When I sat across a table from Tate Taylor, we fittingly could see from his posh Midtown hotel room a vista that went all the way uptown, beyond Central Park and through the distance where the Hudson River vanished into the horizon. This felt only fitting since Taylor’s new film, the intensely intricate thriller, The Girl on the Train, is about the secret lives led by those upstate… and the troubled woman who catches only glimpses of them on her daily commute along the Hudson via the Metro North.
The Girl on the Train is a bit of a departure for Taylor, a popular studio filmmaker whose directorial work to date has included The Help (2011) and Get on Up (2014). While both of those films dealt with real-life events and period settings during times of painful but euphoric change, The Girl on the Train is immediately modern and intimate, casting a dark gaze on preconceived notions of domestic bliss. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins, the film focuses on the voyeuristic obsessions of Rachel (Emily Blunt), a woman who at first glance already seems withdrawn before you smell the alcohol on her breath. Suffering from a crippling addiction, nobody seems to notice or care about Rachel, yet she sees everybody, including a young married couple from her passing window. She idealizes them to the point where one day she gets off the commute early in order to follow the wife home—and perhaps sees something she shouldn’t have. It’s hazy.
Hence, as we talked about the strong character work in The Girl on the Train, our discussion ranged from the classical thriller influences on his film to how difficult it was getting a Hollywood movie made with three nuanced female performances at the center. Taylor even revealed the unique TSA-esque technique he and Emily Blunt developed to portray Rachel’s many issues and obsessions, including an agonizing drinking problem.
I saw the movie last night, and I have to say it feels a little different for a studio movie, a little darker. It deals with much more adult subject matters than you see in mainstream movies these days. Was that a factor that attracted you to the project?
It was a factor that attracted me to the project, and a guarantee that I needed DreamWorks and Amblin to make to me before I began. And I have to say that they honored their guarantee. When I had my meeting, I said, “This has to be sexy, dark, and very truthful. This needs to feel like the movies that they used to make quite a bit of back in the day.” And I referenced Holly Body’s character in Body Double and a lot of those movies, and they said, “We agree.” But often in Hollywood—I’ve been there—the business model changes!
But they’ve stuck to it, and I applaud everybody for that.
What do you think it is about the darkness of something like this, the subject matter, that attracts people as moviegoers as well as storytellers?
Well, I want to be clear that in no way that I feel that anything was gratuitous. It all served. It was that rare thing where the sexuality and the violence, and the psychological warfare really was what these people were experiencing. It really was their pain. And I just think Paula [Hawkins] wrote it very truthfully, and I just felt like it was a character. And all my actresses would talk in-depth [with me] about what I wanted, and eventually not anyone did anything that they didn’t honestly feel they needed to do, because it was for the movie.
And it’s good. There was never a “take your clothes off.”
Well, to take a step back for a moment, could you talk about how you came to the book, and when you first read the book, and what its impact was on you?
I had never heard of this project. I was writing another screenplay, this was like March of 2015, and Holly Bario, president of production at DreamWorks, who I worked with on The Help and has since become a really good friend, and she just called me one day. “We just bought this crazy book. Tell me what you think.” And I think a little bit of it was to have your insider friend tell you the truth; I don’t think she really thought I was going to come back with, “I like it and I want to direct it,” but that’s what happened.
She said it was a thriller, and I rolled my eyes a little bit, because I immediately went to that place where it was all going to be shadows and just missed opportunities of seeing somebody, and bodies popping up everywhere. And then I read it, and I went, “Oh my God, there’s characters in this, and it’s a thriller!” That just doesn’t happen a lot.
They have an inner-life.
Yes! You know something about it. And even going back to some of my old favorites, Hitchcocks and all around the world, if you really look at it, you just don’t know shit about anybody. Not a lot. And that works, but I want to know stuff about people, and this had that. And I called her up and said, “I want to do this.”
I actually thought it had a little bit of that Rear Window quality. Someone who people are going to discount sees something, and they seemingly can’t do anything about it.
Right, absolutely. That’s Paula. I think she’s been asked that question directly, and she never set out to emulate it, but you can’t help but have classics infiltrate you.
Also, I think this movie is very novelistic. Obviously, it’s based on a bestseller, but even if you didn’t know that going in, the way it’s structured is like a novel. The way that you spend time with these characters, the narration. How important for you was that as this developed?
It was of the utmost importance. You know, if you really break it down, the thriller aspect of this story is not that intricate. It’s just not. This isn’t The Usual Suspects.
So what I realized, and what I would’ve done anyway, is you really, really have to have people invested in these characters. And that requires, as you said ‘novelistic’—I will take that and run with it—I use the word “full-scenes.” Not being worried about the in and the out. The way that movies are being made now, it’s just chop, chop, chop. And you know, whenever I would try to pace it up, if you will, the more that it was apparent that you do not do that with some of these scenes and what these actresses are doing.
Did you find this format freeing or limiting in what you could do both in production and in editing? Did you find that there was a very strict structure that you wanted to maintain or was there more of an evolution going on?
“Evolution” is the word. You like to think you’re going to crack a movie like this and have it all structurally solved from the get-go. There was a lot of effort to do that, but like all movies, when you bring such talent to it, and you bring the textures, the cinematography—scenes serve different purposes than you thought they would. Scenes aren’t needed at all. And halfway through filming, it hit me. I said, “This is going to be a true movie made in editorial.” And I had my rough assembly, and five minutes into it, I was going, “Nope!” The things you never would have dreamed of, and that’s fun, that’s exciting.
I was at the press conference a little earlier with Haley [Bennett] and Edgar [Ramírez], and they were talking about how there was some improvisation on-set for their characters. I was wondering in material like this, a darker drama, how much room there is to experiment?
If I could make an amendment to what they said, the way I work that all happens in the way I rehearse. There’s lot of improvisation. The way I work with actors is they come into my home, we spend a lot of time together, we go over the material, and then we just start playing with it. So a lot of their work, as far as dialogue goes, we did in rehearsals, which then became a type of work.
But absolutely, their movements, I don’t ever lock an actor down with blocking. It’s why I don’t do shot lists, it’s senseless. You feel what’s going to happen when you get on-set. And those two, they developed quite a dance with each other, and even the more violent aspects in Haley’s movements. They were free—I don’t ever like somebody to feel like they’re stuck somewhere.
I think this is obviously a great showcase for adult performances, female performances, and I was just wondering why you think there are not more of these in Hollywood movies, and how important was it to bring that out with such three strong characters at the center?
Well I think, regardless of sex, there needs to be more adult movies, period. But you know since I made The Help, things are changing—not because of The Help, but I’m just saying Bridesmaids came along. Look what that did. I think it’s slowly getting there. I don’t think there’s this conspiracy theory. I think this is discrediting the idea that—it’s just good material. And the more movies that are made that are good, and the more our contemporaries actually get off their butts and go, the more we’ll be rewarded, I think.
Well how was it working with Emily on this movie then? Because it’s such a complicated character, a potentially pitiful character. How did you two work to bring such a unique and almost passive protagonist to this?
My first goal was to look at alcoholism and drunk characters in the past, and I saw them going back to Days of Wine and Roses, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I realized that, and what Emily realized, is that a lot of alcoholism and drinking is the secret drinking. It’s the acting like you haven’t, and it’s letting the audience wonder if you are or are not intoxicated in a scene.
So that was as a fun in terms of how the character of alcohol goes. When a character says, “You’ve been drinking today, haven’t you?” and she just sort of sits there. I want the audience to think, “Well did she or didn’t she?”
And then technically, Emily and I came up with four levels of intoxication. We came up with what it looked like, what it sounded like. She did it, believe me. I didn’t play Rachel, but it was important for us to know how far we wanted to go. And we knew when she was at her worst, which was “level four,” we only had about two chances to do that, which is of course her at Grand Central Station where she loses her mind. And we talked about it like that. We would do the scene, and she goes, “I think this is a two.” And we’d do it as a “two.” Then I’d say, “Let’s do a ‘level three.’”
And it was fun to have that, because she immediately knew what that meant, both in look and speech, and walk. And it was fun to have that TSA style system.
Was it Emily that came up with the numbers? To number it one through four?
I don’t remember. It could’ve been. I think it may have been the plumpers. The plumpers were this prosthetic mouthpiece, retainer that she wore that made her cheeks puffy. I think maybe we were labeling them. Plumper four? I don’t remember, but it came from the plumpers.
In the notes, it was mentioned in the script you wanted to convey the alcoholism in a way that you could tell that the narrative was almost compromised, that her POV was compromised. As a filmmaker, how did you visually try to convey that?
Well, so much in doing that is without spoken word. I think one of the most successful and effective ways we did it, and it goes to Emily, is that when the mother gets up at the beginning, when we meet Emily, and she’s trying to play with the baby, and the mother realizes that something’s off—she senses more than we do, there’s this great shot with Emily alone, her eyes, her body motion, and you just get that’s something off. And that’s the first time you think, “Oh, she’s wasted. Has she been wasted this whole time?”
And things like in the therapist’s office. It’s the secret drinking. Not knowing every time she’s drinking, not seeing her throw back a drink. And she did that just so well.
Thank you for doing this today.
Thank you, I really appreciate it.
The Girl on the Train is in theaters everywhere on Friday, Oct. 7.