There’s a strange symbiosis growing between Hollywood and a small town in the Mississippi Delta, and director Tate Taylor is one of the engineers behind it.
Known for films like “The Help” and “Breaking News in Yuba County,” Taylor has centered his efforts in and around Natchez, a city of less than 15,000 residents that bills itself as the “birthplace of Mississippi.” Incoming A-listers trade tinsel and luxury high rises for Spanish moss and antebellum homes. But it’s precisely the area’s un-Hollywood-ness that makes filming there so magical, Taylor said.
Living in close proximity to one another sustains a sort of energy among cast and crew that’s hard to replicate in a bigger city, he explained, pointing as an example to his experience directing the late Chadwick Boseman and other stars in the 2014 James Brown biopic “Get on Up.”
Creator, writer and director Tate Taylor of “Filthy Rich” speaks during the Fox segment of the 2020 Winter TCA Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 07, 2020 in Pasadena, California. Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images
“We all lived in houses in Natchez, and everybody walked to work and (walked) home, and it was just fun,” Taylor said in a phone interview. “We called it movie camp.”
That closeness also opens up a world of opportunities for locals — ones Taylor said he wishes he had while growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. In addition to bringing more dollars into the region, Delta-based film projects, like Taylor’s upcoming “Miss Macy” starring Jean Smart, are a chance to offer a different talent pool exposure to the movie business.
“We hired a kid at a Burger King Drive thru window, (who), you know, never even thought about working in the movie business,” Taylor added. “He did and it’s changed the course of his life. Not necessarily because he’s going to stay in the movie business, but he’s like, ‘I never thought I could do anything but this.'”
Long before Taylor was working to bring movies into Mississippi, he was trying to get out.
He made the leap after meeting Octavia Spencer while they were working as production assistants on the set of the 1996 drama “A Time to Kill,” which was filmed in the state. They moved out to Los Angeles together, where they were roommates for six years, and remain best friends.
Watch: The director of ‘The Help’ explains why he chose to preserve the slave cabins in his plantation home
Taylor’s career took him between LA and New York for years, working in front of and behind the camera. It wasn’t until he started work on 2011’s “The Help” — which the director describes as his “first big movie” — that he thought of returning home, insisting that they film the movie in Greenwood, Mississippi.
“I just thought it was very important to film it on the earth where it took place,” Taylor said. “And you know, Mississippi, you just can’t fake the deep South in my opinion, from the live oaks and the moss, just the heat, just everything.”
The cast and crew fell in love with the location, with its relative lack of traffic and easy-going pace, Taylor said, and they all bonded over dinners together, skinny-dipping and moonshine. He remembers DreamWorks executives saying, “do not get used to this,” that the production and its relaxed atmosphere were unique. But Taylor was already making plans to make it his norm.
Taylor’s Church Hill home, Wyolah, was built in 1936. He also still has a residence in New York City.
“I missed the South. I missed (hearing) the tornado warnings, roadkill and just the crazy characters and the religious hypocrisy. I just missed it all,” he said. “Because, as you know, the South is just crazy, different. And then I’m like, ‘Well, who says I can’t keep making my movies here?'”
He and his partner, film producer John Norris, bought an 1830s antebellum home, Wyolah Plantation, in Church Hill, Mississippi, just north of Natchez. They spent three years renovating the property, which now includes the main residence, guest houses and two painstakingly restored slave cabins.
Taylor spoke with Carlton McCoy on a recent episode of the CNN original series Nomad about the home’s complicated past and his decision to preserve the slave cabins as a kind of monument, an educational resource for schoolkids and historians.
“They were in such disrepair, I had to make the decision, do you keep it or do you erase history,” Taylor said on Nomad. “And a lot of people said that I should just mow them over, and plant bushes. But I thought it was the honorable thing to do to restore them, because those are the hands that build this place.”
Taylor spoke to Carlton McCoy about the decision to preserve the property’s slave cabins on a recent episode of CNN’s Nomad.
He and Norris have since restored multiple buildings in the Church Hill and Natchez areas and opened several businesses, including a restaurant called Church Hill Variety, an all-day brunch place named The Little Easy and Smoot’s Grocery, a restored juke joint. Personal interests and the potential needs of incoming film crews partially drive the projects they choose, but Taylor — who received an award from the Mississippi Tourism Association last year for his investment into the local economy — says the needs of their neighbors are top of mind, too.
“There’s not a grocery store in our entire county,” said Taylor, referring to the area around Church Hill. “And there’s only one Subway sandwich shop at a truck stop. And that’s it. So that’s when it started … let’s build our community up to take care of each other.”
As Taylor continues to bring film and TV productions to the area — in addition to the upcoming “Miss Macy,” he’ll be making a 3-season, “Prince of Tides” adaptation in Mississippi for Apple TV — the synergy among all his efforts become increasingly apparent. Cast and crew love to start their day at The Little Easy, he said, and he often has Hollywood visitors out to work and play at Wyolah as well.
Others are bringing projects to Natchez too, Taylor noted, including Morgan Freeman with his series for The History Channel called “Great Escapes.” Taylor and Norris are producing the show locally at their film studio and sound stage known as Crooked Letter Picture Company.
Still, Taylor recoils at any attempts to label Natchez the “Hollywood of the South.”
“Well, ew. I wouldn’t want it to be Hollywood of the South,” he said. “Our ambitions are just to bring people to a hospitable place to work and the people who are there to benefit from it and minds to open. And it’s just good business for a town. It’s just a jolt of adrenaline.”