Photo of Shawn Ashmore and Matt O'Leary in Mother's Day by Rebecca Sandulak.
We've been reporting on director Darren Lynn Bousman's reimagining of Charles Kaufman's Mother's Day since the project was announced. Starring Rebecca DeMornay in the title role – and leading a cast filled with genre stars like Jaime King and True Blood's Deborah Ann Woll – the film promises to be an outrageous follow-up to the director's cult favorite Repo! The Genetic Opera. Last week – just a few days away from the completion of principal photography – we finally had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Bousman about his latest vision of big-screen terror.
On Twitter, you recently commented, "Okay, it happened. We crossed the line." Can you hint at what that was about?
It was a really, really, really dark thing that we should have never shot. You know, what's crazy about this movie… I don't know if it's me growing up as a filmmaker or me getting bored of violence, [but] we're doing a lot of things in this movie that are not violent – they're just horrific. It's a hard thing to get into without giving it away. This is a movie that is just going to make people uncomfortable. It's not because of the violence, the language, it's just going to be the situations that are going to make people extremely uncomfortable. It's funny because right after I tweeted, I saw Bri[ana Evigan]'s page that said something like, "This is the most horrific day of filmmaking I've ever been a part of. I'll have nightmares for a week," or something like that. It's crazy because, before, that kind of tweet would be followed by, "We just shot someone's head off" or "We stabbed someone in the throat," or something like that. But the reality is that we just shot the scene – a very quick scene of two people doing something that borderlines on one of the most horrific things I've been a part of. But again what's crazy is that it's not violent. It doesn't have anything to do with violence. It's just very uncomfortable situation. And I think, again, that's why I love this movie so much – the horror and the terror and all this other shit just doesn't come from blood and guts.
With Repo! we saw your ability to handle humor in extreme situations. Will we again see that in this film?
Yes and no. I find the whole film absolutely, fucking hilarious. But I don't know if anyone else is going to find it hilarious because it's a different kind of humor. It's not humor in the way of the original, where the original was just kind of over the top, just kind of cheesy, so that's what it was trying to do – not really take itself seriously. But this movie is extremely serious. And with that being said though it's very serious it's extremely hilarious in the situations the characters find themselves in. I think Addley is hilarious and this guy [Warren Kole] is going to be a huge star after this movie, because he's found a way to be extremely dark and extremely disturbing yet maintain such a dark, dark level of humor that it's not funny – but by "not funny" I mean extremely funny. Let me give you an example – you love to watch him torment and torture people but at the same time you are sickened by what he is doing.
I see. Can you talk about the cast you've assembled? There's really interesting choices here, like Rebecca De Mornay. We haven't heard a lot about her performance yet. Can you talk some about how she helped shape the character?
Yeah. You know, what's crazy is one of the things that I wanted very early on was to not make a cold cackling mother. I really do love the original film but it was a much different film than what we're making. In the original film, everyone was very much a character. You had the two redneck hillbillies – the guy with bad teeth, the other guy that was just kind of out there – you had the crazy cackling mother. What I wanted to do was take the idea of those characters and make them real. The whole thing with Rebecca was you know she's a real actress with a very real acting job. I think having her on board just elevated the project to a whole other level. So again you go into a film and think you're making version A of the movie and then by the end of the movie, like where I am now, we've made version B. That's because the material has been so elevated from what any of us ever suspected. A lot that has to do with the performances that are brought in by Rebecca De Mornay, Jaime King, and Patrick Flueger. You write something on the page and when you read it, the script, it comes across very exploitative. It comes across very violent, horrific, and all this other stuff. Then you see these actors actually do it, specifically with Rebecca and Jaime. They take what could be clichés and make them so believable and so real and so poignant and emotional. By far I can say this – this is the most emotional film I've ever done. To a point of it being a borderline drama. You care about everyone. That's another exciting thing about this movie. Not only do you care about the victims downstairs being tortured and tormented, you care about the killers. You really do care about Ike and Addley. You really do care about mother.
You have Deborah Ann Woll in the cast too. She has a big following because of True Blood. Did you find her because you're a fan of that show?
I'm a huge fan of the show. Here's the deal… I try to do this with all of my castings: I cast people who I want to work with or I'm fans of. That was the same thing with Deborah Ann Woll. The funny thing was I never went after her. Partially because I never in a million years thought she would do a movie like this or want to be involved in a movie like this. So she was the very first person we cast. It is kind of a funny story. I was in the middle of going through my wish list for Mothers, Ikes, and Addleys and the casting director said, "I put together a tape of Lydias for you." I said, "Okay, great." I looked at the tape, and the very first one that had come in was Deborah Ann Woll. I see it and I was like, "Oh my God, she's perfect!" I mean immediately, from frame 1, she embodied everything I wanted in that character. So when everyone got called back and when she walked in the room I was like, "You know what, don't read, you've got the role. I just wanted to see you in person to confirm what I saw on that tape." She's amazing. I mean she's got this presence; she's going to be huge. I think that True Blood is the first of many amazing things we're going to see with her.
Speaking of castings choices, there were apparently some other mothers who were initially considered. Can you comment on some of them?
Here's the deal. This thing is called Mother's Day, so the mother needed to be a villainess, and iconic and fun, and scary and beautiful and all these other things. Which way do you go with that? There are so many different approaches you could take with that, with Mother. You could have gone the older, more mature Mother, which could have been someone like Ellen Burstyn; or you could have gone with the crazy insane Mother, like Karen Black or Leslie Easterbrook. You could have gone with a very mousy Mother like, Sissy Spacek. We were kind of torn. We didn't know at that point what would have made for the best story and the best dynamic round-off for the story, and, again, this is Mother's Day. So I struggled with that for awhile until someone brought up Rebecca's name to us. I went back and I rented the four movies that she had done. I started with the one everyone knows, Risky Business, and then I watched Hand That Rocks the Cradle, then this little movie called Never Talk to Strangers, and then I ended up watching The Shining. That remake she did of The Shining. The thing that blows me away about Rebecca is her ability to play subtle and intimidating – she is not over the top, you buy her. You buy the little flicks of the eye and the little gestures that she makes. Again, to me, that's what Mother needed to be. I wanted people to buy her, believe her. Not kind of roll their eyes at her and say, "Oh there she is, some cackling crazy Mother with a switchblade." Once I saw these movies, and I talked to her on the phone one time, it became clear she knew who Mother was. The day she showed up on set, the day she put on the costume – that was Mother. There was no one else at that point that I could have thought of in a million years to play Mother.
You've said before that with this movie you're bringing horror back to the suburbs. We've been hit with a lot of hillbilly horrors in recent years, harkening back to the ‘70s grindhouse era. Moving into the ‘80s, one encountered suburban threats more often in horror cinema. Do you see this film as more inspired by the ‘80s than ‘70s horror?
My favorite time of horror films was the late ‘70s into the mid ‘80s. My top five favorite horror films came out of that era. I would kind of go off a little bit with the both of those that you're talking about. The revenge horror flicks – Last House on the Left or I Spit on Your Grave – to the crazy horror flicks like The Hills Have Eyes. Harping on some of Polanski's stuff, how he was able to create horror – he had this whole trilogy that he did, this loosely based trilogy about the horrors that befall apartment dwellers. Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant being the three movies. It was terrifying that he could create a sense of fear, believable fear, when our characters are surrounded by other people. There was no isolation in that. Like, in The Tenant, there were neighbors on both sides of him; and in Rosemary's Baby there were neighbors on both sides and yet there was this horrific fear of dread that they were so alone. That to me always scared me, because look at us a society – we grow up in the suburbs. The majority of the people who grow up in the barrens or the woods are few and far between. The people that grow up in complete isolation, I'm sure they exist and I'm sure I know a lot of them and am friends with some of them. But the fact is, the majority of us grew up in the suburbs in the middle of America, and that is much easier to relate to as an audience member.
I can more easily relate to a movie that is set in the suburbs than a movie that is set in the barrens. Why? That is where I grew up and I can relate to it. I think that is a big part of a good horror film – the ability to relate. Can you relate to these characters or do you just hate them because there is no suspension of disbelief? One of the things we tried to do with this movie is have a home invasion. But this movie is not Strangers. It is not fun and games, but it is a home invasion at its core. One of the most important things is that when I approach any film, be it Repo! The Genetic Opera or Saw II or now Mother's Day, I look at movies of a similar vein and subgenre. I say what my top ten favorite things about this genre are – musicals, rock operas, home invasions, or whatever. Then I make sure I do not do any of them. If I love them that means I have seen them enough times and it has been etched in my brain and it is time to do something different. Some things about home invasions are feelings of isolation, abandonment, claustrophobia, out of control, and I think, "Okay, I can't do any of those. It can't be isolated, claustrophobic. It can't be any of these things. So let's do it in a different way." With this home invasion subgenre, something people do not realize is the reality of home invasion.
This is loosely based on a real crime where two brothers broke into a house, held a family hostage for a night, and then brutally killed every one of them. Now we have kind of gone off the mount from that crime but that kind of started this whole idea. It was terrifying, because it took place in a townhouse on Christmas Eve with people surrounding the town house – above it, below it, and beside it. No one heard it, and if they did hear it no one paid it any mind. That terrifies me. That is what we're doing with this, we are setting it in a real universe, with real real characters, real situations, with real people and making it relatable to the majority of people because this is us. This is where we live and how we grew up. This is what is going to make Mother's Day infinitely scarier. On top of that it's infinitely relatable because we all have mothers. No matter who you are, where you grew up, no matter what your economic level is, one thing connects us all is that we all have parents. To take a mother figure, and perverse her the way we've done with this movie, I think it is going to be terrifying. Because we have all had our mom yell at us. We've all had our mom scream at us. What happens if you take that to the next level?
You mentioned the suburbs and how everyone can relate to that setting. It reminds me of an answer that Norman Mailer once gave when was asked why he wrote about the middle class. He said it was because everyone can relate – the poor want to be middle class and the rich think of themselves as middle class. That's the commonality.
All of the films I have done thus far have been semi fantastical. Saw was a fantastical universe, where it took place on the subterranean sub levels of America – dark, grungy, slimy backdrops of humanity. Then Repo! took place in a fantastical world where there was always singing and fire eaters and tall people. This is the first movie that I have done that is set completely in reality. I think that affects not only the acting and the shots but also the violence level. I think I'm having a harder time dealing with this movie on a violence level than I have on anything else I've done. This movie is the first movie I've done that actually affects me. It definitely affects the actors too. In Saw, we'd shoot the scenes, walk away and laugh, then go drink. But this is not that movie. This movie has affected the actors to the point where some of our actors are having a hard time emotionally dealing with some of the shit that we're doing in it, because it is so simplistic. It is not ripping ribcages out or making a marionette puppet out of someone's body after you ripped their heart out. This is real. The violence in the movie is real. It's just a real movie. That is also going to be something that people take away from it, that this is not some glorified horror film. This is real people in real situations.
The most scary, horrific, and disturbing scenes in this movie are two people talking and not the violence. Don't worry about violence – we have an abundance. We have a plethora of violence, so that's not the issue. In Saw, the most disturbing scenes, the most violent, were those with violence, with the killing and all this other stuff. That is not the case with this movie. This movie… the terror, the tension, everything comes from the acting. For a Darren Bousman film, that is pretty out there, pretty crazy in itself. Because I think I have relied on the violence too long. You are actually going to see a much more disturbing film than I have done, but it is all based around dialogue and conversations. That being said, don't worry. There's some great kills and deaths in this film.
So there's something for everyone?
I'll end with this: this movie is as much a psychological thriller as it is a horror film. If I had to compare it to something, it would be like… No, I'm not even going to compare it to anything. There really is no comparison. Those are the kinds of movie I love to make – indefinable ones. Like Repo! I mean I guess you could say it was like Rocky Horror. But it is hard to say what it is. And I am proud to say that is what we've done with this movie as well.