While Hollywood bandies about the terms “eagerly awaited” and “highly anticipated,” none can be truer than the screen debut of The Help (DreamWorks Pictures). Based on Atlanta writer Kathryn Stockett’s beloved 2008 novel of the same name, the story of friendship and race relations in 1960s Mississippi not only resonated with readers in the South, but captured a worldwide audience, as well (as proven by a whopping 103-plus-week stint on The New York Times bestseller list).
Starring actresses Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson and Bryce Dallas Howard, the film was shot in the Mississippi towns of Jackson, Greenwood and Clarksdale. The sets will, no doubt, provide a glimpse of a lifestyle in days gone by, a time when antebellum homes, harvest gold appliances and parquet floors were the order of the day.
The task of creating the worlds of Skeeter, Celia, Hilly, Elizabeth and Abileen fell to the film’s production designer, Mark Ricker, who credits the book Under Live Oaks by Caroline Seeebohm and Peter Woloszynski (along with old copies of Better Homes and Gardens) as a primary influence. While the book and script were natural starting points, the designer of such films as The Nanny Diaries and Julie & Julia looked to a familiar Southern film for inspiration. “I couldn’t begin this film without looking again at Gone with the Wind,” he says.
The main houses of the five characters were shot in Greenwood, representing an amalgam of styles that “spanned the spectrum of Southern architecture,” explains Ricker. Skeeter’s house was a classic, white-columned antebellum mansion (“it was exactly as I imagined it in the book”), while Celia’s house was a pre-Civil War hotel converted into a private home and Elizabeth’s was a typical middle-income ranch style.
“It was my challenge to give each house its own personality that supported the characters in the film,” says Ricker, who scavenged every antique mall from Jackson to Memphis with his set decorator Rena Angelo. The design story translated into gold, pink and dusty colors for Celia, whose house—according to Ricker—was a “relic of an older generation, filled with all the history of a grander time and rich in family tradition.” Skeeter’s home was lighter in tone, and more comfortable, but one that still held a “formality of tradition.” Hilly’s house was considered the first phase of the new South and the interiors are “prim, perfect, pastel and icy,” details Ricker. Meanwhile, in keeping with her character’s personality, Elizabeth’s house received a bland and uneventful color palette while Abilene’s interiors were warm, inviting and simple in decoration.
Author Kathryn Stockett (who recalls growing up in Jackson with avocado green appliances) was amazed at the film’s interiors. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it, as it was a tangible representation [of the book] right down to every little detail,” the first-time novelist explains. She particularly noted the preparation that went into the decoration of Skeeter’s room, as there were “notes from friends, a yearbook sitting around, old horse ribbons—that familiar mixture of a room going from little girl to college.”
While Stockett admits to having no input, having left the design of the houses up to the imagination of the reader, she was surprised at how small the initial rooms were. “Mark knows how to expand a room,” she reflects. “People lived in smaller rooms than they do now; he opened [them] up with armoires and high ceilings. It was like magic!” Movie magic, that is.