Interview: ‘Ma’ Director Tate Taylor
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[Image Credit: Anna Kooris/Universal Pictures.]

In 2011, relatively new director Tate Taylor wrote and directed The Help, based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett. Taylor, born in Jackson, MI, helped tell the story of the Civil Rights-era South through the eyes of African American maids working for white families. One of those maids was Minny Jackson, played by Octavia Spencer. The film received rave reviews and was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture. It’s sole Oscar win went to Spencer, who took home Best Supporting Actress. Eight years later, Taylor and Spencer reunited for an unlikely movie, the Blumhouse produced Ma. Spencer stars as Sue Ann, a mysterious loner with a dark past whose home becomes a party den for teenagers until her true intentions are revealed. Spencer is wild, appearing to relish playing a psychotic stalker and she carries the film. Debuting in theaters this past Spring, the horror film grossed over $60 million worldwide on a $5 million budget. Ma arrives on Digital today, and Blu-Ray and DVD on September 3, 2019. I was lucky enough to talk to director Tate Taylor about the film, his Oscar-winning star, and his career.

Geeks of Doom: Hi, thanks for taking the time. I saw Ma and really enjoyed it, especially Octavia Spencer’s performance. What got you interested in this project and what was it like working with Octavia again?

Tate Taylor: It was kind of serendipitous how it all happened. I’ve been doing back to back studio films for awhile. And studios are corporations and corporations have shareholders and you can only push things so far. While it’s frustrating I also understand it. I was in this mindset that I wanted to shake things up a bit and do something just crazy. At about the same time, Octavia and I — we’re best friends, we talk everyday — and she had confided in me that she was really frustrated that she was being offered the exact same roles, which happens to everybody. She was really kind of bummed about it. And then Jason Blum, who’s a friend of mine, we had a meeting to see if we can find something to do together and I looked at him and I said, “What do you have that’s really f*cked up?” He says, “Really?!” He says, oddly enough they just got this script in yesterday that they optioned and haven’t even really broken it down. He lets me read it, I read it, and it needed work. It wasn’t written for a woman like Octavia. So I call her up and tell her “Octavia, I’m reading the most fun, f*cked up script, believe it or not it’s in the horror genre, but I found a way to find heart in the message.” She says, “I’m in! If I’m not the first to get killed and I’m the lead in a horror film, I’m in.” I told her to read it first and she did and I called Jason and asked, “What about Octavia?” and he yelled, “WHAT!?!?” And that’s it.

Geeks of Doom: Wow. I’m a huge horror fan. The joke with horror is usually it’s a stepping stone genre where big stars make their debuts there and then graduate out. It’s rare to see a big star, an Oscar winner like Octavia Spencer, take the lead in a horror film. I think it’s great for the genre. What are your thoughts on that?

Tate Taylor: It is. The Wall Street Journal just did a big article on that very thing worrying if this was going to be the future. We did this out of love and getting ready to get my repertoire of actors and crew together and go back to Mississippi and just have a blast. We didn’t really ever think of her as “the Oscar winner.” It was just, let’s go have a blast.

Geeks of Doom: She seems like she’s having a blast. You mentioned wanting to do something f’d up and there are certainly some messed up things happening in the film. Was there anything too dark or going too far where you needed to edit it out? I’m thinking of something that might be on a Bu-ray extra.

Tate Taylor: There’s a few deleted scenes, but nothing too crazy where you’d say, “Damn, I wish that was in there.” We did some f*cked up stuff in there. The frustrating thing of this genre for me was the expected lengths we have to go to keep the attention spans for many of the people that like this genre. A lot of the cuts were due to concerns over the amount of time.

Geeks of Doom: Speaking of genre, you have certainly made your way through a fair amount. You wrote and directed the historical drama The Help, the thriller The Girl on the Train, you’ve worked in comedies, and now horror. What’s it like bouncing between genres like that as a filmmaker?

Tate Taylor: It may be confusing for the town, but like I said it goes to the place of me of Octavia and I not considering her an Oscar winner and me a feature director doing a horror film. We truly love the joy of filmmaking. I really had to fight after The Help, honestly I just kept being given scripts of women who have cancer, over and over and over. And the irony is The Help and that subject matter, I did it because I understood it and I lived it. But my brain is closer to Ma. And The Girl of the Train was an example where I went too far in their minds. I did a biopic of James Brown after The Help, then I did a thriller, then I did a horror movie. Now I’m doing a TV series about religion in New Orleans, and I have an oxycodone movie I wrote that we’re going to do. I just like to eat at different restaurants.

Geeks of Doom: I never heard it put that way, but I like that way of thinking.

Tate Taylor: Yeah, like people are “foodies,” I’m a “Movie.” I want to try everything. And as you learn and sharpen your skills in different genres, it makes it easy to bring the hybrid together, and it makes you a better director I think. You may stumble, people may scratch their heads, but I think that’s how you get better.

Geeks of Doom: You mentioned your relationship with Octavia Spencer, but researching your filmography you work with the same cast members very often. You obviously have good working relationships. What is it like being able to go back to that well of talent?

Tate Taylor: Well, I am in NO WAY, and I want to capitalize that, comparing myself to Robert Altman, but I did see a documentary about his life. I found his approach to work and making films is much like mine. It’s about family, it’s about food, it’s about trust, it’s about collaboration. That’s what I love to do. When you find people, cast, and crew that like to play that way, you keep them around. They want to be around you. When I make a movie most people say it doesn’t feel like a job, it feels like camp. And I always laughingly say, “Let’s go to Movie Camp.”

On Ma, most of the actors lived with me in my house. I just think when you build a family the trust increases. They trust you and vice versa and you’re willing to take chances. It’s not like that when you hop in a van and go home to sit by yourself waiting to be picked up again.

Geeks of Doom: You’ve touched on a few of your upcoming projects. Can you go into any details about any of them?

Tate Taylor: I’m actually going to New Orleans tomorrow. I created a show called Filthy Rich that got picked up by FOX and I’ll be doing that till March. I’ll be directing five of the episodes, starring Kim Cattrall. It’s a comedic look at faith, people of no faith, sex, hypocrisy, you know all the juicy stuff. The right, the left, evangelicals, hard line conservatives; it’s just one huge photo of where we are right now in the country. And I’m really excited about it.

Geeks of Doom: Thank you very much, we look forward to Ma coming to Blu-Ray soon, and as a history teacher by day, thank you for The Help, I show it in my U.S. History classes.

Tate Taylor: That’s really cool, I appreciate you saying that.

Tate Taylor was a funny and down to earth interview. He is a total southern gentleman. Aside from Filthy Rich, Taylor has four other projects lined up according to IMDb. Ma, starring Octavia Spencer, Luke Evans, and Juliette Lewis, is available now on Digital and on Blu-Ray/DVD on September 3, 2019.

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Spoiler Talk: The Help

I can’t say much for Kathryn Stockett‘s novel The Help, having never read it. After having watched its big screen adaptation, The Help movie takes an issue as charged as racism, sorry, RACISM all caps, and turns it into a bloated after-school special (it logs in at around 2 hours and 15 minutes) complete with an “inspirational” end-credits song that’ll have you sprinting for the exits. There are times when it plays like a Lifetime movie you might see at 1:30 in the afternoon except without the tampon commercials.

Is it a good movie? That might be stretching it a little.

It is an obvious and safe one. “Safe” in that you know exactly what you’re in for and in that sense you won’t be disappointed. You won’t be particularly enlightened or challenged either, but it is easy-to-digest, filled with clearly delineated heroes and boo-hiss villains that may as well be wearing hoods for all the depth they’re allowed. And in case you need some help, the heavy-handed score tells you exactly what to feel (Inspired? Outraged?) and when you should be feeling it. “Safe” is the movie’s biggest compliment as well as its harshest criticism.

You walk out knowing that racism in all its forms is bad. And we’re all people too and if you can remember the lyrics from “We Are the World” or “Ebony and Ivory,” then you’ve got the movie down.

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