Just released on Netflix, the biopic The Most Hated Woman in America is the true story of iconic Atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, starring a brilliant Melissa Leo in the title role. The film had is world premiere earlier this month at SXSW and while there, I sat down with the film’s director Tommy O’Haver alongside writer Irene Turner – who also gave us the brilliant An American Crime – to talk about the film, alternative facts and assembling the film’s exceptional cast.
I had the pleasure of watching the film in a hotel room a couple of days ago.
Irene Turner: Looking over your shoulder?
Yes it was quite an interesting space to watch it, and I just watched it right after a horror film as well. So I had some weird dreams that night.
Irene Turner: I’m guessing that you did.
So tell me first of all how you came to find out about Madalyn?
Irene Turner: We had just done a film called An American Crime, which Tommy directed, and we wrote together. Max Handelman and Elizabeth Banks, our producers, brought us the story. We had never heard of Madalyn, to begin with, after being so famous and so reviled, she had just faded into obscurity.
Was that a national thing though, or do you think that might have been specific to that area?
Tommy O’Haver: No she was pretty big nationally. My parents knew exactly who she was. I just feel like we were just a little too young. If we were 5 years, 10 years older we would have …
Irene Turner: Yeah like 10. But when they brought us a project Tommy and I kind of looked at each other went, “Wow”
Tommy O’Haver: Yeah because it started with the true crime stuff, because our last movie was a true crime film, and the. it was a stranger-than-fiction crime. But there was also this amazing character to explore.
Irene Turner: Like an iconoclast with strong convictions and willing to fight for everything she believed in, and then fight for everything else too, and yet so vulnerable and so torn, and in some cases making terrible choices.
Tommy O’Haver: Yeah.
Irene Turner: So that you get to write contradictions and …
Tommy O’Haver: And you get to write a character with a very bad mouth on her.
Irene Turner: Yeah.
Tommy O’Haver: Every other word is fuck. It’s just wonderful.
Irene Turner: It is so freeing to be able to write a character who has …
Tommy O’Haver: No inhibitions.
Irene Turner: No filter.
Tommy O’Haver: Yeah no filter.
And not in a True Blood universe or something.
Irene Turner: Yeah seriously, where you just get to go for it. And also you can just mine her interviews for great dialogue.
Tommy O’Haver: Yeah there was plenty of writing on her, so the research was great, and a lot of the lines that are in the film that she says are actual things that she said. Now that was just the beginning though, because around her was this crew of bizarros including her children. Just such a motley crew to bring to life, between her children, between the criminals, there was just so much life in this story, that it was hard to … well it was impossible to resist. So that’s how we got involved in it.
So this is going back not quite a decade …
Irene Turner: Yeah about seven years. And we actually in some ways were kind of blessed it took so long, because it feels like this is the right time to bring out the film, and Netflix is a perfect platform for it. It’s going to reach people in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise. It’s just an odd little film and Netflix will just be able to bring so much to it. Personally I wanted it to get made, and as it turns out it’s a good thing that we waited.
The casting of the film is so brilliant, did you have Melissa Leo in mind for that at the beginning?
Tommy O’Haver: Yeah kind of. This was, again, five, six years ago I had seen what we had finished. We pretty much finished maybe fourth, fifth draft and then we just start talking about the casting and I saw The Fighter, and I saw Melissa in The Fighter, and I thought, “Oh my god she would be a great Madalyn Murray O’Hair” so sent the script to her, I met her in New York, we hit it off, and she stuck with us this whole time. Because it’s not easy to get a movie made about a murdered atheist.
Irene Turner: A once famous murdered atheist.
Tommy O’Haver: You don’t have a lot of people just throwing money at you.
Irene Turner: But yeah she’s been amazing with sticking with us and championing the film.
Tommy O’Haver: Yeah so there was here and then we did a staged reading, and Juno Temple did that. And I had met Michael Chernus a couple years before the Netflix came in, but that was starting to shape up who the cast might be, and then it happened. Once Netflix got involved it really … when it was going it just happened so quickly, because it was fairly low budget. It was a low budget film, and a very limited schedule, and we did not have a lot of time for prep. So the cast just kind of came together magically.
Irene Turner: And they had to be actors who could just walk in the door….
Tommy O’Haver: …and do it. There was no time for rehearsal.
Irene Turner: You just have pros, so they’ve all done so much work that they, including on TV, so they could just come in and Tommy can point them in the right direction.
And they’ll walk.
Tommy O’Haver: We didn’t even have time to do a table read, which I’ve never not done before. There was just no time. Usually your actors meet each other before they have to act against each other on the set, but it was moving so quickly, and there was so many bizarre scheduling things going on it was just very lucky that they all worked out.
Well the stars aligned and the actors make it such an enjoyable film. There’s a lot of heart and humour given to Melissa’s role. How much of that was her interpretation of it, and how much was what you wanted from the paper?
Tommy O’Haver: Well some of that was obviously on the page, but this whole ensemble, with her as the centrepiece of course, they really … it was definitely one of my favourite experiences working with a group of actors because on the page … and this is very clear, the Garth character, which is played by Michael Chernus, and Robin, which is played by Juno Temple, and you’ve got this guy Danny Fry who is one of the crooks, who’s played by Alex Frost.
On the page they don’t have that many lines, they’re just kind of there all the time, so it’s just a blessing to have actors come in and basically inhabit those roles and take it to a whole new level, where you really do feel a sense of ensemble there, which if you read the script you might not necessarily get that. And thank god they didn’t have huge egos and say, “This role is too small for me” like Robin’s character, I think she has like 10 lines in the whole movie, but she’s a very important part of the film, and all of it’s done with her looks. So we’re just very lucky that they can do that.
Irene Turner: The sort of actors that you can cut to at any time because they just are so engaged.
Tommy O’Haver: Yeah. That stuff in the hotel room in particular was a really interesting process, because most of those people hadn’t met each other before and Melissa automatically bonded with Juno Temple and with Michael Chernus, like they were this little team off in the corner the whole time, and she was kind of purposely mean to the three thugs. To Josh Lucas and Rory Cockran, and Alex Frost, and it was hilarious, because it did create this weird tension.
Even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
Tommy O’Haver: When the cameras weren’t rolling. She totally will admit to it to this day, but she says, “I didn’t even realise that was happening” and I was like, “It was so obvious to me”. She (Melissa) was so mean to Josh Lucas. She was so mean to him. And then Rory Cochrane was kind of amazing, because he was a little bit method too, because he would hang outside, have cigarettes, and sit in his trailer, and then he’d come onto the set and this time when he first pulls out a gun, we’re about to run through the scene and all of the sudden he pulls out this gun and shoves it in Melissa’s face and starts screaming at the top of his lungs, and we were all like “Oh my god” everybody was shaking, like, “Who is this guy?”. Because he was playing the wild card in the room and he really was the wild card on the set, and he did that very much on purpose.
That’s what happens when you hire professionals.
Be careful what you wish for. There may be some guns pulled on set.
Both: *laughs* Yeah.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
Irene Turner: Well the main thing is, there’s two things. The political level is the importance of church and state.
Tommy O’Haver: Separation of church and state.
Irene Turner: I mean separation of church and state. Thank you Tommy. That’s the kind of thing, but really it’s about understanding Madalyn and how things are not black and white, and why she did what she did, who she was, and just have a sense of that and be open to that.
Tommy O’Haver: The ideas that … yeah. Human beings are complicated. They are not black and white. And even though this world we live in today, we were talking about the YouTube comments how they are so pro-atheist or anti-atheist.
Irene Turner: So polarised.
There’s no in between.
Irene Turner: To the point that it’s funny.
Tommy O’Haver: There’s no in between. But Madalyn is the perfect example that people are always in between. They are very complicated and I would hope that we can start to see that … I think most people do that, but with the media today you start to think everything’s either black or white, and the world is not black and white, and it’s important to remind ourselves of that. Madalyn’s the perfect example.
There are plenty of alternative facts and fake news.
Irene Turner: Yes.
Tommy O’Haver: Oh my gosh for sure.
And that’s a longer story for another day.
Tommy O’Haver: I guess that is true. Truth is not black and white anymore. It’s so bizarre.
Irene Turner: Alternative facts. Yeah.
There you go.
Tommy O’Haver: Very muddy waters these days in the White House.
The Most Hated Woman in America premiered at SXSW earlier this month and is now screening on Netflix internationally.