Another Halloween treat for horror fans this weekend is Spell, a new horror film that is now available on premium VOD and for digital purchase. I recently had a chance to talk with director Mark Tonderai, who told me about his interest and connection to this film and its themes, working with Omari Hardwick and Loretta Devine, and the films that inspired his take on Spell.
Can you talk about how you got involved with Spell and what was the creative process of getting from what you had in your head to the finished film?
Mark Tonderai: I've been doing a lot TV for a while now and I've really enjoyed working with some of the most amazing crews kind of in the business. But the real trick for TV is that you can't really sort of claim ownership of it creatively. You can to a certain extent, as a TV director, you're not instrumental to the creative process. And I felt very much that I wanted to be more in the circle of being instrumental to the creative process.
So I was looking out for films to do, but the difficulty is, if I'm honest with you, it's not really about making films but getting distributions for films. Anybody can make a film, but it's the distribution that really counts. So how'd you get 3000 screens? Well, really the only way to do that is to get studio films. And that's really, really, really hard, and as it's been proven, if you're a woman or a person of color, it's really hard. For whatever reasons, whenever we sort of enter the equation, the equation doesn't work.
And the directors that who are black are a very small select group, like Spike Lee or Anton Fuqua. So, the chances of getting a feature are very hard because a lot of things have to come in place. Budget, and particularly the kind of voice they're looking for. So with a film like this, which they needed a black voice, I thought I've got a good chance to gain it. Ordinary odds are 80/20, but this one, I had a 50/50 chance, and I also felt with my experience now, I could get it.
I read the script and I loved the themes in it and I loved what it was talking about. It’s about a rural community and my my mother's from a very small village just outside a place called Murehwa in Zimbabwe. All of the sort of customs that she believed in, like juju and all those sorts of things are very, very clear parallels to hoodoo. And so, for me, I saw the opportunity and I thought, "Right, I have to really go for this." And so I did and I won it and yeah, the rest is all history.
This is a movie that centers around Hoodoo spirituality and customs. What kind of research did you do and how did you make sure this was as authentic as possible?
Mark Tonderai: Before I even began to do that, I had to ask myself why I felt that I should do this film. I'm half white, half black. I'm from England, but I'm more African than I am English. My people were never slaves, we were enslaved in a different way, by globalization, but it's a very different kind of perspective. So, first thing I had to ask myself was, "Why me?"
I had to be really honest with myself, and I was like, "Okay. Well, the reason why I have to do this film is because of the themes." The themes are universal, and it doesn't matter who I am. I don't have to be an alien to direct a film about aliens, so I've just got to understand the feeling behind it.
Once I had that part resolved and settled in my mind, the next part was, "Okay, this is something that I know a little bit about, but I know more about Voodoo than I do about Hoodoo." So I was like, "Okay, I have to become the kind of master of this." So I just read a whole lot of books like Voodoo & Hoodoo by Jim Haskins, Sticks, Stones, Roots and Bones by Stephanie Rose Bird. I read Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston. I just tried to pick up as much as I can. I read a great book called Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Rufus Jimerson which is about the effects of slavery, the effects of kind of that form of mental incarceration on us as black people. I also read Backwoods Witchcraft by Jake Richards, which was a sort of more white perspective on Hoodoo.
You work with an incredibly talented cast for the movie. Can you talk about the casting process and working with the cast to get these really intense performances?
Mark Tonderai: I'm going to start with kind of Miss Loretta [Devine] because she's a legend, and for me, if she were white, frankly, I think she'd be a national treasure. She's made over 120 films. She was one of the original Dream Girls and she's an amazing person and a amazing actress, and I've never seen her like this before. It's the first time she'd been given a part like this, and the first time she's been photographed like this as well. And she just does things with the words and the rhythm of the words and the ups and downs of it. It’s a kind of poetry of the words that I just am in awe of. She was just amazing.
A movie star for me are people like Robert Mitchum and Steve McQueen, people that can do things with a look, they don't need words. And Omari [Hardwick] is that. He’s the kind of guy that just gives himself to everything. When he sweats in the film, that's real sweat, that is not coming on and putting a spritzer on him, that's him real sweating. His kind of commitment level with unreal and that's all you want from an actor. I'm so lucky to have worked with them and I'm really hugely in debt to them for giving me their talent.
With Halloween coming up, what are some of your favorite horror movies? And what inspired the direction you took with Spell?
Mark Tonderai: Rosemary's Baby is a big one. It’s is all about kind of finding the fright in normality and that's what I really tried to do with Spell. There's really something really scary about the normality of the situation [in Spell]. That she does the sort of ritual in the dress that she just went to church, it's a deliberate choice.
Misery is another one. It’s about Annie Wilkes and Paul Sheldon, and so the law firm[in Spell] is called “Woods and Sheldon,” our main character is called Woods. And so we gave a nod to it and there's a little penguin in there. Angel Heart is another one that I gave nods to.
[Photo Credit - Paramount Pictures]