Tate Taylor had been acting for almost a decade before people started paying attention to him as a filmmaker when he adapted Kathryn Stockett’s The Help into a hugely successful box office hit that received a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars (as well as winning actress Octavia Spencer her first Oscar). Taylor’s 2014 James Brown biopic Get On Up didn’t find as big an audience, but Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Brown probably got him noticed by Marvel Studios to cast him as Black Panther.
Now Taylor is taking on Paula Hawkins’ best-selling thriller novel The Girl on the Train, a complex tale about relationships and addiction with Emily Blunt playing Rachel, a divorced woman whose daily train ride takes her back a house with a young couple (Luke Evans, Hayley Bennett) she becomes obsessed with, even moreso when the young wife vanishes. Rachel’s obsession gets her caught up in the crime, but also puts her back in contact with her ex-husband (Justin Theroux) who lives next door. (Honestly, if you haven’t read the book already, it’s best not to know too much about the movie going into it.)
Either way, it’s a very different film for Taylor, even though it does have something in common with The Help, as it also explores a story through the eyes of three very different women. (The third being Rebecca Ferguson as Rachel’s ex’s new wife, whom he cheated with while still married to Rachel.)
LRM sat down with Taylor at his film’s New York junket for the following interview:
LRM: I remember when Paula Hawkins’ book was released, and it seems like the movie was announced almost at the exact same time, and it all happened very fast. How did you get involved? Was there a script already done?
Tate Taylor: No, I was writing another screenplay of another movie that I thought I was going to be doing right now, and it was March 2015, Holly Barrio, President of Production at DreamWorks, we did The Help together, so not only had we worked together but we became really good friends, and they had just bought this. She just wanted me to read the book, and tell her what I thought. “Hey, what do you think about what we did?” I read it and I called her back and said, ‘”I want to do this,” and I’d never heard of the book. I didn’t know what it would become, I didn’t care. I loved these three women and what it was about. That was March of 2015, and here we are 16 months later at a press junket. It was pretty fast.
LRM: And I’m guessing that Erin Cressida Wilson had already been adapting at that point?
Taylor: It had. Erin Cressida Wilson had adapted it, and then I read the script and then I figured out what I would do, and we went that route.
LRM: You write a lot of your own material, so is it hard to set those things aside? You do get attached to a lot of things because of ‘The Help,” so is it harder to get to the things of your own you want to get done because of that?
Taylor: Not at all. The way I work, the way I’ve always worked is that I’m a writer/director, and I did two drafts of the script after I came on board, and luckily, Erin and I wanted to make the exact same movie. That’s good. No one’s toes were stepped on. Everybody complemented each other on this film, everybody from the acting… everybody saw the same movie.
LRM: I think when I spoke to you for “The Help,” I think it might have come out already, but you mentioned that it was always about the characters when you take a project, so which were the characters in this that jumped out at you?
Taylor: All of them, just the truth. The way that Paula was not afraid to expose the depths of sorrow, the depths of addiction, the depths of manipulation. It was just juicy, and the idea to put that on screen with great actresses and actors and then it’s also a thriller, it was undeniable. I had to do it.
LRM: Emily Blunt is fairly obvious to play Rachel because she’s a solid dramatic actress but she’s played a lot stronger women and this is out of character with what she’s played before, because she’s vulnerable and damaged. It feels like many of the other actors are cast against type. Was it hard finding the right people to do this?
Taylor: It wasn’t. I mean, actors are one of my favorite parts about directing, and casting is my absolute favorite, and the very thing you’re saying is what I love to do is cast the unexpected, but not just for a gimmick. Cast amazing people that you know if they’re getting to do something that they’ve never gotten to do and they know they’re going to show people something they’ve never seen before, they’re going to be that much more into it. And all these parts are unrelenting, so these characters are who they are the whole time without moments of latitude. Without a soft humorous moment, it’s hardcore, and they all just did tremendous work.
LRM: I have to imagine it was the toughest on Emily and Hayley Bennett, because there’s a lot going on in terms of timelines and shifting realities and also the emotions they have to go through, so what were the conversations like when they first got involved?
Taylor: No, everybody knew what we were doing. My first meeting with Emily, she says, “What do you have in mind?” and I said, “This is going to be a very raw, intense and truthful look at addiction, and this woman who is losing her mind… and it’s a thriller.” I led with “This is most important…” not only because it’s what needed to happen, but when you’re so engrossed psychologically in all these characters, it enhances the thriller aspect two-fold… three-fold versus just focusing on editing so you don’t know what’s going on. You look at history. I went back and looked at a lot of the classic thrillers, which are so good, but I noticed that often, even in some of Hitchcock’s greatest work, you don’t really know that much about anybody. But you didn’t have to, because he leaned into the thriller aspect, and this is a true hybrid. It really is. It is 50-50 drama and thriller, that’s why I loved it. That’s so rare.
LRM: It’s funny you mentioned Hitchcock, because when you make a thriller, there’s a danger of going too far into Hitchcock territory, especially because the plot of someone possibly seeing a murder is very much in the vein of “Rear Window.” Were you careful to avoid really obvious Hitchcock moments?
Taylor: He’s such an icon of American cinema, you almost can’t. You don’t rip off or copy Hitchcock because a.) you’ll get busted and b.) frankly, it’s dated and been done a gazillion times by people who have done that. This movie didn’t really lend itself to have a fun little wink and a nod to Hitchcock. This was a serious film. Not serious like saving the world, but you know what I mean — it’s real issues. So I just stayed on focus with these characters, and then Charlotta, my DP and I, we employed a lot of handheld and talked about what would make the audience feel the most claustrophobic and uncomfortable, and that involved non-traditional and non-standard set-ups.
LRM: I’ve never met a drunk Emily Blunt, and I’m not sure I want to after this movie because she’s a scary drunk if she’s anything like her character. How did you deal with the different levels of drunkenness?
Taylor: We created four levels of drunkenness—the look, the way she walked. Emily created them, beautifully, but we definitely talked about each scene. She and I would discuss in rehearsals, “What level is this? 1, 2 , 3, or 4?” And you had to know that. She had to know that and prepare it and our team had to know that for getting her ready each day. Some days, she’d start as a 4 and then the next scene she’d be a 1 and would have to go back to the trailer—because scheduling’s not nice—and then she’d be a 3 later that afternoon. There was a lot of back and forth and the way she navigated between that and kept it all straight in her head was just amazing.
LRM: I also like the fact that you got Allison Janney into all four of your movies... I guess she’s sort of your good luck charm?
Taylor: She is. She’s just a very close friend. We literally talk every day or two. We’re buds, and she’s so talented and she’s just a joy to have around.
LRM: I was debating whether to read the book beforehand and I didn’t end up reading the book because sometimes it ruins the experience of watching the movie. Were a lot of the timelines and the non-linear aspect from the book as well?
Taylor: Absolutely. It’s 100% how Paula told the story.
LRM: How do you deal with something like that while you’re shooting a movie where key locations like the house and the train are used for different versions of the same scene?
Taylor: Prep and planning. You just don’t assume it’s going to work. You really think it out. What was interesting is that we had it planned out pretty well, but this movie was really made in the editing room, as you might imagine, because you had this embarrassment of riches, of possibilities, and it just gave me another palette. “We didn’t even think she could put this here!” It was a lot of moving around and experimentation, which is so fun.
LRM: How involved did Paula want to be with the adaptation? I know some authors are fine just selling the book and saying, “Go make your movie, I’ll see you at the premiere.”
Taylor: This was my second author who was just like that. Kathryn Stockett said, “Go have fun!” and Paula Hawkins, I met her for a drink in London, she said, “What are your thoughts?” I said, “I intend to lean into the sexuality and the darkness and the truth of addiction.” She asked, “You’re going to make it dark, right?” I said, “Yup!” and she said, “I love it,” and that was it.
LRM: Has she seen it yet?
Taylor: Yeah, she really, really likes it. To quote her, she said it was very true to the novel. “It was exactly what I saw in my head when I was writing it, yet the movie is different and brings other things to it in a good way.” Can’t beat that.
LRM: I’ll probably go and read the book now that I’ve seen the movie. I’ve had some good experiences reading the book beforehand and some not so good.
Taylor: What’s fun about the book that makes it different is Rachel can be really charming and funny and self-deprecating—all of these women can in a way in which they’re narrating their lives to the reader—which you just don’t get to do, so I think it will be fun for you.
LRM: I do know the book is set in England, so it’s interesting the story was moved to the States but you still ended up with many British actors. I guess Erin already had made that decision before you came on board?
Taylor: Yeah, I think that was a wise choice on her part. I think it really works great.
LRM: Did you actually shoot in Grand Central Station?
Taylor: Sure did. I shot in the Oyster Bar. It’s the first movie ever filmed in the Oyster Bar, which is very cool.
LRM: You’ve been attached to a lot of other things over the years so what was this other thing you were working on?
Taylor: I can’t tell you.
LRM: Was it one of these other things you were attached to?
Taylor: Probably, yeah.
LRM: There was a Stephen King movie and a movie about the inventor of Tupperware with Sandra Bullock…
Taylor: All those things are in play. It’s just when you go to do something that’s got a greenlight, everybody kind of understands that you just gotta go do that. They’ll have to wait for you, which is never fun.
LRM: Is it hard deciding what to do since you are getting attached to so much stuff? I don’t know how many of these things you’re writing yourself. So as I asked before, is it hard to turn down a really good script that someone else wrote to put aside what you’re working on and go direct that?
Taylor: Not at all. There are no rules of when you want to do something. I generally don’t respond to something that’s already been written, because that’s how I direct. It’s really weird. A lot of my directing happens in my house when writing. You’re coming up with locations and shots, so when you get something that’s already been written, you have to read it for the raw storytelling and then I go back and make it like I want it or I’m not doing my job to the best of my ability, but really, most of the stuff I want to do just doesn’t exist yet or I gotta create it.
LRM: Do you have any inclination to doing more comedy after this or go in one direction or another?
Taylor: I want to do a comedy so bad I can’t stand it.
LRM: Well, "The Help" had a good dose…
Taylor: A lot of fun stuff, but yeah, I mean, I would love to. It’s just that the comedies that are getting made and being funded are really broad. Lot of farting, tits and that really lasts about 12 minutes and then you’re bored.
LRM: People aren’t really going to see those movies anymore.
Taylor: I know, but they keep making them.
LRM: With five years gone since doing “The Help,” have you seen the movie since then? Do you feel you’ve evolved as a director since making it?
Taylor: I would hope so. Everybody’s gotta evolve. I think the big mistake would to have just been to stay in that world and keep making those movies. Yeah, the more you do anything, the better you hopefully get at it and the more you see things coming that may be a problem that you wouldn’t have known about the last time. It’s just repetition and instinct just gets sharpened.
LRM: That was such an amazing film and phenomenon, even though it wasn’t your first movie…
Taylor: Thank you. People still watch it. That makes me really happy. People come and tell me, they say, “My daughter…” A lot of 10 to 12 –year-old daughters like to watch it every Saturday. It’s like what they do that’s fun, and I think that’s just… I don’t know the answer to that, but that makes me proud, though. It still keeps on going.
The Girl on the Train opens Friday, October 7. Look for our interview with actor Luke Evans sometime before then.