Mark Tonderai Interview: Spell

In Spell, director Mark Tonderai branches out from his impressive work on genre television such as Doctor Who and Black Lightning to explore a mysticism rooted in the real world: Hoodoo. The film, which is out in theaters on October 30, follows the money-hungry Marquis (Omari Hardwick) after he crash lands in Appalachia only to be captured by a practitioner of the art named Eloise (Loretta Devine).

Tonderai spoke to Screen Rant in-depth about the research he did into the religion and others like it, how Hardwick and Devine blew him away as actors, and just how hands-on he is as a storyteller.

This movie is one of the first ones to explore the Hoodoo culture. Can you explain a little bit about what that is, and how it works in the story?

Mark Tonderai: Yeah, sure. I’m really glad you watched it, and I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I’ve sort of got to unpack your question a little bit. When I got the script – the first thing is, obviously, I’m English. I’m half-African, half-English, so the first thing I asked myself was, “Jesus, who am I to tell the story?” I had to ask some really hard questions about that, and eventually, it came down to this: I don’t have to be an alien to tell the story about being an alien. If I can relate to the themes in the film, then I’ve got something.

All the themes in the film – rage, urbanization, the role of fathers and sons, belief – are all things that I feel really passionately about. Once I knew that, “I’m right for this. I’m the right voice for this, and I’ve got the right take with this,” the next thing I had to do was go, “What are the areas that I don’t know about?”

I know, obviously, about Hoodo. But I didn’t know about it as well as I needed to, or as well as I should do. My first in was going back to my culture; my mother’s Shona, which is a tribe in Zimbabwe. In Shona, mother used to believe in Juju, which is very much like Hoodoo. Instead of a root worker, we have a woman that you guys would call a “witch doctor.” But a lot of the practices are very similar; if someone walks and you want to curse them, you get the dust from their footprint or you collect their hair.

So, that was my first thing; looking at Shona Juju and going, “Oh my God, there’s similarities here.” Hoodoo was a derivative, because slaves needed to keep their practices secret from slave owners. They started to create this practice for themselves that was all about empowerment and all about protection. I started to look at the work out there, to read everything – and the most important one was Zora Neale Hurston’s book, Tell My Horse. It was written about 1932, when she went down south and started to look at Hoodoo and Voodoo, and just started to write about it. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book.

I just started to read as many books as I could, like Backwoods Witchcraft by Jake Richards. I just kept going, and I literally wanted to know about everything: the conjuring altar, candle colors, brooms, the role of Mojo bags… I just wanted to really immerse myself into it. There’s another book called Sticks, Stones, Roots and Bones by Stephanie Rose Bird; a great, great book. Voodoo & H oodooby James Haskins was another huge, huge influence on me. And then, in particular, there was another book called PTSS – Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome – Rufus JJimerson, which was another big influence on me and what I was trying to talk about.

I put all of those things into my head, and then I really thought, “This is something that people believe in.” So, the one thing I don’t want to do is to take a position where I’m ridiculing it; I want to take a position where I’m respecting it. It’s something people practice; it’s what people believe in. There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about this journey. It’s all very, as far as I concerned, delivered with a respect and with a somber attitude.

If I’m honest with you, I don’t believe in good or bad characters – I just believe that people make different choices. Ironically, Eloise is the quote-unquote “villain” in the film, but I really believe in a lot of her world views: community, the rejection of social media, naturalism. Whereas Marquis’ all about social media, and his God is money – and they’re all things that I don’t like. For me, you have these really interesting characters that are just fascinating, because it’s all about their choices. Do I agree with Eloise, in terms of  how she goes that one step further? No, of course, I don’t. That’s what makes her the villain. But foundations of community, especially with what’s happening the world and the way individualism is how we rule our lives now, that really struck a chord with me.

That’s already a lot of incredible research, but did you have any other influences?

Mark Tonderai: In the Script Bible, which is what I do for all my projects, I break down everything. August Wilson’s play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone was another huge influence. Every chapter I had in the Bible has a quote from that; it’s about a root worker that moves in with his family. It’s a really good book, and I love August Wilson. He’s one of my heroes,

Genre films are great for exploring social issues without being heavy-handed. What did you hope to investigate with Spell?

Mark Tonderai: I call it emotional panhandling. I get the script, and I sort of go, “Okay, what are the themes in this that really talk to me?” The first thing that really got me – and I don’t mean this to be navel-gazing or to make out like I’m some sort of genius. I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is that I can literally dissect every scene for you and go to you, “The scene in the law office, that’s a really important scene to me.” You’d say to me, “Why?” Because it’s about a black man who’s operating in a white world. Look at the words the white lawyer uses about him; he calls him a Gladiator. There’s a point of similarity here to American football, where I see the chairman gets the cup first instead of the players. That’s very uncomfortable to me.

Very much, for me, that whole scene is about Marquis being used as a blunt force trauma instrument by a white man. He’s the only white person in the film, and so for me that scene is really, really important. Marquis doesn’t have a problem. The guy says to him, “Do you have a problem taking on this case?” And he says, “Why, because the plaintiffs are black? Just cuz the plaintiffs are black doesn’t mean they’re lawyers are.” It’s all about money, ca-ching-ching. That’s what he says, and that scene sets up very clearly what his belief system is, and it also sets up the world that he’s in. He talks about being calm, he talks about how it’s a long process, and he talks about control.

For me, every scene is like that. Every scene should work on three levels: plot, character, and subtext. A lot of times, you don’t get all three; most times you get just two. Sometimes you just get one, which is plot. But if you can make every scene work on all three levels, then you’ve got something. That was one of the things that we tried to work really hard at doing; trying to inject these different themes into it.

Some themes for me were field versus house Negro, that’s a big one for me. Eloise says to him, “You’re just like Louis was, an uppity house Negro. You have to be brought down a peg or two.” I really like that idea that she almost considers him to be a bit of an Uncle Tom. Industrialization versus urbanization was another theme, along with fathers and sons,or the role of rage as a black man in a white world. How do you control that, and when do you tap into it? Which is what he does. Belief was a big one.

One of the things that I love talking about are broken characters, and when you meet this character, he’s broken. The first scene is him touching the scars on his body, from when he was given the rod by his father. You meet a character that’s broken, or you meet a character that’s running, as Omari always says. This is a guy that’s always been running, and that’s kind of what the film’s about: a guy who’s always been running his whole life, and he can’t run anymore. He has to go back and face the truth of who he is. And what does that mean? It means something very seismic for him, and at the end, he’s a very different human being than he was at the beginning.

Which I think is what storytelling is. We set up an argument at the top, and the character believes in that argument at the beginning. By the end, we’ve gone completely full circle by answering the dramatic question that we set at the top, and that’s what we try to do with the film.

Speaking of Omari, he has the look and physique of an action star, but he spends a lot of time in the film strapped to a bed. Can you talk to me about that dichotomy and what impressed you about his performance?

Mark Tonderai: He impresses me on many levels. He’s a really fascinating guy and an incredibly emotionally smart guy. He’s a movie star. I said that to him, “I really hope people can in some way see it on a big screen,” because when you see it on the big screen, movie stars don’t need words. They just command, and that’s what he does.

But take all that away, and it’s his ethic. When I said action, this guy was there. And you’re right, we put him in clothes that were too big for him. He’s got an amazing physique and we allude to it in the script, but I didn’t want that to be the trump card that we were going to play. I didn’t want that to be our ace card; I wanted our card to be something different. I wanted it to be all about performance, and all about the clothes that he’s wearing, and all about the emasculation that he’s going to be feeling, and how he’s going to be broken down.

But his commitment is incredible. It’s a really hard part to play. He showed me photographs that he just sent me a couple of days ago, of him at the beginning and him at the end of the process. He’s just broken. And we shot it chronologically, which I’ve never done before, and it’s really difficult to do. When it goes night, you go night. So, we ended up with four weeks of nights, which is really brutal. Something happened to us – I think all of us – on that floor, because sleep deprivation is a torture technique. That’s kind of what happened to us; you just lose yourself a bi. We shot it chronologically, which really helped the actors, and really helped with his arc and his journey.

And then, of course, acting as listening. Real acting is listening. For me, they’re like a double act – it’s Omari and Miss Loretta, and I think they were just brilliant together. This kind of cat and mouse that they play, with the different levels, like when he knows she’s lying, and she knows that he knows she’s lying. When she thinks he doesn’t know that she’s lying, and when he thinks that he’s telling her lie but is actually telling the truth. All those little games that they’re playing with each other, and the way that she’s totally in control about where she wants him to be and how she wants him to get there. They’re brilliant performances. Of course, I’m biased, but I’m not really. I’m actually probably harder on myself than anybody else. I look at those performances, and they are absolutely brilliant performances.

Miss Loretta is just amazing. I know you can tell me.

She really was. What did she bring to the role for you that wasn’t on the page?

Mark Tonderai: If you look at the way that she hits those rhythms, the way that she constructs the words – the way that she oscillates between the words and hits those runs… It’s brilliant; it’s like poetry. The way she says these things is just brilliant. And you’ve got to be careful, because there’s a way that can become a bit Mammy Bessie. It can become a bit too Southern, but it isn’t. She manages to spin this line of real credibility, but also real sort of lyricism – and that’s all her.

It’s the way that she took the words and gave it this energy and this life. I’m not gonna spoil it for your audience, but you know the Obama line and the way she delivers it. We lit it so we would just see her eyes and lips, and the rest of her is all in shadow. And the way she says that line, at that moment you actually feel for her. That moment was designed for us to go, “Jesus, wow. I understand why she’s doing this.” She’s phenomenal.

She usually does these wonderful, sweet, apple pie sort of roles – so I couldn’t find anything of her being nasty. Then I found this little clip of a Netflix show, Family Reunion, and there was one episode where she was really stern with the granddaughter. I sent it to Paramount, and I said, “Look, she can do really mean.” They were like, “Oh my God, this is brilliant.” I phoned her up, and I said, “Miss Loretta, I found this piece with you. Can you do mean?” And she said to me, “You’d have to ask my husband.” Because he was in the car. “Glenn, can I do mean?” And he’s like, “Yes, sir. She can really be mean.” I remember thinking, “That’s all I need.”

She’s a beautiful woman, and she had to kind of wear a wig that’s very grandmothery. That’s not her, and her clothes were different and all that sort of stuff. She really seized the part. If I’m honest, there’s two things I want to happen with this film: one is that she and Omari get recognition for this, especially her, because she’s been in the industry a long time. Frankly, if she was a different aspect, she would be lauded. But she hasn’t been, and that really upsets me.

The second thing is that I love films, and I really want to do more films. To be in the forefront of filmmaking, because I had an amazing experience doing this through a studio that allowed me to make the film that I wanted to make. That was actually what my boss said to me, and it was a really great experience. It really was; it was terrific.

Speaking of your work, your “Rosa” episode of Doctor Who is one of my favorite episodes of the series. 

Mark Tonderai: That’s really kind of you. I’m very glad that you saw that. It’s a very emotional episode for us, and we spent a long time on it. I went to Montgomery, and I lived there, and I really wanted to make sure that I respected the echoes of the past that were there. I really wanted to make sure that we held firm to what she did. It wasn’t about us going to the past and somehow deviating her into doing that; it was all about her. And I really wanted to make sure that she came across as a real living person and not an icon, which is how she has been presented to the world. Again, I had a showrunner that really trusted me and believed in me. So, I’m very glad that you that you saw that and very glad you enjoyed it.

You may not know this, but with Doctor Who, I operated on that for a lot of it. And on Spell, I operated a lot of that as well in terms of camera operating. It’s a really vital part of who I am as a director. I don’t just sit by a monitor or stand by a monitor and yell action.

I’m on Locke and Key at the moment, on camera, and it’s a really pure form of extracting story for me. I can be right there with the actors. I said to Omari when he signed up for Spell, “Whatever you do, I’m going to do it with you.” That’s a really vital part of the whole process.

I know you’ve directed a lot of television in the superhero genre, and I kind of want you to direct Blade.

Mark Tonderai: I would love that. That’s one that I really want; Blade is the one that I really want.

More: Omari Hardwick Interview for Spell

Spell is now out in theaters.