From director Tate Taylor and screenwriter Scotty Landes, the Blumhouse Productions horror-thriller Ma follows town local Sue Ann (Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer), a loner who typically keeps to herself, until the day that a teenager who’s new in town (Diana Silvers) asks for help in buying some booze for her and her friends. When Sue Ann, who becomes known as Ma, offers these high school kids the basement of her home to hang out and drink in, they not only take her up on it but they also start to break the rules that she sets, pushing Ma to react in terrifying ways they never could have expected. The film also stars Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Dante Brown and Gianni Paolo.
At the film’s Los Angeles press day, which was held at the historic Beckett Mansion, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with filmmaker Tate Taylor and chat 1-on-1 about his long history with the film’s star Octavia Spencer, why he wanted to find her this leading role, the biggest challenges in making this film, how everybody in the film was game for anything, exploring some serious themes, putting all of the deleted scenes on the DVD extras, and what’s most impressed him about watching his best friend’s career trajectory. He also talked about his new Fox TV series Filthy Rich, which stars Kim Cattrall, reuniting with Jessica Chastain for the upcoming action film Eve, doing Breaking News in Yuba County with Allison Janney, and wanting to work in sci-fi and animation.
Collider: This movie was so much fun, and it was even more fun, seeing it with a full audience.
TAYLOR: Oh, good!
You and Octavia Spencer have had quite a long history together. When this came your way, did you immediately think of her?
TAYLOR: Yeah, I did. It was so serendipitous, how all this came about. It was meant to be. Me and Octavia were roommates for seven years. We talk three times a day. It’s like that. And she confided in me, about a month before me finding this, that she was just really grateful and felt blessed, but she was being asked to do the same thing, as can happen. Women of color are put in their box. They’re not leads, and they do the same stuff that people are comfortable with them doing. So, I was like, “Well, I’ll find something.” Jason Blum (of Blumhouse) is a friend, so I went to his office to talk business. I’m the drama guy, and they do other things. He was like, “What are you thinking?” And I said, “I’m thinking that I wanna do something fucked up.” He said, “Really?!” I said, “Really. So, what have you got?” Just the day before, they had optioned this script from Scotty Landes. So, I read it, and it was written for a white woman, shocker. She was middle aged and crazy, and there was no backstory. I saw an opportunity, so I said to Jason, “What about Octavia?” He said, “Do you think she would do it?” I said, “Oh, yes!” And she said, “Yes!” So, that’s how it came about. It’s her first lead. Can you believe that?
That’s just insane!
TAYLOR: I’m doing a movie with Allison Janney next month (in June), and it’s her first lead.
Which is also insane!
TAYLOR: They’re both great. It’s so dumb.
You also cast yourself in Ma.
TAYLOR: That was budgetary. I’m not even kidding. When you cast local, or try to cast local, in rural parts of America, it’s slim pickings, so I was like, “All right, I’ll do it.”
Was that fun to do?
TAYLOR: I like directing and writing so much, and I just feel like I’m pushing the pause button, which drives me crazy, but it’s fine.
What were the biggest challenges in doing something like this?
TAYLOR: It’s always budget, at this level, and that translates to how much time you have to make it. That’s the biggest hurdle. For the finale, we had one day, for all of that in the basement. There was a lot of stuff, and a lot of coverage, with nine people down there, but you get it done. I work with amazing women. Christina Voros, my DP, and I have now done three things together. Cleta Ellington, my first AD, and I have done everything together. If you’re gonna work on things like this, and movies that you love that are hard to make, you’ve gotta have your family. That’s why I keep working with the same actors and actresses, over and over and over again. It’s fun. And they’re good. Not everybody gets an invite back. Juliette Lewis is just cool, good people, and she’s so good in this. You would think that would be the throwaway mom role, but when she busts those guys making out, people just laugh.
With this, did you have to convince anybody to do any of it, or was everybody just really game?
TAYLOR: I called Luke [Evans], and he went, “Fuck yeah!” That’s a smart actor, for him to say, “Yes, I’ll come do a small part in a horror movie in Mississippi with you and Octavia.” People were game. The only thing that I didn’t have to convince her to do, but she was really scared, was the big explosion in the basement, at the end. Octavia was close to a real explosion, and she’s a scaredy cat. She finally said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And then, everybody started putting on face masks and she was like, “What the fuck!” She was like, “I should have that.” And they said, “No.” So, she said, “Take yours off!,” and they didn’t. But, she was great. The special effects guy was just amazing, and he made her feel really comfortable.
I love how this is a fun, wild movie, but there are things that you’ll think about, and it’s not just trauma and bullying, but also what happens if you just stand there and do nothing.
TAYLOR: We’ve all been complicit. A lot of the things we’ve seen, in the last two years, show us that there are thousands of men and women who knew about these things and let them go on because they didn’t want to lose their job or they were scared. It’s a fun movie, but there are some heavy themes in this, that I hope people will pick out of it. There’s also the mother-daughter relationship and single parenting. It’s a lot.
Do you find that balance of everything in the editing?
TAYLOR: A lot of it is instinctive with me, which is why I always try to have a dramatic element. I’ve been through seven marriages and divorces, between my mom and my dad, and I was an only child. I’ve had a lot of loss, and things coming and going. I’m not complaining, but when you’ve had your fair share of adversity, growing up, you tend to be able to get to the truth. That’s why Octavia doesn’t go full-on Glenn Close, coo-coo bird. We wanted her to play it really real. A lot of people compartmentalize that stuff, until they can’t anymore.
Congratulations on your TV series, Filthy Rich, getting picked up by Fox!
TAYLOR: Thank you! It’s crazy. My 50th birthday’s in two weeks. That was a lot of fun. And Kim Cattrall is just a lovely person and a pro.
It also feels like the kind of show we used to have a lot of, but we’ve been missing for awhile.
TAYLOR: Yeah. Everything I do is kinda risky, and how smart of Charlie Collier to be like, “Let’s just do it!” And what a great way for Kim Cattrall to come back to television, playing an famous evangelical talk show host. We’re really excited. We start filming in September in New Orleans.
How did this all come about?
TAYLOR: I wrote it for about two years, and I just love casting. I love to cast people that you don’t expect. I love to cast unknowns, who I know are gonna do great work. I just I wanted to get someone unexpected, and Kim was up for it, very much so.
You do seem to do really great work with female actors and characters.
TAYLOR: I love my ladies!
And this seems like a really exciting, fun show.
TAYLOR: It’s cinematic, too. It felt big. That’s just Christina Voros, my DP, who did Ma. She did that. Then, I’m getting ready to do the movie with Allison Janney, in two weeks.
What is the movie that you’re doing with Allison Janney?
TAYLOR: It’s a fun, very dark comedy, called Breaking News in Yuba County. It’s about an invisible housewife. No one sees her. She catches her husband in an affair, and he has a heart attack. Instead of calling the police, she buries his body and acts like he’s been missing, so that she’ll get maybe attention. Allison is gonna be amazing.
You also worked with Jessica Chastain again, on Eve.
TAYLOR: Yeah, absolutely. I’m busy! I did two movies and a pilot in 16 months. Shit!
What do you like about working with Jessica Chastain, and what excites you about her in that role?
TAYLOR: She’s just great. It speaks to the loyalty of our whole group of friends. I had never heard of Eve, three weeks before I started shooting. Her director fell out, and she called me and said, “Will you help me?” I was like, “I’ve never done an action movie. Oh, wait, I’ve never done an action movie!” People think it’s easy to shut down a movie, but it’s not. There are people with families, that have turned down other jobs and who expecting that paycheck. I was like, “I’m not letting that shut down.” Some crew members have four or five kids, and kids in college, so you don’t just shut it down. It’s about the crew.