SXSW Interview with The Most Hated Woman in America’s writer/director Tommy O’Haver

The Most Hated Woman in America is a true crime film based off of the actual story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Mrs. O’Hair founded the American Atheists in the 1960’s, heavily assisted with keeping religion out of school and was one of the forerunners of the culture wars and separating church and state. The film is a biopic of her and how she and her family were kidnapped in the 1990’s. 

Tommy O’Haver has a well versed writing and directing career, having directed such films like 2004’s Ella Enchanted and 2007’s An American Crime. He doesn’t really pay attention a specific genre when he dives into directing a film or writing a script, “If it’s a good story and if it has good characters, it just has to turn me on,” says O’Haver.

O’Haver was fascinated with true crime stories since high school, which is why he dove into his first dark crime biopic An American Crime which garnered a Golden Globe nomination in 2007. But with Most Hated Woman it is a bit different because while the story and subject is a bit dark and serious, he managed to write the script (with his writing partner Irene Turner) with a little bit of everything – drama, comedy, action. 

While choosing a particular story isn’t always simple, when heard about the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, O’Haver felt like he had to do it. “Is it not an incredible story to tell?” O’Haver remarks. Elizabeth Banks and her husband Max Handleman came to O’Haver and Turner with the story of Mrs. O’Hair that they wanted the two of them to consider adapting. “Irene and I jumped into it and of course  thought: I can’t believe this story has never been told,” said O’Haver who goes goes on to explain, “It was also just an opportunity to write an amazing character, an amazingly complex and conflicted character.”

Madalyn Murray O’Hair is a very complex and conflicted character and who better to portray her than Academy Award winner Melissa Leo. The film actually has a quite a bit of big names like Leo, Adam Scott, and Juno Temple. O’Haver, who also directed the film, felt it was amazing working with them all. “When you write something like this your script is basically the blueprint and a lot of the characters on the page didn’t seem to have that much to do but thank goodness these actors saw through that, just because it’s not on the page doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a great character,” explained O’Haver. For instance, Temple’s character only has about fifteen lines but she is still incredibly important to the story and the film.

There is a large influx of crime biopics and shows flooding television and Netflix nowadays, some are excellent but some just fall through the cracks, when asked what makes this one stand out from the rest O’Haver went on to say: “First thing is the crime its self is so unusual and unbelievable. The fact that these three people were kidnapped and held for basically weeks in a hotel room […] they didn’t know whether they were going to live or die, and the whole vibe in that was so bizarre.” O’Haver explains that in the real story they Madalyn, her family, and the kidnappers were hanging out by the pool at one point and nobody thought to run away or say something. “It’s just a very unusual crime but also just a great story about an important historical figure in the United States,” stated O’Haver. 

O’Haver has been writing and directing for years, he even is a teacher. When asked what advice does he give to his students, aspiring writers and filmmakers he says, “Find material that turns you on first of and, and secondly be persistent. There’s lots of ups and downs no matter what happens, […] you just have to keep going no matter what happens, that’s really the only thing you can do.” Excellent advice from an equally excellent filmmaker. 

Overall, the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair is unique, brave, and shocking – which are all of the perfect ingredients to make a great film. Most Hated Woman in America will be released on Netflix this coming Friday, March 24th.