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Interview: Filmmaker Mario Van Peebles on SyFy’s Superstition

A Legend Among Us

Legendary Actor and filmmaker Mario Van Pebbles is the co-creator and lead star of the SyFy supernatural drama Superstition.

The series focuses on a Southern family who’s ancestral duty is to protect the town of La Rochelle and ultimately the world from the presence of mystic forces.

Mario portrays Issac Hastings, the family’s patriarch, who is tasked with the responsibility of protecting and carrying out the Hastings’ legacy.

As an actor, producer, and writer, Mario has been credited for his participation in films like New Jack City, Baadasssss!, Mama Flora’s Family.

Similar to his character in Superstition, he too is the product of a family legacy which has a long history in television and film.

He is the son of the equally legendary actor and producer Melvin Van Peebles. His daughter Morgana, an actress who played Malcolm X’s daughter in the 2001 film Ali, portrays Garvey who is an adopted member of the Hastings family.

Superstition airs on SyFy on Thursdays at 11 PM ET/10 PM CT. The show will premiere it’s Season Finale on January 18.

Mario Van Peebles

Mario Van Peebles as Isaac Hastings

Salute: How did you come up with the concept of Superstition?

Mario: I think we’ve talked about a couple of things. One was, what would the Obamas be like if the cameras were off? You have a smart, loving family, but they were dealing with some powerful forces outside. There’s an African proverb ‘If there’s no enemy within then the enemy without can do no harm.’

We thought that this would be a family that has family stuff to get through but still had family dynamics in place to workout. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of love with them.

They’re a family, I  think, you would want to be with or spend time with. If there were no internals, nothing of that nature on the screen, you would still just enjoy the family dynamics. Seeing them trying to work through their own stuff.

The other thing was honestly there were not a lot of diverse, sort of multicultural families in shows in this space. And yet there’s a diverse audience watching these kinds of shows, but there’s not a lot of folks represented in front of the camera. So we thought that would be interesting.

Another thing, just enjoying the thriller and horror space, and that notion that in American we have this multiculti melting pot.

You also have rich folklore and super diverse superstition from all over the world, from all of our perspective old countries and motherlands. So you get a big mix like you do in New Orleans where you get all kinds of culture, superstitions, and mythologies.

So I thought wow, this American Gothic, Southern fictional place of La Rochelle would be a really rich fertile ground to explore fears and superstitions. But, from the perspective of this powerful loving family, that deals with the dead and the undead.

Salute: You touched on a really good thing with different folklore and mysticism. The show depicts a lot of different aspects of magic, demonics, and religious practices from African Diaspora. Did you have one particular source that you derived a lot of the show’s mysticism from?

Mario: It’s from all over. Anansi or Aunt Nancy, played by Jasmine Guy is African mythology. The coffee grounds, I believe someone said it was Greek in origin. It’s all Americana because it’s all apart of the fabric of this country. We thought that we no longer had that loving first family at the White House and now we have a guy in the White House who says people from other countries are from shitholes.

It would be interesting to give honor and respect so many different superstitions and folklore. Even in terms of families, sometimes they speak French sometimes they speak a little Italian. Sometimes they have a word or two that might be African or Mandinka. So it’s a real mix up and I like that about the show.

Another thing is the social dynamics that come into play during the course of the show, like when we have to bury the guy with the White supremacist tattoos.

There’s a discussion that we as Hastings may not agree with their choices in like in life but we will honor and respect them in death. And give their families a chance in a dignified way to pay their last respects to their loved ones. So there are some tough choices that we have to make. It’s like when they go low we go high.

Salute: What made you decided to base the filming of Superstition in Atlanta, GA?

Mario: It’s very film friendly, where is L.A is very film friendly as well. Atlanta has a lot going on, there is a deep community of filmmakers there now. It was economically viable, but also in terms of what we wanted to do with the South and the American Gothic of it all, it made absolute sense just to create this town in Atlanta.

Repositing that like in the human body has pressure points and meridians, that the Earth does too. And these meridians, some points are very powerful places where energy comes through. You’ll see this play out in the last and first episode. The Hastings have been trying to keep the balance between the so-called good and evil, built this house right on one of the core meridians and that’s where the town of La Rochelle was created.

As the human beings start to destroy the planet more, do irreparable harm, the internals are coming in a way to put the human beings in check and realign the balance. That puts the Hastings, particularly Issac, in a difficult position because who do you discern who’s a bad guy and who’s a good guy when it’s really our species that is messing up the planet.

There are bigger things that I love besides the diversity, the mysticism, and the superstition, but the content in which it makes you discern and think is fun. If you can entertain people, have a good time and make people think, that’s what I love to do and that’s my brand.

Mario Van Peebles

Mario Van Peebles as Isaac Hastings, Robinne Lee as Bea Hasting

Salute: Throughout your career, you’ve spent a lot of time behind and in front of the camera. Does it get easier to balance those roles?

Mario: It does get easier, but I grew up with it. My dad was acting and directing. It’s kind of like growing up on a family farm. When you grow up on a family you learn a little about fixing the tractors, feeding the horses, plowing the fields and it’s all apart of the zen of farming.

I think when growing up in the Van Peebles “by any means necessary” independent filmmaking family, you learn about being a PA (production assistant) and carrying cables, setting up catering, directing, acting, and writing, so it’s all apart of the zen of filmmaking.

At its core, it feels right. Later on, you learn to separate all these things out. You can wind up being really busy if you do a lot of it. It’s all very natural, I just grew up with it. It didn’t throw me out of alignment and it’s like “Oh, well I see. Daddy was doing three separate jobs, I didn’t know that.”

Salute: You have some great men and women on your cast such as Jasmine Guy, Demetria McKinney, Brad James, and your daughter Morgana Van Peebles. How did you go about casting for the roles on the show?

Mario: We really did get lucky. One of the things that we wanted to do was cast people who we felt were smart and got the jokes. Also, people that we liked, so no jerks. Nobody who’s not going to understand how rare this opportunity is and fully didn’t appreciate it.

Each one of them is talented and qualified as actors. They bring a lot to it from their own lives. In addition to that, they’re all fun people.

They’re all good people that you want to hang out with. I’ve honestly been on some shows where some people were fun and a lot of other people made you go, “Damn that person is really taking this TV star or movie star stuff a little too seriously.”

Mario Van Peebles

(l-r) Brad James as Calvin Hastings, Mario Van Peebles as Isaac Hastings

There was one day I had to do something, I just called Brad and asked if he wanted to come out and shoot some stuff. It was just going to be me and him, and he was like “I’m there.”

Morgana as a Van Peebles knows, you get to work a little harder for a little less money, come and leave later. You can’t be the weakest link in this family, that’s not going to work out. Grandad won’t like that and I won’t like that. She knows what the deal is.

They are all smart, fun people. We will party together, hang out and drink some drinks after the day is done. We show up for each other.

It truly is an off-screen family. I sort of just create the space where people can do their best work. If I’ve done that properly, then half of it is done.

Brad can come up to me and be like, “Dude, we can get one shot like this.” The stand-in can go, “Man, I have a cool ass line for you.” Morgana can say, “Hey Dad, what do you think about…?” Robinne [Lee] can come out and bring her West Indian roots to it. And Demetria can dance, so I’ll be like “Oh, shit Demetria can dance and Morgana can dance. We’re going to work that in.”

You create an outfit that is suited to them. Not trying to square a round peg. When you have good, smart, loving, soulful folks that have a good heart, especially in the context of a series, you can start to mold it to them. And the beauty that they bring. So right away they know, “Oh your really trying to make use of all the goodies that I have.” AS an individual, it makes them feel comfortable, it makes all of us feel comfortable.

Salute: Is this the first television series that you’ve been apart of from conception all the way through?

Mario: Yes, but again I didn’t do it by myself. I have Joel [Anderson], Larry [Andries], Chris [Hollier] and Justin there. It was a team effort. What you see is a product of everyone bringing their A-game. I had a show called Sonny Spoons, which I had a lot of input on, directed an episode, but I was primarily just the lead. Stephen Cannell showed me how to run a show and write.

We hit a lot of bad things about Hollywood. But really, there were many cases in which being good to people was not only fun, good, and right to do karmically, but actually yielded more fruit than being a jerk. Growing up with Stephen Cannell as my Hollywood dad, he showed me that nice guys could finish first.

Salute: Which do you gravitate more towards, film or television?

Mario: Initially film. I have a film coming out in April called Arms. There’s an old saying, “Nothing stops a bad guy with a guy like a good guy with a gun.” I play a guy with many guns, in a very tricky time in this country. He’s a heavily armed guy. It’s going to be a very interesting thriller.

I play in both worlds, but one of the things that I have enjoyed with television is the live tweeting. You go on and live tweet, and we do that. It’s a blast, and it’s like being in the audience in a theater somewhere where everyone is yelling and talking at the screen. It’s so fun, it’s like live theater. So that’s been fun to interact with your audience and see what they think in real time.

The other thing is with television, especially in a show like this where you have a family, you really get to involve as a family. It differs from a film where you get in and get out. This a different thing, it is a marathon of sprints. It’s more demanding in a way because there is a longevity to it, and different sets and locations. It’s been a fun ride, it’s been intense.

Mario Van Peebles

(l-r) Demetria McKinney as May Westbrook, Mario Van Peebles as Isaac Hastings

Salute: How long does it usually take for you to film an episode?

Mario: We were initially doing them in seven days. Then we had to tighten it up even more and do them in six days. Which is very tight, most shows go in seven, eight, nine days; we were doing even less. Once we understood how to go it, we got our rhythm flowing. When you see the last episode, it’s a big episode. Imagine it being shot in six days is pretty intense.

Salute: Has anyone drawn any parallel from Superstition to other shows?

Mario: I don’t know if there’s any other show like it. Someone said, “The Obamas meets The Adams Family,” which is kind of fun. I can’t really think of any other show like it, and that’s part of the fun. It’s specific if you see it you will remember it. And even with the town kind of being timeless. There are elements of the show that seem like the digital age and elements from the industrial age.

I hope a lot of people get to find it. I know it goes to Netflix sometime late March. We’ll see where it goes from there. It will interest to see how people in 189 countries around the world react to it.

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