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Exclusive Interview: Director Mark Tonderai on his cast and connections to “SPELL,” Part Two

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 | Interview


In Part One of this interview, Mark Tonderai explored how he depicted the Hoodoo subculture in SPELL, the occult chiller releasing Friday, and overcoming Hollywood biases. Here, he continues to discuss his personal approach to and the themes of SPELL, which stars Omari Hardwick as a city lawyer trying to save himself and his family from the clutches of Eloise (Loretta Devine), an Appalachian practitioner of strange magic.

SPELL, despite all its surreality and the fact that the film was written by Kurt Wimmer (LAW ABIDING CITIZEN, SALT), still feels intimate and personal. Do you see it that way?

Without a doubt. I think it’s the director’s job to breathe life into a script–to extrapolate and extenuate and push and pull all the things that are in there. Essentially, you receive this canvas or this piece of stone, and then you start to chip away at it. First by yourself, and then you get the actors involved. Omari and I talked for a long time about what our themes were and what we were trying to do. As I said before, my mum believed in these practices, God rest her soul, and I didn’t want to make kitsch or cliché. I really wanted to give it respect. From there, we started to explore the themes.

What I try to do with every scene is the Rule of Threes, which is my own sort of construct: Basically, every scene should speak to theme, character and plot. If you can get all three, you’re onto a winner. Usually you get two, and sometimes some things are just one out of necessity. But if you get all three, then you’re in a really good place. And I swear to you, man, I could go through every scene in the film and try and tally up what I was trying to do beneath the words, beneath the action, because it was all very important to me. Not just with the camera, but with the light, with the lenses, all sorts of things, all feeding into one kind of idea.​

Now look, the truth of the matter is, this is all great to talk about, but at the end of the day it has to entertain, right? That’s my job. At the same time, if I can find a bit of… I don’t know, a bit of juice in there, then even better. You know what I’m saying?

Well, that’s the key, right? SPELL is an extremely well-made film–you’ve got a great sense of how to build and release tension, etc.–but then there are all these interesting philosophical, social and familial elements. There’s also this universal aspect to the film dealing with the way social evolution works, the way cultures and people evolve. Your main character, Marquis, has tried to outrun his past, but learns you can’t fully escape what built you. Some problems can’t be solved without accepting circumstances in their totality and fixing things at the root. That’s actually a useful message or concept for the larger society we face today, too.

Yeah, you hit it exactly right. You’ve got to stop running–that’s exactly what we were trying to say. Omari came up with the idea that this is a man who’s always running, and in the end he has to confront himself–he has to kind of admit that actually, a part of him is a part of them. And it’s also exactly right about what you said about the evolution of communities. I would argue personally that I normally side with [the antagonists’] definition of what it means to be a society, right? They’re all about community, they’re all about natural products, they’re all about looking after each other, they’re all about a rejection of social media and the constructs of modern society and money. They’re very simple people. And I really respond to that. I don’t have social media and that sort of stuff. So you’re absolutely right: Sometimes to confront the present, you have to confront the past and even embrace it. Sometimes to defeat evil, you’ve got to touch evil.

One of the film’s most important aspects is your strong cast. Now, the importance of casting rises to another level in genre films: To make the fantastical elements effective and relatable, you need actors who can express that cinematic world with authenticity. Did the ability of your players to actualize the story and their roles exceed your expectations?

Actors are everything. You can have the world’s best photography, sets and script, but without performance, you have nothing. So for me, performance is omnipotent. The best actors don’t act. Anyone can act, just like anyone can direct. But storytelling? That’s a different skill. It requires connecting with the truth in an emotional and spiritual way. It requires and demands sacrifice. It also involves tapping into a reservoir of hurt or joy that is unique to you. It means being honest–so honest that it hurts and leaves you vulnerable. You’re taking a knife and cutting your chest open and exposing the worst or best parts of yourself. That’s hard. So hard. That’s why I respect actors so much. Truth-telling is arduous. It’s painful and requires total commitment.

The real issue with both Omari and Loretta is this: They have not been given the opportunity to play roles like this before. And when they had this opportunity, they didn’t just grab hold of it, they claimed it. There is a diverse renaissance happening, thank God, and now we are seeing more roles like this for actors of color that stretch and pull them.

Omari is a movie star and commands the screen. It’s simple. He gives total commitment and also has a tenderness to him that is relatable. Loretta is a legend and someone I have so much respect for. The way she twisted her words, adding a rhythm and pace to them, is something I have never seen before. Eloise is both attractive and repellent because of this. Did they elevate the roles? God yes. They were transcendent.

We talked about some of the challenges you’ve faced getting work in the past because of stubborn racial hierarchies; do you hope SPELL will help remedy that, and be part of a rising tide that raises all boats, so to speak?

Do I think things will change? Yes, I think they are, not just for black people, but for all people of color and sexual orientation. Our stories are just as valid as the white perspective. But we do need more people of color making decisions. I call these people kingmakers, because frankly, that’s what they do: anoint you. Look, I get it’s a business, but we have proved now how black stories can translate into earnings. The truth is, black people have been denied opportunities enjoyed by white people for a long time. That’s a fact. We are only now building hereditary wealth and knowledge. Only now are we gaining a proper foothold in businesses. Our avenues are still mainly in entertainment and sports, but frankly, we are still the man or woman on the stage and not the man or woman who owns the theater. That’s why I so, so respect Tyler Perry, who has done and is doing exactly what I am talking about. He’s not the money. He’s the organ grinder.

The truth is, I could make a list of pages upon pages of many great black artists, academics and sportsmen who have been denied acclaim, wealth and respect because they are black. But here is the most important part: Their sacrifices are now allowing us an opportunity. We stand on their shoulders. They lift us up. And this opportunity is one we must grasp with both hands. The people of the past have given us what we now have now. We must not squander it.