Director Justin Simien leads an all-star cast in Disney's second theatrical adaptation of Haunted Mansion. The theme park ride has enchanted kids and adults alike for decades. Simien, from a brilliant script by Katie Dippold, achieves both a frightening and humorous cinematic experience that the entire family will enjoy. He understood from the beginning that this was "a collaboration with a giant storytelling company" that "had perfected this form of movie." He drew from the original Imagineers that "couldn't decide if the ride should be scary or funny." They "landed on this magical formula" that really spoke to him as a filmmaker, but "pushed for the things that he felt really strongly about."
Oscar nominee LaKeith Stanfield stars as Ben, a grieving former scientist and New Orleans tour guide, hired to help a widow (Rosario Dawson) and young son (Chase W. Dillon) rid their house of spooky ghosts. He gets help from a nutty professor (Danny DeVito), psychic (Tiffany Haddish), and conman priest (Owen Wilson). Simien, who first saw Stanfield in Get Out, extols his virtues as "a unicorn" that "brings immediately to the humanity of a person." Haunted Mansion may seem like a stretch for the director of Dear White People, but Simien comments that the film is "rooted in Black history" and "projects a vision" about America's future. He loves the "surprise" of making a mega-budget, summer blockbuster.
Our interview took place the day after SAG (Screen Actors Guild) authorized members to join striking writers. Simien was keen to promote the film and performers, "who poured their hearts into the performances." He was "duty bound" as "a gay Black man operating on different levels within a larger movement for liberation." Simien's proud "to protect their hard work" and deliver a "personal tragicomedy" that "felt very natural" to him.
An Ensemble Story
MovieWeb: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. How do you get from Dear White People to helming this mega-budget Disney film, based on a ride, with an all-star cast?
Justin Simien: I'm doing alright. It's a weird time. Well, it's a long process. It's an arduous process. For me, in my film career, I've learned you've got to entertain a lot of different things before one thing goes. I've never really been in a privileged position to sort of chart a course per se. It's about saying yes to the things that speak to your soul. And the ones that happen, happen, the ones that don't, don't.
There's some DNA in my first movie that's still in this movie. It is an ensemble, comedic cast that has genre flourishes. That brings you into an alternate version of the world that is rooted in Black history, but also is sort of projecting a vision into the future of what America looks like, and what groups of people in America look like. It has a lot of ready-made stars in it, and a lot more money, and tent poles, and special effects, and set pieces, all these bells and whistles.
Justin Simien: But at the end of the day, this is an ensemble story about something and about a man. And certainly the way I made it, a Black man moving through tough feelings, and figuring out how to integrate them fast enough to survive in a world that's changing really quickly. You can find that in almost every story I tell. And so for me, it makes a lot of sense on the inside. But I get that they seem like wildly different movies on the outside, which just turns up my excitement about doing it, because I love the surprise of this movie. I love the surprise of me doing this movie.
LaKeith Stanfield Brings Humanity to Horror
MW: LaKeith Stanfield is one of my favorite actors. I think he's one of the brightest stars of this generation since Short Term 12. He brings humor and emotional heft, but also leadership. You have Jamie Lee Curtis, Danny DeVito, Owen Wilson, and Rosario Dawson, this really venerated cast. Why get him?
Justin Simien: First of all, I am obsessed with LaKeith. I've been obsessed with him since I saw him. My first experience of him is in Get Out. There's some great performances in Get Out. But he was always the one I thought about. I had just seen Judas and the Black Messiah. I was so moved by the fact that this is a character that audiences, particularly Black audiences, are kind of conditioned to hate. He's a traitor. He brought down an important figure. And yet, because it's LaKeith, I care so much about what happens to him. I have a lead in my movie that is going through a grieving process, that hates people, that says all of these shady things when he's touring, even through New Orleans. We're supposed to care about that guy by the time that we get to the second act.
Justin Simien: I need an actor that's going to be able to bring me almost immediately into the humanity of this person, someone that's going to make me laugh a little bit, but also feel something. And so to me, it was a no-brainer, he is just a unicorn. He's the kind of leading man that I want in the movie, that would bring my butt to the seat for anything he's in. I was really adamant about getting LaKeith for this. And I am happy to report that he is so wonderful to work with. He is all the things that you said to describe him. But he's also a really lovely human being that cares deeply about his work, and thinks very deeply about the choices that he makes as an actor. And as a director, it was just kind of heaven on Earth to get to work with him.
Balancing Haunted Mansion
MW: The film is very humorous. You achieve something that's extremely important for it to succeed. It's funny, but scary enough for the kids. They're not crapping their pants, or running into their parents arms watching the movie. There are sensibilities. Talk about that process of reading that edge, where you've got to make it scary and lighthearted.
Justin Simien: There are two things. I went into it coming off two, I will put this in quotes, "auteur driven," very personal films. Understanding that I am working in collaboration with a giant storytelling company, that is not only going to have a say on how their movie comes out, but also has a lot of information I just don't have. This is a form of movie that they've perfected over many decades. I came in knowing it to be a collaboration. And also knowing that I have to push for the things that I feel really strongly about, because that's why I'm here. I'm the filmmaker that I am. So that's part of it.
Justin Simien: But the other thing is, that's how the ride was made. It was a back and forth. They could not decide if this ride should be funny or scary, or for children or for adults. These are the actual conversations that Walt Disney and the Imagineers had making the ride. They somehow landed on this weird, magical formula. I can never not ride if I'm there. It has this wonderful mix of humor and tragedy. It doesn't pull punches. You see a man hanging from the stretching room the moment it starts. You're literally moving through a graveyard. This is a scary, weird ride. It was one that I rode at nine years old. It made me feel like I could handle scary stuff. It didn't take me out of the fight. I thought that was really important. It became something that I could ride over and over again. I grew up, still really enjoying it, and feel like it spoke to me. That was the guiding star. My brain just kind of functions that way. It's a tragic comedy at all times in here. It felt very natural to me.
Supporting the Cast and Studio
MW: Right now the writers and actors are on strike. You're the director. You're in charge of the process. You have to promote this film. How can you support them and keep the studio happy at the same time?
Justin Simien: Well, I've been a gay Black man my whole life. So operating on many different levels within a larger movement for liberation is unfortunately something I'm quite used to. Sometimes you play your part inside the machine, sometimes you play it outside. I've got a duty bound by my guild, which has reached, whether people like it or not, an agreement with the studios. I'm contractually obligated to promote the movie. But the real reason I'm here is because I believe so passionately in what these actors did, their work in the film. This is a diverse, Black-led movie, that both has existing stars and stars that you've never heard of. It is not easy to get here. It's just not.
Justin Simien: It's not easy to do the things that those performers did. I include the whole cast, Jamie Lee Curtis, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, everyone showed up and poured their whole hearts into these performances. We want nothing more than to talk to people about what they did, because it's unexpected. It's not what you expect from a movie like this. They can't speak for themselves right now. SAG specifically has called for a strike, but not for a consumer strike. It benefits SAG, according to SAG leadership, for the actors to be on strike, but for audiences to still support the work that they made. So it feels like a duty to me to be here to talk about them. And the other side of it is, I would not be here without Katie Dippold, who wrote the screenplay. This is a woman screenwriter who, for many reasons, is the last voice you hear about in this process. I couldn't believe the miracle of this script was created in a studio setting. I just couldn't believe it when I read it.
Justine Simien: So much of my reason for saying yes to the project was to protect her work, and to protect the intention of her work. It just would feel so bad to not speak on her behalf, of how wonderful a job she did. It wasn't easy. I'm aware of how it looks. I've literally been on both sides of this in many iterations. This is my first sort of strike version of the book. Please believe that the maker of Dear White People has had some very tough moments to walk through where you're trying to achieve something politically, but you're also playing a role, so that you can still be allowed in the room where things happen. That's the part that fate has me playing right now.
Haunted Mansion will have a July 28th theatrical release from Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.