[Interview] Iris K. Shim for UMMA (엄마)
Courtesy Sony Pictures
Moms, amirite? The relationship between a mom and daughter can, at times, be just as tenuous as it can be loving. In Iris K. Shim’s latest film, UMMA, which means “mom” in Korean, explores the dynamics between a mother/daughter as they are forced to confront their heritage when supernatural occurrences begin to take shape.

UMMA follows Amanda (Sandra Oh) and her daughter (Fivel Stewart) living a quiet life on an American farm, but when the remains of her estranged mother arrive from Korea, Amanda becomes haunted by the fear of turning into her own mother.

Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with writer/director Iris K. Shim where they discussed everything from the inspiration of the story to working on bringing the film to life with Raimi Productions, and wrapping with a deep dive on that mask we see in UMMA.

It’s such a pleasure speaking with you today, Iris. This movie felt very, very personal. Can you talk about bringing this story to life?

Iris K. Shim: I feel like I should preface this was not directly inspired by my mom [Laughs]. I have a very loving and great relationship with my mom. That might be a part of the reason that I was drawn to telling this story because I have such fondness for my mom. If suddenly she were to become someone else, that would be so, so terrifying to me. I think that part of it was like what’s the worst thing that could happen to this woman who is trying so desperately to be a good mother, and then it’s for her to be confronted with her own mother and the unresolved issues that they had. For each of the daughter characters to see their mothers in a different way and to learn about them and to really humanize them and understand that they had a life before they came along or certain struggles they were grappling with, that they tried to shield their daughters from. I think really having that openness and that arc for both daughters to sort of recognize it in their own mothers was something that was really important to explore for me.

[Interview] Iris K. Shim for UMMA (엄마)
Courtesy Sony Pictures
Sandra Oh is hypnotic in this. And not only does she star in the film but she also executive produced it. That being said, how did she get involved with the project?

Iris K. Shim: I still pinch myself to this day that we got her. Sometimes I’m like, did that really happen? [Laughs]. It helps me to have a specific actor in mind [when writing]. And so I was like okay, Sandra Oh, obviously we’re never going to get her but, you know, a girl can dream. So I kept writing with her in mind and then once we got Raimi Productions attached, Sam’s producer Zainab Azizi asked me who I wanted to cast in this. I was like, well, Sandra Oh, but I don’t know if we’re ever going to get her. And so, she reached out to Sandra’s team and I didn’t realize this at the time, but Sandra was very much interested in taking on characters that had elements of their background and their ethnicity woven into the character. Not necessarily that the story is about them being Korean or Asian American but that it had to at least be part of the fabric of the identity to really get that sort of authenticity. I also felt like, well, I’ve never seen her do anything genre and so I wasn’t even sure she’d be open to this. But as soon as she heard and understood the sort of broad strokes of what the film was, she was very open to meeting. We had an initial meeting with her before she had read the script to get to know each other and it was really clear that she was coming from that place of wanting to look for specific roles to play. When she did read the script she signed on. She has so much affection for her own mom that I think for both of us, we really want [this movie] to almost be like a weird twisted love story to our mothers [Laughs]. It was really an incredible dream come true to get her on board.

Circling back, you mentioned working with Raimi Productions. Additionally, horror director André Øvredal is attached as executive producer. How was it working with horror heavy hitters such as them, and did they help in setting up some of the scares?

Iris K. Shim: We first signed up with Sam’s company so it’s through Raimi Productions, which is a fairly newer entity than Ghost House. It’s run by his producing partner Zainab and she’s a young woman of color. When we first sent them the script it was through her and she was the first one that read it and really responded strongly to it. And to me, it was just a clear indication that it doesn’t matter how many diverse creators there are, the gatekeepers that can make these decisions and actually directly impact whether or not a movie gets greenlit also has to reflect that sort of diversity. Because she has such a passion for [the movie], I give her a lot of credit for actually getting the movie made.

In the development phase, Sam was very involved and it was also very important to him to also explore the characters. I know that he’s very much a horror icon, but it is also so important for him to explore the character. I think he really understood that this was not just a horror movie for me, it was very much coming from a personal place where there were other sorts of elements and themes that were important to explore. He was very supportive of that. Then André came on board a little bit afterward and he was great. We had such a good time working together and it was really kind of coming from that sort of…just discussions of like, okay, in terms of the story that we’re exploring, how can we get the scares to service the story and the characters. Both collaborations were really good.

Courtesy Sony Pictures

Before we wrap this up, I wanted to touch upon the mask used in the film, as it is directly tied to the horror that unfolds. Was that something that you created or was it an item that already existed?

Iris K. Shim: I grew up in Chicago and my parents are fairly traditional Korean immigrants, so they would decorate the house with Korean art. When I was younger growing up in Chicago, even though it was a very diverse city, there were definitely moments when I felt like, oh, I feel different, I wish I could blend in more, I feel a little bit out of place. At a certain point, I think consciously I wouldn’t say rejected, but I sort of ignored and wasn’t prioritizing like, what are these things? What does this mean? Where does this come from? It was just something on the walls and I was not very interested in it. And my parents weren’t necessarily pushing me to like, oh, you should really be embedded in our culture. They understood that we were in America and that it would be actually very sort of limiting to try to raise us in a way that was strictly Korean. And so, in terms of assimilation and just embracing the American culture, they were sort of supportive and kind of weren’t too overbearing.

It was a really fun process in making this movie [and learning] what are these things that I remember from my childhood that I don’t really quite understand. So I really wanted to reflect that, particularly in Chris’s (Fivel Stewart) character arc, where even though she has Korean blood, the way that she was raised she did not have any exposure to these things. So really this part of her identity felt very stifled. So for her, as a Korean person, to see these elements from her culture and feel like they were foreign was something that I felt was very reflective of my experience where like, I didn’t really know what they were. I think, actually, my mom had a lot of fun cause I would call her and be like, “Hey, what’s this thing? What does that mean?” [Laughs]. I think she was pleased that I was asking a lot of questions.

So the mask I almost feel is in this kitschy territory where you might see a lot of them as key chains or little things that people hang on their cell phones, like little ornaments. I remember we had walls of masks in my house and I didn’t know what they were, and the more that I did research on them, the more I learned how much history they had. So the more that I sort of was researching it, the more I felt like, oh, I really want this to feel the way that I felt like when I first saw them, like these are kind of freaky. Then by the time I learned about them, it was much more like, oh, this is not just a scary thing, it comes from something, you know, from the culture and the history that I need to know more about. So I think, especially for Chris, being confronted with a lot of this imagery and then by the end of the movie accepting and embracing them and being a lot more curious about them was really important to get that character arc.

UMMA will be able exclusively in movie theaters on March 18, 2022.

This film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for the following reasons: terror, brief strong language, and some thematic elements.

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