SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details of tonight’s Lovecraft County episode ‘A History of Violence’ on HBO. Tread carefully.
EXCLUSIVE: “There was an operative sentence that came to me at the beginning, and it had to do with Jurnee Smollett calling me on a Saturday early early early in the morning,” explains director Victoria Mahoney of how she came to direct tonight’s ‘A History of Violence’ episode of Lovecraft Country.
“She said a sentence to me, and that was the sentence that got me on the plane, essentially, and it was, she said this is Indiana Jones and The Goonies for black folks,” the Star Wars vet says of the fourth episode of the Misha Green created HBO series. “I thought, oh my goodness, I’ve waited my life for that.”
From the burning of Order of the Ancient Dawn bylaws by a drunk and tormented Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), to front porch visit to Smollett’s Leti by the seemingly invulnerable Christina (Abby Lee), and the depths under the Boston Museum of Science by Montrose, Leti, and the increasingly powerful Atticus (Jonathan Majors) in search of the now dead Titus Braithwhite’s vault and the missing pages of the Book of Adam there is a lot of life in the Green penned episode. There is also some hire wire action, magic, puzzles, a seduction and then there’s death on the edge of revelations by the killing of the recently reanimated Yahima (Monique Candelaria) by MKW’s Montrose.
Or as Majors’ Tic puts in: “This is some Journey to the Center of the Earth-type shit”
All of which seemed tailor made for Mahoney, as Underground co-creator Green told Deadline:
“Episode 4 is one of our most ambitious episodes – it’s an Indiana Jones film packed into an hour of television – and we knew we needed a director who could handle the challenge. It’s a very technical episode between the stunts, water work, and a lot of VFX and Vic has that rare combination of technical prowess and narrative understanding that all great action directors possess. Those aspects, her pure love for the craft, and being game for pushing boundaries on all levels, is evident in every inch of one of my favorite episodes this season.”
In addition to serving as second unit director on The Rise of Skywalker, and being touted for Paramount’s adaption of Kyle Stark’s graphic novel Kill Them All, the Yelling to the Sky director has made her bones on the small screen too helming the likes of including Veena Sud’s Emmy winning Netflix series Seven Seconds, Patty Jenkins’ TNT limited series I Am the Night, Netflix’s You, and TNT’s Claws. The CAA-repped Mahoney is currently developing Octavia E. Butler’s sci-fi novel Dawn as a TV series for Amazon
I chatted with Mahoney, who made history last year as the first woman and first woman of color to direct a Star Wars film about tonight’s Lovecraft Country, what she brought to the show and what it meant to her, professionally and personally.
DEADLINE: Lovecraft Country has revealed itself to be an anthology of sorts and yet tonight’s A ‘History of Violence’ is clearly a pivotal episode in a season that is all about shattering expectations and perceptions. As the director of this adventure, what is your take on where Lovecraft has been so far and where it is going?
MAHONEY: What’s exciting about the overall approach I think that Misha Green had was she wanted them to live on their own, and then the audience will see this really, truly does veer off to uncharted territory for them, and it is a standalone.
There was an operative sentence that came to me at the beginning, and it had to do with Jurnee Smollett calling me on a Saturday early early early in the morning. She said a sentence to me, and that was the sentence that got me on the plane, essentially, and it was, she said this is Indiana Jones and The Goonies for black folks. I thought, oh my goodness, I’ve waited my life for that. So, it means a great, great deal to me as an individual, as a storyteller, and as an audience member.
DEADLINE: I get as the former, but how as the latter?
MAHONEY: When you think Lovecraft, what are the two names of the back side of that show? Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams. So, has anyone in the industry stopped to weigh the gravity of, oh, Misha got that. So now there’s some rug rat running around right now trying to get their own version of some great show that’s personal with their own wild, beautiful swings. It’s like, they don’t have those two powerhouses. Think of what’s had to happen to get that show on air.
DEADLINE: Do you think that is being picked up on?
MAHONEY: One of the things that’s valuable to me and why Lovecraft is special and dear to my heart is because it’s when we put content forward, we work, we labor, and we bust our ass to fight the fight, to get the thing up, to support it and resource it and out in the world. What’s interesting is when it goes out in the world, the people who receive it and get to speak about it first might not be of that culture, so then it’s still filtered.
So, we do all this work to get a story filtered through a different point of view.
Then right now we still have this moment where whoever is the first top tier critics or whoever gets to speak about something, they’re filtering it through their point of view which is predominately white male again because it’s just the business. They miss the nuances, and there are a lot of journalists who I think hopscotch right past the point of, oh, shit, a little kid has never, ever, ever seen a version of himself or herself in Indiana Jones. For me, which you know, Dominic, is I have, for years I thought I was Harrison Ford because of the movies. I wanted all those rides.
DEADLINE: Despite successes and lip service genre remains very segregated…
MAHONEY: One of the things Misha and I have talked about is I’d love to see happen is this embrace of hey, this isn’t for you. This wasn’t made for you. So, you don’t have to applaud it, like it, or even understand it, but just speak about it in the terms of craft. I found what Misha was doing and whatever her wish was in all the episodes, let alone in mine, it was really beautifully layered and calibrated to the action versus the drama versus the humor versus the cheeky bits.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
MAHONEY: When you think Misha is the first one who did this crazy, beautiful swing, well, everyone wants this flawless experience. Like, no. We’re still learning. What are you talking about? The same for me and anything I go do, it’s like, we are burdened by this illusion of perfection, that the thing we do has to be perfect. it’s like, you know, when there are ten Lovecrafts one year then let’s dissect it and break it down in a certain way that we can weigh what is truthfully done for black folks in that genre. You know?
DEADLINE: Now, when you say that, I mean, the thing is, for white boys like me, we’ve seen a lot of versions of ourselves being Indiana Jones, we’ve seen a lot of versions of The Goonies, we’ve seen a lot of versions of the Mummy and National Treasure and so on and son on. For you as a female African American director on a show created by an African American woman, led by an African American woman, an African American woman, I might add, in Jurnee’s case, who literally does some high wire acting here, literally and figuratively, what is the significance of that for you?
MAHONEY: The thing that is fascinating to me when we look at the landscape of film and television over 100 years give or take, we see stories told, of course, and filtered, distilled through a very specific protagonist, a very, very specific lens, and what happens is that there is a casual approach to these events because what you said, people go, well, we’ve seen that 30 times.
You’ve never seen that with black folks or you’ve never seen that with a black woman lead, and so forth, or created by a black person, and I think that this show has pioneering components across the board.
DEADLINE: Such as?
MAHONEY: This episode, I’m thinking just for myself, which I know five also has some landmark moments with Cheryl Dunye directing, but I know that for my episode, it is an enormous, very quiet win for the culture that it’s created by Misha Green, it was directed by Victoria Mahoney, it’s starring Jurnee Smollett and Michael K Williams and Jonathan Majors in bulk. The journey is for the culture, by the culture, as you say.
DEADLINE: The power of pioneers and representation …
MAHONEY: Yes! And look, I’m not saying everyone, a large portion of people, we always knew was black folks would grab onto it, and that doesn’t mean that they’d love it or that they’d agree with it or that that they’d get it. It just means that we knew that black folks would be stimulated and curious by the ride. That was a given because we are so starving, and that can be said for Asian folks, that can be said for Latinx, that can be said for First Nations, that can be said for disabled folks, LGBTQIA. All marginalized individuals are just aching for a story.
DEADLINE: Victoria, this is a big story, this is Temple of Doom level stuff with high end results, were you ever worried it won’t work?
MAHONEY: (LAUGHS) Well, we were filming for eight days straight in an elaborate water cave built from the ground up for this episode.
But, honestly, I was so excited to hit the ground was because I kept thinking, if I was 14 and 15 and I could click on HBO and watch this, imagine what it would have done to my internal life to have had this reflection of myself on these stories, experiences. Forget it. Forget it. So, we now have these kids who this is their new norm. They don’t know that Lovecraft wasn’t around for people like me.
Now, if you take that, it resonates of course further because we are now on the heels of this global awakening where people for the first time, some portion of the people on the planet have just realized and kind of come to this, oh, shit, there’s a chance black lives do actually matter. So, now, after this sort of unified awakening, forced awakening, we come to this place where stories arrive on our doorstep and whenever we get to see it, and I think that this story probably could not have had the impact on a large scale a few years ago as it does as it’s happening right now.
— Crown Vic (@VictoriaMahoney) September 7, 2020
DEADLINE: In terms of History of Violence, this is the where the search for the powerful Book of Names takes on actual form, in more ways than one. Specifically, the relationship between Atticus and MKW’s Montrose. From the opening with that Cold War broadcast as a soundtrack to the very end when he cuts Yahima’s throat, which has it’s own fallout of colonialism, this is very much Michael’s episode in many ways. What was your relationship with him here?
MAHONEY: My experience with Michael was …you know, he’s so pure in his approach. Everything for him is tactile. It’s very, you know, honest. It’s bloodlettingly honest, and so for him it’s what he feels and what’s happening around him, and there’s a great importance to shielding him for the moment. Like, Michael, he comes in 1,000 watts as far as, and I’m not talking about volume, I’m talking about emotion, range. So, when he comes in, the moment that we’re ready to go is the moment we’re ready to go. You don’t need to call Michael before.
What’s lovely is that one of the exciting ways to go to work is when you have different approaches to the practice.
So, one actor loves rehearsal, one doesn’t, one wants to talk it out, one doesn’t, and we can then keep going off and there are different tenets of that, but I enjoy going to work and finding the gear shift that allows a person to soar and trust and slide.
What allows Michael to feel safe and give is completely different from what Jurnee, you know, my language and discussion or direction with Jurnee and my direction with Jonathan, completely different, all three of them. It’s really exciting. Meaning that there is a very delicate intricacy that goes into each moment, especially when you have a scene with three people that are in every single scene, essentially, together. But, my ride is with those three in bulk, so I have to find ways to figure out what makes Michael’s engine, what makes Jonathan’s engine, and Jurnee’s engine, and that is actually part of what doesn’t ever show on screen that was beautifully challenging.
DEADLINE: And on screen, was there particular moments there for you, for the show?
MAHONEY: I loved, the moment with Michael and Jonathan on the stairs right before he goes in and slices Yahima’s throat, there’s a moment that is so quiet. I’m telling you that beat where Michael and Jonathan, where their characters Montrose and Atticus, they had this moment they waited, Atticus waited his whole life for this moment He waited his whole life for this moment with his father, it came on the heels of this journey that they just took, and there’s this really sweet, powerful beat, and when it played, when we were playing with it on the ground, what came, we caught it.
DEADLINE: As a filmmaker, what is that to you?
MAHONEY: It’s a moment that I’m very proud of, oddly, because everyone would think the noisier stuff. But this was…we caught it on frame, this really pure beat that occurred between these two actors in that moment, and it was without force. It was organic. It just landed. It was so beautiful. It was so beautiful, and then it was layered because you know that Montrose was going to go do this thing that betrays his son after the moment his son trusted him and waited for his whole life to hear, to get his father’s approval. Oh, I love it. I love it. I loved it.
DEADLINE: In that, obviously you had the experience of Rise of Skywalker and now you working on adapting Octavia E. Butler’s 1987 novel Dawn into a series with Ava DuVernay’s Array and Charles D. King’s Macro. For you, what are the elements of genre that you particularly like? Because you’ve done so much stuff, but I do see that you’re sort of coalescing into genre as I would say your weapon on choice, for lack of a better expression. Why is that?
MAHONEY: It’s interesting you ask because Miss Octavia Butler has a famous quote where they asked her why sci-fi, and I’m paraphrasing, but to a degree she said something witty and wonderful and wicked and wise, she said because in sci-fi, you know, she said look at me, her height, her skin tone, everything about her, she just thought the world was in conflict with, and so she thought, I could put myself in sci-fi and I could be the lead, I could be the one going to save the day.
I’m paraphrasing, that’s how I interpreted it when I was young and I read it, and that was my feeling. Something about, you know, just sci-fi or even an action genre, there’s a place where people can’t excuse my presence. They can’t say, no, no, you wouldn’t be there. No. No. There wouldn’t be a woman or color there. It’s like, it’s make believe. We can do whatever we want.
I’m very, very comfortable with cross-pollinating and mixed genre, and it’s very exciting to be quite frank. I love the idea of action and nuanced performances in one ride. It’s my favorite thing in the world. And that’s part of my fight in picking projects, is because I was agonized as a kid watching all these films being made, and they’re in the future, and you think, I’m sorry, so you’re saying in the future we have not solved race issues, we have not solved gender issues, that’s still the center of the universe, it’s still that one type of person?
The white male is the only person in 2090, in 4080, whatever the years were of all these movies we watched, TV shows that have ever been made, like, no, there are no women, people of color, black folks, brown folks. So, now some of my choices have to do with shapeshifting the imbalance and I feel excitedly equipped. So it’s like, I’m equipped to play in that realm. It doesn’t frighten me, it doesn’t intimidate me.