In the new psychological thriller “Ma,” a middle-aged woman played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer befriends a group of teenagers and invites them to use the basement of her house as a place to party. Of course they accept, and much of the film happens there, though the subterranean space we see in the film isn’t really a basement, because production designer Marc Fisichella couldn’t find one in the town where director Tate Taylor shot the film.
“There are no basements in Natchez, Miss.,” Fisichella says, noting, “You would never build below the water table.”
So the production designer transformed an existing semi-finished garage into the basement seen in the film. The process started with demolition. Fisichella removed the paneling that had been installed and was rewarded with brick and wood underneath. “As I slowly peeled it away, I felt, yeah, this could work as a basement,” he says.
The semi-finished garage was only about 25 feet by 35 feet — not enormous by any means for an area packed with teens. But the space was fairly tall — “sort of a story-and-a-half room open all the way up to the pitched roof,” Fisichella says. So he and his team created a false ceiling from the rustic wood and beams and turned it into an area that could be used for filming the action below. “That became the low ceiling for the basement,” he explains, “and we had workspace above to shoot and light through.”
Fisichella also built a staircase in the faux basement that, in the film, leads up to the main house (though in reality, it doesn’t lead anywhere). He also constructed a claustrophobic bathroom — basically a toilet in a wooden stall — and put it on wheels so that it could be moved out of the way whenever DP Christina Voros needed to place a camera in that corner.
“I think what I’m most proud of is that we adapted a real, physical space into what we needed, thinking about the ease of shooting,” Fisichella says.
Conveniently, the semi-finished garage that became the title character’s basement was attached to “somebody’s vision of a 1980s farmhouse,” Fisichella notes, which served as Ma’s home. Even better, the house was empty, and Fisichella had free rein to paint, knock out walls and add staircases.
One of the big projects inside the house was building the cage-like barrier that Ma has at the top of the staircase leading from the main floor to the second. At first, Fisichella assumed he would build a rusty old cage, but after discussing its purpose with the director, he used wooden slats, giving the barrier a more homemade feel.
Ultimately, Fisichella says, having access to an entire house to do with as he pleased was “the next best thing to having a stage and building sets.” The space was already there, he says. “You just had to make it what you wanted.”