An impending pastoral

Morgan Spector on Philip Roth, Batsheva Hay and Mother!!

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Director and Mother!! star Morgan Spector: “There are various forms of that fantasy of a lost or impending pastoral. And that’s what we were trying to get at …”
Director and Mother!! star Morgan Spector: “There are various forms of that fantasy of a lost or impending pastoral. And that’s what we were trying to get at …”

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.

Morgan Spector with Anne-Katrin Titze on Batsheva Hay worn by Rebecca Hall and Maya Singer in Mother!!: “I love her clothes and I love her, she’s a wonderful person.”
Morgan Spector with Anne-Katrin Titze on Batsheva Hay worn by Rebecca Hall and Maya Singer in Mother!!: “I love her clothes and I love her, she’s a wonderful person.”

During my conversation with Morgan Spector the past week, Henry David Thoreau fantasies, rewatching Brad Pitt in David Fincher’s Fight Club in 2021, Willem Dafoe in Abel Ferrara’s Siberia, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Halston costume designer Jeriana San Juan (clothes aged by Stephen Pardee), Ann Roth (second Oscar win for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom), Julian Fellows’ Gilded Age, Stepford Wives, Batsheva Hay’s clothes, a sweater by Gabriela Hearst (CFDA Fashion Awards 2020 American Womenswear Designer of the Year), and a sourdough starter called Black Death all came up.

Mother!!, screenplay by Maya Singer, 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 …

Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in Mother!!
Rebecca Hall and Morgan Spector in Mother!!

From Upstate New York, Morgan Spector joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Mother!!

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, where are you?

Morgan Spector: I’m in Upstate New York.

AKT: Maya and I missed you last week.

MS: I’m sorry, I didn’t get the confirmation of the interview until the last minute and I had already booked something.

AKT: Well, no problem, we can talk now. Mother!!, as I mentioned to Maya, is one of my favourites in this series.

MS: Thank you.

AKT: How did it feel directing? Did you get the bug? Do you want to direct more?

MS: If you had asked me right after we finished shooting, I would have said, absolutely not, I never want to do this again. But having the opportunity to screen it in front of people at Tribeca, I had this sensation of, I see the flaws of this and all the ways that this is not great, but there are things about it that I have tremendous affection for. That make me smile just watching it.

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

AKT: For example?

MS: Just like the silly kind of over-the-top genre clichés that we imposed, like thunderclaps in frightening moments. Or Maya had this wonderful idea of superimposing multiple shots of her mouth at the end of the film as she was saying “feed me!” It was us amusing each other and there’s something wonderful about that even if not everybody thinks it’s funny. To say overall, I like this thing, that was very satisfying. That’s what kind of made me want to do it again.

AKT: Often if it makes you smile, it also amuses the world. I’m wearing Batsheva, I hope I don’t scare you.

MS: Cool, yes of course you are. That’s fantastic, I appreciate that. We’re huge fans of her. Our daughter has some Batsheva stuff. I love her clothes and I love her, she’s a wonderful person.

AKT: How old is your daughter?

MS: She’s three.

AKT: And wearing Batsheva, wow! She has some great children’s clothes.

MS: Yes she does.

AKT: You didn’t want to include your daughter in the film?

Maya Singer and Rebecca Hall keeping an eye on the sourdough bread in the oven of Mother!!
Maya Singer and Rebecca Hall keeping an eye on the sourdough bread in the oven of Mother!!

MS: No, I’d like to let her decide when she gets photographed and have people look at her that she doesn’t know and that aren’t family. That’s our preference.

AKT: That’s wise. And the film is called Mother!!, not Daughter!! I love the moment when you hesitate to flush down Mother in the sink. It’s as if the entire world’s future hinges on this decision of yours.

MS: Right. That’s the moment in the movie where Jim realizes that there’s something very weird going on and that he can’t ignore it anymore. He somehow intuited that it all comes down to this disgusting substance in this little jar which he imbued with no power whatsoever. But as you pointed out, there’s this little moment where he goes “Er, maybe there is something to this stuff.” That’s the moment where the movie kind of shifts, the scene where it tilts a little bit. He starts to think, I’ve got to put a stop to this.

AKT: I spoke with Maya about this prairie fantasy. Batsheva gives us permission to embrace this fantasy. So I am wondering, is there a firewood chainsaw fantasy equivalent for you?

MS: Totally. Whether it’s like a Thoreauvian fantasy of self-reliance and isolation and creative meditation in the forest. Or more of a Monerian prepper fantasy of the end of the world and standing fast against the oncoming anarchic hordes, whatever. There are various forms of that fantasy of a lost or impending pastoral. And that’s what we were trying to get at, you know, how totally insane that is. What a strange world that would absolutely be.

Morgan Spector (costume designer Jeriana San Juan) in The Plot Against America
Morgan Spector (costume designer Jeriana San Juan) in The Plot Against America

AKT: Did you ever make bread?

MS: I don’t make bread. There are things that I can’t do with my fingers, like getting dough off hard surfaces. Not because I have a disability but because I’m incredibly clumsy. My wife [Rebecca Hall] is very good at making sourdough and was long before the movie. Since the movie she hasn’t made any more, I have to tell you that.

AKT: It looks delicious, it looks really great.

MS: It was, it’s great.

AKT: Which month did you film?

MS: You know, it is kind of a blur at this point. We shut down in March, it must have been early May, mid-May maybe. We were one of the earlier groups.

AKT: It’s so interesting how these fantasies that were there before the pandemic started to blossom last year. I just did an interview with Abel Ferrara, whose latest film Siberia is opening now. And it’s all about Willem Dafoe in the wilderness with huskies and snow, ruminating about his life by the campfire. The film was finished before COVID. It’s interesting what is the Zeitgeist.

Morgan Spector on Stephen Pardee, who aged the clothes for The Plot Against America; “Oh yeah, I love him. He’s a great guy.”
Morgan Spector on Stephen Pardee, who aged the clothes for The Plot Against America; “Oh yeah, I love him. He’s a great guy.”

MS: I think we can all feel that the system that we are living in is unsustainable and it feels like collapse is not only inevitable, but probably desirable in some way. I actually don’t think it’s even that new. I was just rewatching Fight Club. I was like, how does this movie look in 2021? That too is this fantasy of apocalypse in a way. There’s something in the air and it’s been in the air since maybe the early Nineties. Feeling this can’t last forever.

AKT: And at the same time, not really having an alternative, as though Capitalism is going to be spinning in and out of control forever. What made you rewatch Fight Club, of all things?

MS: I was just scrolling through Amazon. I mean, I haven’t seen it since it came out. I watched it in the theatre when it came out, and I remember you’re captivated by Brad Pitt’s physique and the aesthetics of the film. It feels very odd, there’s a resonance between the Trump era and the Tyler Durden fantasy. I’m sure people have explored that. I wondered how it feels now, after having gone through this MAGA era.

AKT: And you were in The Plot Against America.

MS: I was.

AKT: I have to tell you that I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s one of my favourite Philip Roth books.

MS: Oh really? I love it.

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

AKT: I actually spoke to the person who was aging your clothes.

MS: Jeriana [San Juan]?

AKT: Stephen Pardee.

MS: Oh yeah, I love him. He’s a great guy. How did you happen to speak to him?

AKT: I was at the great Ann Roth’s apartment to interview her. She was delayed, but Stephen was there and he made me tea and told me about the aging of the clothes for The Plot Against America. Later we all had birthday cake that Meryl Streep had sent over for Ann Roth. Did he age your clothes well?

MS: Yeah, he aged them beautifully. When my character starts off, he’s a very hard-working insurance salesman. During the course of the series, he loses his position and he ends up unloading boxes in his brother’s grocery warehouse. So he becomes very blue-collar. He goes from lower-end white-collar to blue-collar, so his clothes needed a significant amount of aging.

AKT: That conversation was obviously a while before the series came out, so I definitely have to catch up and see it now.

MS: Did you see that series Halston?

The great Ann Roth celebrated her birthday with a cake sent over by Meryl Streep
The great Ann Roth celebrated her birthday with a cake sent over by Meryl Streep Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Yes!

MS: Jeriana [San Juan] who did all the costumes for Halston also did our costumes. She’s brilliant, so if you are tracking that kind of work, she’s really fantastic.

AKT: What’s coming up for you?

MS: I just finished shooting a new series that’s going to be on HBO next spring, called Gilded Age. It’s Julian Fellows, who did Downton Abbey, it’s his American series about a culture clash between the robber barons and the old money landed gentry, well, rich people in New York society in 1882.

AKT: Sounds great, right up my alley.

MS: Yeah, it’ll be fun.

AKT: Talking of clothes, the threat of the sweater in Mother!! Does Rebecca knit, besides making bread? Or where did the sweater come from?

MS: She doesn’t knit. That sweater was a Gabriela Hearst sweater that she loaned me before the pandemic for a press day. And then it ended up just sitting in my house for a year. We couldn’t figure out how to get out of that scene visually. And Rebecca had this great idea. So she comes towards the camera with her eyes [seen through the neck opening of the sweater]. Right before the cut you can see these two pinhole bright lights in the centre of her pupils. It’s actually terrifying.

AKT: Very strong scene! Stepford Wives came to mind. Did you think about that?

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

MS: In a vague indirect way. As they start to dress more alike and when they begin to sing as they hang up the laundry, it becomes the link to domestic work and the obeisance they begin to pay Jim. They begin to treat him as if he’s the man of this house in a way and he’s uncomfortable and taken aback by it. That kind of dynamic definitely was in the air.

AKT: Besides the comedy and the horror, it has a cautionary element of be careful what you wish for. It may swallow you up.

MS: Yes, certainly.

AKT: That could be sourdough bread or too much time in the woods.

MS: The starter when it comes is called Black Death. And there’s that choral piece, which is like a 13th century choral ode, from the era of the Black Plague and it’s actually a prayer to Saint Sebastian to stop the Plague.

And everybody was making sourdough, everybody was cooking, all of this effort to find some totem that would protect you or redeem the time we were spending in lockdown, some object or some practice that would make it so you weren’t just living under perpetual emergency and fear. I think as light a touch as we’re aiming for in this piece, that’s there as well.

AKT: The magical thinking connects both. The other two episodes I really liked in the series, one of them is Intersection, which has the sister interaction, which is very much a fairy tale trope but very much in the now.

MS: Yeah, I loved that one.

AKT: The other one is Touching, in which the family union has this almost shamanistic dance. They all share a bit of hopefulness and magic, besides all the horror in the world. Thank you so much.

MS: My pleasure, so nice to talk to you!

Read what Maya Singer had to say on Mother!!

Read what Jonathan Cake and Julianne Nicholson had to say on Touching

Coming up - Talia Balsam on Bart Freundlich’s Intersection, starring Talia, Julianne Moore, and Don Cheadle.

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