Interview: Mark Tonderai Talks About Race, Directing, & His Current Film ‘Spell’

Mark Tonderai
Mark Tonderai - Director of Spell - Paramount Pictures

Chances are if you have watched a horror film or horror shows, you have heard the name Mark Tonderai. You’ve seen his name attached to shows such as Gotham, Doctor Who, Black Lightning, Lucifer, 12 Monkeys, and The Passage. If not, you are in for a treat, because recently I had the chance to chat with this amazing director, who also wrote and directed the film Hush, directed House at the End of the Street, and the upcoming Paramount film, Spell.

Right away, I realized that Mark Tonderai is inquisitive as I am as he started off the interview, asking me some questions!

Mark Tonderai: I must ask, where are you? Where are you calling from right now?

Michelle Patterson: I’m from Georgia; I’m a Georgia girl born and raised.

MT: I love it there. I love it! I’ve worked there a lot. It’s a great place. 

MP: You and me both. And Georgia has the ability to set up a lot of good horror films too, with all the rural areas available for filming.

MT: It does. The crews are also amazing. I did a show there called The Passage, a vampire show on Fox. I worked with an amazing crew. Oh my god, they were so good. So it has all the potential to be a real powerhouse. I call it the second Hollywood if I’m honest with you.

MP: I know I appreciate that, and I’m okay with that. I think Georgia would feel the same. I know you’ve done a lot in horror; what film(s) drew you into the horror genre and made you want to direct? 

MT: Wow, that’s like a how long is a piece of string question. If I’m honest with you, it’s not so much a draw toward the genre; it’s more of a draw to the storytelling. A lot of films that I really like have always moved me. Platoon was a major influence on me. It started when I was a kid. I watched Platoon, and I understood subtext. I was brought up in Africa and England. I was brought up in Zimbabwe, and it’s quite a racist place, and I’m black. 

When I watched Platoon, there’s a wonderful scene where they’re all smoking weed, and they’re all listening to Smokey’s ‘Tracks of My Tears.’ There’s a wonderful moment when one of the white guys blows smoke down the gun barrel, and the black guy inhales it. Actually, I probably have that wrong; it’s probably the other way around. But when I watched it, I remember thinking Oliver Stone is saying something really powerful here. In war, there is no color. 

I remember literally it was like a light bulb going off in my head and thinking that’s subtext! I get it; I get it! I get what he’s doing. He’s showing me something, but he really means this. 

Mark Tonderai – Director of Spell – Paramount Pictures

Michelle Patterson: Are there any directors that you wanted to emulate growing up?

Mark Tonderai: Oliver Stone was a major one because of who I am and who I try to be in terms of filmmaking. He’s so brave. This guy wrote Scarface. He’s done incredible films. He’s also one of those guys that was in Vietnam. I always think that really good storytellings have a well of pain or well of experience they can draw from and tap into. All of the best have that. Speilberg is motivated by his parents’ divorce. The loss of that and the trauma of that. A lot of his films deal with that. James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy, I’m a big fan of his. He’s had problems in his life, and he’s tapped into that. His films are full of love and hope. He’s a great director.

To me, a lot of these guys are telling really great stories to have this well of pain. So for me, it’s looking at people like that, and it’s difficult to look at films that inspired me because a lot of films like The Wild Bunch, Charlie Brackett’s, Black Sunday, or Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. They’re all films that I love. Straight story. They’re all brilliant films, but they don’t feature black people in them. I don’t see people like me on screen in them. 

It’s a difficult question to answer because one part of me will go ‘these are brilliant films,’ and the films I choose have to transcend color; they have to be about emotion, which is universal. A lot of the films I like might not feature black people; they might not feature people that look like me; they might be made when the black experience is going through trauma. One of my favorite films is Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, which was made in 1965. We only got the fair housing act in 1968, you know. 

So I have to reconcile that within myself. I have films that appeal to me and have inspired me on an emotional level, and then I have films that I look at, and they inspire me both on an emotional level but that I see me in. Boyz n the Hood is a great example. I see a world that I understand, and I see a world that I recognize. Like I said, though, it’s very hard for me to answer because I don’t want to leave out a whole of films from Billy Wilder films, The Dumb Waiter, to Kubrick films that are all white films. I can’t do that in a clear conscience either.

MP: It’s always hard for me to think of there being a time where it was just that different even though I know that’s the case even though because it’s right there on film. And I see what is going on in the world now. It’s still here, unfortunately. However, in current cinema, there’s not this lovely diverse renaissance happening, and it’s so needed.

MT: That’s such a lovely phrase. A diverse renaissance. That’s exactly right. You see it more and more, from Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You to the stuff that Jordan Peele is doing. You’re seeing it now. You see this work come through that frankly is really great work that happens to be made by black people and not the other way around. I May Destroy You is pretty much one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in a long time– the best thing I’ve seen across all mediums in a long time. It doesn’t wear its blackness as a badge. It’s a great piece of work that happens to be black.

MP: I think that is what is so great about these films. You don’t think about that. Again it goes back to what you were saying about emotions, and you connect with these characters because that’s what it should be.

MT: Exactly, exactly.

MP: You directed House at the End of the Street, and Spell, but you wrote Hush and directed it. What is the difference between picking a script to work on versus writing and directing it yourself? 

MT: There’s a massive difference. A film that you give birth to, like Hush, is always going to be different. You’re already going from a personal place as your starting off point. Have you seen Hush, Spell?

MP: I have seen Spell; I’ve also seen House at the end of the Street. Unfortunately, I have not seen Hush yet, but I want to find it on a platform and watch it!

Mark Tonderai
Mark Tonderai – Director of Spell – Paramount Pictures

Mark Tonderai: I think it’s on iTunes. You’ll see it’s quite interesting. Hush is directly torn from my life. The job he does in the film is the job I did for four to five years. I hated it, but it was a very interesting story point. Hush is about a guy who is driving down a freeway, and a truck goes past, and in the back of the truck, he sees a naked woman screaming for help. Then they get into a traffic jam, and he has the opportunity to do something about it, and he doesn’t.

And the reason I wrote that film is because I was on a train once. This guy started shouting ‘fucking n-word this, fucking n-word that.’ And no one did anything. No one said anything. No one did anything apart from me. I remember thinking this is really interesting. I remember thinking, where is that line between self-interest and social responsibility? That’s what I really wanted to talk about– that moment on the train that happened to me. People didn’t get involved because they were concerned about their own welfare rather than our communal welfare. I’m not condemning those people because that’s how it is. 

I knew in that moment, though, that I had a film. If you saw a woman in the back of a truck, what would you do? And when I pitched that, I got different answers. People would say I’d pretend I didn’t see it. Other people would say I’d go investigate. It’s all different. And that’s what I wanted to talk about ultimately. That is what storytelling is to me. You have a problem that you can see in your life or in the world, and you’re trying to figure out that problem through a story. 

So when you write a script, you start on that script right away. But when you’re given a script, you have to find that point of similarity that is in your life. Then you have to try and build that umbilical cord between you and the work artificially. When you write it yourself, the umbilical cord happens naturally. Take House at the End of the Street– it was ten years ago– but it’s about a girl, her mother and this kid next door. It’s more of a love story than anything else. With that, it was ‘how do I find the similarity between that and my life?’

And it usually just talks to you. You read it, and you go, ah okay. I get what the themes are; I get what the subtext is; I get what the writer is trying to say. It was the same thing with Spell. Instantly I was like, ‘I know this character.’ A black man who works in a white world and the challenges involved in that from self-control to being undeniable, I get that. I immediately began to understand the character. The character comes from a very rural past like I do–I come from a village in Africa. I can take you to our village, so I really identified with that. I identified with the stickler nature of the sins of the father. I identified with belief. I’m a lapsed Catholic, but once a Catholic, always a Catholic. 

Spell is very much to get through those situations you have to believe. I’m also a child of the urban world to a certain extent. I’m a rural child who has become sort of an urbanite, and that is what Mark is, but I don’t agree with any of the other world’s trappings. I don’t have Twitter. I don’t have Instagram. I don’t have any of that stuff. I don’t believe in it. I don’t agree with it. I don’t think it’s necessary for the way that we should live. But that’s me! 

Michelle Patterson: When filming Spell, is there a scene that stands out for you the most in this regard?

MT: In the film, Mark believes in all that stuff. There’s a scene where he is putting on his tie. He’s putting his armor for the world. He’s all about fine clothes and high-end luxury items, which is kind of how we live now. For me, I don’t agree with that. Eloise now, who’s the villain, is the opposite of that. She’s like, nuh-uh, there’s no phone here. They don’t have social media. They don’t have a phone. They don’t have any of that stuff. Instead, it’s all about community, natural products, a sense of belief, a value system. 

And it’s not that Mark doesn’t have a value system, but they’re different to hers. I think obviously he had choices. Whereas Eloise’s choices aren’t right, her choices are evil. But actually, a lot of what she believes in, I believe in, and there’s a lot that he believes in that I don’t believe. It’s a very complex argument and a lot of complex things going on in there. At the same time, I really want people to be entertained by this. I want them to be scared shitless. I want them to be reeled into their seats, so you have to be really careful when you make these films. You don’t want to come across as preachy, but you also want to make sure it’s not an empty sandwich. You want it to have some nutrients in as well.

Mark Tonderai – Director of Spell – Paramount Pictures

Michelle Patterson: Agreed! Going along with the scene you mentioned being one of your favorites, was there a scene, or have there been scenes, where you read it and wanted to change it immediately or tweak it in a manner that you felt would resonate more with the audiences?

Mark Tonderai: I don’t really look at it like that. I look at it as how can I extrapolate more from it? I’ll go, ‘If I do this and do that, I can bring out this scene.’ For instance, there’s a scene about his hope. There has to be a way I can extrapolate that. The most obvious way to do so is by light. So I can backlight him with a warmer light, which symbolizes hope. Then when the darkness comes in, I can make her more in the shadow. I can frame him in the door, so you know he’s caged. There are very subtle things I can do that make the audience feel. They might not know to say, ‘I know what he’s doing here; he’s backlighting.’ They don’t think that, but they feel it because audiences are very smart. They can feel these things I don’t.

Also, when the actors get involved, they bring a lot of their humanity. They can go, ‘This scene for me is really about this, this, and this; I really want to talk about that more. How can I do that?’ It’s not about liking or disliking; it’s always about succeeding or not succeeding. That works on three levels—plot, theme, and character. If you can get all three working, then you’ve done a great job. A lot of the time, you can only get two, subtext, and plot. And sometimes you can only get one–just a plot-driven scene. 

But you try all the time to squeeze those three things in, and a lot of times, you can’t. However, sometimes you can, like in our film–I don’t want to ruin it for the audience, so I’m going to use a different film! There’s a film on Netflix called Extraction with Chris Hemsworth, and it’s brilliantly done because in all the action sequences that happen, he gives a bit more of his soul; Every action sequence takes something away from him. So by the end, he’s barely walking. It’s a really smart way to use action to exemplify character and exemplify change. And that’s what we tried to do in Spell.

MP: I believe you did a great job of that in Spell and that people will enjoy being led down this journey with Mark and Eloise. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have this evening to speak.

MT: Thank you, thank you. I’m really sorry, that’s all the time. I gotta go to set, that’s why! I’m shooting Locke & Key.

MP: That’s okay! I wish you a great day on set, and thank you for your time!

MT: Thank you for your time not just on the call but for watching those films! And for the phrase! What was it again? Renaissance…

MP: Diverse renaissance! Yes, thank you!

MT: Yes! Thank you once more as well.

Spell, a film by Mark Tonderai, arrives in select theaters and at-home on PVOD on October 30, 2020.

View the trailer above, check our review, and explore the Hoodoo culture this Halloween by watching Spell