Formative fantasies

Maya Singer on Mother!! and the work of Batsheva Hay

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Maya Singer and Rebecca Hall in Morgan Spector and Maya Singer’s Mother!!, a Tribeca Film Festival highlight
Maya Singer and Rebecca Hall in Morgan Spector and Maya Singer’s Mother!!, a Tribeca Film Festival highlight

Three highlights of the 20th edition of the Tribeca Film Festival With/In program of shorts (with music by Mark Adler) are Jonathan Cake’s life-affirming Touching, starring Julianne Nicholson, Iggy Cake, Phoebe Cake, and Jonathan; Bart Freundlich’s Intersection, starring Julianne Moore, Talia Balsam, and Don Cheadle, and Morgan Spector and Maya Singer’s Mother!!, starring Rebecca Hall, Maya Singer, and Morgan Spector.

During my conversation with Maya Singer, who is also the screenwriter of Mother!!, we spoke about how Bong Joon-ho’s Mother and Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! inspired the title Mother!!, formative fantasies, such as Madonna in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan and Anne of Green Gables, consulting cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, and the work of Batsheva Hay.

Anne-Katrin Titze with Maya Singer on the title: “I was like, well, we’ll just have two exclamation points.”
Anne-Katrin Titze with Maya Singer on the title: “I was like, well, we’ll just have two exclamation points.”

In early 2019, Batsheva told me that Jacqueline Durran's costume design inspiration board for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women had her clothes on it. In 2020, Durran won the Oscar for her costumes, worn by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, and Louis Garrel.

With the pandemic pushing all kinds of affinities under the magnifying glass, and perturbations emerging from the mists of time, the domestic horror genre may be just the right treat. Do you love baking more than anything? Did the Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables give you bliss? Mother!! explores the half-admitted desires through the lens of a mysterious entity, half portrait on the wall, half a sourdough starter called Black Death, who takes over, or rather, is invited to take over the lives of three people spending quarantine in the woods of Upstate New York. Matching Batsheva outfits, a haunting nursery rhyme, and the rapture of hanging laundry on a meadow bewitch the two women. The man, meanwhile, although at first content with his wood chopping and the delicious food he is served, becomes more and more suspicious where this embrace of traditional gender prompts may eventually lead …

Maya Singer with Rebecca Hall in Mother!!
Maya Singer with Rebecca Hall in Mother!!

From New York City, Maya Singer joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Mother!!

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello!

Maya Singer: Hi!

AKT: Mother!! With two exclamation marks! Why two of those?

MS: Truthfully, the whole idea for this movie came from me making a wisecrack. I had just watched the Bong Joon-ho movie, Mother, which I loved, and was on the porch with Morgan and Rebecca and we were kicking around ideas for what might be a good movie for this project.

And I was like, maybe we should do something like a movie called Mother, but it’s about sourdough starter, because it’s called the mother. But there is already this movie called Mother and then I was remembering the Darren Aronofsky movie that has Mother! With an exclamation point. I was like, well, we’ll just have two exclamation points. It came from joking around and then it seemed apt because the movie itself is in some ways very silly.

AKT: It’s silly, but in its silliness it hits a certain kind of truth. And a certain kind of desire that I think was exposed during COVID and maybe even a little bit before, which makes it go beyond the joke of the sourdough. So the sourdough came first and then came the Batsheva dresses? Or the other way around? You may notice what I’m wearing for you today.

Batsheva Hay with Anne-Katrin Titze at her pop-up shop on West Broadway in early 2019
Batsheva Hay with Anne-Katrin Titze at her pop-up shop on West Broadway in early 2019 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MS: Yes! It bears mentioning that along with Morgan and Rebecca, my other best friend is Batsheva. I own a lot of her clothes and consequently Rebecca also owns a lot of her clothes. Truthfully, the real beginning of the movie was me, being a very city person, being plunged into a pastoral kind of environment. And not really knowing how long I was going to be there. Is this like the rest of my life, forever?

Kind of lurking in the back of my mind somewhere was all of this dialogue on the Internet about Tradwives and, you know, people wearing the Batsheva look with all of these prairie dresses and this kind of fantasy about what a more natural country life would be. And how that’s kind of gendered in this old-fashioned way. Somewhere in my brain that crossed with the baking. I wish I could tell you how, but the synapses just happened to connect.

AKT: What I like is that you turn it into this horror genre, acknowledging the danger. And that is something that Batsheva always had in her clothes, even before COVID hit. There is a certain danger that comes with wearing her clothes. I also have to admit that I own quite a few pieces, and there is always a little danger of being swallowed up.

MS: Yes, that’s a really good way to put it. I remember when she first started the collection. She started, she basically made some dresses for herself and was wearing them out. And we were going places together and she was always getting these comments from women. It was interesting, because it was often these women who were walking up and wearing kind of slinky or skin-baring things. And she would be in this totally covered kind of look.

Rebecca Hall with Morgan Spector in Mother!!
Rebecca Hall with Morgan Spector in Mother!!

And they were just enraptured by it. How do I get that? How do I wear a dress that has long sleeves and a high neck and a wallpaper floral print? It was a fascinating thing to observe, how responsive women were. There was some kind of hunger that she was tapping into. To, I don’t know, express femininity in a different way than this kind of extremely body-conscious thing that we’ve been living in for such a long time.

AKT: Yeah, permission. There is a kind of permission she is giving us with her dresses. This is fine. Your five-year-old self was right, this is something that’s nice to wear. It’s fascinating that the permission is needed, but I do think it is. Just for myself, I needed that push to allow myself to wear these clothes.

MS: 100%! It’s like, when you say that sense of tapping into that childhood sense. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Anne of Green Gables and all I wanted in life was basically a puff sleeve blouse.

AKT: Little Women.

MS: Exactly. Those were absolutely formative fantasies, alongside, like, Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. It all inter-percolates. But one thing got totally embraced by the culture and the other thing got totally shoved aside. Until Batsheva came along and was like, no, no, no, I love Gunne Sax dresses and I love Laura Ashley and that’s what I’m going to wear and I’m going to make clothes for people like me who want that.

Batsheva pop-up shop on Grand Street in November 2020
Batsheva pop-up shop on Grand Street in November 2020 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And it doesn’t have to be weakness, because it had that connotation of weakness before. We’re still talking about your film and not only about Batsheva. The scene when you and Rebecca are looking at the oven! My mother when I was little sat me in front of the washing machine and I loved watching the clothes go by and sat there for half an hour. There’s a childishness and playfulness in the film that I loved.

MS: Thank you. It’s really funny that you say that. I’m working on developing a TV show with Playground Entertainment and FilmNation and there are things that are in Mother!! that are also there, like that sense of an emerging tension.

A lot of the little moments that I have written in the pilot are also about the main character watching things revolve, like the washing machine. Or something in the microwave, or the ceiling fan. And that sense that time is going by, I’m here, and we’re like in a loop. I’ve a real interest in these kind of weird repetitions, I would say.

AKT: And the man, in this case Morgan, is disturbed. He has his woodchopping and whatever program he is listening to. But there is a too-muchness for him. It isn’t Stepford Wives, is it?

MS: No, I mean it’s interesting, going back to the Batsheva of it all, it’s like the more domestic and feminine Rebecca and I become in the movie, the more sort of like powerful we become. The more diminished he is. By the time you get to the final shot of him, where he’s resigned and shoving bread into his mouth, we won, you know? Whatever it is that has taken us over is making him the slave to our values.

Morgan Spector in Mother!!
Morgan Spector in Mother!!

AKT: There are three of the With/Ins that I really liked and yours is right up there. “Feed me” stems from The Little Shop Of Horrors?

MS: Not consciously. It’s something I saw as a kid that was probably unconscious in my head, but Rebecca has been making sourdough bread for years, long before the pandemic trend. There was a period when both she and Morgan were shooting and I was housesitting for them. It was like, can you take care of the cats? But you also need to feed the mother. Just that idea, the constant care and feeding of this seemingly inanimate object. It was an interesting idea for me, like “feed me!”

AKT: Nice reversal. Mother feeds baby. Now you feed the mother, which will then feed you. If you don’t, then bad things will happen to you. A little aside, it’s so nice to see a film where the bookshelves look real. In a real house with people reading the books that are there. Some big budget movies could take a slice of that. How was the filming itself? How did you feel about being on camera? You wrote it.

MS: Had we been doing this in a real process, I would not have been acting in it. The whole thing was so intense, there was this whole period leading up to getting the equipment. Morgan and I were doing consultations with Zach Kuperstein, the consulting cinematographer. There was a lot of putting blinds halfway down. It was very improvisational. Just trying to figure out how to do all that stuff, like running the sound.

Rebecca Hall to Morgan Spector in Mother!!: “PUT ON THAT SWEATER!”
Rebecca Hall to Morgan Spector in Mother!!: “PUT ON THAT SWEATER!”

Full credit to Morgan, he really took the lead on figuring out the technical stuff. I was kind of riding shotgun, because I’m not a technically super adept person. The shooting process was incredibly intense. Thinking about how much we managed to cover in the course of four days, I’m actually genuinely astonished.

AKT: Did you do the catering with the tagine, or was that fake?

MS: The tagine, we did not make a tagine. I think we went to the grocery store and got some box of instant couscous that we added something else to.

AKT: Back to the desire, what do you think is going to happen to that whole Batsheva, prairie desire, now that COVID is hopefully on its way out? What do you think?

MS: I think it’s funny, you know, during the really quarantine part of the pandemic, she was doing a ton of house dresses.

AKT: And oven mitts.

MS: And oven mitts and stuff like that. And now, she told me, the thing that’s selling the best is the high-waist jeans with a ruffle trim. Or she is doing them in prints. It does seem like people are gravitating back towards things that are like - okay, I’m leaving the house, I’m going out. I think that probably the pandemic experience is going to be one of those things that people have some amnesia about but it’s still in the back of their minds.

Almost like a PTSD way. Like, just remember that at any moment you have to be ready to just clamp down and be inside. Something like this could happen again. Not having a long-term commitment to a pilates studio, having workout stuff in my apartment. It’s interesting that I find myself working in the horror genre, because I was never a horror fan.

AKT: “PUT ON THAT SWEATER!” Say hello to Batsheva from me and send her my greetings!

MS: I will! Thank you so much.

Coming up - Talia Balsam on Bart Freundlich’s Intersection, starring Talia, Julianne Moore, and Don Cheadle, and Morgan Spector on Mother!!, starring Rebecca Hall, Maya Singer, and Morgan.

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