By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
All is not as it seems in GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS, the new thriller from the directing team of Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long. Set just after the end of the Civil War, the film takes place in an idyllic small town nestled deep in the Ozarks. Miraculously free from the looming specters of slavery and racism and largely untouched by conflict, the isolated Southern community is a seeming utopia where everyone knows their place and does their part for the common good. However, just outside the town’s walls, danger lurks. Bloodthirsty creatures roam the forests beyond, and the ever-present threat of violent death makes travel at night all but impossible.
Nearly falling prey to the monstrous “ghosts,” Dr. James McCune (Thomas Hobson), a Black ex-Army medic from the North, arrives in the middle of the night. Summoned by his uncle, Matthew McCune (portrayed by veteran actor Phil Morris), the community’s benevolent dictator, James tries to adapt to his new role as town physician while negotiating the eccentricities of his new neighbors. Soon, however, he discovers that the deadly ghosts in the woods are not the only threat the town faces.
Stars Hobson and Morris recently sat down with Rue Morgue to discuss their roles in GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS, the underlying social implications of the film, and what keeps them coming back to genre projects.
For Thomas Hobson, a stalwart of children’s television best known for his work on Nick Jr.’s The Fresh Beat Band, GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS is something of a homecoming that reunites him with much of the on and offscreen talent behind the 2020 black comedy horror film 12 Hour Shift, including co-stars Angela Bettis, David Arquette, and his former Fresh Beat bandmate Tara Perry (who both contributed to GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS’ script and served as a producer). However, GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS’ origins go even further back. “Four and a half years ago, I met Jordan [Long] and Matt [Glass],” Hobson explains. “We were filming a music video — a little comedy thing — for a mutual friend, and Jordan and Matt did the cinematography. We got on well, and a couple of weeks later they asked me, through Tara [Perry], if I would be interested in doing a short film they were making. I read the script, and it was GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS. And I was like, ‘This sounds great!’ A few weeks later, I was in Arkansas doing an 8-minute short film. We had such a great time doing it that [Matt and Jordan] were like, ‘We kind of imagined it as a movie, a full feature.’ Jordan got to working on it and Tara jumped in and started writing with him. I was just sitting there for the next couple of years with my fingers crossed — like, ‘Please let me be in the movie!’ It all worked out — just like the world they wanted to create and the things they were saying and the way [the character of] James was coming together. I was like, ‘I don’t think anyone else can do this but me,’ and I was also terrified that I would suck!”
Fans of Seinfeld likely know Phil Morris as the Johnnie Cochran-inspired lawyer Jackie Chiles, nevertheless, he has a career in genre TV and film going back to a first season episode of the original Star Trek in 1966. As an adult, Morris would go on to appear in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5, and most recently, the live-action adaptation of Doom Patrol. A talented voice artist, Morris can also be heard on such animated hits as Ultimate Spider-Man and Legion of Superheroes. Equally adept at comedy and drama, Morris keeps coming back for roles in fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. “I’m drawn to it. I’m a fan of it,” Morris says. “I’m looking right now at my 20,000 issue comic book collection as we speak. I’m a fan. I’m a fan of so much of the genre work. It moves me. … I’m not searching it out necessarily. … It seems to just come my way, and I feel like I have a great facility for understanding those universes because I’ve been a fan of them for so long. I’ve been doing unconscious study my whole life.”
For GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS, Morris and Hobson found a common connection in Tara Perry. “I had done a short with Tara Perry for the Roddenberry Corporation — a really great short called Instant. We got along great. It was a difficult shoot, but it was wonderful. When her husband, Jordan Long, wrote [GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS], they kept telling me that they heard my voice in Matthew’s dialogue. So, when I got back here from Atlanta after doing Doom Patrol, I got the call and they said, ‘Hey … we got this script. Would you read it, and would you consider it?’ I read it, and I was like, immediately, ‘Yes. I have to play Matthew.”
Familiar faces like Perry made for a welcoming, family atmosphere behind the scenes. Working with a tight-knit ensemble has definite advantages for Hobson “I look at a lot of directors and stuff, and you see them working with the same people over and over again. As an actor who wants to work more, I was always like, ‘Well, that’s just rude! Hire some new people!'” Hobson says. “Now, as a person who has had the opportunity, with Matt and Jordan, to not only do GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS but the short of GHOSTS, 12 Hour Shift, and Squirrel — it’s just so easy because you know each other. They know what I can do better than I know what I can do. Because I trust them, I let myself go to places I would probably have a harder time getting to with a stranger. I told them that I hope that once a year or once every other year for the rest of our lives we go off and make a movie together. I love working with them, but I also love going over to their house for dinner. As long as we get to hang out, I’m good.”
Although GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS is a horror film at its core, it blends in fantasy and Western elements, making it a movie that defies easy categorization. Fortunately, Hobson is an actor who feels at home with the film’s genre-bending story. “I’m a fan of all of those [genres],” Hobson says. “When I was reading the script, I was like, ‘If anyone can pull off the blending of these genres, it’s these folks.’ … I tell people all the time that it’s a period piece with some horror elements — there may or may not be some supernatural things living in the woods.”
Nevertheless, Hobson points out that, aside from GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS’ overtures to multiple genres, there’s another aspect to the film that audiences will no doubt find intriguing. “I always get them with this: It’s set in Arkansas in 1868. The mayor of this town in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas is a Black man. And I play a doctor from the north who comes to the town for a better life,” Hobson states. “If that’s not a good entry point for you, then I don’t know what to tell you! Those two people should not be running the town and being the town.”
Although the idea of a post-Civil War Southern utopia in which racism does not exist is a definite break with history, developing the role of Dr. James McCune required Hobson, Glass, and Long to do their homework. “When we did the short film, Matt and Jordan found three or four actual doctors from that period of time. James isn’t directly based in any of them, but [the character] is acknowledging that this history is out there,” explains Hobson. “That was great for me. I wouldn’t have known that people like James existed because they’re not really in the history books. … In a way, James felt the farthest from me in terms of the characters I’ve played, but the more I played him, I began to realize that we are very similar. That made coming to him and finding him easier for me. In my brain, I’m thinking there’s a 160-year difference between us, so I really have to think about who [James] is and what he’s going through and how hard life must be. But then, here I am in June of 2020 living through a pandemic and a racial reckoning that’s rippling across the world. And I’m feeling very uncertain about who I am and where I stand in the world. The business that I love was shut down for three or four months. I didn’t know if I was going to work again. James and I are in a different time frame, but these anxieties exist for both of us, so I can actually live in James’ anxieties because, in my own way, I understand them.”
Phil Morris faced a different set of challenges in bringing his character, the deceptively sinister Matthew McCune, to life. “Matthew is so complex … so nuanced,” Morris says. “It’s hard to paint him as a villain. I think that the things that run him are the controls that he learned when he was in bondage. So, he’s doing what he thinks is right in order to keep control of a situation that is spiraling out of control. He uses the psychological underpinnings, the fear-based tools that he was shown on the plantation. I wanted that to be a part of his control. He’s not just a psycho who is terrorizing his people. His behavior comes from a real place. He’s trying to keep them safe by scaring them. That drew me to play him. This drew me to want to play this character and to try to make him multidimensional.”
Like Hobson, Morris turned to history to inform his portrayal while also exploring the psychological motivations of his role. Ultimately, Morris’ performance hinged on getting inside Matthew McCune’s mind. “I use a very educated voice as Matthew. One of the extras said to me (affecting a thick Southern drawl), ‘Hey, man. How didja get that voice?’ I thought to myself, it’s the voice that Matthew heard growing up. That was what he wanted to aspire to. He didn’t want to stay a slave. He didn’t want to stay uneducated, so he pulled himself up, and he polished himself into this beautiful diamond. [Tim Blake Nelson’s character] Torb says it in the movie — ‘You were the best of us.’ And Matthew created that in him. Those are the things that I looked at. I also looked at several of the communities at the time that were trying the same experiment — seeing how the people dressed, how they walked, what they might have sounded like.”
Although the shadows of the Civil War and slavery loom over the film, GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS isn’t heavy-handed in its depiction of the inherent racism of the era. How does the film handle race? In Phil Morris’ estimation, “beautifully.” And he credits directors Glass and Long’s collaboration with co-star Thomas Hobson for its subtle treatment of a sensitive topic. “The writers collaborated with Tommy Hobson and sent him versions of the script. Tommy would say, ‘No. no, no, no, no. You don’t need that. That’s too ‘red-nose-on-the-face.’ We’re saying that already here,” says Morris. “Much to their credit, they listened to him. So the film is subtler than I think it would have been — Now remember, these are three white people who wrote it! (laughs) It’s easy for any of us to fall into tropes and stereotypes, and they stayed away from all of that. The antagonist is Black. The protagonist is Black. … They cobbled together a beautiful script that did not indicate that stuff but implied it.”
Despite the film’s subtle treatment of racial politics, it still manages to address the turmoil of the present day with a courage that is sadly absent in many horror movies. Morris feels that his character is an embodiment of a long-simmering rage. “Matthew’s intentions are beautiful, but there’s an anger and a hatred that he has, born of his conditioning,” the actor states. “I think, in this country, we will not get past our racial divide until we acknowledge the anger and the hate and the difficulty that African-Americans have as a result of being treated like commerce with our first relationship on this country. Until we acknowledge that that’s how we started this relationship, and this is how it’s evolved, we won’t get over it. We’ll have more Matthews. We don’t need that.”
According to Thomas Hobson, the social, political, and racial implications of GHOST OF THE OZARKS and how they reflect current events were very much present in the minds of the film’s cast and crew. “There were conversations on the set about whether or not, by the time the movie made it out into the world, these would still be relevant topics. Most of us were like, ‘Uh. Yeah,'” Hobson laughs. “They’ve been relevant for hundreds of years. They’re not going to just go away any time soon. I’ve actually said to people that I think that there are always polar opposite ideas in any movement. If you look across the history of race relations in America, we’ve always had figures who wanted the same outcome but had different ideas of how to get there — You look at Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. Look at Malcolm and Martin Luther King. Everyone wanted the same endgame, but disagreed on how we get there. That conversation is woven throughout this movie, and I don’t think you get an answer at the end. I don’t think there’s a villain, really, just people who have different ideas based on where they’re from about what security means and how you maintain peace.”
When asked what he hopes audiences take away from the film, Phil Morris is as succinct as he is philosophical. “Hope. Hope that no matter who the oppressors are, whether they’re Black, white, or whoever, that there is a truth that will be revealed,” Morris states. “You have to hold firmly to that truth, and good men and women do something about it as opposed to letting evil proliferate.”
However, Thomas Hobson is just as quick to point out that GHOST OF THE OZARKS should be enjoyed as the wild ride that it is. “I hope people have fun,” Hobson says. “With all the serious themes and stuff, it’s still a movie that was made for their entertainment. I hope they have a fun, fun time and enjoy this insane world that Matt and Jordan built, literally and figuratively, from the ground up. …. Grab some popcorn and nice soda and just let yourself be scared. Just let yourself be taken away by the fantasy of this movie. I just hope people enjoy it so we can make more!”
GHOSTS OF THE OZARKS is now playing in select theaters and available on VOD and digital from XYZ Films.