I just had the opportunity to chat with director Mark Tonderai, whose House at the End of the Street (due out on September 21st) concerns a mother (played by Piranha 3DD's Elisabeth Shue) and daughter (the red-hot Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence) who move into a new home only to find themselves caught up in the tale of a young girl who murdered her parents, and the brother she left behind. Find out what Tonderai had to tell me about crafting the thriller and working with Lawrence, after the jump.
When I ask Mark Tonderai what prompted him to sign on to direct the cat-and-mouse thriller House at the End of the Street, he replies, "I do love thrillers, especially Hitchcockian thrillers, that get into this conflict with the audience, that take them down a path and bring them back. I love those sorts of films, especially those that make you want to hide behind your hands because you're connected to the characters, and they're going through these situations that are just too horrific and very scary. I love making those sorts of films. I'd already made Hush, and the lead in that was a male... One of my mentors once said to me, 'You should always go to places where you're scared.' And when [House at the End of the Street] came, it was like, 'Well, it's an American film, a different way of working, in terms of unions and all sorts of things. It's got women in the lead. Wow, that's different as well. It's not quite my culture, because I'm English…' All those things were frightening to me. But I think when you start at film and you look at the material and you look at the themes, you look at the characters, you look at what you can bring to the table, and then you look at the people around you. I had [executive producer] Peter Block, who's incredibly experienced, I had Aaron, the writer, who's had incredible experience… And you kind of look around you and go, 'Okay.' It becomes very exciting and makes sense. For me it was very personal. I've always said I wanted to work and live in America. Was I good enough? Am I good enough to stand toe to toe with these guys who've made films that I respect? There were a lot of decisions that came into play. But it always came down to the story, and the story, when I read it, I was thrilled and shocked and had no idea where it was going. So I said, 'Okay, let's go.'"
As for working with Jennifer Lawrence in her first role after her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter's Bone, Tonderai laughs, "I bribed her to come on board. I had a couple of compromising pictures of her... No, I'm kidding. She had just done Winter's Bone, and I had a great casting director come on board. I'd seen Winter's Bone on TV in England, and I kind of knew that this is the girl that I wanted, because, as the whole world is now discovering, she's just a great actress. She's got a connection with the truth, and it's really pretty extraordinary. Now it's difficult, because when you have someone like that… I was like, 'Okay, let's hope she's a great person,' because that's just as important when you make a film. Especially in something like this, which is all about trust. Then I met Jen, and she was. She was just a really engaging, funny kind of girl. I think I cast her and she got nominated, or she got nominated and I cast her. I can't remember what it was, but it was one or the other. It was a testament to her. All this stuff was happening to her, but we were still meeting up. She sings in the film, so she was learning a song, and doing her character diary, which I made her do, and made Max [Thieriot], who plays opposite her, do. That was what happened. She had a really active hand in developing the character. That was kind of how she came onboard; and we had a great time filming it. She's very funny, and very down to earth. She's one of those people who you can see really respects the craft and thinks it isn't something that's a right, but something she's lucky to be doing. I think she's gonna be one of this generation's premiere actors. You can see it in the choices she's making. She's making smart choices."
Tonderai notes the parallels between Lawrence's career and that of his film's other star, Elisabeth Shue. "Elisabeth said it herself – 'Jen is me twenty years ago.' Because Elisabeth's first big film was The Karate Kid. I'll be honest with you: I always pinch myself when I think about what I do for a living, because it's pretty awesome, and it's pretty extraordinary. I always think about how suddenly I went from watching Elisabeth Shue, as a kid in Africa, to working with her. It was great, absolutely great. One of those lovely moments, because she's now a friend of mine. It can be very daunting, because you think to yourself, 'Oh my word. What if this person is a terrible person and I'm not gonna enjoy that, y'know?' Part of me has a philosophy that if he meets his heroes they'll always let him down. But again, she's a great person and brings a real kind of weight to the part. You really need that, because on a smaller film it's so hard to get that level of detail and complexity and characterization. You really need people who can do that, and are prepared to do that. And she's great. There's no other word for it; she's really great, and on the money every time. Like I said, she was great for Jen, because they were almost mirror opposites. So it was fantastic."
Tonderai describes House at the End of the Street as a film that "is gonna really scare you and thrill you. In genre films, for the most part, there isn't that much time spent with characters and characterization, and a lot of the time, with other films, we have cheap scares and that sort of thing. That's fine; that's cool. But we're very much like, 'Okay, let's do ours differently.' For example, the scares are real scares. Things that happen in the film… You don't just have an event happen – like a dog leaping out – that gets you scared. We don't do that. That's the first thing. Then we spend a lot of time building the characters. Then we put them in this really terrifying situation, with a really terrifying nemesis. Then I think because you care so much for the characters and you get to know them, it's even more terrifying. You don't know what the danger is, but you can feel it all around you. I think that's kind of what it does. It goes into this contract with the audience and says, 'Look, here's where we're going,' and then suddenly it goes, 'I'm going this way. Where are you going?' I think that moment there, where the audience doesn't know what the hell is happening, is what I'm banking on. Stephen King has this great quote in his book Danse Macabre, that horror to him 'is the pervasive sense of disestablishment, that things are in the unmaking, the systematic feeling that something bad is around the corner.' If that's horror, that's exactly what we do. Films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, they all share that common burden of the audience knowing that something bad is going to happen, but they don't know when it's coming, or how. [Even though] they've seen the trailer. That foreknowledge can bring impatience or all sorts of things, and distraction. But if it's done well, it can be so gratifying. So that's kind of what we're doing. We delay gratification, we delay the scare, and we play that kind of complicit game with the audience, who are aware of the laws and conventions and go along with it... I've seen it with two audiences. Trust me when I say that the response was magical to me. Because a lot of people came into it going, 'I know what this movie's about.' Then suddenly they went, 'Okay!' That was a great moment."
Regarding what's next for him, Tonderai laughs, "I can't say, if I'm honest. We're in negotiations on a few things, so I don't want to jinx it. But what I do know is that since I've worked with Jen now, and that kind of bar has been set for me, I know that I want to work with people of that caliber in front of the camera, and also behind the camera, where I had a great experience. I can't tell you what it's going to be but I know that it's going to be awesome."
Tonderai notes the strange turn his career has taken, since he got his start writing sketch comedy for the BBC. "My first film was a comedy. And I'd worked a lot with comedians and I used to manage a comedy company. But comedy is incredibly hard to write. When Bridesmaids was nominated, I was like, 'Wow, about time.' Because that stuff is really, really hard to write. Also, I think the best comedy always has a point, no matter what it is. A lot of my favorite comedians, like Chris Morris, who writes things that are incredible, there's always something behind the comedy. You can see the intelligence there. All the best comedians do that… It wasn't a conscious decision. I think that was then, what I was doing. Things that I like now, I didn't like two years ago. It's natural evolution. I've always been more of a writer than I am a director. I've always written, since I was a kid. I've still got stories I wrote when I was seven. They're rip-offs of a lot of other people's stories, but for me it was always about storytelling. It wasn't so much about comedy or drama, because they're all in my mind, kind of the same thing. You're conveying an idea and you want someone to feel something. Like with this film, I want people to feel something. That's when you've succeeded, and if you've succeeded by having them feel scared through genuinely feeling peril for your characters, that's the result. If you're having them feel scared because a jack-in-the-box or something has come out of the bushes, that's great, but it's not as satisfying as the other way around."