Some might be surprised that Tate Taylor, the director of The Help and the James Brown biopic Get On Up, might direct something like Ma, a straight-up thriller starring Octavia Spencer as a woman who takes a group of teens under her wing for nefarious purposes. Sure, Taylor’s last movie The Girl on the Train was also a thriller but one of a very different kind.
In fact, Taylor and Spencer have been best friends for over a decade, which is why Spencer is somewhat of Taylor’s good luck charm and vice versa. (Spencer won her first Oscar for her role as Minnie in The Help.)
Spencer’s new character Ma (actual name being Sue Anne) is a very different type of character for her, as her seemingly noble effort to help a group of teens, including Diana Silvers‘ new-to-town good girl Maggie, by buying them liquor and allowing them to party in her basement actually leads to darker and crazier territory.
The Beat spoke with Taylor over the phone a few weeks back for the following interview.
THE BEAT: I was at CinemaCon when you were there with Octavia, and I know how long you’ve known each other. At what point did this come up in the conversation? Was it an idea she tossed your way out of the blue or something you developed together?
Tate Taylor: Not at all. It was really serendipitous how all of this came about. Octavia and I, we talk every day. We’ve been best friends for 25 years, and at one point, she confided in me how frustrated she was that she was getting offered the same parts, same type of characters, and she was never the lead. She wished that she could do something different so that she could show her true talent and capabilities. I said that I’d be on the lookout, and then I met with Jason [Blum] – we were friends – and I came into the office for just an informal meeting, to talk about what we’d like to do together one day. He does dramas, and he asked me what I had I mind, and I just looked at him and said, “I want to do something really f*cked up,” and he couldn’t believe it. He said, “We just happened to get this script yesterday. It needs work. We just read it once and bought it.” It was Ma, and it was written for a white woman, and I said, “What about Octavia?” and they said that there’s no way she would do this. I said, “Oh, yes, she would,” and I called her, and she said, “Fuck yes! I’m in! I want to kill some people and shake it up!”
THE BEAT: I’ve been a fan of Spener for so long, because she appeared in movies in little scenes like Being John Malkovich. She’s so recognizable, but I love seeing her get bigger roles and more attention. When you got the script, was it pretty much done or did you have to work with the writer and develop it more, change things around for Octavia?
Taylor: It was quite a bit different. The story itself and the concept was absolutely there, but the character of Sue Anne didn’t have a backstory. You didn’t really know why she was doing this. She was just a crazy lonely lady, and at the end, she just decided to kill everybody. She killed everybody, and what I liked was the hook of this person buying kids alcohol, and it doing something to her and why. I came up with the backstory of Sue Anne, and then of course, I didn’t want to kill any of the kids. I just think if you’re going to tell a story about trauma, it just didn’t seem right to have the kids killed.
THE BEAT: I’m glad that the character of Ma wasn’t based on someone from your own past, as I previously assumed.
Taylor: No, we were both excited to comment on victims of trauma and show what it can actually do to somebody’s developing brain if it happens when they’re young and what that can look like at the end.
THE BEAT: Did you shoot this in Mississippi?
Taylor: Yeah, we shot it in Mississippi. It’s my third movie to shoot there.
THE BEAT: I have a few Mississippi connections myself, having been down to the Oxford Film Festival, and I remember hearing about this even before it broke in the trades.
Taylor: Well, Melanie Addington is a good friend of mine. I’m sure you know her.
THE BEAT: Obviously, you had Octavia and Allison Janney has been friends to both of you for a long time. What about getting Diana Silvers? The kids all play a huge part in the story but her especially so.
Taylor: This seems like her first movie. I love casting, and I just spent a lot of time casting young people for these roles. After about 100 girls, I was like, “Finally, she’s the one.” She’s just so natural, and she’s got such a fun, earnest nerdy quality about her that I just thought was perfect for the type of energy to go up against Octavia.
THE BEAT: How about some of the other kids? I assume Jason [Blum] has a pretty good database of young actors, so did he have some good suggestions to try out?
Taylor: No, he doesn’t really do that. I work with my casting director Kerry Barden. They were very gracious to let me keep my own casting director instead of the in-house casting at Blumhouse. Kerry cast over 300 movies, so she’s got a good pulse on some people. (chuckles)
THE BEAT: The script was originally written by Scotty Landes from Workaholics, so was it always meant to be more of a horror-comedy? Do you see it as a comedy in some ways?
Taylor: Scott is great at writing smart-ass banter, which I just love. I thought the script was funny, but before I added the serious backstory to Ma, it was just weird and creepy and fun. Like I said, I wanted it to be about something. As I entered a lot of the traumatic backstory of Ma, a lot of that comedy had to be tampered or tonally it didn’t work.
THE BEAT: Obviously, as an actor, Octavia can’t judge Ma and what she does in the movie. What about as a filmmaker? I’m not sure if you’re a parent yourself, but how do you feel about a character like this getting revenge for something that was done to her as a kid. Can you justify her actions or is that not important?
Taylor: I can never justify mutilating teenagers, but you can understand her motivations, absolutely. But again, that’s why I created the backstory to understand her motivations.
THE BEAT: Have you had any issues with the MPAA about the movie, whether it’s teenagers drinking? Or is that all covered by an R-rating?
Taylor: No, you can do whatever the f*ck you want. You just get an R-rating. It never would have been a PG-13 movie, and we never set out to do one.
THE BEAT: I wasn’t sure if there was more stipulations or back and forth with the MPAA on various aspects of the movie and how much dealings you’ve had with them over the years.
Taylor: That’s a Universal Studios question. I don’t really deal with all that. But that’s only when you’re trying to get a PG-13, and they tell you what will take you into the R category, but when you embrace that you’re going to be an R, they don’t give a shit.
THE BEAT: That’s good to know. You’re actually finishing up another movie as well with Jessica Chastain called Eve … is that done?
Taylor: That’s done. I shot that in the fall. It’s a cool action family drama which was really neat.
THE BEAT: So are you deliberately trying to change things up with each movie and do different genres rather than just straight drama?
Taylor: I’m not trying to, purposely make sure I don’t do the same thing. It’s really just an indication of how broad my interests are. As long as there are good characters in a great layered story, I’ll do any genre that has with it.
THE BEAT: Will this other movie be the first time you’ve done more full-on action? You have a little bit Ma like the driving scene. Are you doing John Wick-type stuff in that movie?
Taylor: Yeah, it’s an action movie. There’s fight scenes, and she’s an assassin, so absolutely.
THE BEAT: Do you have other things lined up as well? It always feels like you have one or two things on your plate to do next.
Taylor: Fox Broadcasting just ordered my show to series so I start doing that in New Orleans this fall. It’s called Filthy Rich, starring Kim Cattrell, and then two weeks from now, I’m starting another movie with Allison Janney called Breaking News in Yuba County. We start filming that in two weeks in my hometown.
THE BEAT: Glad to hear you’re keeping busy. I don’t know if you’re writing as much or just finding more scripts to direct.
Taylor: It’s what I do for a living, so who doesn’t need to work every day? It’s the only way to do it.
THE BEAT: That’s true, but I guess sometimes when filmmakers write their own material, they spend so much time writing, they don’t direct as much. It’s about finding that balance that makes it tough to do what you’re doing, if you know what I mean.
Taylor: Well, I always seem to write and direct and produce my movies, so I kind of don’t. It’s just way I learned and the way I always worked. I’ve never been a writer for hire. I just create my own material or find it.
THE BEAT: So these new movies with Jessica and Allison are things you wrote from scratch?
Taylor: No, no, they’re scripts that I acquired and developed with the writer.
Ma opens on Friday, May 31 with previews on Thursday night.