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Mario Van Peebles Talks Unexplained Phenomena, Family Bonds, and His Vision for ‘Superstition’

Mario Van Peebles Talks Unexplained Phenomena, Family Bonds, and His Vision for ‘Superstition’

Superstition—Brad James (Calvin) and Mario van Peebles (Isaac Mosley)

Superstition, the newest SyFy show about a Black family who slays demons and owns a mortuary, appears this Friday, October 20 during SyFy’s 31 Days of Halloween.

Black Girl Nerds was invited to participate in a conference call with the show’s director and actor, Mario Van Peebles, and I got to watch a screener of the first episode in anticipation of the call. Let me just say that fans of badass families with knowledge of the occult will enjoy this show immensely. It’s got family bonding, zingy one-liners, pentagrams and runes, and an ornate demon-hunting library spanning generations that rivals the Men of Letters bunker in Supernatural.

Van Peebles’ directing credits include episodes of The Last Ship, Roots, and Lost. This time, though, he’s getting to direct a series pilot!

I recently read an interview with our favorite director, Ava DuVernay, on page 66 of the Oct/Nov issue of Bust Magazine where she says “when you direct a pilot, you decide the world. When you’re casting, you’re saying ‘He’s going to wear this. The door of the house is going to look like this.’ You make all the decisions.” In this particular interview, Ava was talking about creating more opportunities for women of color to direct pilots, but I choose this quote because I never before realized just how much influence the director of a pilot episode has over the look and feel of basically the entire show.

Van Peebles plays Isaac Hastings, a husband, and father who hunts demons and teaches his children the ropes. This “family business” isn’t entirely unfamiliar territory for Van Peebles; he receives lots of inspiration from his own father, Melvin Van Peebles, an accomplished director, screenwriter, actor, playwright, novelist and composer. “And you know, when you grow up with Melvin Van Peebles – or Melvin Van Movies, my dad, you know, and you’re an independent filmmaker, you learn as a kid to take care of the cables, to be a PA, to be an editor, to do all those things,” Mario said on the conference call. “And it’s all part of the Zen of, you know, independent filmmaking in that you kind of need to know it all. And I didn’t really realize until later on as an adult that those were sort of carved up into different sections because it was all part of the family filmmaking thing. So I kind of grew up doing it and being pretty fluid. And I saw my dad do it if you think back to when my dad did Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971 that became the top-grossing independent hit of that year. And I grew up seeing him do it. He was acting in it. He wrote it. He produced it. He worked on the music with a new group called Earth, Wind and Fire. And so I kind of grew up, oh, that’s what filmmaking is. Gee, I didn’t know any better.”

With all of this in mind, and the fact that Mario Van Peebles gets to set the tone of Superstition, let’s see some of what he had to say about what the show has in store for fans:

Regarding the mythology and arcana of the show, and the “American Gothic” feel of La Rochelle
“… America is a melting pot. And, you know, you take a place by America, and you take, you know, Italian immigrants and Africans who maybe didn’t come voluntarily and Native Americans and Asians and Jews from Europe. And you put us all together and you do get sparks. But out of those sparks, you get great art and great music. And so out of America you get jazz and rock and roll and hip hop and gospel and all this great music and all this texture. And that’s because you’ve got all these folks in this sort of cultural human melting pot. And we thought the New South really reflects that: You get Republicans and Democrats and climate change deniers. And, you know, especially a place like New Orleans and around there, you get all kind of people who voted for the president. People who didn’t. All kind of folks. And you get sparks and you get friction. And it’s exciting. And we thought this is a very exciting diverse America that we wanted to show.

And I think part of the other thing we kicked around was this notion that, you know, what would the Obamas really be like when the cameras go off? You know, if you took a family that was a pretty tight family, had a lot of love, smart family, when the cameras go off, if they had to deal with infernals and demons and fight the forces outside, what would that family look and feel and sound like?

So it was a number of things, but the notion of seeing America like you don’t traditionally see us, all of us, and all our flavors and that on both sides of the equation, the “human and infernal side,” you’d see all flavors, all colors, all choices. You know you get so many different demographics that come live there who have their own sort of old country superstitions as well as how that melting pot if you will, evolves and becomes the fabric of America.”

Regarding the casting of Superstition
“What I wanted was a cast that I felt – that felt smart. That felt like people that you’d want to have a drink with and that at the core felt like people that you would laugh and hug and that are in essence positive and happy to be who they are. So what do I mean by that? There are certain people that you feel from them that they enjoy being themselves. And I wanted a family that one, you believed was a family that could overcome issues that families often face.

But at the core of the show, it’s like life for me. I wanted the family to feel like they were multicultural. That within the dynamic of our American family, you could feel that you know, at times my wife could be, more the Michelle Obama mode. But at night, when she’s got to get into her full set of her mystic side, other things come out and other sides come out. So I wanted people who had a duality. People who were multicultural. People who could speak other languages. People who could laugh at self.

And people who were bilingual. And I don’t just mean bilingual in terms of language, but even bilingual in terms of socio-economic divide. That they could talk to the brother or sister in the street or the brother and sister in the trailer park. But they could also talk to someone at the White House, kind of like that [Rudyard] Kipling poem, you know, “talk with the crowds nor lose your virtue “… And I wanted folks who kind of got the joke of life. I felt like if we’re going to do this in the long haul, I want the (funniest), best, smartest, family that I can get. And that’s what we went after. And we found them. And it’s been a ride.”

On working with his IRL daughter, Morgana Van Peebles
“She’s a smart cookie. She’s at Columbia. She’s taking a semester off to do the show. And, you know, she’s old enough to get her own place. And I said, honey, you’ve got money. You don’t have to live with dad. And she said, nope, I want to live with you dad.

And so we’ve been playing house. And she’s vegan. And she’s trying to keep me healthy. So we have our little vegetarian meals and we work out together at the gym. And it’s been fun. It’s like bring your daughter to work week for a couple of months and it’s great.”


Mario on experiencing supernatural phenomena himself
“I’ve experienced, you know, something that happened with sort of a past life regression that I went into. I didn’t believe it. But, man, when I saw it, I said, oh, yes, this is very familiar and I don’t want to go back to that lifetime.

I’ve had that happen with my kids where we went to do things together and someone did a reading for us and it was very, very illuminating. And it really actually helped me be a better parent.

But I’m a weird guy in that I’m personally okay with saying, I don’t know. I don’t really know what happens when we die. I’ll find out. And I look forward to finding out. I don’t want to find out too soon. I want to enjoy what I’m doing right now. But I look forward to finding out. I don’t really know which belief system is always the best. I suppose the one that makes us kind is probably a good place to start. So there’s a lot of things.

We have one superstition about people reading the grinds in a coffee cup. It was written in there. We Googled it. We talked about it, discussed it. My cameraman came over and said ‘how did you guys know?’ I said ‘what do you mean?’ He said, ‘this has happened to me twice. I had a woman read the grinds in my coffee cup and predicted that I would have a child, predicted when, predicted that I would shoot the sequel to my movie, predicted when.’

People can come at this game from all kinds of places from Vedanta theory, from past life theory, from religious aspects, from all kinds of places. There’s a lot out there that we human beings don’t understand. And that’s part of the fun of playing in the area of superstition.”

Regarding the message the infernals are delivering to humanity
“In this particular case, a lot of what the show has to say at its core, I really enjoy. I like that the infernals, which would be, you know, the bad guys if you will, are coming now more than ever to put us human beings in check because of our recklessness and how we’ve sort of not cared for the planet. And so that the notion of, which end of the telescope you look through, and who then is the bad guy if they’re coming to do that. And Isaac, you know, has sort of been charged to some degree with keeping, and his family, with keeping the balance. And it’s a tricky one because there’s no all good or no all bad in this show and you have to discern a little bit, you know.”

Regarding Van Peebles’ experience of working on Superstition overall
“The fun of the show, I think, to me, is that hopefully, it works on a number of levels. And one level is that it is a bit of mind bender and that it hopefully is fun. It’s entertaining. It’s fun to watch. But I think it also hopefully provokes a little thought. And that’s one of the things, I always think there are three loves in life. Love what you do. Love and enjoy the folks you do it with. And then love what you say about your work.”

Regarding his directing style
“I was doing a scene just now and one of the second team guys came up to me and he said, you know, I’ve got this idea. And often there are filmmakers that don’t listen to ideas from other people.  And he came up with a great idea. We made the adjustment in the script right then and boom we did that. And so there’s fun in that I think everyone knows they can bring their creativity to it and their perspective to it and you don’t have to leave yourself at the door.

And I think that’s what makes it fresh. I think there’s sort of timelessness to La Rochelle that this fictional town that we’re in that also makes it fresh. And also, I think, the more multi-cultural dynamic just in terms of the cast gives it a different perspective.”

Regarding the “bullsh*t” meter for horror flicks
“And here’s the other thing, you know, and they’re not doing stupid things. So sometimes in horror movies, people do stuff you would never do. If we get to the page, and go, man, my character would never go back in that haunted house looking for the kitten. He’d be, like, I’ll come back tomorrow.

“You know, so we try to read it that way with the bullshit meter and go, man, I would not do this. You know what I mean?”

Personally, I’m most excited for the last bit! A story centering on the supernatural phenomena that happens in a small town, and a Black family who doesn’t make any bullsh*t decisions that lead to them dying first (or hopefully at all)?!

Yes, yes, and yes.

Catch the Hastings family kicking demon butt and taking names when Superstition premieres on SyFy this Friday, October 20 at 10/9 pm.

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