Director Mark Tonderai discusses his thriller House at the End of the Street, currently available on Blu-ray and DVD
Director Mark Tonderai made his feature directorial debut in 2008 with the thriller Hush, after working as an actor, writer, and producer for various films and TV shows. The filmmaker returned to the silver screen last year with House at the End of the Street, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Elisabeth Shue, and Max Thieriot. The story follows Sarah and Elissa (Elisabeth Shue and Jennifer Lawrence), a mother and daughter who move into a dream house they shouldn't be able to afford. As it turns out, just at the end of the street, a young girl killed both her parents, with the lone survivor Ryan (Max Thieriot) living all alone in that big house. When Elissa starts to get close to Ryan, she learns the untold truth about what really happened. I recently had the chance to speak with Mark Tonderai over the phone, to discuss the film, which debuted earlier this week on Blu-ray and DVD. As it turns out, the filmmaker happens to be a very big fan of the site. Here's what he had to say.
Mark Tonderai: I love your site. I used to look at your site religiously. It's a good site.
Oh, cool! Thanks. It seems this project was in development for quite awhile, almost 10 years. I believe Jonathan Mostow was going to direct it at one point. Can you talk about when you came on? I believe there was another writer brought on to work on the script.
Mark Tonderai: The other writer that came on was me, basically. I rewrote the script. I knew what sort of story I wanted to tell, which was a love story. I call it a romantic thriller. Some would call it a horror movie, but no. Stephen King talks about horror being a feeling that something bad is going to happen. In that definition, it's horror, but it's not really horror in terms blood-spilling. Jonathan Mostow directed Breakdown, which was a huge influence on my first movie, so it was a really weird thing when I saw Mostow was involved. For me, House at the End of the Street was always a love story. The real key of the film is to get people to like Ryan. He's this guy who lives in the house where his parents were murdered, so it's a big deal, plus he's slightly weird. I knew if I could get this love story feeling real... I pitched it like the love story in American Beauty, between Thora Birch and Wes Bentley. It was delicate, beautiful, fragile, all these sorts of things. If I could do that, I knew we would really have something. In terms of themes, I wanted to talk about a parent's love, and how they could help or hinder who we are. That was my thing, because I was having a baby. That's what I was really trying to talk about. For me, when you have this tension in a character between what he wants and what he needs, you've got great, great drama. Obviously, all these details aren't the reason people will go to the film, or they won't come out thinking, 'Oh, it's a discourse on parenthood.' We worked really hard to try and get that across. It's all about perception, and what love is. We worked really hard on it, but I think the critics were more about the horror aspect of it.
I read that you used a different kind of stock to achieve this old-school, grainy look. Can you elaborate on that, and why this look was a right fit for you?
Mark Tonderai: Yeah, it's funny because one of these f&*^ing magazines, I can't remember which one, but it was a big one, made a comment about how it was shot in digital. It was someone who wasn't really informed. Yeah, we shot on 2-perf. We originally had Fuji, but then we switched to Kodak. We used these old lenses from the 60s and 70s that would give it that grain. Film has that little bit of noise that digital doesn't have. We knew very much that, with this one, we had to get some kind of delicacy in the film. It's doesn't really fit as a mainstream horror film, because it's all handheld, but it doesn't fit as an art house film either, but it has sensibilities of both. It will use a tracking shot over a house, but at the same time, it will use a one single shot of her lying on the bed, pushing in and pushing out.
I've been a big fan of Jennifer (Lawrence) since The Burning Plain and Winter's Bone. Every time I see an interview with her, she's kind of a goofball, very quirky and fun-loving. I was wondering if that personality comes through on a set like this, where it is more dark and serious?
Mark Tonderai: I think when we shot this she was 19. She was young and she is infectious. I remember sending an email to her saying that she could really be the best, and it's all about what you want to do. She is a really amazing actress, first off, but she's also a good person. I think your lead is always the leader of a film. The director is as well, but they have to match up to what you're doing, because they're the one everybody is following. She did that on our film, and she was superb. She's a great actress, and I think she's going to go down as one of the all-time greats, if I'm honest. She's really going to be up there with actresses of any generation. I think she could pretty much do anything. If I'm honest, I think Max (Thieriot) is just as good. I don't think you can play opposite someone like Jen and be mediocre. You have to be just as good. She is what you see. I think it's great she got another nomination, again (Laughs). Two nominations in three years. I think people can really sense that she's a good person, you know what I mean? People really think that, 'This girl is like me.'
Yeah. These really big stars, they're on this pedestal. With someone like Jennifer, she seems like she could be your next-door neighbor. She has this really personable quality that is really great.
Mark Tonderai: Right, exactly. If these really big actors and actresses are smart, I think that maybe that's how they'll start to behave. It's a great job that we do, and it's fantastic and it generates a lot of money, but you shit and I shit. You wipe your ass, and so do I. Let's never forget that. That kind of self-importance, really, I have no time for, frankly. Sometimes, these people start to believe that they really are different. These film stars have this ridiculous notion that they're above the normal people. Oh, piss off.
I believe you shot this in Ottawa. I was wondering if it was hard to find a house like that, this beautiful house that has the woods right behind it. Was that a challenge, logistically?
Mark Tonderai: Yeah, it was pretty hard. I had a really good locations manager, Rachel, who was phenomenal. She drove up every driveway in Ottawa. She kept going every day, and I would go with her on some of those days. We would just drive, and drive, and drive, because we had no idea what we were looking for. We knew we had to find this house, it was obviously important. The hero house, the house that Jen and Elisabeth live in, was lovely. When I saw it, I thought it was obviously the house, because I knew what I could do with the camera. It's a great space. The murder house was really interesting. We found this house that just felt right. Even though the sun was shining, there were these trees there and once you got to those trees, it was really cold. One of the things that I was trying to hammer home is that sometimes we create our own monsters, by ostracizing them. I also think we're a real product of our environment. I don't know if people bring evil to a place, or if there's inherent evil in a place. I always thought we had to find a house that always felt that it wasn't quite right. It was this place where this evil has kind of festered.
Is there anything that you're working on now that you can talk about?
Mark Tonderai: Yeah, there's a film I want to do next called The Terror of Living, which is based on a book by a fantastic author named Urban Waite. That is going to be my next film. It's a phenomenal book. It's a film that I feel I was made to make. It's kind of a combination of, I'd say, No Country for Old Men and something like The Fugitive. That's what we're gearing up for, and that's the one I'm incredibly excited about. It's looking good for this year. My goal is to try and make a film every 18 months or every year. It can be done. There are so many stories that I want to tell, so I'm desperately trying to burn the candle at both ends and up my output. I really want to make this one. It's such a brilliant, brilliant, story, and such a game-changer.
Great. That's my time, Mark. It was great talking to you.
Mark Tonderai: Thanks, Brian. Take care, mate.