Saturday, August 6, 2011

Designing the Sixties South: Spotlight on The Help

One of my favorite things about movies is the ability to transport us to another place in another time and for some of us, the south in the sixties is very familiar territory.

The #1 New York Times best-seller turned film The Help hits theaters on Wednesday, August 10th. The film is the story of three different yet very remarkable women who form an unlikely friendship amidst the societal turmoil of the sixties in Jackson, Mississippi. Actress Emma Stone portrays "Skeeter" Phelan, an Ole Miss grad groomed for society and a husband but who has a writing career on her mind. She decides to interview black women that take care of prominent families and literally turns the town on its proverbial ear.  Representing the "help" are actresses Viola Davis (Academy Award®–nominee for “Doubt”) as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny. Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Opie/director Ron Howard) plays Junior Leaguer Hilly Holbrook while veteran actresses Sissy Spacek portrays Hilly's mom Missus Walters and Cicely Tyson stars as Constantine Jefferson.

Emma Stone as Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan

Classic white column antebellum

Designed by production designer Mark Ricker (Nanny Diaries and Julie and Julia) and set decorator Rena Angelo, the houses of the five characters are as diverse as the characters themselves. Filmed on location in Jackson, Clarksdale, and Greenwood, Mississippi, Ricker combed through old copies of Better Homes and Gardens as a reference point and was inspired by the book Under Live Oaks by Caroline Seebohm and Peter Woloszynski. He also referenced another southern classic Gone With the Wind, watching the DVD before he boarded a plane and headed south. Ricker found the book in particular to be "wonderfully rich in details and worked quite nicely to inform Skeeter and Celia Foote's houses - both of which would have more history and layers than the newer houses in the film (Hilly and Elizabeth's)."

Phelan dining room

Many of the rooms were steeped in the tradition and history of a grander time

Designers used a Brunschwig and Fils swag border wallpaper for this New Orleans hotel suite

Ricker noted that the Phelan home was "lighter in tone and a bit newer in decoration choices as (mom) Charlotte would have layered her own choices with the history of the house." Hilly's house "represented the new south," and the designers chose colors and furnishings like her character, "prim and perfect, pastel and icy." Elizabeth Leefolt's interiors were designed to be "quite bland and uneventful" while Celia Foote's were filled with history and tradition. He felt that Aibileen's were the "quaintest, but no less proud. Her interiors are quite warm and inviting and very simple in decoration."

Leefolt living room

Hilly's Pepto Bismol colored tile bathroom

Foote Trophy Room

The designers scoured antique shops from Memphis to Mississippi for period perfect furnishings

Leefolt den with wood panels and round braided rug

Holbrook living room

Robert E. Lee Hotel lobby

Relics of the sixties: Skeeter's mom rolls her hair
on orange juice can sized plastic curlers  in a laminate and chrome filled kitchen

Allison Janney as Charlotte Phelan

As in most cases, the backstory of a film is always as interesting as the film itself. In this case, it's a story of perseverance as author Kathryn Stockett was turned down by a record sixty literary agents before one saw its merits and sold the book to Amy Einhorn Books. I caught up with the native Jacksonian author (who now resides in Atlanta) recently after a foreign press tour for the film and she was both excited and a bit overwhelmed at the idea of her work on the big screen.

It's easy to see the parallels -- Stockett grew up in Jackson and remembers the days sitting at her grandmother's table with their beloved maid Demetrie. And like Skeeter, Stockett became a writer, working on the book while living in Manhattan as "the distance added perspective." Demetrie passed away when she was sixteen, and no doubt the author felt her presence as she wrote The Help.

Admitting she is "not done with Mississippi yet," Stockett is working on her next book, which takes place in the twenties south, a time of the emancipation of women in Oxford, Mississippi. She is understandably nervous, as it's hard to follow up on such a phenomenon. "I went from writing a book no one wants to read to writing a book everyone wants to read," she notes. Here's hoping her next book is as wonderful as the first and at least she won't have to look for an agent.

Author Kathryn Stockett
At the time of our interview, Stockett had not seen the final cut of the film but had been on the set. "I couldn't believe it when I saw the set," she explains, "it was a tangible representation of every little detail. I remember Skeeter's room -- there were notes from friends, a yearbook sitting around, old know, that mixture of going from little girl to college."

You can read more of my interview on the designs of The Help in the upcoming September issue of Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles and you can see a sneak peek of the trailers on The Help website.

Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook, Sissy Spacek as Missus Walters and Octavia Spencer as  Minny Jackson

Photo Credits:  Dreamworks/Dale Robinette, Putnam, Courtesy of Mark Ricker


  1. I love films with a period setting, even if it was not so long ago.

  2. I love the book. Can't wait to see the movie. Thanks for a sneak peek at the sets.

  3. I've seen the film. It's a cute little feel good of a piffle--a high budget lifetime movie. Sadly, the production design/set dressing, while pleasing to the eye, does little to nothing to express character. They're dressed for photographing, but not for living. What a missed opportunity.

  4. I was impressed with the fact that the designers (who are not from the south) nailed the food, presentation and sets so well. I literally felt like I was at my grandmother's table.

  5. this collection of design are super and very nice post. new design are very good. all collections are pretty good..and all the best for your future designs..

  6. for the love of god "Charlies chips" in the pantry.... the linens, pocket books, bus stops with no benches in the dirt, the rail road tracks and either side of them. If you grew up any where below the mason dixon this rang true and was home .... like it or not

  7. Wow. This is gonna make a lot a "ta do" in weeks to come. Growing up in south Georgia I was ashamed and proud at the same time. This was the way of life. White women and black women were trapped in different ways mind you but trapped, none the less. My mother was ashamed at the time and went to great lengths to show us the injustice as we crossed over rail road tracks to take "THE HELP" home after a days work. All of these southern women regardless of their skin color went through hell so that I could live the liberated life I live as a self employed single strong happy 45 year old southern woman. For what it is worth THANK YOU!

    1. As a white woman raised "up North" and recently moved to Savannah, GA, this is very eye opening. I certainly have a new awareness. The movie, "The Help" had me in tears.

      Anyway, your comments were very interesting and I was wondering if you had a blog or something where you share your thoughts. I would be interested in hearing your perspective and memories.

    2. I did write a piece on Huffington Post about it and you can google my name on the site. Thanks for reading, Savannah is lovely!

  8. I noticed the Charles Chips cans as well (I think you can still buy them at Fresh Foods) and it really took me back which is what good production design should do.

  9. Also your comment on women being trapped regardless of color during that period is spot on!

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  11. She decides to interview black women that take care of prominent families and literally turns the town on its proverbial ear.

  12. I am very thankful to you for posting such stuff.This really help me lot.
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    1. You are so welcome and thanks for reading.