After decades working as a struggling actor, Tate Taylor found his big break in his mid-40s as the director of Oscar winner “The Help.” Now he’s at the helm of the adaptation of the best-selling novel “The Girl on the Train.”
A steamy thriller in the vein of “Gone Girl,” the story centers on Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic whose divorce to Tom (Justin Theroux) has led her into a deep depression. And things aren’t any better on her Metro-North train commute from Westchester to Manhattan as she passes her old house, where Tom has started a new life with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson, who was in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”).
Rachel has also become infatuated with Megan (Haley Bennett, “The Magnificent Seven”), who lives a few doors down from Tom’s place and is often standing on her balcony wearing very little clothing. But when Megan goes missing, Rachel must figure out if, in her blackout drunk moments, she may have been involved.
The book, written by British author Paula Hawkins, was an instant hit when it came out in 2015, and Universal quickly snatched up the rights to it. But as with most adaptations, this one sometimes veers away from the source material (it’s set in New York City instead of London).
Business Insider talked to Taylor about the challenges of adapting a book that is beloved by many, and looking back at “The Help” in a post-#OscarsSoWhite Hollywood.
Warning: Spoilers ahead if you’ve never read “The Girl on the Train.”
Jason Guerrasio: What’s the biggest challenge of adapting a best-selling book?
Tate Taylor: My answer doesn’t really come from me solving a problem – it comes from what I knew I wanted to do. When you have a book that everybody has read, and even those who read the book the first time kind of figured out it was Tom, I was like, “Okay, this is a thriller and this is what people want to see and that could be a big, big problem.” Because your engine is exposed. But the great solution for that was a natural one. I was drawn to this material because of the character work and how deeply it dove into regret and betrayal and manipulation. I realized if I leaned into that – the sexuality, the violence, the mental abuse – it’s not so much that it would district you from who did it, it just fills your brain with so much stuff it’s truly a companion to that part versus making one stronger than the other.
Guerrasio: To show what is going on in Rachel’s head, was that a jigsaw puzzle to pull off in postproduction?
Taylor: This movie was made in the editing room if ever a movie has been made. I mean, it was both scary and cool.
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Guerrasio: Because I would imagine there’s only so much screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson can put on the page to give you some runway.
Taylor: Yeah. I came on board and Erin had done this amazing heavy lifting starting this. But then as a filmmaker I realized that there were big holes, meaning there were things you just don’t get to do in a movie. You don’t get to say that Rachel suddenly remembers everything. That’s when I created the character of Monica [Lisa Kudrow]. I wrote that all out. In the novel [author] Paula [Hawkins] says Rachel remembers so I’m like we don’t get to do that or this is going to all unravel. So I went back to the book and Paula had written a brief little blurb in Rachel’s narration that “Tom used to tell me I would embarrass him at his work parties,” and I went, okay, I’m going to blow that up. And then with Megan’s character, she’s so sexual and I knew that she would be judged by the audience and not with much favor, so that’s when I went back to the book and realized to serve this genre and serve this piece I needed to play out what happened with her baby. So it was really going through with the book as a director and writer saying this read well but this is not going to play well. Where are the holes? Where will people get up and go to the bathroom or roll their eyes?
Guerrasio: But then there’s the change of location from London to New York, which could turn off die-hard fans. Was that already decided when you came on to the movie?
Taylor: That predated me by a year.
Guerrasio: Did you walk in nervous about how fans would react to that?
Taylor: To be honest, I made the mistake of checking the online chatter when I signed on to the movie and I saw that there wasn’t a huge revolt at all, it was more of a why. But I think wonderful things happened because of that choice. Because of that, the day I met Emily I decided to keep her accent. I told myself, that’s only going to add to her loneliness and despair. If she’s in America and she has no job and lives on a mattress on a floor, she probably can’t afford to go home and she’s probably told them back at home the biggest lie ever. She can’t go home like this. So that made it exciting for me. But the thing is I shot all these New York beauty shots and really shot the heck out of Grand Central Station, but when I put the movie together they were just kind of shoe leather. I didn’t need it. And then I went back to the book and realized that Rachel just talks about London, it’s not a character. So it really is universal and doesn’t matter because the movie takes place between these women’s ears and on a train.
Guerrasio: You guys decided on Metro-North. Did you have other ideas for the commute?
Taylor: We looked at all the lines, frankly I rode them all.
Guerrasio: I will say, I’ve spent most of my life riding into New York City, and I’ve never seen a beautiful woman standing outside on a balcony as the train goes by.
Taylor: Yeah, that doesn’t happen.
Guerrasio: Movie magic.
Taylor: Yeah. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: What was your biggest fear going into postproduction?
Taylor: I had to trust that people would go with the beginning of the film. I had to trust that if people stayed with me and really got in with these characters and this mood that it would really make the movie satisfying.
Guerrasio: It is unusual how you thrust us right into Rachel’s clouded mind from the start.
Taylor: You don’t see it enough in movies. You may get one character that you do that, but to have three characters back-to-back? And with “The Help” I had the voices of three women, but this is the other thing that hit me like a ton of bricks: They were in scenes together in “The Help,” these women are not.
Guerrasio: You mention “The Help.” I was thinking about this, you made that and right after the James Brown biopic “Get on Up.” Right after that the #OscarsSoWhite debate really made waves in the industry. What was that time like? Finding success with “The Help,” but being a white man telling these stories.
Taylor: First it was “How dare a white guy tell black stories?” And you’re going to love this, I got asked the other day, “How can you leave black people out of this movie?” I literally said, “I can’t win.” [Laughs] I don’t know what to say about it, it’s a business, man. It makes no sense. There’s no rhyme or reason. The best thing from “The Help” was my best friend and roommate of five years [Octavia Spencer] got an Oscar and her life has changed forever. That’s fun, that’s really cool. And I think that came from pure recognition of an amazing job she did. I don’t think that was a political win whatsoever. I think there’s moments with the awards season where all the b——t cannot stop something inevitable. I think what “The Help” did, which excites me, is when I was going around with “The Help,” the fear was it’s black-themed material, does it do well? Look what came out after “The Help.”
Guerrasio: With all the current circumstances could you, a white director, make “The Help” today?
Taylor: And I was just a nobody?
Taylor: Here’s my answer, and it’s not the answer you want to hear, the reason “The Help” got made was because Steven Spielberg read my script and he said, “If this guy wrote that, he’s already directed the movie – let’s do it.” Hopefully, I would like to think that’s still in play today. I think it is. I think despite the circumstances, instincts tell you to just do this, it has happened to me on projects I’ve acquired. I think that will always be around.
Guerrasio: Are you uncomfortable talking about the #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon?
Taylor: I don’t talk about it. I mean, you can’t help but see, it’s so obvious.
“The Girl on the Train” opens in theaters on Friday.