How ‘Umma’ Director Iris K. Shim Teamed Up With Sandra Oh for the Mother-Daughter Horror Movie

The filmmaker tells TheWrap about making an “unexpected” horror film


“Umma” has come home.

The new original horror film (its title based on the Korean word for “mother”) from Stage 6 Films sees Sandra Oh play Amanda, living away from technology in a farmhouse with her teenage daughter (Fivel Stewart). They have apiaries and sell the honey. And instead of watching television, they play boardgames. Of course their idyllic – if somewhat odd – lifestyle comes crashing down when a relative brings Amanda’s mother’s ashes to their home.

Things start to happen at the farmhouse, as Amanda must confront the trauma of her past or run the risk of turning into her mother, both literally and figuratively. It’s an inventive horror movie, less about supernatural terror than emotional violence, and is anchored by a tremendous lead performance by Oh (she really goes for it).

TheWrap spoke to writer/director Iris K. Shim about the movie’s origins, asking for help from producer/horror maestro Sam Raimi, and contributing to horror cinema’s legacy of scary bees.

Where did “Umma” come from?

I feel like I should preface this by saying I absolutely adore my mother. We have a very good relationship. This is not in any way inspired by her. But what I set out to do was to write a contained genre, something that I thought that I would be able to direct as my first narrative feature. I was exploring different ways to tell this story. And finally, when I decided to write it through the lens of these Asian American characters, that the story really clicked, in the sense of the ability to explore from own experiences and to manifest them within the horror genre – a lot of questions about identity, about not just intergenerational trauma, but also the disconnect between generations that I think is something that’s so universal. It’s not just specific to the immigrant experience. I think a lot of times we have these moments where we start to see our parents in a different lens or we start to understand that they’re people outside of being our parents. And that’s something that I really wanted to explore in terms of these daughters’ journey to understanding their mothers.

How did you convince Sandra Oh? She really hasn’t done anything quite like this before, so I was wondering what that process was like.

When I wrote the script, I had her in mind. It really helps me to try to visualize a certain actor. And I kept thinking about her and I kept thinking, Well, we’re never going to get her, but I’m just going to keep her in mind as I’m writing. And when I set this up with Sam Raimi’s company, his producing partner, Zainab [Azizi] asked me, “Who are you thinking for casting? And I thought, “Well, I don’t know if we can ever get her, but Sandra Oh, would be amazing. I’m not sure that she would be open to this kind of thing.” I hadn’t seen her doing any type of genre before. I think I was a little bit skeptical that she might engage.

But what I didn’t realize at the time was that she was really hungry for roles that layered in the ethnicity of her character without being so overt or the character’s journey really just being about that ethnic identity. And when we first approached her team about this project, before reading the script, I think she was just very intrigued about this mother-daughter story featuring Korean American characters. As soon as she read the script, I think also because she has such an intense relationship with her mom as well, they’re very close, that I think it really spoke to her on multiple levels. I was very lucky to be able to have her involved in this.

“Umma” has an interesting mix of tones and genres. How did you figure out the balance between sentimentality and scares?

The balance was definitely a challenge. And I wanted to make a horror movie that felt a little bit unexpected in terms of being able to really relate to the characters in a certain way, and to empathize with them, and to really want to root for these women to repair their relationships and to maintain the love that they have for each other. In terms of dealing with the scares, it was very much for me, a process of trying to figure out how do the scares that service the story? How did the scares articulate the themes that we’re trying to explore? And that was really the process of pairing the scares and the story with the character arcs.

And for the scares you had a titan in your corner with producer Sam Raimi.

He was definitely a great resource in terms of the scares but what was also so wonderful was that when he first read the script and signed onto this project, he immediately recognized that this was a relationship story and that he really wanted to maintain the relationship arc and to humanize these characters, even the supernatural ones. He was really such a great support in that sense, in terms of, understanding the story that I wanted to tell and what I wanted to maintain, instead of pushing me to, “Oh, let’s just banish the demon to hell at the end,” and have this big, expected resolution in a horror movie. He was able to recognize that.

You also get to add to the cinematic horror tradition of scary bees.

The beekeeping element I actually incorporated, when I was thinking about what these women are doing on the farm. I didn’t necessarily want them to do typical farm stuff – they’ve got cows and they’ve got animals that they’re raising and they’re doing a lot of growing, gardening or farming in that sense. And so I thought, well, beekeeping is interesting. It’s a little bit unexpected when you think of a farm setting.

But there is this duality in beekeeping, where these bees, I think all of us instinctually are very afraid of them because of the stings and because of the sound. It can be very unnerving. But what they create is this nutritious sweet honey, that is very comforting. And so, for the bees and the beekeeping to be this reflection of motherhood, where it can be both very sweet and also fill us with fear. That duality of motherhood was something that I wanted to play with.

“Umma” is in theaters now.