Director's Chair: Tate Taylor - 'Get On Up'
Issue: August 1, 2014

Director's Chair: Tate Taylor - 'Get On Up'

With just one small comedy — the 2008 Pretty Ugly People — on his resume, Tate Taylor’s directing career got turbo-charged thanks to his 2011 triumphant and Oscar-winning The Help, which he also co-wrote and co-produced. Now, the Mississippi native has tackled another story that’s both dear to his heart and close to his roots — Get On Up, the biopic of James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” embodied by Chadwick Boseman, who gave another magical performance as Jackie Robinson in 42.

Co-produced by Mick Jagger and Brian Grazer, the film was shot in Mississippi and details Brown’s legendary life and career, warts and all. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Taylor talks about making the film, the challenges involved and his love of post.

What do you look for in a project and what sort of film did you set out to make with this?
“I always look for story — lots of it. I’m not one to go see a road trip movie with two people (laughs). I like lots of intertwining characters. I was a big fan of Robert Altman from a young age, and it just stuck with me. I also need to have humor, followed by pathos, and I love it when the two are wedged up together scene-wise, where you never see one or the other coming. And I strive to make movies that someone would want to own. I can’t guarantee that, but that’s my dream — that there’s something important to the film, to the subject matter.” 

Did you feel any trepidation about taking on the movie, as biopics can turn out like stuffed animals if they’re too reverential — pretty but lifeless.
“You’re so right. I’ve never been a fan of biopics, because you usually know the whole story anyway. But what made me love this story is the complexity of the man. The typical way to do it is, how did he get from here to here? But what I saw in him, what really drove him in ways both good and bad, was his desire to never go backwards. He never wanted to become irrelevant, so he just kept moving forward. And I could really relate. I feel that anyone who achieves some success — you don’t want to go away! So there’s always this imposter complex we have — and I have it all the time. And any time he felt the world was understanding him or got it, he found a way to say, ‘I’m not through.’ And that’s what I admire about him. Take away all the good and bad, and you have this incredible sense of perseverance and reinvention, which is what drew me to him and the story.” 

And you tell it in a very unconventional way.
“Yes, it’s extremely nonlinear. It’s James’ warts and all, but you understand who he was — psychologically and intellectually — and why he made the choices he did. So it’s a movie about a really fascinating, complex man — who happens to be James Brown.”

Did you ever meet James Brown?
“No, but I felt I knew him so well growing up in the South, as my mother’s favorite music was James Brown and Johnny Mathis — which is a weird pairing!"

Like The Help, this deals with race and the South, so what were the biggest challenges in making it?
“I didn’t want it to have this heavy emphasis on race, and it only relates to those issues in that he knew he had to cross over and capture the white audience, which he did.”

Tell us about the shoot. How long was it and how tough?
“It was very hard. We shot a 130-page script with 96 locations and eight major concerts, that went from the ‘30s to the '90s — all in just 49 days. And we did it. Chad played from 17 years old to 60, and everyone thought we were crazy to attempt it. It helped that I had a lot of the same people from The Help, and I just let each department do their thing, as we all trust each other.”

Talk about the look of the film and working with DP Stephen Goldblatt, who shot The Help for you.
“One of the reasons I shot in Mississippi is that the South is a character once again, and if you’re going to represent the South, you’ve got to be there. And because it’s a period piece that spans decades, I chose Natchez, Mississippi, my new adopted hometown, as it has one of the most rigorous preservation policies of anywhere in America. Virtually nothing can be torn down, so you have shotgun shacks and row houses from 1915, and every era of homes is preserved, from antebellum mansions to ‘60s homes. I love practical locations, and Stephen did such a great job on The Help, so our approach was the same — lots of color, authenticity, and capture the way the South looks”. 

Your editor was Mike McCusker, who worked on Walk the Line and The Amazing Spider-Man; tell us about the editing process. Was he on-set?
“He was, but the shoot was so insane I spent very little time with him when we wrapped every day, as we spent most nights rehearsing and rewriting scenes. So the real edit happened later back in LA.” 

Do you like the post process?
“I love it, but I’m not like some directors in that I love all parts of my job — from writing and casting to shooting and editing. And post is where you really make your film.”

Where did you do the post?  
“It was all done in LA. at Technicolor on the Paramount lot, and I’m doing the final mix right now, which is so exciting.” 

How many VFX were there and what was involved? 
“They’re mainly corrections and clean-ups. We did a few at Mr. X Inc., like a Lear jet composite we had to do for a 1964 model we needed, which seemed to be in short supply (laughs). My films don’t really need a lot of VFX, but they are amazingly useful for stuff like that.”

Tell us about the audio and music; obviously getting all that right was crucial?
“Absolutely, and I had a great team of music supervisors, and of course Mick Jagger was very involved, as it was very important to him to get it all right. So what we decided to do was to first make sure which existing original recordings of James were in good enough condition and quality to then sweeten and enhance. Once we had that list down — and he was so prolific, there was just so much music — I then determined exactly which songs I’d feature in the film. Then we did this combination approach, with Chad actually singing every single song out loud, along with James in the original recordings. So we have this mix of the two, so it looks completely authentic, because Chad’s not lip-syncing — he is actually singing. There was just no way I was going to represent James’ iconic and very specific voice by having someone else imitate him. So the vocal you hear is mostly James, and sometimes Chad, and we’ve spent a lot of time in post mixing all that and getting it all as good as we possibly can.”

How tough was it getting all the rights to his music?
“Luckily it was all done before I got involved. Peter Afterman, one of our music supervisors, is in charge of the James Brown estate in music licensing, and Brian Grazer had been working closely with the family for 15 years, trying to get this film made, even while James himself was still alive. But when he passed, all the rights reverted back to the family, and that’s when Mick Jagger and Peter secured them again and came back to Imagine Entertainment and partnered up.”

Did you do a DI? Are you a big DI fan?
“Technicolor at the Sunset-Gower lot did all our color timing and helped with the visual effects shots, and Stephen Goldblatt was in New York on a shoot, so we did a lot of it remotely, with him in the New York office and me in LA, working online together, and it was pretty great.”

Did the film turn out the way you first envisioned?
“Even more so, which goes back to my point about enjoying and loving every part of the whole process. The casting of Chadwick and the amazing job he’s done elevated the whole film to a place where new creative ideas were coming to me every day on-set and then at night. So I had a great script, but it changed daily, and so the movie morphed into something else as we went. And that’s the magic of making a movie and the magic of editing and doing post. The movie changes, and you’d be a fool not to be open to all the new ideas that bubble up all the time. I’m the director who literally cooks for my cast and crew every night, when we break bread and start tossing around ideas for the next day’s shoot, and I love that process and collaboration.”

How do you look back on the huge success of The Help? What did you learn?
“I learned — and it’s true of any business — if you stick to your instinct and don’t let anyone try and make you waiver from what your gut tells you, whether it’s casting, dialogue, location and so on, then the result will be great. And that’s what I brought to this film. And I look back on the joyous time the cast and crew all had making it in the Delta, and recreating that sense of family, like a big summer camp. And I tried to recreate that in Natchez for this. That’s my model now, to handcraft a studio film in the middle of nowhere. You really get magic that way."

As someone based a long way from Hollywood, what’s your view of the industry right now?
“I think it’s more than ever greatly affected by consumer habits, and the fears of predicting what they are.” 

What’s next?
“I’ve got a lot of different projects cooking, but I don’t know which’ll happen first. There’s Peace Like A River, which I adapted from the best-seller three years ago, which I’m trying to get into production; I just signed on to do In the Event of a Moon Disaster, and I’m developing a film called Tupperware, which is basically about the woman who started the Tupperware party, but who in reality began the feminist movement. It’s a fascinating tale and she was way ahead of her time. So I’ve got a lot happening right now.”