You might not first connect the Oscar-nominated 2011 drama The Help with the wild and weird new horror movie Ma, but sure enough the links are there: both films were directed by Tate Taylor (who also wrote the screenplay for The Help and co-wrote Ma) and both star Taylor’s longtime friend and one-time roommate Octavia Spencer. But there the similarities end: the two movies are about as far apart tonally and narratively as they could possibly be.
The Blumhouse-produced Ma stars Spencer as Sue Ann, a quiet loner who works as a veterinary assistant in her small Ohio town and generally keeps to herself. But one evening, Sue Ann is approached outside a liquor store by a group of teenagers who hope she’ll buy them some booze. Not only does she agree to that, but she lets the kids start hanging out in her basement — where the main rule is that they’re not allowed to go upstairs.
We know something is off about Sue Ann from the start. But both the movie and its star take a long, deep dive into insanity in its second half, with Spencer going all-in with the role and Taylor keeping up with her every step of the way as Sue Ann’s once inviting basement lair turns into a chamber of horrors.
In addition to The Help, Taylor previously directed the James Brown biopic Get On Up (2014) and the mystery thriller The Girl on the Train (2016). Ma is newer, creepier territory for the actor-turned-director (who also plays a local policeman in the movie) and Den of Geek spoke with him about getting into the horror genre, working with Spencer on the film and his own fond memories of getting adults — total strangers — to buy him and his friends alcohol.
Den of Geek: I had great fun watching this movie, it was a blast. Have you always harbored a secret desire to make a horror movie?
Tate Taylor: Well, funny enough, it’s really strange cause I’ve always pivoted towards the darker side of life and some of my favorite movies have very dark subject matter and it’s just funny that The Help came into my lap and it was so personal to me and my best friend wrote it, and that’s what I did first. People who know me would tell you that they can’t believe it took this long.
You kind of went into darker territory with The Girl on the Train but this is full on.
With The Girl on the Train, there was only so far I could take it. The studio film business is very specific and it needs to be. It’s a corporate model, and I had the book, so you could only take so many liberties with the original subject matter. So I’ve always just been dying to let the wheels come off, if you will. The great thing about Blumhouse is, it’s such a low budget level and in many ways it’s an experiment and they wish the best for you, so you can just really go nuts and any sky is the limit. It’s just so free as an artist and to push boundaries and it was very therapeutic actually to be given the keys to this kingdom of creativity, and just told, “Good luck.”
You and Octavia go back years and were roommates at one point.
Yeah, we met in 1995, as production assistants on A Time to Kill, and just became immediate best friends and just kind of got attached to The Help, and both decided to move out to LA. We knew no one, and just had to be each other’s support system and then eventually we were roommates for seven years. She was my roommate while I was adapting The Help, constantly screaming from her bedroom, “You’d better write that part for me.” It was just hilarious.
We just love each other. We really are best friends. We talk every day and I would hear my friend get frustrated with the business, being typecast or not being given the opportunities that other people are, and she would express that frustration to me. To be able to come to her with a part that was written for a white woman and say, “You want to do this?” it was just so fun. I knew she’d be great. It was good to be able to answer her request.
This is a perfect example of her responding to something that a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily see her in.
Yeah, and I think that’s the joy of it. Octavia is just inherently likable and I think for a character to work in a genre like this, it’s fun to like them and then their actions become a guilty pleasure and so your guard is let down a little bit. So then, in my mind, you have the opportunity to weave any themes into the project because you have empathy for your lead character and you just don’t see it coming. It’s a wonderful mix and she was the perfect person to do that, to create that dynamic.
Was she on board with you all the way in terms of how far you both wanted to push Sue Ann, in terms of how extreme she might go?
Absolutely. We would’ve got crazier and crazier if it had been a three hour movie. We had fun doing it.
One of the most entertaining things about the movie is that it’s got a lot of dark comedy overtones in addition to the horror material. Did you play around a lot on set to get the right tone or was it something that you locked in on from the start?
Well, the way I like to make movies is I ask myself, “Will this have a place in the editing room?” And sometimes you know right off the bat, let’s not even do that because I know what I’ve shot and that won’t work but if there’s a glimmer of hope that you think it can work with the tone, I shoot it or I go for it because this is a movie that’s completely made in editorial. Often the crew members would be laughing all day and they would go, “What are we making?” And next they would be horrified all day. It’s going to be a mix of genres, and that all came into the editing. I love to misdirect people tonally so it will make the next pivot even more shocking and unexpected.
Besides seeing Octavia in that role, what else called out to you in the script and really appealed to you overall story-wise?
Well for me, the hook, if you will, was just a sense of nostalgia. Kids today…everything’s available, communication is rampant, but I just remembered getting on the landline on a Friday night, calling all the friends, hoping they had call waiting so we wouldn’t have the busy signal the whole time ’cause their mom was on the phone, and planning what gas station to all meet at, in hopes that some adult would buy us booze.
I don’t know about you, but a lot of people share that memory and it was so fun and scary and ballsy to do that. When I read the script, I’m like, god, I remember that, and, god you are so young, and you don’t know who the hell you’re talking to and you’re asking them to commit a crime. It took me back and it got me thinking about, in high school there was always that inappropriate parent that, out of an act of love, or so they thought, they let you drink at their house, and really they just needed people around to desperately feel cool. I thought of that as well. It just kind of entered territory that I hadn’t really seen before and then I got excited about it.
Where did you shoot the movie? Because it did have a sort of timeless quality to it.
Well I started in Jefferson County, Mississippi, population 8,000 in the entire county. So time stands still. But really, it was just the old van that the kids drove around in. That van just makes you think of the 80s and the past. Same with Octavia’s character’s house. I just wanted it to not only feel like we’re in America but, as you said, a certain time period. That’s why I had fun with the 80s music that Ma loved and never let go of.
Ma is out in theaters this Friday (May 31).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye