Megan Borns discusses South African thriller and Shudder Original Good Madam with its co-writers for an exclusive interview about the film.
Megan Borns sat down with Jenna Cato Bass and Babalwa Baartman, who not only directed and produced the new Shudder Original film Good Madam but co-wrote it with Chumisa Cosa. The South African horror film delves deep into many social and relationship issues, handling both with subtle but clearly defined points about service, inequity, and reclamation.
The story follows Tsidi (Cosa), a woman starting on a tumultuous spiritual journey as she reconnects with her mother, a domestic worker named Mavis (Nosipho Mtebe), following the death of her grandmother. Plagued by visions of an unsettled past within the house and the specter-like presence of Madam (Jennifer Boraine), Tsidi and her family must reconcile their ancestor’s pasts with the still-present horrors of post-Apartheid South African society.
Thrilling, unsettling, and unconventional, Good Madam has all the twists and tensions that make a wonderfully engaging socially-minded horror film.
Good Madam is streaming exclusively on Shudder.
Megan Borns: Were you horror lovers before making this film and if so, how did you discover your love for the genre?
Bass: I couldn’t watch horror for like pretty much my entire life because I’m quite sensitive. I would want to know what they were about, but I could never watch them. As a film student, I would read the scripts, but watching them would upset me too much. Only in my late twenties did I start watching horror. I felt that I had this whole exciting world to discover in horror. I’ve always been fascinated with dark things and understanding why I’m afraid of them and where that fear comes from. It’s a form of empowerment, watching horror films and facing my fears.
Baartman: I stopped watching horror early, by maybe twenty. I was the one who was always sneaking behind the couch when my older brothers were watching horror, so I traumatized myself at a young age with Stephen King’s IT (1990). That’s what you do when you’re a teen, watch a lot of horror, and eventually, I was done with it. Then Jenna had to yank me back in.
Megan Borns: Are there any horror tropes or elements you find particularly terrifying that you decided to include in this film?
Bass and Baartman: What is always the scariest is the not knowing and the sense that anything could happen at any point. You start to recognize certain tropes, and they start to become predictable. We used both expected and unexpected tropes to constantly keep people feeling like they aren’t entirely sure what kind of horror film they are watching. I wanted to use tropes in a way that was ambiguous to trip people up and keep them guessing.
Megan Borns: What was it like working with so many writers on this project?
Bass and Baartman: To clarify, all the writers are our cast. They’re not necessarily like other writers that we pass the script around to. We workshop the script, and we credit our whole cast. When you tackle the kind of subject matter and themes that we do in the film, being able to collaborate and to get many other perspectives and other views on it is something quite beautiful on its own.
Learning the other writers’ perspectives on characters and those characters’ journeys was enjoyable. There is a back and forth as the writer, having to interrogate what it is you are saying, and then also give the actors the space and room to interrogate their character, which goes far in how they take ownership of the character, and gives the story the necessary and needed depth and layers. It appears that there are all these writers, but it shows the collaborative process and then, also, a very fun part as the writers, is shocking the people who we were working with in terms of how these characters are developing!
Megan Borns: The film has an almost constant underlying humming, chanting, or background appliance noise. Tell us more about why this detail was included?
Bass: Our sound design and the soundtrack were interlinked, and we always knew that we wanted to create the sense that the spaces that we are in are all-consuming and over-powering, and everything about the house that could make noise is demanding your attention all the time. This house really does hold that much power over Mavis and her family and represents so much in South African society, like this big mansion that’s owned by one person and its relation to domestic labor. It’s this inescapable sound of work that epitomizes Mavis’s life and this legacy that she can’t escape from.
Baartman: When it comes to the other parts of the sound, which you referred to as chanting, it’s actually traditional singing that we used to represent the voices of all the previous workers that have been buried in that land. Reclaiming is a huge part of the theme, and the sound represents that concept. Even saying “chanting” is inaccurate because that may have been how it was described, but in reclaiming, you need to understand that this is communication, that it’s a genre of music within the Xhosa culture.
So, using the layers of traditional music was a way of representing all of the generations that have been victims of Madam and her family. Those voices form Tsidi’s spiritual journey. Her grandmother has just passed away, but there's a spiritual portal that's still open, and that is the space that she connects with to be able to reconcile with the events happening around her. It was that push and pull between those voices and what they represent, and the house itself and what it limited Mavis into being.
Megan Borns: Are there other films, filmmakers, or personal experiences that inspired you when writing Good Madam?
Bass: In terms of personal experiences, being South African. Besides that, one of the scariest filmmakers that have always haunted me the most is David Lynch. His approach to horror is one that I resonate with. It’s this sense of unease that mimics anxiety and fear the best, unlike the feeling of absolute shock or terror that some horror films have. Ben Wheatly is also a filmmaker who constantly surprises me, which is unusual in contemporary filmmaking. I’m never sure what he’s going to do next and how he’s going to do it, but he’s always going to totally unseat me with a very small budget and with very little resources.
Megan Borns: What are your thoughts on the film releasing as a Shudder Original?
Bass: I am very happy and excited and proud that horror audiences have embraced this unconventional horror film, as I was terrified I’d make a horror film and people would be like, oh no, sorry, you’ve failed. Shudder is a great place for streaming, and I’m excited to continue to see what audiences think of the film.
Megan Borns: Would details can you share about any upcoming projects?
Baartman: Definitely not doing horror this time around, but we’re doing an Afro-noir film. It’s a story that focuses on tradition, culture, and what it means to be an African woman. It also dives into what it takes to bridge the generational gap and what African feminism means in the South African context.
Bass: I’m onto more frivolous genre stuff. Something about ghosts and another one about time travel, which I’ve been really wanting to make for some time now.