Many go through life terrified of the unknown that lurks around the bend. In “House at the End of the Street,” those fears are hyper-realized in the form of Sarah and Elissa (played by Elisabeth Shue and Jennifer Lawrence), a mother and daughter who move to a small town with a terrible secret: years earlier, a murder took place in the house next door to their new home, with only the family’s young son Ryan (Max Thieriot) surviving the grisly encounter. Elissa finds herself drawn to Ryan and his reclusive nature, driving a wedge between herself and her mother and setting them both down a dangerous road that preys upon the kinds of fears that any parent and teenager can relate to.
Directed by Mark Tonderai, “House” was filmed well before Lawrence embarked upon a one-way trip to Panem and superstardom by way of “The Hunger Games.” But even back then, Tonderai knew that his leading lady would be a huge star, with the potential to “be this generation’s Meryl Streep,” in the director’s own words.
We spoke with Tonderai about Lawrence’s career and much more as our Fall Movie Preview week spotlights “House at the End of the Street,” complete with an exclusive clip from the film.
MTV: I’m a total wuss when it comes to horror movies, so I’m already inclined to think “House at the End of the Street” looks absolutely terrifying. Can you give us a sense of the kind of scares you’re going for with this film?
Mark Tonderai: I think what’s really important about this film is, you’re absolutely right: it is very scary. It puts you as the viewer in that situation. What would you do if you lived beside this house where this awful event happened? That’s the hook on the story. It’s about a mother and daughter who move into this house and next door, a murder was committed. A boy, who wasn’t there when his parents were murdered, still lives there. He’s got nowhere else to go. Jennifer Lawrence’s character reaches out to him and they become friends. The theme of the film is all about parents’ love and how that can help or hinder us. I was becoming a father [while working on "House"] and I always think when you do a film for a massive part of your life, if you can find an umbilical cord between you and the work, then you’re onto something. There’s a moment in the trailer where Elisabeth Shue’s character says, “You can’t fix everyone.” That’s another important part of the theme. There are lots of different themes: how society creates certain kinds of monsters, because they’ve ostracized this kid; he’s kind of looked on as a monster. These are the themes I wanted to talk about, but I don’t want to hit the audience on the head with them. At the end of the day, it’s a horror story. But I think it’s important to have that kind of soul in the film.
MTV: One of the things that’s characteristic of the horror genre — and it’s similar with the superhero genre, too — is you can tell these intense stories that have a deeper meaning at their core. Horror can speak to great, universal fears that are important to all of us. What did you enjoy about working within the genre?
Tonderai: People dismiss horror as a genre that shouldn’t be taken seriously, and I’ve always found that kind of offensive. Like you said, a lot of the films I watched — “Carrie,” “The Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby” — for me, they’ve always been more than what they’re purporting to be about. “Carrie” is a coming-of-age film, dealing with puberty and faith … it’s kind of profound, if I’m honest. Also, the core of our film is the relationship between this mother and daughter, this kind of civil war that happens between moms and daughters, when daughters are stepping into womanhood and mothers want to take inventory of their lives. But they no longer have that right. That kind of civil war in the relationship, that’s something I’m talking about. I don’t have daughters, but I thought that relationship could be very interesting. And the tension between Shue and Lawrence is there throughout the film.
MTV: If that civil war is at the core of the film, then it would have been hard for you to cast better actors for these roles. Just on physical appearances alone, Shue and Lawrence look like they could really be mother and daughter. What went into firmly establishing and strengthening that relationship in the movie?
Tonderai: The interesting thing is, if I’m being honest — and I think Elisabeth would say the same thing — she went to me, “Oh my god, Jen is where I was 20 or 25 years ago.” She was in “Karate Kid” and one of the hottest young stars on the planet. There’s already a strange symmetry between the two. We didn’t know what was going to happen with “Hunger Games” then, but frankly, we had a sense of what would happen with her, because she’s so good. Both of these women are fiercely intelligent. That’s what makes me laugh, when I’ve seen comments on this film, that it’s this kind of schlock. But these women are very intelligent, who choose their films very wisely. They wouldn’t get involved with anything that’s just generic. They wouldn’t do that. They’re too smart and strong for that.
With Elisabeth, I really had to talk her around to do the part. She’s smart and asked lots of questions about motivations. We had this huge bible of characters and motivations, where these characters come from, their family trees — the whole thing. I get the actors involved with writing these things. Same with Jen and her character. That’s what we did. We put them in that scenario. I don’t think I’m a genius in saying this, plenty of people have said this before me, but when you cast right, you’re kind of there. I think that’s what we did with this. You cast well, and you create an environment that allows them to be themselves, to try things, and you allow them to go. That’s all I did, to be honest with you.
MTV: You made “House” before Jennifer landed “Hunger Games.” What was your experience like working with her? You already said you had this sense that big things were coming her way.
Tonderai: The truth is, I knew that from seeing “Winter’s Bone.” I saw that in London on a cold day and I remember thinking, “That’s the one that I want [for 'House'].” You need a really fantastic actress to get across these huge ideas. I knew she was special. And I knew it when we auditioned her. It was probably the last audition that she’s ever done. [Laughs] She came in and read for me, and just the way she read the words … actors don’t always have time to read the whole screenplay, they just read the sides. And I remember thinking, “Jesus, she’s just read this, right off the page, and it’s going right through me.” I said to her that she can be as good as she wants to be. In my mind, she can be this generation’s Meryl Streep. I seriously think she’s that good. She’s an incredible actress.
But for me, if I’m honest, all of that can be kind of irrelevant, in my book. You can have all of that talent but be a sh–person. In our industry, we attract sh–people. And she’s not. She has this real gratitude about doing what she does. She’s from a working class family and she knows there are people out there who work hard jobs. There are people sweeping the streets, nurses, people doing these really important jobs. She knows how lucky we are. I always gel with people like that. It’s an honor doing what we do. It’s a real privilege, it really is. Every day, we should be thanking the movie gods that we can do what we do. And she does that. You can sense that. She’s incredibly polite to everybody, it doesn’t matter who they are. I think she’s going to be huge. Well, she already is, but I think she’s going to get even bigger.
From “Les Mis” to “Breaking Dawn,” “The Hobbit” to “Skyfall,” the MTV Movies team is delving into the hottest upcoming flicks in our 2012 Fall Movie Preview. Check back daily for exclusive clips, photos and interviews with the films’ biggest stars.