It's hard to believe, but Octavia Spencer didn't get top billing in a movie until her turn in Ma, the Blumhouse Productions horror film directed by her friend and frequent collaborator, Tate Taylor. The story of a shy and lonely woman who becomes a bit too close to a group of teens, Ma is as enjoyable and clever as it is genuinely frightening and delightfully uncomfortable.
The psychological horror flick is anchored by an epic performance from Spencer, a tight script from writer Scotty Landes, and Taylor's own directing prowess. It's a skill he honed on such crowd-pleasers as The Help, the James Brown biopic Get on Up, and The Girl on the Train.
While promoting the home video release of Ma, director Tate Taylor spoke to Screen Rant about his work on the film. He discusses working with his best friend, Octavia Spencer, and the creative freedom that comes with making a movie with Blumhouse Productions. He also speaks frankly about the critics of his films, and how quick they are to judge his art without studying the subversive subtext of his work. Finally, of course, he talks about how fun it is to come up with unique kills for an R-rated horror film.
First of all, congratulations. You had a $5 million budget and brought in $60 million worldwide. I know it's wrong to judge the value of a work of art based on its financial performance, but that's gotta feel good, right?
It feels great, especially in such a crowded marketplace. It's so great. Thank you for saying that. And, actually, we've got more foreign territories left to open, so we're still going, man!
Sweet! So, Blumhouse, they're on a roll. I don't know how completely true this is, but the idea is, they give you enough money to make a movie and then come back in a year to see what you've done with it. Is that accurate, or a myth?
For the most part, that's accurate. They're not completely reckless. (Laughs) The business model is such that the money they give you is just enough to make your film. In exchange for that, they view it as an experiment in many ways. Sometimes the movies work, and sometimes they don't. And when they don't, the mindset is "no harm, no foul, we gave it a shot." Collectively, when you look at the box office, it's just the cost of doing business. I think, when they see that something's going to work, or has the potential to work, they get more involved with, "maybe we should try this and that."
So, now that this has been proven to work, do you think you'll be making another movie with Blumhouse in the future?
I would definitely not rule it out! I just did a movie with a lot more money, and that felt good, too. I don't think I could keep doing Blumhouse movies in a row, that would kill me. They are tough! But in some ways, it makes it a lot of fun. Everybody knows what they signed up for. No movie stars can be divas. I don't have the toys I usually get to play with, but in many ways, it takes you back to your roots, of how it all got started. It was fun. Absolutely, I would do another Blumhouse movie.
Is it like being in film school or making your student film?
No, because I got to bring on my highly-professional talented crew! (Laughs) So, not at all. I mean, a student film, oh Lord! Your first film is just torture. There's no element of that here. And there's a freedom of not having daddy watching you the whole time.
You've been working with Octavia for many years. Could you talk a little about how you first got to know each other and became such good friends?
Octavia graduated with a degree in Literature, and I graduated with a Marketing degree. We both started out our lives in different worlds. I sold petroleum for three years out of college. Long story short, I wanted to get into the business, so I moved back to Mississippi from New York, and I was the office PA on A Time To Kill in 1996. I was walking around delivering call sheets. Octavia was an assistant in the casting office, in local casting. And we just hit it off. At the end of A Time To Kill, we decided we were going to move to L.A. and give it a whirl! So we followed each other out there and stayed friends. We were actually roommates for six years, and she's my best friend. She is! We've been through everything together. It was really fun to be able to give her her very first lead role in a film.
I could not believe it was her first top-billed role!
It's crazy how it works out there, isn't it?
I feel that straightforward horror gets so often overlooked. Like, "Oh, it's just a horror movie." Ma is so clever in that it delivers that pure, jolly terror, for lack of a better term. It's got deep psychological underpinnings, but plays partly as a celebration of horror, at least to me. I remember reading this one review from some publication that shall not be named, and the review essentially boiled down to, "It's not black enough." Like, if she's the title character in a horror movie, it has to be specifically about her blackness.
I think, when you're telling a story about the marginalization of a certain person or a certain race, and you totally work within a frame, I think it's more chilling and more psychologically deep and sad. This character has retreated into a world of loneliness. She's a veterinarian and has no friends. In the film, she tells one of the characters, "They've only got room for one of us," meaning a black person. She's talking about the group of friends, and saying to them, you've got to go, and I'll be the token, if you will. It's also a comment on Hollywood. For so many years, you just had this nothing part that could go to an African-American actor.
Exactly. And this movie comes along, and it's not enough?
I'd say to that critic, you should have looked deeper. But that's fine. It's funny: as a white filmmaker, I'm damned if I do, and I'm damned if I don't. I made The Help, and that should have been directed by a black person. I made Get On Up, and that should have been directed by a black person... And then I made The Girl on the Train, and I got trash for not having enough diversity there! (Laughs) So you know what? At this point, I follow my heart and make what I want. You can't do anything about clickbait on the internet, you just can't.
Yeah. That's just the right way to do it, you make art and it speaks for itself. I love it!
What they don't realize is, what they are saying I should have done with Ma, it would have made the movie a lot less deep. I was actually responding to their very reason of thinking, that it's historically not been that way. It went over their heads, I would say.
Then, of course, there's the fact it's a horror movie. I love horror. I think some of the most real movie magic comes from the best horror movie kills. Horror is one of the few contexts where we can talk about sewing people's mouths shut or running down joggers in a 4x4 truck without getting put on an FBI list. Could you talk a bit about coming up with some of these kills and getting the freedom to make it R-rated?
We came up with some really sick sh*t! The thing was, there was a dramatic, emotional element to this movie, and I didn't want to overshadow that by just going too crazy. I mean, I think making out with a sixteen-year-old character and then stabbing him is pretty good! (Laughs) The one thing Scotty Landes, the writer, and I... We were like, how do we do something really different with the death of Ben, played by Luke Evans? And he goes, "Have you ever seen anyone die from having dog blood put in them?" I go, "NO!" And then we coupled that with the misdirect castration... That was fun!
More: Screen Rant's Ma Review
Ma is out on Digital now, and hits Blu-ray on August 20.