Starting this weekend, Octavia Spencer is ready to party down with the release of director Tate Taylor’s twisted thriller Ma, which is centered around her character, who befriends a group of teenagers with the promise of endless booze and good times, but is harboring some ulterior motives that puts the unassuming group of high schoolers squarely in harm’s way.
At the recent press day for Ma, Daily Dead had the pleasure of speaking with Taylor about his first foray into horror (he’s previously helmed The Girl on the Train and The Help, which was his first collaborative experience with Spencer), and he talked about how he and Octavia both wanted to subvert expectations with Ma, how their decades-spanning friendship has fueled both of their careers, finding his younger cast members for his latest film, and the importance of giving back to his home state of Mississippi as well.
Great to speak with you, Tate. There were things I was expecting from Ma, because of the trailers, and boy, there were things I was definitely not expecting from it, too. I think how you guys really pushed things was really fantastic, because I am a big fan of not playing it safe as a storyteller. And there definitely seems to be this really great bond between you and Octavia that’s on display here.
Tate Taylor: So you didn't expect for Octavia to be grabbing some penis in this [laughs].
Oh no, I was not [laughs]. But here's the thing—I appreciated that, because so many times in horror movies it's all about boobs and blood. And that’s great and everything, but that was an unexpected turn here, that’s for sure.
Tate Taylor: Well, that’s exactly why we did it. But in terms of your question, nostalgia is a reason why I chose this movie: that memory of kids asking people to buy booze for them. I did that in Jackson, Mississippi, every Friday night. That's what I love. But then I started thinking about history and loyalty and friendship. And you know, Octavia and I were both PAs in A Time to Kill in 1995 in Mississippi. We became fast friends, and we decided to move out to LA together. We go out here in ’96. We eventually were roommates for seven years. I adapted The Help while she was my roommate screaming at me, "You better let me be Minny! You better let me be Minny!"
Then last year, my friend got an Oscar, and she was really frustrated because she's constantly being offered the same shit. She's like, "Women of color don't ever get to be the weird lead. I'm sick of it." And then a month later I'm in Jason Blum's office having a meeting. He wanted to talk to me, probably about doing something in the drama world. I said, "I want to do something fu--ed up." He goes, "Really?" I'm like, "Yes." He goes, "Well, I have this script we got yesterday. It needs work, but read it." It was written for a white woman. I read it, and I went, "Oh, my God. This is for me and Octavia." And to call her up and give her this part, it was just great.
In a genre with a character like this, in my opinion, you have to find some empathy for them. As an audience member, you have to be enjoying what they're doing, but feeling like you shouldn't, even though you kind of do. There's just no better mixed bag to take an audience through emotions than Octavia. She's so talented, you love her, and I brought the traumatic experience into the story, and then having that happen to Octavia, I just knew it would be an unexpected slam dunk to carry us through this crazy story.
I think that also speaks to something really interesting about the timeliness of this movie as well, because it seems that we're coming to a realization that as human beings, we all have screwed up and there needs to be an accountability for those actions.
Tate Taylor: Exactly. You hit the nail on the head. I don't know what your high school situation was like, but I remember the person that was picked on. I remember that everybody was complicit or just scared to do anything, and young Sue Ann, I thought about her being picked on. I want people to think about what you're doing to a developing brain. Your brain's still developing when you're 15, and the consequences of that. We're in this crazy world of accountability right now, and it just seemed like the ultimate cautionary tale on a fun note, but also just be accountable and be kind to people and teach kindness, because a lot of the horrific things that happen in our country right now and around the world, there's a genesis from that behavior, and also being complicit.
And there are characters here that represent what that can do and what your part in things can be. A lot of things are being shed to light in the industry right now, horrific attacks on women and on men, but what they don't talk about is often there were hundreds of people completely aware, men and women, gay and straight, who didn't do shit because they're afraid. There’s a lot of fear in this world right now.
Something I really appreciated about this was that as a kid who grew up watching horror movies in the '80s and '90s, parental figures in those movies were sometimes ill-conceived. They were just sort of nonentities that felt like an afterthought. But I think you really tapped into something special here with the fact that both generations of characters in this movie actually matter, and that's really rare.
Tate Taylor: Well, thank you, and you can thank my parents for that, because between the two of them I went through seven marriages and divorces. But I was raised by a single mom, so I could have been Maggie, with me and my mom. I just know how tough being a single parent is, especially on a limited income. So I just can't help but flesh those characters out. When Juliette's character goes, "You better not even fu--ing care where the f--k you think you're fu--ing going," that's a single mom going, "Damm it, I can't be here like I should." That's about her, not about Maggie messing up. You know what I mean?
Oh, yes. I was raised by a single mom as well. When that scene happened, I had some serious flashbacks. And speaking of Maggie, let’s talk about this younger cast. Obviously, I love seeing Octavia in this and Luke [Evans] and Juliette [Lewis], and of course Missi [Pyle] is hilarious as always. But I really think that the big discovery here are the younger cast members, because they’re great as well.
Tate Taylor: The first thing I realized is I had to cast against type. The conventional way to cast was for Gianni [Paolo], who would play Chaz, to be Diana [Silver]'s boyfriend. To me, she's this nerdy girl who, because Diana is a self-proclaimed nerd, so I'm not talking out of turn, but I've got to cast actors whose sensibilities and energies, because these are young people, will work together on a natural level. That's why I went with Corey Fogelmanis for the lead of Andy. He's sweet and nurturing, and Diana, she's the same way, and they completely clicked. McKaley [Miller] is just fun as hell, and her and Chaz, they could both be the fun loudmouths, and then they got together. So I love casting, and these kids are all extremely great. And can you believe this is Diana's first movie?
I really can't.
Tate Taylor: I just have instincts about actors and about people and personalities. And the way I work is that we spend a lot of time together after work. I'm always cooking dinner, and I'm always keeping everybody together, and just keeping it alive. We filmed in very rural Mississippi, and all lived in homes near each other. So I just would make dinner every night for everybody.
Having roots in Mississippi, was bringing Ma there your way of giving back to your roots a little bit whenever you bring productions there?
Tate Taylor: Absolutely. Well, first of all, when you're working in a certain budget level, you need to be where you're powerful, where people trust you and they like you and they understand what you're trying to do. I've filmed three movies there now in impoverished, poor places. To be recognized by me or a company, to feel worthy to make the movie there instills a sense of pride in the community. Then they start being interested in their community, and then they want to give us locations for free, because they know we're about to drop millions of dollars in cash into their pocket. I just love it.
It makes me feel great, especially in a place that is so often misconstrued or falls victim of cliché. There are kids there, black and white, who don't have opportunity. Me and Octavia were just talking about that. We were just crazy enough and had enough money to move to LA. Well, a lot of people don't. A lot of kids are taking care of parents. So me and John Norris, we're starting a film program at Alcorn, which is a historically black college in my county. Because people can't always pick up and go, so why don't I bring it to them then?
I let students shadow me the whole time on Ma, and then it feels obtainable to them. Because I did it, and Octavia is from Montgomery, and she did it, too. Then they feel empowered and it doesn't feel so hopeless. So those are all the reasons I like to go to my home state. And also something else other people don't have the benefit of, that you and me and Octavia had, is that we were raised by single moms. If you are raised by a single mom, and often I was a latchkey kid, you just figured shit out because there was no other way. You had no other choice, and that’s something I’m grateful for.
Check HERE to catch up on our previous coverage of Ma, including Heather Wixson's review and her interviews with Juliette Lewis and Diana Silvers!