Jackson Gets Some ‘Help’
Mississippi’s capital city prepares for its moment on the big screen with “The Help” filming in town last week.
by Erin Z. Bass
People were talking when native Kathryn Stockett published her bestselling book about white women and their black maids in 1960s Jackson last year, and now the town is abuzz again over filming of the movie version. Producers, including locals Tate Taylor and Brunson Green, came to town last December to scout for locations, but news was kept under wraps until townspeople began to notice changes in the city’s Fondren district last week.
“We all knew they were going to film sometime soon,” says Chris Myers, who lives in Fondren and works on North State Street as an architect. “It wasn’t until they started painting the yoga studio, turned into a gas station, that I got really interested.” Myers could view the progress down the street from the breakroom of his office building and began chronicling Fondren’s transformation to a scene from another era (not that big of a stretch as the row of businesses down State Street, called the Fondren Strip, sport neon and a generally retro look anyway).
“They started with the gas station and slowly started working down the strip,” adds Myers. “Some of those businesses have been there since the ‘60s. A free sign and a new paint job, nobody could turn it down. The shoe shop on the corner is old, the cleaners is old, the bakery’s been there for 50 years, all that stuff’s already been there so it was just a matter of cleaning it up a little.”
With new coats of paint, and completely new images in some cases, the businesses were ready for filming on September 22 and 23. The first scenes were shot at Brent’s Drugs, a soda fountain built in 1946. Located off the strip, on Duling Street next to McDade’s supermarket (formerly the Jitney Jungle), Brent’s was taken back to its earlier days as a pharmacy and general store.
Owner Brad Reeves, who purchased Brent’s in July of 2009 after the pharmacy was bought out by CVS, says most of the booths were taken out of the shop, and more merchandise like children’s shoes, men’s hats and soaps and shampoos brought in to shoot the scene where Skeeter — played by Emma Stone wearing a very curly wig — is waiting on a prescription and runs into Lou Anne Templeton, who tells her Hilly’s going around town saying she wrote the book. The only business used that was actually mentioned by name in the book, Brent’s is iconic to Jackson, and residents still talk about having cheeseburgers and ice cream there after school, or egg and olive sandwiches for ladies’ lunch.
Reeves hasn’t had a chance to read “The Help” yet, but says customers started bringing the book in to show him the part about Brent’s as soon as it was published. Here’s an excerpt in Skeeter’s voice:
I’m standing in Brent’s Drug Store picking out Mother’s Lustre Cream and a Vinolia soap bar, while Mr. Roberts works on her prescription. Mother says she doesn’t need the medicine anymore, that the only cure for cancer is having a daughter who won’t cut her hair and wears dresses too high above the knee even on Sunday, because who knows what tackiness I’d do to myself if she died …
Now I’m hurrying to get out of the drugstore before anyone I know comes in. I should be used to my isolation by now, but I’m not. I miss having friends. Not Hilly, but sometimes Elizabeth, the old, sweet Elizabeth back in high school …
The front bell tinkles. I look over and in walk Elizabeth and Lou Anne Templeton. I slip back into beauty creams, hoping they don’t see me. But then I peek over the shelves to look. They’re heading for the lunch counter, huddled together like schoolgirls. Lou Anne’s wearing her usual long sleeves in the summer heat and her constant smile. I wonder if she knows she’s in the book.
Reeves plans to keep some of the movie props as reminders of Brent’s new claim to fame. “One of the good things about the movie, we were able to work with them and they allowed us to acquire some of the props after the fact, so we’ll kind of have a hybrid,” he says. “They had the money and expertise that we couldn’t afford, so it gave us some ideas to make Brent’s more authentic.”
Filming continued Thursday, with Emma Stone driving up and down the Fondren strip, stopping at Kolb’s to pick up her drycleaning and the Shell station to get her windshield washed.
“Emma Stone would get in the Cadillac, and they’d yell action, and the car would go and all these people would start walking, the bus would come up, people would step out. It was really cool. They did it a few times,” says Myers. “They moved to the gas station and they shot for like four more hours. It was the same thing, she started her car way back up State Street and pulled into the gas station, people would wipe her car off.”
Local extras were also needed that day for street scenes and a theater scene at the Capri, changed back to its original name for the movie. Myers and friends speculated as to what movie the marquis in front would advertise, and “Cleopatra,” which was released in 1963, was eventually revealed. Myers captured a segregated crowd entering the theater, whites in the front, blacks from a staircase that was built on the side of the building, something he says was “kind of scary to see.”
Ron Blaylock, a fine art photographer whose studio on State Street was transformed into a hardware store, says seeing all the extras in beehive hairdos and period dress was one of his favorite parts of the day. “It was fun,” he says. “It’s not every day you get a major motion picture outside the door.”
While some businesses, like Brent’s, plan to keep a few reminders of the movie around, others went right back to their former selves on Friday. Blaylock is keeping the “Protective Hardware” sign used on his building and will display it indoors, but next door to him, Bob’s Cut & Curl was taking its new red and white pole down by lunchtime. Butterfly Yoga also took its gas station signage down, but may leave the building painted white (it was a minty green before). “It’s a new paint job, you might as well do something differently,” says Myers.
Thursday ended with Emma Stone running up and down the steps of the State Capitol downtown, while several locals watched.
On Friday morning, the action moved to Greenwood Cemetery, where Eudora Welty and several other notable Jacksonians are buried — and a closed set. A peek through the gate revealed filming around the little house located in the center, and at one point an old-time cab drove through, but we’ll have to wait until the movie comes out to find out what this scene entails.
While the crew was at the cemetery, the Mayflower Café downtown on Capitol Street was being prepared for filming. A Jackson institution since the 1930s, it’s recognizable by the neon squiggles on its front overhang. Inside, the Mayflower maintains an old-time diner feel, with cracked leather booths that served as the site for Skeeter and Stuart’s (played by Chris Lowell who’s known for his part on TV’s “Private Practice”) first date. Locals and passersby were allowed to watch filming from across the street, and quite a crowd amassed throughout the afternoon.
Two little girls, described by their mother as “Irish twins,” yelled “Emma” to get a wave from the actress, and babies were kept quiet with snacks when cameras were rolling. Earlier in the day, filming was going on inside the café, so actors and crew were only visible out front during breaks. Word spread quickly that “Help” author Kathryn Stockett was on set, and she emerged from a glass door next to the café wearing a stylish black and white top and black skirt. Her director’s chair, stitched with the name “Kitty Stockett,” was visible through the glass. Later, she hung out inside the café with her childhood friend Taylor and co-producer Green, posing for photos to capture a big moment in all of their careers.
The crew broke for lunch around 4 p.m. and eventually made their way a few doors down to newly opened Parlor Market for happy hour. Chef Craig Noone, who moved back to Jackson from Dallas to open a restaurant that would offer a truly Southern experience, says the cast and crew have been in and out since he opened September 21.
“It’s so neat to have something like that in Jackson, and they’ve come every night to support us,” he says. After Emma Stone’s first meal at Parlor, where Noone was asked to just start bringing out dishes, he says he heard she told someone it was the best meal she’d ever had. During the filming break, Kieran Culkin, who isn’t listed as part of the movie’s cast but was on set that day, cut into what looked like a pork or lamb chop at the bar.
Stockett, Stone and the rest of the crew rushed out of Parlor Market about an hour later to get back to filming. As the sun went down, old cars were brought in to line Capitol Street outside the café, and the Mayflower’s neon sign came to life. Word on the street was Skeeter and Stuart would be doing a kissing scene on the street at dusk.
Locals and business owners won’t soon forget “The Help’s” three days in Jackson.
Kelly Shannon with the Jackson CVB says, “It really did spark a lot of local interest by people here who were not only extras, but it also gave people an idea of what the era was like back in the day.” She adds that the CVB is in the process of setting up tours centered around “The Help” for groups and visitors to the city.
Until the film is released next spring, locals are sure to continue sharing their “Help” experiences, whether they served as extras, had their businesses featured or just watched from the side of the street. “We’ll be talking about this for years,” says Blaylock.
SEE LOTS MORE PHOTOS OF “THE HELP” FILMING HERE.
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In addition to Jackson, filming for “The Help” has already been done in Greenwood and Clarksdale. The movie is due out in spring 2011. Click here to see a full list of cast members on IMDB, and watch Emma Stone as host of “Saturday Night Live” October 23.
We’d like to thank Chris Myers for showing us around Fondren, and both he and Ron Blaylock for sharing their photos with us. Photo credits are as follows: Extra by car at top, Stone driving & street scene by Blaylock; Brent’s facade & McDade’s mural & Capri Theater segregated extras by Myers. The rest of the photos were taken by Deep South.