As school shootings continue to spark debate and headlines around the USA, the topic has been mostly unexplored on screen outside of the documentary realm. High-profile fictionalized attempts include Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), and that uncomfortable opening of Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (2018), but this is a topic most filmmakers have been hesitant to tackle, especially in the realm of horror film.
This Friday the 13th, though, director Tucia Lyman’s debut film M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters) hits Los Angeles’ Arena Cinelounge and Video On Demand around the country. It’s the story of forty-something single mom Abbey (Melinda Page Hamilton), who begins to suspect that her unruly, angsty teenaged son Jacob (Bailey Edwards) may be a psychopath who’s planning to commit violence at school. To prove it, both to herself and to the authorities who have failed to help her control Jacob’s spiralling anger, Abbey sets up hidden cameras around her house to capture Jacob’s increasingly violent outbursts.
In advance of the film’s release, The Queer Review’s Eric Langberg spoke exclusively with the film’s director Tucia Lyman and star and actor Bailey Edwards, both of whom are queer, about bonding on set, their personal connections with the material, the history of queer villains in horror, and more.
Eric Langberg, The Queer Review: Hi Tucia and Bailey, congratulations on the release of M.O.M. and thanks for taking the time to chat to The Queer Review. Tucia, could you talk a bit about your personal connection with the school shooting epidemic in America and how the idea for the film came about?
Tucia Lyman, director: “Yes, you’re right, this film is personal to me. I think we, as Americans, tend to get trapped in that “it will never happen to me” mentality, and despite the palpable terror we all feel in the aftermath of a catastrophe like a school shooting we don’t do anything about it. That changed for me in December of 2012 with the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Sandy Hook was the elementary school my niece almost attended, which would have put her in the same class, at the same time, when a former student went on a shooting spree, killing twenty first graders and six adults. This one hit close to home and something inside of me woke up.”
“A mass shooting is not a natural disaster, it is a human one, so I was convinced there was a solution. I scoured the Internet for answers; read every article, interview and publication to try and understand how something like this could happen. What I found was deeply disturbing because I realized this isn’t just about regulating military grade weapons or enacting a better mental healthcare system. It is a much more pervasive social issue than that because the root of the problem lies in the actual fabric of our culture. It is a product of our deep seeded racism, our addiction to technology, our inability to communicate effectively or manage our own emotions or teach our kids any real conflict-solving or coping skills. And because of the divisive state of this nation, we’ve managed to polarize these issues into a party-line debate over gun control and healthcare, which has completely paralyzed our ability to enact any kind of change.”
“I am not a politician. Hell, I’m not even a parent! But as a filmmaker, I felt obligated to contribute to this conversation by keeping it at the forefront of our collective consciousness in any way I could. So, I decided to make a movie that explored all these theories without making it about politics. I wanted to humanize the horror of what’s happening in this country by focusing on the dysfunctional relationship between a mother who both loves and fears her own son. M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters) is not about a school shooter, it is about the dangerous breakdown of communication in a typical American family that has the propensity to produce one.”
Tucia, you have documentary filmmaking experience, so why did you want to make a horror or genre film to tackle this subject rather than a documentary or a more straightforward drama? How do you think your documentary experience may have informed your approach to a narrative film?
“Great question about how I chose the genre of this film, because I struggled quite a bit over how to approach the subject matter of M.O.M. and whether it would be more impactful as a documentary or drama. Of course, the incredible drama, We Need To Talk About Kevin, had already been made in 2011, and I wasn’t convinced the younger audience I wanted to reach would have the patience to watch a documentary.”
“There’s a reason why horror films like Get Out and Parasite are 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 appeals to the adrenaline junkie movie viewers of this day and age. Technology has been rewiring the chemistry of our brains for decades now, and when we’re being bombarded by dopamine-producing stimuli on a daily basis, we begin to crave it even more. I wanted to make a film that could penetrate our national psyche, so I decided to do that through the horror/thriller genre, which not only delivers that dopamine kick, but also gives the audience a real-world problem to think about at the same time. I also didn’t have a big budget and because the element of realism was super important to me, I went with the found footage sub-genre, which incorporates that documentary feel and grounds the film in a familiar space to make it as relatable as possible.”
“Although I was working with actors, I incorporated what was dubbed on set as the “Documentary Take,” which meant I wanted the actors to forget all their training and deliver their lines as simply as possible. That’s actually a very difficult thing for talented actors to do because it seems very counterintuitive to all the work they’ve done to prepare for the role. I mean, they’ve spent a lot of time and energy finding the motivation behind every line and here I am barking things like, “throw it away!” or “don’t make that line mean anything at all!” I needed this film to feel like a documentary so that the audience would be immersed into this world as intimately and realistically as possible.”
M.O.M. deals with some pretty heavy subject matter. I’ve read that you immersed yourself in testimonials and journals from real school shooters when developing the film, how did that inform the finished film?
“That’s exactly right. Although this film is a work of narrative fiction, much of the main character’s behavior and dialogue was borrowed from real-life shooters and their parents. I read every testimonial, journal, and memoir I could find to keep the film itself anchored in the truth. For example, the mother of the Sandy Hook shooter said her son was triggered by the sound of her high heels, which becomes the inciting incident of the film. Specific lines of dialogue like “I’ll rip your jaw off,” is an excerpt from the journals of one of the Columbine shooters.”
“I mean, M.O.M. is by no means a social impact film, it is a very dark psychological thriller that doesn’t try to offer solutions or resolve. But I do think it is a reflection of who we are as a nation right now and I hope it will scare the bejesus out of people and consequently, leave them thinking.”
Bailey, what was your preparation like for the role? Did you read the same things? I thought your performance was really chilling and would love to hear how you got into that headspace.
Bailey Edwards, actor: “Thank you, that’s very kind. Not gonna lie, it’s kind of freaky that Jacob is my first impression these days. Tucia was a huge resource. She sent me articles, music and even journal entries to try to understand the real-world individuals that Jacob was born out of. Jacob is a prankster and the movie poses the question of what’s real and what’s a performance and whether that “performance” is sociopathic in and of itself.”
“What then ended up being the most important for me were the videos and manifestos left behind by these radicalized young men. In this Internet age, we all exist in relationship to our digital performative selves. But for these isolated individuals, those anonymous selves can be the only space of any form of connection. And it was there, in that question of who Jacob wanted to be, that I first started to figure him out.”
Tucia, you’ve said that the fact that you and Bailey are both gay in real life contributed to some of the choices that went into Jacob’s backstory once you began rehearsals. Could you both expand on that? What was the collaborative process like to find the character, and how did your shared experiences inform it?
Tucia: “You know, when we offered Bailey Edwards the role of Jacob, I actually had no idea he was gay. I don’t think he had any idea I was either. By the time we started rehearsals I had been thinking about how to explain to him there were some queer undertones in his character that I wanted him to explore, so I told Bailey I didn’t want him to “play gay,” but that I needed him to try on what it might feel like for a homophobic teen to have a crush on his best, male, friend. He replied with something like, ‘Well that shouldn’t be hard considering I’m queer!’ That was a real bonding moment between us, the first of many.”
Bailey: “While Jacob isn’t explicitly queer in the film, the potential for that came up in our very first rehearsal. We wanted to bring that into his relationship with Greg, Jacob’s only friend and human connection. Inside of the messy space of adolescence, I’d argue Jacob isn’t even fully aware of that being at stake, but it was such a necessary layer for me to play with as an actor. And frankly, one that was only possible by having queer perspectives in the room that would be sensitive to messy subtleties of those relationships.”
Tucia: “While writing the screenplay, I became obsessed with understanding what a teenage boy must feel like during that awkward adolescent age when you’re trying to find your identity and both your brain and body are being juiced with a flood of hormones. As you can imagine, this prompted some pretty interesting, and potentially inappropriate, conversations with a few of my nephews. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that even my most heterosexual nephews of all, plus my brothers – I have seven – had given it some thought over the years. And I think that because I’m gay, I naturally gravitated towards the possibility that Jacob could have some queer leanings himself. For example, I had already learned from the manifestos of real school shooters that something very significant always seems to occur right before they choose to act out, so I decided that instead of this kid being dumped by a girlfriend, why not experiment with letting him have a big fallout with his best guy friend instead. Maybe there’s more to that relationship than meets the eye…”
Were you worried at all about contributing to the trope of the killer queer, or was that maybe a lineage you were excited about playing around with, considering this is a horror/thriller first and foremost? I think this film fits right into a history of queer killer performances that goes all the way back to Anthony Perkins in Psycho, through to Ezra Miller in We Need To Talk About Kevin; were those references you talked about, and if not, what kinds of things were?
Tucia: “This thought did cross my mind at one point, but I dismissed it pretty quickly because the truth is that most school shootings are carried out by young, white males and Jacob never identifies as queer. I always saw his sexuality as something he was in deep denial about, which manifests by way of self-mutilation, or acting out, or his sudden outbursts of violence against his best friend… Bailey and I played with a lot of subtext behind it – and that subtext had everything to do with a very intimate relationship these boys might be having behind closed doors. Of course, people will have to see the film to find out whether Jacob actually kills or not.”
Bailey: “I was totally worried about contributing to the trope. In a world where practically every Disney villain is queer coded, there’s enough out there telling us we are the bad guys. That being said, at its core this movie is about a fraught mother-son relationship that lends itself absolutely to a queer reading of the film. Psycho definitely came up, maybe a touch of Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, but that’s more of the fun stuff that you have to watch the movie to see.”
We like to end things here at The Queer Review by asking what your favourite LGBTQ+ film, book, TV series, play, music or artwork is – something that’s really resonated with you over the years and why? Or you could pick something you’re currently enjoying?
Tucia: “The one book that probably resonated with me most is Giovanni’s Room by the great James Baldwin. I read it when I was about fifteen and it was the most prolific, horrific, and profound prose I had ever attempted to comprehend. I don’t think it directly influenced this film in any way, maybe it seeded the idea for some of Jacob’s self-contempt, I don’t know, but it is certainly still lodged in my consciousness to this day. I’ve always loved LGBTQ thrillers, so films like Let The Right One In, the 2008 original, and Bound certainly influenced the kind of movies I wanted to make. Most recently, I thoroughly enjoyed Yorgos Lanthimos’ black comedy-drama, The Favourite.”
Bailey: “We stan Buffy, forever and always. Pet Shop Boys. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, everyone must go see. Portrait of Jason, do your homework. And if you see Taylor Mac performing anywhere, run do not walk to get tickets.”
Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us, and congratulations on the release of the film!
Tucia: “Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to share some of what went into this film and why.”
M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters) will open in Los Angeles for a weeklong run at the Arena Cinelounge on Friday the 13th of March, the same day it is available nationwide on Digital HD, including Amazon Video and iTunes.