Mario Van Peebles Interview: Superstition Director Talks Fears and Family Tradition

Snake handlers? Really? When has Mario Van Peebles ever handled a snake? That’s no mere Superstition.

SYFY’s new horror thriller Superstition is a family show, much like The Godfather is a family movie. At the center of the series is, in varying degrees, a tight knit unit of grandparents to godchildren who follow a tradition passed down through blood and DNA for centuries. These people have had to question good, evil and everything in between from a little office behind a viewing room of the funeral home they run in La Rochelle, Georgia. Producer Mario Van Peebles, who will write, direct and star in some of the episodes, also follows a family tradition hell-bent on exposing truths about the space between the heavens and hell. Sure, he did it with a smile and cushioned hard realities with a sense of humor that added subversive weight. But now he’s going to do it by scaring the shit out of us, with a little bit of humor to make the fear that much more delicious.

Superstition is set in a town that is a “landing patch” for the “world’s darkest manifestations of fear, guided into the world by an ancient, mysterious malefactor,” according to the advance press. The suits on the show include XLrator Media’s Barry Gordon, showrunner Joel Anderson Thompson (Battlestar Galactica, House M.D.”) and executive producer Laurence Andries (Alias, Six Feet Under, Supernatural). The Superstition pilot premieres on Friday, October 20 at 10 p.m. Eastern Time, but on Monday, van Peebles spent his lunch break talking with Den of Geek about where the show is off to once the mantle of magic is passed down.

Den of Geek: First, I wanted to say thanks so much for doing this.

Mario Van Peebles: You’re welcome, man, I hope you don’t mind that I’m eating a little bit as we talk.

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Just so long as I don’t have to listen to you drink blood.

I won’t be drinking blood.

You’re an actor and a director. Theater and movie people are filled with traditional professional superstitions. Do you have personal superstitions?

That’s an interesting question. I think being around people that have a good sense of humor. It’s bad luck to be around people that don’t. I know that sounds funny, but here’s the thing: Everyone has an energy and when you have someone around you who has a sense of humor and a positive vibe you’ll find that they tend to draw that to them. And when you’re around people that don’t, they draw that to them. It is actually something, I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious about it, but the younger that I get, the more I do that.

So you don’t dust off the director’s chair or knock on wood before calling first shot. You don’t have artistic rituals like that?

No, I just avoid grumpy motherfuckers.

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Would you ever produce Macbeth?

I would love to. I haven’t thought about it. Hell yeah, it’s Shakespeare, why not? I haven’t thought about it. There are a lot of pieces out there. That’s one of the nice things about getting to do what we do. You got three loves in your life: Love what you do, love and enjoy the folks you do it with, and try to love what you say with it. So there are a lot of pieces out there that I’m drawn to, but Shakespeare has elements that are classic to humanity. He found a common denominator, and he’s got a sense of humor in there as well.

And there’s the superstition of it not being producible. You’ve produced and directed in every genre. Is there any that are more fun?

This is actually a really fun genre. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. I think that and westerns.

Ah, Posse. The Hastings, the family at the center of Superstition, they face a kind of double prejudice. Do you think we keep supernatural workers at bay in society?

I think Americans, particularly in the south and New Orleans, they are rich with folklore and we tend to fear what we don’t understand. Now, I’ve had a couple encounters myself. I went to see a woman who did a past life reading on me. I didn’t put much stock in it before I did it, and then afterwards I was like “Man, I don’t want to go back to that lifetime, shit.” There’s a lot out there we don’t understand. I don’t really understand how we can make huge metal tubes that fly through the air and call it an airplane. Or how I’m talking to you right now through a little cell phone, that I’m told is not a miracle but it’s just what we do. There are elements that go on around us that we don’t understand that we take for granted. I have had some encounters with things that are unexplainable. As I think many people have.  Have you? Have you ever had that?

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Para is normal for me, I even do a show with the Hollywood Witch, and I actually interview a lot of spiritual workers and witches, magical users, for pieces like this. I have a thousand questions on things like that. Like, do you believe in things like ley lines and psychic portals that figure so prominently in the series?

Again, it’s hard for me to say I believe or disbelieve. I can only tell you what I’ve experienced myself. I’ve gone to a guy who channeled something he refers to as the Akashic Records, which are the imprint of what your soul has done in your past life. He did a lot of past life work that was very interesting. Some of it tied in and made a lot of sense, but who knows? Some of it was very interesting just in terms of knowing things about my kids. If you have children, you know that they come in with different back-stories. He was able to bring those things to life before I ever saw them manifested in the kids, so that was really interesting for me.

One of the superstitions we deal with on the show is someone reads the grounds of a coffee cup. My director of photographer had them do that to him in Morocco. They were right about the birth of his daughter and other things. Every time we do a superstition that no one seems to know about, someone inevitably comes forwards and says “oh yeah, this is what happened with me,” and you go “wow.” It’s fun to tap into the folklore and, again, America is a crazy melting pot, so we get them from all over the place. We get Eastern Europeans, we get African stuff, we get Native American stuff, we get the Irish, the Jews and we put this all together in the melting pot called America. You get sparks, but you also get great art and great music and, of course, we get this great, rich folklore.

I saw the first episode. In it the matriarch gets into old-time Nubian magic. I want to know if you’re going to explore and detail some of that, because there is a wide range of traditions, from the Solomon texts to the tribal, will you be getting into the backgrounds of that?

Yes. We go to quite a few places, in each episode. Most of which is stuff you can google the source of it. I can’t wait for you to see the second episode, you get an idea of the family’s personal history.

Do you think Hollywood myths of the supernatural are just as influential as the traditional ones by say Montague summers on how people who follow magic as a path get their information?

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Hollywood is influential and amplifies myths, or superstitions that exist culturally anyway. I think the Hollywood ones are based on something, and it depends on what we latch on to. The show has a sense of humor about it. It’s not taking itself too seriously. We have a sense of humor about it. You have a family that’s definitely open to admitting that we don’t always know everything.  We’re always in the process, just like life, of learning. We have our different areas of expertise and we’re still in the process of learning. We don’t know every damned thing. We don’t try to explain everything. That’s where most of us are afraid of the unknown. This is a family that deals in the unknown, in the quantum physics of it all.

The show militarizes supernatural warfare. Do you see this as the natural progression of weaponry from movies like Fearless Vampire Hunters through Near Dark?

There’s a bigger question here. The way it came up in the pilot is the more that the human race is behaving in a way that’s destructive to the planet, destructive to what you do above ground, the more the demons and the Infernals are coming from below ground to correct the balance. The whole notion of who’s the bad guy is interesting because, who is destroying the planet? Who is polluting the air? It’s not the birds or the bees or the sharks or the mummies, it’s the five species. In a kind of a strange way, depending on your perspective, we’re the bad guy. So it gets into some tricky areas that way, which I like.

I like complexity. I like humor and I like it to be a fun show to watch. I think that Isaac and his family has had to weaponized and deal with that balance but as it changes and new entities come forth, they don’t always know how to do that. It’s a bit of a scramble. It’s a bit of an ad lib. It’s how do we bravely go where no one has gone before? We don’t always know the answer. With vampires, it’s clear, it’s the silver bullets or the stake, there’s a very clear mythology. But some of this, because we go beyond that, sometimes the mythology is not so clear cut and the characters are in the process of learning as they go.

How do you see Jordan Peele’s Get Out affecting the horror genre?

It’s interesting because what would people of color do in a horror paradigm? Do we behave differently? There’s a sense that people of color don’t do the same dumb shit that somebody else would do. The blonde chick goes into the horror house looking for the kitten, the black one would like “hell no.” What we try to do on this show is look at the “hell no” and ask would you really do this? And if you wouldn’t do it, we won’t do it. We try to handle it in a way that the viewer would say okay, I would make the same move in those circumstances. But it still goes wrong. Like you saw in the first episode, the mistakes that we made probably most people would have made those mistakes. That makes it a little more solid that way. I think there’s a certain humor and swagger that the actors have and sometimes a gallows humor. There will be people who die on this show. There will be things that go wrong and mistakes will be made. It’s an interesting show in that way because it’s finding its own tone. What it did show is that there’s an audience out there for a show that’s witty and smart and has something to say.

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I just made an independent thriller that’s coming out in theaters called Armed. It’s a mind-bender thriller, but at the core of it is gun sense. It’s about a guy who’s heavily armed and goes into a tricky area, and how he handles that. How he looks at that. There’s a way to entertain people but still have something to say that has nutritional value. I think Get Out is the ultimate case of the appropriation of black bodies. Like Black Lives Matter, it’s like “Holy shit, they’re taking your golf swing, they’re taking your gall bladder, they’re taking your eyes, everything.” You’re entertaining someone and you give them a bottle of sangria and it turns out to be a Molotov cocktail.

I like shows like that. They entertain you and you say “wow, there’s a message. There’s something in there about where we are in being shepherds of the planet.” And if we no longer have been that, are we the good guys or the bad guys? It depends on your perspective. If there are too many fleas on a dog eventually the dog will want to shake those fleas off. How are we behaving? How are we handling it? In fact, one of the Infernals in one of the later episodes comes through and says “God don’t love you anymore. He’s walking away. That’s why he’s sending all this crazy weather. It’s going to be our time soon.” You kinda go wow, there’s some things that are said that you’ll look at differently than your typical, straight up “we’re the good guys, you’re the bad guys” show. It’s not about that.

I personally am excited by the emergence of the Social Thriller genre but I also don’t ever forget that Richard Pryor, in his “Exorcist” skit, said we’ll exorcize this demon to Cleveland somewhere. You brought up the idea that god doesn’t love us anymore, the way we look at demons and angels, could that be a kind of spiritual racism?

I don’t want to give too much away, but in this show, we’re going to find out it’s a little less reductive than that. That the devil is nothing but a fallen angel, and that all of us have the capacity for good or bad. We really exist more in a grey area. If you look at George Bush’s Global Doctrine, there’s an Axis of Evil. But if you say there’s an Axis of Evil then by deduction there’s an Axis of Good. There’s a reductive good-guy bad-guy look at the globe. Obama’s doctrine or somebody else’s doctrine might say well, we’re really more in a gray area. We’ve probably done some things in our name that are not so good. Some of the things we did in Chile, our involvement in Vietnam, etc., along with climate change, all these things, you can say “well, America’s been on the side of good and bad, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” That’s real. As we all are.

I look at the good and bad as a little less reductive than “here is the angel, here is the devil.” You have to discern a little bit more than that. Even the family is going to have to grow. Members of the family are going to have to go beyond the clear labeling of “these are good guys, these are bad guys. I don’t have to think about it. I just have to pull the trigger.” It’s not that kind of way.

What did you learn from your father [filmmaker Melvin van Peebles]? What did you learn from making movies with him and then when you made the documentary about him?

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So many life lessons I learned from him. And every day I learn from him that I didn’t really consciously know I learned or that I attribute to him. I think, all my life he said “Look Mario, there are three kinds of people. There are people who watch stuff happen, people that complain about stuff that happens, and people who get out and make things happen.” As an independent filmmaker, good or bad, right or wrong, for better or worse, you get out and make it happen. You take control of that imagery. You do it yourself. You don’t whine about what’s out there. You make it happen. I think that’s the biggest thing.

The other thing was having a sense of humor about life and the human condition. He was never bitter. He worked with, and worked for, and directed people of all colors. He just knew that home was the mosaic of humanity, which was awesome. So, in my own family tree we have white folks, and black folks, and brown folks, got a couple gay folks, some Native Americans, some east Indians. We got everybody. It sort of forced us to love the world and love everybody. And also be critical of everybody, and of course be critical of ourselves.

The other thing, when I was directing New Jack City, he gave me the poem “If,” by Kipling.  The last verse, which is “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings, nor lose the common touch. If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ of distance run, yours is the Earth and everything in it, and, which is more, you’ll be a man, my son.” There was so much in that poem that he lived, and passed on that I was like, oh wow that’s dope. Damn. He’s still got this great sense of humor. He’s a little older and I’ll ask him does he still run, and he says “I still run it’s just shit goes by slower.” Just having a wicked sense of humor, a get it done kind of dude. Don’t sweat the small stuff, man.

Oh one thing about sweating small stuff.  Your show opens with snake handlers. Would you handle a snake?

Yeah, absolutely when I’m on the other end of the lens. Some snakes are probably ones that you wouldn’t want to play with, but they’re actually kind of cool. They’re not slimy at all. But in general, it’s not something I’d get as a pet. I’ve been to the Amazon. I’ve traveled quite a bit. And I remember in one restaurant we went to, we climbed up into this place and they had a little bar. Hanging on the wall was a snake skin that looked like it had been peeled off a telephone pole. It was huge. It was an anaconda and that was not a snake I wanted to run into. In the right proportion, and hopefully not a poisonous one, sure, but I don’t know enough about them to play with it.

What are some of your favorite horror movies?

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Night of the Living Dead, Exorcist, The Thing, the first Aliens, and Birth of a Nation.

Oh yeah, absolutely, and they’ll all be playing their parts in the series you’re doing?

Oh yeah. All of them. Rosemary’s Baby is great. There’s a lot of good movies. Those are some good movies, though. What about you? What are your favorites?

Oh, my favorite is Angel Heart from the book Falling Angel.

Mm, DeNiro, yeah, and Mickey Rourke.

There’s something scary about devil movies whether you believe or not. And the Hammer movie based on Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out.

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I’ve never seen that one, The Devil Rides Out? I will check that out.

So what scares you?

It comes up a little bit in this movie. The biggest thing that scares me, really, is that as human beings we seem to think locally and yet have a global impact. It’s now hard for us to translate over that we now have a global impact. So my fear is that we realize too late how interconnected we all are with everything on this planet and we do irreparable harm to ourselves. We don’t know how to harness our power in a conscious way sometimes. Everything stems from there, you look up and say “Jesus, we got black water,” or “you’re drinking this and you got a cancer.” My biggest fear is that our collective consciousness is not raised in time to do something about it.

What about the creepy crawly things that scare you?

I find new ones every day. I think the element of surprise is always a good scary one. It’s not just a snake, it’s a snake in the wrong situation. It’s not just a spider, it’s a spider in your boot. It’s not just a bad guy coming, it’s the phone ringing and the bad guy’s in your house. There are lots of good moments. It’s fear of the unknown, fear of what we don’t see in the dark. Fear that, on some level, we actually get what we deserve. There’s a great line where Bob Dylan says “for those who think death’s honesty won’t fall upon them naturally, life for them must get lonely.” There are all kinds of situations, you can be in a plane and you hit a couple air bumps and you’re ready to tell your life story to the person sitting next to you, you know what I mean?

The other thing is, I do enjoy scaring others. I take what scares me, I remember playing as a kid I played this bulldog monster and I would chase my sister and her friends. It was an excuse, because her friends were cute too. I’d crawl around very quickly and they got a real kick out of it. The bed was safe, so they got to jump up on the bed. I got a kick out of being the monster because suddenly when I was the baddest son of a bitch in the valley I didn’t have to fear any evil. It’s sometimes very liberating to identify with the monster. I don’t know if that makes sense.

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It makes sense to me. I find myself rooting for the monsters and I find myself rooting for the gangsters, which brings me to New Jack City. Nino goes all the way back to Dead End for me. The way they teach the kids on the street. It’s a very real thing. Do you also root for the gangsters?

Absolutely, and the thing is, I knew in that movie you would. But rather than make it like a Scarface, I wanted to make it in the way of The Untouchables where you would root for the gangster, but also you would root for the New Jack cops. Again, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables, you had an interesting alternative to the gangster and to react to, because the gangster in New Jack City was dealing in crack which is a big killer, especially in the poorer communities. I wanted to make sure that on any level that when people wanted to say no, that you had role models to say yes to. I wanted to make sure that, yes, we’d be drawn to the gangster and root for the gangster.

In a gangster picture, typically you emotionally connect with the gangster, Godfather you knew and on and on. But I wanted to make this film a film where you would also connect with the New Jack City cops and, even further than that, in a gangster movie the crime is a victimless crime. But there’s a face to the crime. Once you put a face on that victim, and you like that victim, then it becomes a little more complex. In New Jack City when Chris Rock is becoming an addict people in the audience would yell “just say no.”  When you see the victim of that, it’s no longer a victimless crime. You still identify with the gangsters, but now you have a push and pull because you identify with the crack addict and you identify with the cops. There’s one cop who’s black, one cop who’s Jewish, one is Asian. It makes it a more complex and interesting world.

That’s one of the things l like, even in my film Armed, where the hero is a kind of an anti-hero but you can identify with him but you’re also able to identify with the others. The same thing in Superstition, in that you find there are some Infernals that are going to come through where you going to say wait a minute, there are some qualities here that I am actually tying up with. One of the things with BAADASSSSS! (2003) was the studio wrote “your father’s character is not likeable enough.” I wasn’t really worried about his likeability. I said, if I can understand him, that’s around the corner from empathy and empathy is around the corner from sympathy and those are really close to “I actually like the guy.” So that’s an interesting thing where you see character who’s diametrically opposed but they have their own truth and you’re allowed, through the film or the television show, to connect with that truth. That’s where it becomes interesting.

It looks like the family, the Hastings, are going to be ethically challenged as well. Just like cops who go after the gangsters, they have to dip into the other side to get where they’re going.

Yes, they have to cross the line at times and you get into whether the ends justify the means and all the other situations that inevitably come up when you do that. When you do have to go a little bit lower than across the line, you gotta ask yourself some questions, how they cheat the reach of the moral compass.

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I wanted to ask about the look of the series. You have horror during the day and nice things in middle of the night. When you go for opposing atmospheres, what do you look for in the settings?

I’ve done a couple movies with the DP, AJ [Anthony J. Rickert-Epstein]. We did Armed together. We did a movie called We the Party together. I somehow convinced him that he should come be a part of the show and I’m really lucky to have him. AJ and I would talk color and what we want early on. We do that with each project and each scene. We’ll say we can use interior light or exterior day, but let’s make use of the shadow and the dark areas. So even if it’s daytime and you’re inside the Hastings home, there’s going to areas where you might not see, and some areas where you would. Sometimes night will mean you see more. It kind of depends on what we want to do.

We do a lot with moving light on this show. It this particular episode we’re shooting right now we go into this sort of clock realm. It’s like an Escher optical illusion painting. There is a lot of black and white. We were playing with the notion of draining color from shots. Some of the shots we do at night with more of an Edward Hopper kind of vibe. We were playing with the look of the car he drives or what Isaac wears in particular. Sometimes it looks a little like it could be from a different century, and that’s deliberate. We play with it and I think each show is going to have its own visual signature.

Ever shoot anything that you yourself look away from when you’re watching it later as an audience member?


What have you done that scares you later?

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A couple of my first movies were really bad.

I meant from the horror perspective. Can you scare yourself?

Yeah, there’s some stuff, like when Fat Smitty gets shot in New Jack City by the female gangster. That’s a tough scene. In Ali, I played Malcolm X and it’s difficult to watch Malcolm get killed. It was a really rough scene. My daughters have trouble with that. They played my daughters in that movie and that was very tough. Even in BAADASSSSS! when I had the big roach crawling out of my mouth, that was unpleasant. There are definitely scenes where I flinch a little bit. I did Jaws[:The Revenge] I still don’t know why the hell my character got on that boat but I told them that. They paid me enough money to ignore them [the sharks]. So there are some scenes, once you demystify it and you know how it’s done, you can still sometimes forget and look back later and still have trouble watching certain scenes. That definitely happens.

Superstition premieres on Friday, October 20 at 10 p.m. on SYFY.