Interview: House at the End of the Street’s Max Thieriot, Director Mark Tonderai

In theaters this week, House at the End of the Street, a new thriller from Relativity starring Jennifer Lawrence, Max Thieriot and Elisabeth Shue.

Directed by Mark Tonderai, the film focuses on newly divorced Sarah (Shue) and her daughter Elissa (Lawrence) who find the house of their dreams in a small, upscale, rural town. But when startling and unexplainable events begin to happen, Sarah and Elissa learn the town is in the shadows of a chilling secret. Years earlier, in the house next door, a daughter killed her parents in their beds, and disappeared – leaving only a brother, Ryan (Thieriot), as the sole survivor. Against Sarah’s wishes, Elissa begins a relationship with the reclusive Ryan – and the closer they get, the deeper they’re all pulled into a mystery more dangerous than they ever imagined.

Shock took part in a press event earlier this week and had a chance to speak with Thieriot and Tonderai about the film.

Question:  How do you play a character with secrets?  Shut off what you know to play the part?

Max Thieriot:  It’s tough and something that has to be on your mind.  Before every scene, I like to make sure I know where I’m at.  That way your constantly thinking about everything prior so you get a place in that scene.  Ryan switches a lot in the film and you see a lot of different layers from him and a lot of different things.  It definitely has to be on your mind because you don’t want to slip up.

Question:  You’ve work with Wes Craven before, and now Mark.  One is old school and one comes from a new generation of filmmakers – did you notice differences in how they handled the thriller genre?

Thieriot:  They definitely have different styles of filmmaking and storytelling.  Wes is Wes, I love the guy and he’s iconic this genre.  I definitely learned a lot of from him but he definitely has an old school take on thriller/genre films and Mark has a new look.  Rather than bringing the Wes stuff in, I wanted to fully take on Mark’s style and even getting into character…the same thing.  Mark and I sat down a few times and come up with a background for Ryan, stuff that would seem irrelevent too.  His entire family tree, his grandparents, history of the house.  On top of that, I watched a lot of videos of famous people who have…made poor decisions in their life to come up with a personality for Ryan.

Question:  Watching the film, you clearly have an affinity for Alfred Hitchcock…

Mark Tonderai:  That’s a true observation.  He’s got that great quote where he said he likes to play the audience like a piano.  That’s why this film works, it’s an audience manipulation with the black going to the white.  You think, ‘Oh, I’ve seen of this before’ – what I was trying to do was change up those expectations.  Even the title, you think, Last House on the Left or whatever it might be, so I wanted to play on whatever prejudice you have going into it.  You think you’ve seen it before but the movie gets ahead of you and becomes something else.

Question:  How did development of the script come about?  Jonathan Mostow is credited with the original story…

Tonderai:  I know he developed it with Richard Kelly and he saw a movie called Scream, Pretty Peggy with Betty Davis.  He had seen this film and when I came on board, the script had gone through a few iterations and was put into turnaround.  [Mostow] wasn’t really that involved [later], he just gave me a few nods in terms of the screenplay.

Related: Max Thieriot on his upcoming role in Bates Motel.

Question:  You came up with a bible that you created for the film, can you talk about that a bit?

Tonderai:  Truthfully, when I get a script, it’s not about the plotting because plotting you can fix, it’s about what the film is trying to say.  I just had a kid and this film was specific, for me, about talking about a parent’s love and how it can hurt you and how it can shape the person you are.  I didn’t want to hit the audience in the head with it, but it was a good theme to start with.  We all agree on a theme.  Once you have everyone on the same page, you do the character work.  That spins off into the production side, the costume, designs, make-up.  Then you go right on through that bible right to distribution, how you sell the film is so important.  It’s an impossibly long process, two years of my life.  The film’s been sitting in the can on the shelf for a year so we could let The Hunger Games run its cycle.  It was frustrating for me.

Question:  Had Jennifer already signed Hunger Games by the time you shot this?

Thieriot:  No, she did not.  The script hadn’t been released.  She had just signed to do X-Men and that was it.  Winter’s Bone hadn’t even been released theatrically.  She was really cool and down to earth.  She’s from Kentucky, a small town girl who’s like hanging out with one of the boys.  Likes to watch football.  She’s tough, she’s got two or three older brothers and she’s like a farm girl.

Question: Did you have Jennifer and Max in mind?

Thieriot:  No, I had never seen Max before.  He has that thing in his eyes.  In London, now, we’re getting a lot of Eastern Europeans and they have what I call the “pain of the world” in their eyes.  I wanted someone who has that, some actors have that naturally.  And Max has that.  Paul Newman had that and he Max reminds me of that.  Jennifer I knew I always wanted.  I had seen her in Winter’s Bone and I thought, this girl is amazing.  When I came across and met her.  She came in and just knocked it out of the park and hit it all right.

Question:  Talk about the chemistry between Max and Jennifer?

Tonderai:  I remember when they had to do the kissing scene, I didn’t have to yell action.  They were kissing, I was thinking, ‘Okay, that’s interesting.’  You can’t know that until you know it.  You really believe in them and the situation with this kid and that she would fall for him.

Question:  What was one of the more challenging aspects of the part in this movie?

Thieriot:  There was a lot of running, lifting…of people.  Lifting dead weight is not…lifting a person is not like picking up a sack of rice which is compact.  But with people you have limbs moving and it’s awkward.

Question:  What are you working on now?

Tonderai:  I’m doing a pilot at the moment and I’ve got a script going out [this week] called The Terror of Living [by Urban Waite] which is the adaptation of a book that I really want to do.  Hopefully, that will be my next film, but who knows?

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