In his follow-up to the four-time Oscar-nominated breakout The Help, Tate Taylor directs 42’s Chadwick Boseman as James Brown in Get On Up. Based on Brown’s incredible life story, the film gives a fearless look inside the music, moves, and moods of the icon, taking audiences on the journey from his impoverished childhood to his evolution into one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Taylor brought back some of the immensely talented stars of The Help for key roles in this film, including Viola Davis as James Brown’s mother, Susie Brown, and Octavia Spencer as his Aunt Honey. I recently spoke to Tate Taylor about this high-octane film.

Danny Miller: When I talked to Brian Grazer, he mentioned that this movie had an especially long journey to the screen. At what point did you get involved?

tatetaylor2Tate Taylor: It’s funny — I was about to leave L.A. to go to New York to meet with another living legend (I can’t tell you who!) for another biopic. I stopped into the offices at Imagine Entertainment to have a quick meeting with Brian and while I was in the lobby, someone asked me what I was up to. I mentioned that I was on my way to New York to meet with this person and he said “Hey, we just got the James Brown script — we’re doing a biopic, too!” This sort of Hollywood competitiveness kicked in and I said, “I’d like to read that!” To be honest, I didn’t really care for biopics up to that point and didn’t really want to do the one I was going to meet about so I wanted to read the script just to see what not to do. I got on my plane and started reading and somewhere over Las Vegas I turned to my partner, John Norris, and said “I have to direct this!”

Wow. Then what happened?

I called them and gave them my take on what I would do with the script. The next day I met with Mick Jagger via Skype, which was surreal, and we were off — I never looked back!

I heard that Mick and Brian were pretty involved throughout the process.

This film was really tough to get to the screen — they both rolled up their sleeves and worked really hard.

Did Mick Jagger have any say about the guy who played him in the film? I loved that scene!

He absolutely did!

bosemanI interviewed Chadwick Boseman last year for 42 and I thought he was so great in that but it definitely wasn’t a given to me that he’d also be great as James Brown.

The first thing I realized, obviously, is that the movie would succeed or fail depending on who played James Brown. I knew I had to have someone who could really convey the spectacle of James — the moods and the dancing and the hair and all the stuff we loved about him — and also be able to play the 63-year-old James Brown with the dramatic highs and lows we’ve never really seen. So I started thinking, “Who’s got the chops?” I started looking at Chad’s work and said, “Okay, I think this guy’s got it.” I found out he’s from the Carolinas and thought that he would understand the psychology of James Brown, it’s in his DNA. After much deliberation on his part, we finally coaxed him in and I asked him to read as the 63-year-old and he knocked it out of the park. He just blew me away and I thought, “Oh God, please let him know how to dance!”

Was that a prerequisite? I suppose you could have hired a stunt guy who could do the splits while dancing!

We didn’t want to do that! I’ve heard people say that they were sure we used a double in that scene but we never used one — it was Chad all the way.

Which is pretty amazing. Most people just cannot do that!

No. Chad and I had a really cool understanding at the beginning of the process since there was so much pressure. I told him, “Look, let’s just both see how far we get. If at any point you feel you can’t pull it off or do the part justice, you can just say, ‘I’m not doing it!’” We took it slow but it soon became clear that we were not going back!

viola-octaviaWas it just heaven on earth to work with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer again?

Of course it was! And Nelsan Ellis, too, who was also in The Help — there’s a stillness and economy to his performance that is really challenging for actors because they tend to want to be big and be noticed but that kind of acting really sucks you in! And you know who else is in the film? Remember Vicki Byrd? That’s Aunjanue Ellis who played Yule Mae Davis in The Help, Hilly’s maid who asked to borrow money and who got clubbed after she stole the ring.

Oh, I thought she looked familiar!

Isn’t that cool?

Was it always in your head that Viola would play James Brown’s mother and Octavia would play Aunt Honey?

Well, I don’t want to make the actresses in Hollywood mad but I never thought of anyone else for either of those roles. I worked on the Aunt Honey character and it’s always so easy to write for Octavia. I crafted that scene where she’s talking to little James about the spirit in him just knowing how my dear friend would do it — it gave me the courage to write it in a way that would suit her best. That’s why I love using these people. I absolutely love working with Viola — we can talk frankly about what works and what doesn’t and what suits her best, too. It’s the only way to make a movie!

One of the things I loved about the movie is that you never shied away from showing James Brown’s flaws and complexities. Was the family on board all the way through?

Yes, the family was very involved. At one point Chad and I spent a weekend with them. I had to write those difficult scenes between James and Deedee Brown and I wanted to get permission from Deedee. I made a deal with her that it would be accurate and that I’d get her approval. We did that a lot with the family. They’ve all seen the movie and they love it which feels really good.

I hate to even ask this, but did you have any concerns that you might get criticized by some people that you were directing another movie with African Americans at the center?

You know, I’ve probably talked to 200 people about this movie and you’re only the second person to bring that up so I think I’m going to be okay! To be honest, I don’t give a shit about that stuff, it’s so stupid. But I can’t control what some faceless, nameless, and I assume miserable people in dingy apartments who look for hate and not love are going to write on the Internet. It’s so dumb I hate to even talk about it and give it legitimacy.