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Exclusive Interview: Director Mark Tonderai on breaking racial and cultural boundaries with “SPELL,” Part One

Monday, October 26, 2020 | Interview


For the last 17 years of his life, film and TV director Mark Tonderai has been on what he describes to RUE MORGUE as “a quest to find a way of articulating a language that is unique to me.” Like all true and ambitious artists, Tonderai acknowledges he’ll likely never reach the summit of that creative mountain, but the pulse-accelerating, emotionally affecting SPELL (releasing this Friday) sees him take a great leap forward in that journey toward the singular, the strange, the idiosyncratic. This supernatural thriller, as beautifully rendered and multilayered as it is harrowing and primal, does indeed speak its own language as it tells the story of a man (Omari Hardwick) who becomes stranded in rural Appalachia, the prisoner of a traditional Hoodoo practitioner (Loretta Devine), and must save himself and his family from her dark magic.

Tonderai was kind enough to speak to RUE MORGUE not once but twice for this wide-ranging, revelatory interview about his deep personal connection to the SPELL subject matter, his unique approach to scaling the ossified artistic and racial hierarchies of the film industry and the power of a story well-told to help positively evolve our broken world.

SPELL does a wonderful job of bringing the supernatural end of its story to life, presenting Hoodoo and its surrounding culture in such a smart and authentic way, the audience has no real choice but to respect–and fear!–its power. Was achieving that balance a challenge?

My mom is from Zimbabwe. She used to tell us about juju and the nanga, which is Shona for witch doctor. There were clear comparisons between Hoodoo and juju. I respect my mom and love her, so when I entered this world, I wanted to respect it, too. I read and read: MULES AND MEN by Zora Neale Hurston, BACKWOODS WITCHCRAFT by Jake Richards, HOODOO by Jim Haskins and STICKS, STONES, ROOTS AND BONES by Stephanie Rose Bird. Oh, and August Wilson’s JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE. For me, the key was to present this to the audience as a practice that is not evil. It’s all about the intention of the practitioner. There’s a lovely line in the film where Eloise says, “Ain’t no Obamacare here.” That sums up her attitude: We have had to care for our own the way we see fit, by any means necessary. Who else said that?

We all need different things to survive. Some worship a man dying on a cross. Some worship the dollar bill. And some believe that carrying a little bag of garlic and brimstone can keep you safe. See, I believe the future is amalgamation. It’s blending. It’s happening already. With borders breaking down and communication lines becoming accessible, we are now beginning to borrow and absorb each other’s cultures. And this mixture is literally who I am. I’m half white, half black. My influences range from Sly and the Family Stone to Dire Straits. My mixture has allowed me a perspective that is more all-embracing, rather than specific. Hip-hop has a massive influence on me. Not only in the way I write, but how I shoot, too. Hip-hop doesn’t give a fuck. It takes this and adds that to it and somehow on paper it shouldn’t work, but it does. That’s the beauty of it–the way it samples from everything. There is a fearlessness and freedom to hip-hop that I really love. Hip-hop also takes a position. It takes a stance. You may not agree with it, but “WAP” is a song about women taking a position. So this idea of a hybrid culture is something that I really relate to. And that’s what Hoodoo is.

What surprised you most as you delved into the research of this subculture?

Hoodoo was brought to the Americas by African slaves. The practice then evolved from a combination of African spirituality and the Christian rituals that slaves newly encountered. The other thing I learned is that Hoodoo is different from voodoo, mainly because it’s an American construct derived from the New World. And this appropriation of American culture and its practicality directly evolved from what slaves had readily available: Garlic. Salt. Hair. Hooch. It was also interesting for me to see sigils–symbols with magical powers–being used now in today’s world. I don’t know if you know, but sigils were circulated on Tumblr to protect the people of Ferguson following the killing of Mike Brown in the summer of 2014.

Between 2012’s HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET and SPELL, you had a wild, diverse run working in television on high-profile shows such as DOCTOR WHO, THE FIVE, 12 MONKEYS, LUCIFER, GOTHAM, CASTLE ROCK, LOCKE & KEY and more. Has working in shorter bursts as an outsider coming in helped build your skill set?

The TV work has been vital in my development; I call it “life through dirty windows.” It’s a style of cinematography generally defined by authenticity and realistic, motivated single-source lighting. Organic yet strong. A visual aesthetic that uses light sparingly and subtly to create a tonally specific atmosphere that is always motivated by the story. It also involves hybrid camerawork, jumping from handheld to dollies to cranes.

TV has allowed me to explore that to a certain extent. Yes, some shows, like GOTHAM, already have a house look, but within that, I could explore different lens sizes. GOTHAM was where I first explored the Lensbaby, and also started to explore single takes that involved intricate choreography. I used the Titan crane on GOTHAM, something I never thought I’d do. Movement is something that’s very important to me, how the camera moves and how that movement reflects narrative. That’s why grips are so important to me. Grips are the hand that holds the paintbrush, and having a grip who understands how movement can accentuate the story is worth its weight in gold. It was on LOCKE & KEY that I first used the Ronin and Mantis rig, which allowed me the flexibility to go from low mode to high mode. Working in TV has allowed me to go from one show that uses primes to another that may use Zeiss lenses. It has allowed me to go from one show that makes use of hard light to one that goes to motivated lighting.

My job is all about pivoting–all about being thrown a problem and twisting it into a positive. And TV has taught me that. It has taught me craft. How to run a floor. How to lead. How to make my days. It has also taught me who I am. See, when the pressure is on, that’s when the real person reveals themselves. Many times have I been under extreme duress, and I really pride myself in that I’ve managed to emerge without becoming a different person.

So what was it about SPELL that drew you out of that world and back into features?

As much as I enjoy working in television, you’re really a hired gun. You come in and push it as much as you can, but to some extent it’s the vessel of someone else’s creativity. That’s the nature of the game. I really wanted to get back into having ownership of the work. But the real truth of the matter is, there are only two sorts of films being made: Ultra-low-budget and really, really, really big-budget. The chances of getting a big-budget film are very, very slim, and I know for a fact that my career has [also] been hindered because of my color. I say that without any fear of repercussions or of you thinking I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. That’s a fact, that’s a cold hard fact. It isn’t that those people are racist. People just hire like people. That’s how it is. So it’s more of an implicit bias than it is an overt racism. But I know for a pure fact that because of who I am–because of what I am–it hasn’t opened doors for me. And I don’t know what it is about black people and women that as soon as they’re put into the equation, the equation’s suddenly faulty. You know, E = mc2, and when it’s white people, it’s fine. But as soon as you put a woman or a black person in there, suddenly E doesn’t equal mc2 anymore. That’s kind of what I’ve been fighting for a while. It’s not about getting jobs, it’s about getting the opportunity.

And so, SPELL came along, and let’s be very honest, it’s a black film, right? So they wanted to get a black director. Let’s be honest: If it had been a film about white people, I don’t think I would’ve gotten it. That’s the real truth, you know what I mean? So when this came around, I was like, “Well, here’s an amazing opportunity!” A black film looking for a black director who does genre. And then when I looked at the script, I thought, “Oh God, I really, really relate to these themes.” Rage, family, the nature of violence, urban vs. rural. I was like, “OK, I’ve got to go for it.”