The Man Behind 'Ma': Talking Terror with Tate Taylor
Eight years after directing his close friend to an Academy Award for her performance in The Help, Tate Taylor has a very different role for star Octavia Spencer with this weekend’s horror thriller, Ma. If you thought that nothing could be worse than the 2011 film’s infamous pie, get ready to think again. Ma offers a grindhouse throwback that will have you laughing one minute and gasping the next.
“I’m always just after whatever’s a good story and that I feel I can interject myself into,” Taylor tells Moviebill. “[I want] to bring a sense of importance or a discussion to it. It happened to be this because it’s fun and it’s shocking, but there are also some pretty heavy themes in there that I think, when you bring them to a genre that’s unexpected, they hit home better… I looked at this as a drama with horrific implications and conclusions.”
While The Help may be the film that brought them both into the spotlight, the relationship between Spencer and Taylor began a lot further back. Dreaming of a life in Hollywood, the pair wound up working together as production assistants when Joel Schumacher’s A Time to Kill shot in Canton, Mississippi.
“We became fast friends,” Taylor recalls. “We both knew we needed to get out of our small towns and go for it. There was no real internet yet. There was no social media. You went to Hollywood to do this and we followed each other out there in our sh–y cars and just stayed friends. Then, around our mid thirties, we were both broke and we became roommates for seven years and really became family.”
It was during their time as roommates that Taylor went to work adapting Kathryn Stockett’s novel for the screen.
“[Octavia] was in the other room screaming at me, ‘I’m Minnie, dammit! You better not give away Minnie!'” Taylor laughs. “I said, “I know! You’re Minnie!'”
Spencer isn’t the only Tate Taylor regular to make a return for Ma. Allison Janney starred alongside Spencer and pre-fame Melissa McCarthy in his directorial debut, the 2003 dark indie comedy Chicken People. With a role in Ma, Janney has officially appeared in every Taylor film to date.
“[We met] 20 years ago last week,” the director smiles. “Octavia and I went to a wedding reception in LA and she was giving a toast. She hadn’t done ‘The West Wing’ or anything. We met and just hit it off. I had just seen ‘Primary Colors’ when she did that famous prat fall going up the stairs, I said, ‘I love you.'”
Taylor, who has also spent some time in front of the camera in films like Winter’s Bone, performed with McCarthy as a member of the sketch comedy troupe The Groundlings.
“She was broke as s–t living behind ‘Out of the Closet’ on Fairfax in a crappy one bedroom,” he laughs. “We all just struggled and came up and supported each other and lent money back and forth… Then we all found some success and we just stayed together because, honestly, the weirdest thing is people think fast successes would be cool, but really it’s that journey and having that network. Then you still just take care of each other.”
In his early days in Hollywood, Taylor wasn’t sure exactly what creative path he was going to take and fully credits his time in The Groundlings as the reason for his success.
“That’s why my advice to young people, whatever they think they want to do, even if they don’t want to be a performer, I say go get into the Groundlings,” he says. “…You learn communication skills, you’re forced to do things that make you uncomfortable. You meet other people and you kind of figure out what you’re cut out to do.”
“It was really about budget and timing,” he admits. “The last thing I did was ‘Winter’s Bone’. People ask me to do something and I just don’t have time. That’s not what I do. But then we were in a rural place and locals casting can often not be so successful.”
Ma also adds a new recurring cast member to Taylor’s regulars with Luke Evans, who starred in the director’s last feature, The Girl on the Train. It did not take a lot of convincing to Evans to sign on.
“I said, Luke, do you want to come and do a five million dollar horror [film]?” Taylor laughs. “He said, ‘Yeah! I want to be with y’all and have fun!'”
Evans is also involved one particular scene that aims to turn the gender bias of the horror genre on its head.
“There’s always a wink and a nod to destroying or making fun of past tropes of these movies,” Taylor explains, “And the women always have to get naked. They’re always objectified in the old movies. They’re topless. It was time for the women to get one.”
Mostly, though, taking on Ma was all about getting to have some fun with his friends and playing around in a brand new genre.
“With this movie I really wanted to bump it up and get some comedy up against really painful, dramatic elements,” says Taylor. “It’s fun. It’s fun to go that wild. It’s like being a little boy and playing cops and robbers. I’m gonna f–k some shit up today!”
Ma hits theaters this Friday, May 31.