While I certainly enjoyed the film far more than our own Jason Stewart, House At The End of the Street performed pretty well at the box office, more than quadrupling its budget during its theatrical run. And while the film is filled with twists and turns that have become the industry standard in terms of horror features, HATES (best acronym ever) makes great use of interesting camera work, along with a fresh take on an almost Hitchcockian/De Palma-esque terror tale. Much of the film’s success has to do with Mark Tonderai’s direction. The UK director has really elevated the material from what would be a simple teen horror flick to something really special. Max Thieriot delivers an incredibly unnerving performance as a young man with a dark secret opposite Golden Globe winner Jennifer Lawrence, who, at the time, was coming off The Hunger Games and its phenomenal success.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Tonderai at the 2013 Macabre Faire Film Fest and chat about his unorthodox career and his directorial choices while making House At The End of the Street. Tonderai speaks about film as a true artist. It’s inspiring to listen to him chat about the film, about filmmakers he admires, about the themes that interest him. So often, a filmmaker will solely wish to discuss their film, the ins, the outs, and while that’s always interesting, learning more about what a director like Tonderai brings to the production from his own personal experience is illuminating.
For me, it was nearly impossible to get a hold of the film. I couldn’t get it on Netflix, I couldn’t find it at my local library. Redbox didn’t have it, either. I didn’t even know Redbox could sell out of films, but in this case, it did. I eventually ordered the film On Demand from my local cable provider, which seemed to shock Tonderai, who asked if I watched the film at the festival. “Jeez, that’s good. Really good,” he said upon learning his film was impossible to find, sounding genuinely amazed.
“Well, what did you think?” he asked. I told him I loved the film, that I watched it with my dad, a horror movie fanatic who raised me to appreciate the cinema of John Carpenter, George Romero and Wes Craven. When I told Tonderai that both my father and I were on the edge of our seats during the film’s tense finale, he laughed.
This brought me to my first question, regarding the filmmakers who inspired Tonderai. “Well, you know, if I’m honest, a lot of the filmmakers who inspired me are the alpha-male filmmakers. We don’t really have those anymore. America, England, Australia has them, sure, that’s where we get our alpha males from. It’s funny, you don’t think of Billy Wilder as an ‘alpha male’ kinda’ guy, but guys like him, Peckinpah, David Lean, those are the main guys for me. Especially Peckinpah, I think he led from the front. Hitchcock, as well, along with the leading men, guys like Jimmy Stewart, all these guys really lived lives prior to film.”
“I’m a big fan of guys like Robert Mitchum, Anthony Quinn, Robert Shaw, these are the quintessential movie stars, movie actors. They bring a certain life experience to the screen. I think, in a roundabout way, all the filmmakers I really admire come to directing with this huge tapestry of experience. Oliver Stone is another one, a guy like Tarantino. They come to storytelling with such a huge, informed experience. A real take on the world. I think that’s dying. Directing isn’t a democracy. It’s a benevolent dictatorship,” Tonderai says, with a smile, adding “it’s one person’s point of view about something they feel strongly about.”
“House At The End of the Street isn’t about a guy who keeps a girl under his house, it’s about a parent’s love and how that love can hurt or hinder us. It’s about child abuse is what it’s really about. That’s what I wanted to talk about. That was the point I was trying to make. Every character is a facet of that theme. The townsfolk, for example, according to the cop, have created the monster because more often than not, we do create our own monsters.”
We talked a bit more about the film, the themes and some of the undercurrent coursing through the film. The nature of love and parents and what it means to look at the world. “I believe these are the underpinnings of really good drama. When a character wants or needs something, they are diametrically opposite, you’ve got really strong drama. Ryan says it in the film, ‘I want Elissa, but I need Carrie-Ann,’ that’s a crucial line that illustrates just how torn this guy really is. He’s not a psychopath, h’s got a really heightened form of psychosis, for me it was more of a horror/tragedy. I’ll tell you right now, when we were shooting the film, when I was directing, even though I knew what was going to happen, I didn’t want it to happen. That tells you how, in my mind, I genuinely wanted her to save him. This goes back to the theme, like the mother says ‘some people can’t be saved.”
Tonderai started in radio in the UK. We talked a bit about that and whether film was always his ultimate goal when it came to breaking into the entertainment. “I’ve been writing stories since I’m 8. I’m a storyteller, you know? They’re all 2000 A.D., Alan Moore rip-offs, if I’m honest. I went to a great school in Africa that had a motto of ‘you’re really good at something, let’s find out what that is,’ and basically encouraged me to write stories and write my first plays. I’m very lucky, I’ve never had a proper job, I’ve always been in radio, TV or film, I’m very lucky and I know that. But, you know, for me, I was able to tell stories in radio, its my first love, its fantastic. It’s just you, the equipment, but it eventually becomes like a straightjacket because there’s so much you want to do.”
“TV is the same, but it’s a very different kind of discipline. It was sort’ve a natural progression into film, really. I hit film when I was 38 or 39. I think that’s the perfect age to direct a film because you’re not an idiot, you know?” We both chuckle at the idea, as Tonderai continues “I’m not saying I’m less of an idiot now, I’m still an idiot, but not a full idiot. For example, the most important thing I learned in my thirties was to shelve my ego, because when you’re making a film, it’s not about you or the studio. The audience, certainly, but it’s mainly about the story. Listening to what the story wants is key. Stephen King talks about a story being like a skeleton you uncover. I think that’s a great analogy for it, really.”
“If you listen to a story, it sorta’ tells you the way to be. Our film is particular, the coloring, everything is deliberate. You can’t get in the way of the film.”
We talked about the production a bit, as the film shot in Ottowa. “it’s interesting, my producer’s one of my closest friends (Aaron Ryder). He’s a great guy. He hired me for the job and I was delighted. It’s really difficult to get a work permit in America, very very difficult. It was hard for me to get this work permit, and, the DGA didn’t want to ratify my membership, which means immigration wouldn’t ratify it either, it’s madness!”
“Anyway, we were gonna’ shoot in Maryland. My producer said we couldn’t shoot there because I couldn’t get the membership thing taken care of. So, a normal producer would’ve ditched me and gone with an American director just to get the film going. He didn’t. He said ‘listen, we’re gonna’ shoot the film in Canada,’ we hadn’t ever even been to Canada, hadn’t seen locations, nothing. I ended up getting my visa, getting my DGA membership, all those things, but if we had gotten everything right away, we would’ve shot in America. I was excited, because we were going to use the crew of The Wire and everything,” Tonderai says, with a smile.
“If I’m honest, the real difficult thing about doing a film like this was the time factor. With doing something with such a short schedule, in this case, 25 days, it’s a hugely ambitious thing. This is going to sound like a stupid thing to say, but in our case, time was difficult. You’ve got to allow your female cast a lot more time due to hair, makeup, changing, etc. If you’ve got a guy, like in my first film, he can get changed in the corner, you know? He doesn’t care about makeup or if he’s cold or whatever. Little things like that eat into your time on a shortened filming schedule like the one we were working with.”
I inquired more about the shortened filming schedule, and Tonderai said he wasn’t the biggest fan of using block shooting to shoot the film. “I hate doing that. Block shooting means that you only shoot everything one way even if its for different scenes. Even scenes filmed days from now are lit similarly, in order to shoot that way. The problem is that the only person who knows is the director, because its all in your head. It’s a horrible way of shooting, a very TV way of shooting. We had to start doing that for some of the stuff. I think every shot is so unique and every shot should be thought-through and designed. Every shot should be all about the story. The old adage is that you’re only as good as your last film is bullshit, you’re only as good as your last shot.”
“Block shooting forces you to treat the work as arbitrary and I don’t like that. One day, I lost my temper a bit, I was upset at how a scene was blocked and I just lost it. I remember saying ‘This isn’t filmmaking, this is bullshit,’ it was pretty bad. Time is the biggest hurdle in the end.”
We talked a bit about two of my favorite sequences in the film, where the camera seems to constantly be shifting from one area to another, while also focusing on different areas of action. “That’s a really good question, it’s interesting, I think the film is a mix, because I’m from England, it’s a mix of American idioms and European arthouse sensibilities. It follows those two lines, you know? The scene where she’s lying in the bed, for example, we push in, then push out, you know? We never see Elisabeth Shue, we only see her hands. Trust me, I’ve got the coverage of that scene, I’ve got it all, but for me, it was all about playing the isolation, recapture that moment we’ve all had where you’re sulking with your mom or your dad and they’re just not in your world. That’s what I was trying to do there. I felt that if we broke to Elisabeth, we’d break that idea.”
“It’s funny, audiences don’t sit there and think ‘oh, that’s what he’s trying to do,’ you know? But audiences are really smart, they really are. They feel something, they feel that’s what you’re trying to do. The real truth is, in all my films, the camera’s always moving. I never use sticks, ever. It’s always handheld, too. This is me being really hard on everything I do here. It’s important to listen to your audience, but not really important to listen to anyone else. Very important. Everyone’s a critic, you know? The way I define success of a film is whether or not the finished product represents what I envisioned in my head. That graph between the two points is how I judge a film’s success. My first film, Hush, is about as close as I’ve gotten to something in my head. It’s all handheld. The camera should be part of the scene, that’s what I’d like. A lot of films observe and use artificial things like dollies and tracks, and I think that takes you out of the scene almost immediately.”
I asked why he prefers that kind of technique over the traditional tracks and dollies of filmmaking, and Tonderai explained “Not only is it important for horror not to be taken out of the scene or the film at all, it’s a lot more immediate with handheld. It gives you the concept that there’s someone else in the room. I’ll be honest, I think there are times in House At The End of the Street where it works, and like in my other films, there are times where it doesn’t. The scene around the garden table, for example (in HATES), didn’t work and I’ll tell you why. That scene was longer. What I did was have two cameras rolling on dollies opposite one-another. That was great, it looks fantastic. But what I never did was have the camera static so it could push in or push out. Originally, that scene was two and half minutes long, what happened when I cut it together, I realized you got sick when you watched it.”
We both laugh and he continues, “I never got the static shots to break up the movement. I was always moving. The operators were constantly catching up with the dialogue so the camera whipped a bit, which only made you get motion sick faster. It was an awful effect. In the end, it was a real lesson to me in that in my head, it works, but in reality, it made people feel sick.”
Going back to the concept of the vision Tonderai had in his head of the film compared to the finished product, I inquired whether or not he was shooting for an R-rating and trimmed the film down to PG-13. “No, no, no, I’m very clear about that. The first thing I do when I get on a film is find out what the theme is. Working with the producers to determine the theme, get on the same page, you know? A house divided cannot stand. The second thing I do is I write an essay about who the audience is. The two best books on writing I ever read were Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics and Stephen King’s On Writing, they both talk about the first thing you need to know is who you’re talking to. I was very particular about who I was talking to. In my case, it was my 14-year old sister, she’s smart, bright, all these things. I wanted to articulate that civil war that occurs between a mother and a daughter, you know? I wanted to talk about that threshold a girl steps through from girlhood to womanhood, how your parents don’t see the world the way you do.”
“The two most important scenes in the film are the scenes by the tree, because that kind’ve says ‘look, I fell in love with this guy because he sees the world in a different way and that’s valid because you can’t see what he sees, but it’s alright mum, because you’ll never see what he sees.’ There comes a point in your life when you realize your parents aren’t these superheroes. They’re just like you, and its almost crushing to realize that. That’s what we were going for, theme-wise in the film.”
We talked more about the themes of the film, about the overall concepts alluded to earlier about child abuse, neglect, etc. We eventually came back to the audience for the film: “This movie opened on three thousand screens. It’s like a dream come true for me. You’ve gotta’ know who your audience is. Ironically, 80% of our audience was Hispanic, 18% white. It’s interesting and strange, you know? You’d never guess that this would be the breakdown, and you don’t have to get crazy about it, but its always a surprise.”
Talking about New York and America compared to other film festivals and areas of the world, Tonderai said “What’s great about New York, where we are (Rockville Center), and I feel strongly about this, I used to work for my brother’s company in England, hanging up posters above toilets in football stadiums, along with a very good friend of mine (Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes), the best thing about this job was that it allowed us to go outside to different towns and see different audiences, different classes of people. That’s what’s been great about coming here. We make these films in our ivory towers in Hollywood with no idea, you know? Nobody really goes outside and does these walkabouts to find out who our film is playing to. I was talking to a woman who lost her home in Hurricane Sandy and all these things and so it’s really important to go out and figure out who you’re talking to and who you’re film’s connecting with. I don’t want to use a term like ‘target audience’ or anything like that, because that’s marketing bullshit. Who’s the person that you love, you know? That’s who you’re talking to, really.”
Talking about audiences, we steered the conversation back to the incredibly tense sequence toward the end of the film that had my dad and I on the edge of our seats. It involves a shoddy flashlight, darkness, a gun and an unhinged killer. “It’s funny, because, I have some general rules of thumb with my films, one: the beginning is crucial, it’s like the first moments of a record, you gotta’ hit the audience and grab them right away. Originally, the ‘glow in the dark’ sequence as we called it, because originally, the mother, when she makes up with the daughter, she gives her this glow in the dark makeup. When the mother gets to Ryan’s house, the motion detector light clicks on and she’s talking with Ryan. Originally, the motion sensor light was going to click off and it’d be revealed that Ryan has this glow in the dark makeup smeared on his face. This would alert the mother that Elissa’s in the house. Now, we shot it with a black light, it looked phenomenal. Max looked like Munch’s The Scream, it really looked phenomenal. Now, when we did the reverse with Jen, it looked really bad. Worse, it wasn’t scary. When the lights cut out, you see the faces in the dark, but it wasn’t scary because you weren’t with her.”
“That’s when I thought ‘Oh man, I made a real mistake here. How can I change this?’ That’s when my producer, Aaron, said ‘Look, I think we should try something else.’ We thought about it. I couldn’t get it for ages. I’m getting more nervous, but then I had the idea of the POV. Just from Jen’s point of view with the breathing and the light going off, just going one, two, three, four, with the torch coming back on for a moment, then dark again. I knew I was okay, because I set up the torch earlier on so I knew that was gonna’ work. My real point about horror is that the audience’s imagination is so much more powerful than what you can show them. You really should see the film in the theatre, the 5.1, the breathing, Jen’s pleading with the torch to light up, it’s terrifying, you know? You just don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s why I think it works. I’ve been in screenings where the audience claps, screams, etc and you know what you have works.”
Talking about horror in general, we talked about how House At The End of the Street taps into those concepts of folklore, similar to John Carpenter’s Halloween. The idea of the spooky house at the end of the road, where a family was murdered or the decrepit old house that’s haunted, etc. “As an aside, my editor, Steve Mirkovich, got his start editing Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, that was his first Hollywood film,” we bough laugh, Tonderai continues, “You know, what it is that attracts people to these kinds of stories, and I truly believe this, is that stories are part of our DNA. I read a report that cavemen invented films with drawings on walls and whatnot, but its all part of who we are. I think that those certain kinds of buttons we all have that are universal, like, when a puppy’s in danger or a baby’s in danger, we all have a reaction to it, you know? It doesn’t matter who you are, you feel something. I think, when you have that, universality of theme, you have something special. People connect to it without relying on gimmicks. That’s what I think it is. I’m also really interested in the idea of when you get brought to a place where there was evil, does evil remain in that place?”
“Like in Amityville and films like that that discuss the idea, you know? I think that’s interesting. I’ve been in places that just felt wrong. I did a lot of research on houses like the one in the film, like the Menendez brothers’ house, stuff like that. One of the difficult things about the script when I first got it was how do we get that this guy (Max Thieriot’s Ryan in the film) would still live in the house where his parents were murdered? I wouldn’t do that, you wouldn’t either. You’d move. We had to nail home the point that he wants to go, but he just doesn’t have anywhere else to go.”
We talked about Tonderai’s next project a bit. Having just wrapped a pilot about stalking, he’s aiming to adapt the novel The Terror of Living by Urban Waite. “It’s a fantastic read, you should check it out. I’m very fortunate to work on this. It’s a bigger budget. The way I look at film, is that I try to attach my work to something happening in my life at the moment. In House At The End of the Street, it was about parenthood because at the time, my wife was pregnant, but Terror of Living is about fathers and sons. It’s about a guy who doesn’t want to become like his father, he’s spent his whole life not wanting to become like his father, but it looks like it’s starting to happen. It’s a perfect film for me right now because it’s exactly what I’m thinking of with my boy, who I lose patience with. I can see all of me in him. He’s got that spirit about him. That’s why I’m excited about the film.”
To wrap up our chat, Tonderai talked a bit more about his process in finding the right material to direct, saying “If you’re lucky, you can find work that becomes fuel to get you to wake up every day for the next two years or so like House At The End of the Street did for me. I really believe in what we’re trying to say in that film. I believe in the love story in that film. I believe in all these things. I think that the things that get you out of bed when everyone’s sinking and tired are the ones worth doing. That’s what I look for in films.”