Second Time’s a Charm for Spell Director Mark Tonderai

October 30, 2020
The helmer returns to feature filmmaking after 10 years of episodic TV work, and he's here to frighten, as well as make you think.

A man crash lands a small plane in rural Appalachia and wakes up in the attic of a traditional Hoodoo practitioner. He tries to escape her dark magic and save his family before the rise of the blood moon.

With a premise like that, you get why it took the film’s director, Mark Tonderai a decade to locate the right script for his second US feature.

The British director gave us some behind-the-scenes insight into what it was like making the thriller/horror film, which is released just in time for… you guessed it, Halloween.

How did you get Paramount to do an Indy film?

“I wasn’t going to shoot it the way a lot of stuff is shot; with the dolly, hard light, crushing the blacks totally. I said to the studio that it’s going to be hand held, it’s going to be a lot more organic. I wanted hybrid camera work. Soft lights. They went for it.

“I had an amazing team that really encouraged me to make the film I wanted to make, which is so rare.”

Did you have any uphill challenges on this project?

“I was determined to give the actors the platform they needed to do their jobs well. So, I said, we’ll shoot it chronologically and that was so dumb. We had four weeks of nights. Nights truly break you. I avoid them at all cost. In hindsight, I wouldn’t do it again. There was a point in the film where I lost myself. I was so tired, working on different time zones with Paramount, trying to be a dad and feeling like I’m failing at that. All of it, from that one decision I made.”

You wouldn’t do it again, but was it the right decision for this film?

“Actually, it probably was. We now have these incredible performances that are true and authentic because they are really going through it day by day. What happened at the end of the film, really happened at the end of filming.

“And let’s be honest, this film is more of a play than anything else. My nods are Frost/Nixon and Death and the Maiden, films about two people in an enclosed space with two different ways of life. And these people have two different ways of life.”

What did you find most gratifying about directing Spell?

“You know it’s the people. Loretta Devine is so amazing in this film and it’s so different than what she’s normally done. She’s a national treasure, or should be. Omari Hardwick is the living embodiment of the modern-day star. I don’t think he has to do much. He does so many things with expressions, and the way the camera sort of gravitates toward him. I’ve had an amazing experience with many people on this job. Miss Loretta texted me the other day, ‘now the real horror begins, all of us drifting away from each other’s lives because the project is over’.”

Why did you wait a decade to make your second feature?

“The last film I made was in 2010 [House at the End of the Street]. It did really well. It opened at number one and has Jennifer Lawrence in it. It made 66 million dollars and only cost 3.5 to make. Yet, I had to go into TV to get work after that. And it taught me something very interesting about Hollywood and how Hollywood works. There aren’t, unfortunately, a lot of opportunities for people of colour. I knew my next film would have to be the right budget range, in terms of what I’m worth in the market. It had to thematically resonate with me, which is also tough; and told from a black perspective. Spell was the perfect-storm script [by Kurt Wimmer] that checked all those boxes.”

What do you want people to walk away with after watching Spell?

“In the end, you want people to really enjoy it. That’s the first thing because that’s really what my job is, to provide entertainment. The second thing is that people appreciate the performances. The third thing is to understand the themes. I find in storytelling that there’s a lot of by the numbers. Spoon feeding. Audiences are smart. They don’t want that. For me, I really hope that people look at and engage with the subtext – because there’s another level there.”

Spell is released on Digital on October 30, 2020

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