After seeing the trailer for the thriller House at the End of the Street, opening in theaters on September 21st, I’m certainly intrigued by the mood and feel of it, the fact that it clearly relies on scares more than gore, and that it stars The Hunger Games superstar Jennifer Lawrence. Telling the story of a newly divorced woman (Elisabeth Shue) who moves into a dream house with her daughter (Lawrence), they learn that the small, upscale, rural town that they’re living in has a chilling secret. When startling and unexplainable events begin to happen, they get pulled deeper and deeper into a mystery more dangerous than they ever could have imagined.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, director Mark Tonderai (Hush) talked about how happy he is with the glimpses that were given to tease audiences with the trailer, how he came to direct this film, auditioning Jennifer Lawrence for quite possibly the last time in her career, why he wanted to go for a PG-13 rating, how much the film changed from the original script, and that he thinks the film will surprise a lot of people because it’s not what you’d expect. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
MARK TONDERAI: Yeah, they did an amazing job. A lot of trailers give it all away, and it’s a very difficult film to sell. You hear, “House on the Street,” and you think, “Oh, okay, I know what that’s going to be about.” And we always say, “House on the Street isn’t what you think,” but it’s a really difficult one to sell because you can’t give away too much because then it just ruins the whole film. They gave away just enough. And, I love the backwards stuff.
How did you come to direct this film?
TONDERAI: Well, I did my first film in England, and it was called Hush. It did really well in England and sold all over the world. It got an American release through IFC. If you’re Catholic, you go to Rome. If you make films, you have to come to Hollywood. So, I always wanted to come here, but doing that is incredibly difficult. I got the screenplay through my ex-agent, who was great. It came through and it had a really cool, great idea. I said, “I think I can do something with this. I think I can elevate this material.” And then, I started the long process of lobbying for the job. At the time, no one knew who I was over here. Not that they do now, but it was really tough to get in. So, I did a presentation.
The producers did Memento, and I really loved that film, and they’re really good guys. I knew the company a little bit, and it had the right pedigree of people around it, who I wanted to work with. So, it was all about, would they like me? I went in there and pitched my take on the film and what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and the vibe that I wanted to go for, which was to set it in reality and film it with natural lighting and use practical, sensitive handheld cameras, and then populate it with actors who are incredibly brilliant actors. And then, I got the gig!
At the same time, I was becoming a father, so a lot of the things in the film, like the main theme is all about a parent’s love, and how it can help and hinder you, really struck a chord with me. When you direct, I think that’s what you look for. You don’t really look at the plot, so much. You look at the characters and you look at the theme, and then you go, “Okay, great, I can lend something of myself to this.” That’s what I thought with this. I felt, “Okay, I can redo that.” That was two years ago. And then, we started the long process of getting it on its feet. The first piece of the puzzle was Jen [Lawrence], who had just come off of Winter’s Bone and was about to be nominated. That’s how it all started to roll. Now, I live here.
TONDERAI: I’d seen Winter’s Bone, and then I looked up everything else that she did. No, she came in and she auditioned. It’s probably the last audition she’s ever going to do! She auditioned for me, and I remember it so clearly ‘cause I’ve got quite a funny story about it. I always kneel down when actors come in because you’re there with all these masses of producers and it’s really intimidating and I try to make it as easy as possible. I remember just kneeling in front of her, and she’s got this look that just looks right into you. I think that’s what stardom is. They make you feel like the most important person in the world, just by looking at you. She just read off the page. I realized that she was coming from another meeting and she probably hadn’t even read the sides, so she was reading cold. Yeah, Jen, if you’re reading this, I know that you did that. And remember thinking, “If this girl can do that cold, that’s pretty amazing!” I was like, “Okay, she’s great!,” but I really wanted her to be great.
Anyway, I was desperate for the toilet and I basically left the room and had to run to this guy’s house, around the corner. I had to run out of reception and go down the street, and who was getting in her car but Jennifer Lawrence. I thought, “Well, I don’t want to say anything because that’s a bit uncool.” On my way back, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to say something to her.” I did this thing where I literally jumped in the air and tapped my heels together, and I said, “I wanted you to be great, and you were!,” and she looked at me and said, “And so were you!” And, that was it. I remember thinking, “Oh, my god, did I just do that? Did I just literally jump in the air and click my heels?” I felt like Dick Van Dyke. So, I was out there and she didn’t leave me to hang, and I knew then that we’d be able to get on. She’s a great girl!
TONDERAI: No, it was always PG-13. From the word go, that was how I had designed it. In my head, I always have someone in particular that I’m talking to, and so does the film. In this instance, it’s about a teenage girl, and that moment where your mom feels that she can do an audit on your life and you don’t want that anymore because you’re not a little girl anymore, and you’re becoming something other than her little girl, and there’s that tension between moms and daughters. I’m not a girl, so I don’t know what that is, but I have sister. My little sister is 13, and she’s a really smart, really bright girl. I always knew that, from that point on, 13 and up was going to be the audience.
Saying that doesn’t mean that you can be 28 or 30 and not get it. There’s Elisabeth Shue’s plotline. There’s Max Thieriot’s plotline, and he’s 21 or 22. There’s something in there for everyone. But, I knew that I needed the people that see themselves on screen to see it. There’s no point in doing a rated R film because they won’t be able to see it. It’s really important to me, that the people that I put on screen see it. I want mums and daughters to go see it together. I want boyfriends and girlfriends to go see it together because they will, and they’ll see themselves on screen. But, aside from that, they’ll want to go see it because it really is scary. It really is a good, old-fashioned thriller and it works because you really care about the characters. It’s not cheap schlock or cheap scares. There’s not lots of blood. There’s none of that stuff. It’s a good, old-fashioned Hitchcockian ride. It’s like Rosemary’s Baby. It’s that kind of a vibe.
TONDERAI: There were loads of changes, yeah. Some of them were self-enforced, some of them were location enforced. When you get into pre-production, suddenly you can’t find a house that’s blue, so you have to go with different things. Some things need to be rewritten on the spot because of the location or availability, or all sorts of things. So, it did change. The central core idea is still the same, which (screenwriter) David [Loucka] did, but we did change it a bit. I know that he’s delighted about it.
When you cast a horror thriller like this, do you have to make sure that everybody has a great scream before you cast them?
TONDERAI: That’s a good question. With this kind of people, you know they’re so good that you’re going to elicit that kind of reaction. There’s a scene in the film, that’s kind of a scary scene, and I remember being around the monitor and somebody whispered to me, “Don’t you think she should be screaming there?” I remember thinking to myself, “No. If that’s what she feels, then that’s how she is.” I don’t know about you, but I always find films where people are trying not to cry so much sadder than when you see that single teardrop go down the face. I always find it so much sadder when you can see somebody desperately trying not to cry. That’s so heartbreaking. And, that’s what I felt in that scene. The way that Jen responded was exactly right for me. I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” But, she does have a good scream.
TONDERAI: This film is a real suspenseful thrill-ride. Once you go into it, from the first frame, you’re on the ride. You have this really awful sense that something bad is going to happen. I think this film works really well because it says, “Okay, here we go, we’re on the path, and you’re complicit in it, and here’s what’s going to happen.” And then, as we give you more and more facts, suddenly you’re like, “Oh, my god!,” and you’re really in this area where you haven’t been before. There’s nothing like it. I really mean that. There’s nothing actually like it out there. That’s why the trailer delighted me. When people give it that shot, and I’m really glad that they will now because of Jennifer Lawrence, they’ll really see what I mean and they’ll want to watch it again. When you go watch it, that will all make a lot of sense, and you’ll see. I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people. It isn’t what you think.