Mother of Monsters is the eerily believable tale of a single mother convinced that her teenage son is a dangerous psychopath with murderous intent. Through stitched-together fragments of found footage, we chart her paranoid journey into her son’s mania. Boasting some outstanding performances and a directorial style that lends a sense of chilling immediacy, Mother of Monsters is a timely and affecting movie. We caught up with writer and director Tucia Lyman to discuss the film.
Tom: I understand that your background is in unscripted television shows. How did you find the transition to long-form scripted material and were there any key skills that you were able to bring to the project from your television experience?
Tucia: I love working in television, but believe it or not, my career actually started with writing and directing theatrical plays. So, I was in the LIVE long-form scripted world first and had always planned on segueing from that into feature film. Of course, it’s hard to make a living in theatre (or film for that matter), so I ended up working in television to pay the bills. In between shows I started writing my first screenplay, Halfbreed, and when it placed as one of the 2016 winners in the horror category of the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards, I decided to finally just go for it. Producers were calling me but they all had their own veteran directors in mind, so I decided to write another screenplay that could be made on a much lower budget and raise the money myself. I wrote M.O.M. and started making a gazillion phone calls.
My television experience absolutely lent itself to the technical side of making a film, and my earlier work with theatre actors was enormously helpful when it came to the level of performance I knew a film like this demanded. So, I understood the fundamentals of picture, sound, editing, pre-production, and finding the right talent – but television and film are really two different art forms. A feature film allows for much more time to refine the craft of storytelling – so I had to dust off my ole imagination cap and envision an incredibly specific world that could serve as the platform for the story I wanted to tell.
Tom: The film touches on a lot of contemporary social issues. What sort of contribution do you think the horror genre can make to these societal discussions?
Tucia: I’ve always thought the power of the horror/thriller genre was grossly underestimated – especially the horror films that use the dysfunctions of society as a vessel to explore the truth. That’s starting to change as we see films like Get Out and Parasite winning Academy Awards right now, and I think that has a lot to do with the underlining social themes they’re nesting in a genre that speaks to the adrenaline-junkie movie fans of today’s society. Our relationship to technology is re-wiring our brains to respond to stimuli in a different way than we’re used to. We get a little pop of adrenaline every time someone sends us a Snapchat or likes us on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Well, good horror films incite feelings of dread or fear, which delivers a similar jolt of adrenaline that keeps people coming back for more. There are plenty of real-life horrors happening in this country every day and that gives filmmakers in this genre the perfect opportunity to convey powerful messages about society within the framework of their films.
I think art, at its best, reflects culture – and horror films that touch on contemporary social issues will continue trending. The whole ‘art imitates life’ concept, right? I mean, M.O.M. may be a work of narrative fiction, but much of the character’s behaviour, dialogue and scenes were borrowed from the journals, memoirs and manifestos of real school shooters and their parents. The realm between truth and fiction is a pretty groovy place to hang out.
Tom: The film presents its audience with a fragmented narrative structure. What do you feel is the strength of this approach?
Tucia: Great question. I wanted to use a fragmented narrative structure because it reflects the fragmented psyche of America right now and therefore speaks to it. I mean, all of us are toggling from one video to the next on our social media feeds every day and we’re becoming more and more accustomed to this splintered way of interpreting the world around us. I wanted to keep the audience grounded in a very familiar space because the moment they forget they’re watching a film is the moment I’m engaging their critical minds instead.
Tom: The film’s foundation is in a pair of extremely strong performances. I understand that there was a very intensive casting process – can you tell us how you settled on your two leads?
Tucia: About two months into auditioning actresses to play Abbey, we realised the calibre of talent this role required was going to be a lot harder to find than we ever realised. Our producers eventually managed to get the screenplay into the hands of Melinda Page Hamilton (Messiah, MadMen, Damnation, How To Get Away With Murder) and she showed up to our first meeting with a stack of folders, including some of the same newspaper clippings and articles I had used to write the script. I instantly knew she was connecting with the material in both a profoundly personal and intellectual way. When we saw her first reading, we were blown away by Melinda’s interpretation of who this mother was at her very core – and some of the bold choices she made expanded my own understanding of film.
We had originally wanted to cast a recognisable name to play the role of Jacob, but no one quite fit the bill. We ended up watching hundreds of digital auditions and Bailey Edwards became a favourite early on. He had that striking ability to embody a complicated teenager who emotes both a chilling sense of terror and irresistible charm at the same time. The callbacks and chemistry-reads took several more months but Bailey managed to keep the same material feeling fresh and unpredictable every single time. It wasn’t until after we officially offered Bailey the part that he told us his father is Anthony Edwards, which I thought was a really stand-up way to land a starring role based solely on his own merit.
Tom: Due to the subject matter, the film is likely to draw comparison with films like We Need To Talk About Kevin and 2003’s Zero Day. Were there any other film’s which particularly influenced your creative process?
Tucia: We Need to Talk About Kevin is a masterful film and it’s been seared into my consciousness since it first came out in 2011. Other films that informed how I might approach the sensitive subject matter of this film were The Dirties, Beautiful Boy and Elephant. I read a lot of books too, like the memoir written by Sue Kleybold (the mother of one of the Columbine shooters) titled, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. It was her heartbreaking story that inspired me to model Jacob after a kid who didn’t necessarily fit the profile of a typical school shooter.
Tom: Now that the film is wrapped, is there anything you have learned from the experience that you wish you had known at the start?
Tucia: I wish I had known a lot more about the distribution and marketing of a film. We did take a lot of photos and behind-the-scenes videos for publicity during pre-production and production, but I didn’t realise that selling a film is 3 times harder than making one!
Tom: Do you have any advice for budding low-budget filmmakers?
Tucia: You have to be very resourceful to make a good low-budget indie, and that starts with having the courage and conviction to ask people to believe in you. Some of the best screenplays in the world would never have been made without someone asking someone else for some kind of favour. Of course, it helps if you’ve done favours for others along the way – so that starts with reading the screenplays of your friends and colleagues, attending their screenings, volunteering on their sets here and there, watching their films and posting honest reviews on movie websites, and supporting the indie film industry itself as much as possible.
Also, good time management is absolutely critical to the success of an indie project, and my advice to new filmmakers is to consider scheduling twice the amount of time you THINK you need for casting, pre-production and post-production. That doesn’t mean you need a full crew during this time – but going over budget in post-production is costly and that’s usually because you haven’t spent enough time in pre-production or casting. And another thing many new filmmakers don’t realise is how important rehearsals are. Rehearsals allow the actors to play with the material, to discover nuances that enrich their performances, and to make creative choices that can turn a good film into a great film.
Tom: Do you have any other upcoming projects that you’d like to talk about?
Tucia: I’m working on an A&E documentary series right now, but when we wrap towards the end of 2020, I’d like to spend some time on a feature documentary I’ve been filming since 2013, titled Cracked. It’s more of a passion project for me that follows the story of my mentally ill, drug addicted, homeless, older sister who is trying to reconnect with the ten children she lost custody of before she dies. I’d also like to revisit my first feature screenplay, Halfbreed, about a mother and her unusual son who are on the run from a shadowy government agency up in Oregon. When their small logging town is rocked by a series of heinous murders, the boy learns that he may not be a boy at all. Yeah, it’s another real mind-bender that deals with relevant social themes as well. I guess that’s what I’ve always gravitated towards!
We’d like to say a huge thank you to Tucia Lyman for taking the time to speak with us, and to congratulate her once again on her success with Mother of Monsters.