Whether or not it’s true, The Help director Tate Taylor has the name, the look, and the genteel drawl of a man who played football in high school and now walks his golden retriever three times a day. But the filmmaker’s latest project, The Girl on the Train, with its melancholy adulterers and grisly murders, is anything but sweet or charming.
Starring Emily Blunt and Justin Theroux, the dark drama was adapted from the book by Paula Hawkins. A bestseller, the book has invited Gone Girl comparisons because of its name and subject matter, but the film is far more Crimes and Misdemeanors with some Secret Window sprinkled in. It puts a spin on the typical “whodunnit” trope and turns it into a “Did I do it?” as its frequently-drunk protagonist Rachel (Emily Blunt) must piece together her fragmented memory of the night a local woman (Haley Bennett) disappeared. A tale of obsession, sex, and deceit, just like its director, the film centers around the idea of deceptive appearances.
Taylor sat down with Inverse to discuss a very different popular novel, his conversations with Emily Blunt on the levels of drunkenness, and more.
How did you and Emily decide to tackle her near-constant drunkenness?
Looking through the script, we figured out levels of drunkenness — one, two, three, and four. It was kind of technical how we determined which level each scene was, because she needed to get into that mindset. Prosthetic cheek plumpers were made; there were bloodshot contact lenses. It started with what it looks like and the character of alcoholism. A lot of alcoholics secret-drink, so it needed to be treated with a little bit of mystery, where you didn’t know if she’d been drinking that day or not. We started like that, and then Emily spent a lot of time studying addiction and watching every single episode of Intervention that ever was made and it all came together. We would do a scene, and she’s like, “Was that too much of a four, or was that a three?” We had that system.
What classic movies did you refer to in preparation to make this film?
Don’t Look Back, The Third Man, Rear Window, North by Northwest. The one I will say that influenced me the most — but had nothing to do with style or composition — was Melanie Griffith’s character of Holly Body in Body Double. I really studied her a lot because of the role of Megan. I wanted to see the complexity of her character and Melanie did such a great job with that where you thought she was one thing but she was another.
For the role of Megan, what was your dialogue like with Haley Bennett?
I just told Haley that she’s three different women. She’s a broken little 17-year-old girl, she’s a seductress and a siren, and she’s a manipulative, spiteful person. In various scenes, one would show itself more than the other, and sometimes all three would show themselves. My rehearsal process involves a lot of really long conversations about a character as if they’re somebody that’s real.
The following question contains spoilers for those unfamiliar with the novel.
Justin Theroux plays a particularly difficult character to nail down.
I just told Justin that I view Tom as chronically charming guy — he was probably captain of the football team, vote Most Handsome in high school — and I said he had big dreams to go to New York and become a billionaire and live on a whole floor of a high-rise in Midtown, but the truth is he drives a Nissan and lives in the ‘burbs. So he’s still trying to portray an outer image of that person he did not get to become, but yet he’s hurting inside and I think he uses sex as his medicine.
This is your second project that’s an adaptation from a best-selling novel. What did you learn from your experience on The Help that you took onto this?
Both The Help and this were very true-to-the-book adaptations. But where it’s fun and creative for me in adapting it is to go through the book and find something that’s definitely in the book, but was an afterthought or the author barely spent any time with, and then really amp it up and create a whole scene that they didn’t get to read but they knew about. And I did that in this as well and it was fun.
Where did you do it in Girl on the Train?
I created the character of Martha, played by Lisa Kudrow. That didn’t exist in the book, but I knew I needed a cool device to show that she’d been lied to, so I went back to the book. There’s just a moment in the book where Rachel’s talking to us early on where she says, “Tom told me I used to ruin his office parties.” And I said, “Right there, I’m going to do it.” And then of course the tragedy of Megan’s baby’s death is just talked about, and I decided I needed to make it into a scene. So those two are absolutely in the source material, but they were not fleshed out like that. And I think it’s good for the reader, because then they’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is the book, and oh!” It’s almost like a good companion project to the book.
Was there a scene that was the most challenging to get right?
Everything we filmed in the tunnel was really hard. It was an unforgiving location, it was like 14 degrees, and we were shooting things that you had no idea how you were going to edit them. So we just shot the hell out of it and came out with all kinds of ideas and we were successful, but that was tough.
The Girl on the Train hits theaters on October 7.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Photos via Universal Pictures