is exactly like me! Every mannerism is there on the-- (Laughter) When we started, you know, I think people ask that question and I think the best answer for me is that Kaui had written this great character of Matt King, who was complex and interesting, and I think our job was just to get that voice on the page.
So it wasn't about going "What actor am I thinking of?" to write, because I think it's a better credit to Clooney to say he came and brought this and brought himself into this role and found that and made a great performance out of it, rather than.. I understand that. But I think for us it was just we want to get this book on the page in this movie form and then I think when Alexander decided to direct it, his instinct was to, he saw Clooney in his mind and went and that's how that happened.
Anne Thompson> And Tate, when you wanted to cast Aibileen Clark, who was your first choice there and how did that go? Tate Taylor> Well, when you have a movie with Leslie Jordan and these big southern characters, I just knew that like in the book that Aibileen had to be kind of the dignified glue that made it all work. And I wanted Viola. I did, period. I mean there is just nobody like her. She is just..
I mean good acting is being fearless but that doesn't always mean that you'll do anything. To be truly fearless as an actor, it's being willing to do nothing and just be still and quiet and let what's behind your eyes tell the story. The first two weeks of her filming, Viola poured tea with all the cackling girls and bridge and that's what she did for the first two weeks, which is so hard and she did it so well. And I just knew that I needed that powerful… She is like a tornado.
You want to-- you can't turn away, you better run, but you just don't. You don't want to miss something. I mean you want to get closer and that's how she is. Anne Thompson> So her agent turned it down initially. Tate Taylor> Well it was scheduling. It was a scheduling problem. We were going to go and she was committed to "Fences" and I think they were scared she would back out of "Fences" if she knew she could do "The Help," because Viola tried to option the book. Well did you know that? It's hilarious.
She tried to option the book. She fell in love with it and she was like, "who the hell is Tate Taylor, who is this son of a b&*ch?" And funny enough, Nelsan Ellis, who is on "True Blood"-- he plays Lafayette, he is a very good friend of mine-- he is also in "The Help." Viola is his godmother and they were having Christmas dinner and I was told she has passed, which really she wasn't available, and she was talking about this-- It's so funny. They are all drinking wine and she goes "oh God, there is this book called 'The Help' and man, if anything ever happens with that I'd love to be in it" and Nelsen goes "Ah, Aunt Viola you passed on The Help." She said "What?!" I am in Memphis, Tennessee, we are into our third bottle of wine on Christmas night with my sister, and the phone rings.
I go "Hello." "This is Viola Davis." "Yes?" "Talk to me about 'The Help.'" And we talked about it and we ended up pushing and she finished "Fences" and it was two weeks later it was Aibileen. Anne Thompson> Wow. Tate Taylor> Yes she worked. Anne Thompson> Alright, so you got this extraordinary cast. Who came in first? Was it Zachary? JC Chandor> Yes, Zachary and his producing partners signed on and then that original 82-page draft went to Ben Kingsley to play the Jeremy Irons role.
So, and I am again kind of weirdly superstitiously, so I hadn't spellchecked it. It had many-- literally we sent that that original draft, that character was sort of the most fleshed out. And he said yes, sort of amazingly without-- I think we pretended to have some money but didn't. And, so a year-and-a- half later he was not-- He is actually doing this Scorsese film, which I understood why he made that choice.
So we had an unbelievable kind of chess match. My next film has one actor in it, because the thought of trying to cast such a large group… And it puts the project is at risk both creatively and from a business perspective. You know you have to be casting opposite who you have already put in place and then when one person falls out, that sort of changes.
Our film was very much about power structure and so the way actors believably for an audience can interact with each other was constantly changing bizarrely. And I'm not bitter about this at all anymore because things have worked out well for the both of u. But Joe at one point was actually attached to play-- Joe Gordon Levitt. I just almost threw up in my mouth when he told that story, because that Friday night-- (Laughter) Will Reiser> Oh great.
Jim Rash> Hold on, hold on, let him finish. JC Chandor> It was very intense. James McAvoy had to leave at shoot in the middle of their shoot and we were not sure we had all our money and Joe Gordon Levitt was just actually attached to play Zachary's role, because even though Zachary was producing the film, bizarrely Steven Spielberg had three films all on... Talk about-- Tate Taylor> Bizarrely... JC Chandor> He had the essential elements for three films all on hold to sort of decide which one he was going to do next and this was an amazing role for Zachary to potentially play.
So Zachary could not play Peter and so we actually, there was a couple of weeks where Joe came on and then you know, he called and said about this amazing opportunity to go play this role in a go movie, so we of course you know let Joe go. Will Reiser> I appreciate that. (Laughter) JC Chandor> That's a nice way to put it. Jim Rash> Say thank you. JC Chandor> But the sort of point of it is-- Will Reiser> I owe you a very big hug. JC Chandor> But the interesting thing there is that you know that then creates this sort of negative space within this puzzle that you are trying to put together and you know it worked out amazingly.
Zachary came back in, because you know a couple of weeks later, you know Spielberg went to do "War Horse," so he was not going to do "Gershwin," which is what Zachary was going to play. And so it becomes you know this sort of luck and then you hope when everyone gets there that you know it's going to work.
Moderated by Anne Thompson from indieWIRE, the It Starts with the Script panelists share their stories of script development, writer's block, book adaptation, and, most of all, tenacity, on the way to getting their movies to the screen. Mike Mills (Beginners) tells us about turning his own story about his father into a screenplay. Will Reiser (50/50) also turned a life experience, his personal battle with cancer, into a comedy starring his best friend Seth Rogen. Jim Rash (The Descendants) walks us through his process as he turned the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings into a film nominated for five Academy Awards®. Tate Taylor (The Help) was roommates with author Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the best-selling book; he finished the screenplay (and owned the rights) before the book was even published. Writer J. C. Chandor (Margin Call) wrote about the financial markets, having grown up with his father immersed in that world.
With all of these brilliant writers, "write what you know" became their life's mantra while they worked on their screenplays. They share funny and poignant anecdotes about their experiences and processes on the way to the big screen.