Yeah, I know, you have to live in LA to be taken seriously as a screenwriter. But don’t tell screenwriter Tate Taylor that because after kicking around New York and LA as an actor and filmmaker for 15 years, last year he bought a home in Church Hill, Mississippi. How’s it working out for him? Right now, the movie he wrote and directed is number one at the box office—The Help.
And he has plans for his Mississippi house to be used in part to teach and inspire writers and filmmakers in the south. That plan might make more sense in a place like Oxford, Mississippi where William Faulkner and John Grisham once lived and wrote, but Church Hill? The truth is it’s not just a house—it’s a 70 acre plantation. The main building was built in 1833. And judging from the photos I found online when it was listed for sale back in 2010, Wyolah Plantation is a pretty nice spread with plenty of rooms and buildings for workshops—once you find it. It’s located just north of Natchez. The lack of cell phone service in the area may help your concentration and output of pages.
And I know LA is the best place in the world to network in the film industry, but guess where Talyor made a key connection in his career? At a church in Mississippi. According to an article in Garden & Gun written by Vanessa Gregory, Taylor and Kathryn Stockett (novelist of The Help), “have been friends since they were kindergartners at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Jackson.”
Gregory writes. “When The Help became a best seller, Stockett decided her friend should write and direct the movie. ‘I really wanted a Mississippian to tell the story, to translate it to the screen.’” That old kindergarten connection paid off big time. As in Steven Spielberg producing.(Another report said that Taylor got the rights to the story even before it was published in hopes of making it as an independent film, and that it became a studio film once the book became a best seller.)
And it’s not as if Taylor had a solid proven track record to jump on the DreamWorks train. He’s not unlike a lot of talented people in LA. He’d done a lot of this and that over the years. Early on in his career he worked as a PA on A Time to Kill, was a part of the improv group the Groundlings, and worked on commercials. According to IMDB, over the past fifteen years he averaged about a role a year as an actor in a TV show, a short film, or a feature. But 2010 was his breakout year as he had a role in Winter’s Bone and had the opportunity to direct The Help based on the script he wrote.
His directing credits before The Help appear to be limited to a short called Chicken Party in 2003 and the indie feature Pretty Ugly People which played in various film festivals. Perhaps at the end of the day what Taylor had going for him most goes back to his roots.
“I had the upper hand because I’m a southerner. In the south, we tell stories. We tell stories if you’re in a sales position, if you’re in a retail position, you lure your customers by telling a story. You just do. If you were to bargain from a retailer, you tell a story.”
But today he wakes up knowing that his film not only cleaned up at the box office this past weekend, but that The Help (made for $25 million) is on its way to crossing the $100 million mark. What’s next for Taylor? According to an article in the Hollywood Reporter last week, Taylor is in talks to direct Piece Like a River about as “asthmatic 11-year-old named Reuben Land, who lives with his eccentric family in 1962 Minnesota.
No matter what his next project is, it will be interesting to see how his plans develop from that plantation in Church Hill.
Sure it can help your screenwriting career if you live in LA where meetings happen—but it may be better if one of your kindergarten pals becomes a best selling author and gives you the righs to write the screenplay. But the real key to be taken seriously as a screenwriter— no mattter where you live and who who know— is to write a great script. Give yourself time to do that. I’m sure that in the 15-20 year quest of Tate Taylor he got his 10,000 hours in.
Kickstarter update 7/23/11: Special thinks to Matthew Porter, The Merry Monk, and Michael Fisher for joining the Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places Kickstarter campaign. There’s only six days to go to make the goal and your help is needed. Click here to learn more about the concept.
And just for the record…Church Hill, Mississippi qualifies as an unlikely place to be writing screenplays.