It’s a familiar route for filmmakers in today’s Hollywood: Make an acclaimed indie then get sucked into the studio system for a $100 million blockbuster. Disney has mastered the art, with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins now making a Lion King sequel) and the Mouse’s in-house Marvel Studios tapping Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) for Captain Marvel, Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) for Shang-Chi and Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) to Eternals).
Justin Simien had his own art-house breakout, too, writing and directing the 2014 Sundance winner Dear White People, which led to a Netflix series that ran from 2017 to 2021. And he was initially attached to a Lando Calrissian spinoff starring Donald Glover for Disney’s Lucasfilm, he just completed another massive project for the studio — this week’s theme park-based reboot Haunted Mansion.
Yet as familiar as the indie-to-tentpole path is these days, Haunted Mansion has been a deeply personal ride for the 40-year-old Houston native.
Simien worked at Disney’s theme parks in Anaheim when he was in film school (he even flashed his old ID during the announcement of the film at the studio’s D23 Expo), specifically Grizzly River Run at California Adventure. On lunch breaks, he’d meet his best friend, who worked on the Disneyland side, and they’d ride their favorites: Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones Adventure… and Haunted Mansion. “A day there was not complete without Haunted Mansion,” he recalls to Yahoo.
Now Simien unveils its $150 million-plus movie version, written by Katie Dippold (The Heat, 2016’s Ghostbusters) and with a starry ensemble that includes LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto and newcomer Chase W. Dillon. If there’s a lead character, it’s Stanfield, a brokenhearted New Orleans tour guide lured to the rural mansion by a priest (Wilson) helping the new residents, a mother (Dawson) and son (Dillon), reckon with its feisty (and possibly dangerous) spirits.
“I don’t really know how to make things that aren’t personal,” Simien says. “It’s really hard to make a movie and it takes a really long time. And it’s kind of like being in a psychological torture chamber. This was the longest movie I’ve ever [worked on], this [was] a hundred-plus days of shooting. That is longer than it took to make a series of Dear White People. So for me to get out of bed, it’s got to be personal.”
Simien wanted to improve on the critically lambasted 2003 version starring Eddie Murphy, which he openly disparaged. “It was a kids movie that came out at a time when I was not a kid. It didn’t necessarily speak to me,” he tells us.
But there were other significant, more specific goals.
“As a filmmaker, I have an incredible desire to bring the history of New Orleans and specifically Black culture [to the movie],” he says. “This is the birthplace of jazz and the best food in the country. And all of our popular cultures come out of this time in New Orleans where Black people and white people and indigenous people and the Spanish and all these people were free. And it was short-lived, but it was long enough to produce this amazing, unique culture. And that was literally [number one] on my bucket list of things to bring to life and film. And then at the end of the day, Katie Dippold wrote this amazing ensemble comedy.”
Whereas Murphy and the actors who played his family were surrounded by mostly white actors in the 2003 version, Simien sought to course-correct with a more diverse cast.
“I felt it was really important for the lead to be Black, because this is set in New Orleans and it’s an 85% Black town,” he says.
“I wanted to make [the movie] as Black as I can because that’s New Orleans,” he says. “And tell this ensemble story that I feel like I know how to do. And luckily, Disney agreed. That’s why it’s here. That’s why I’m here.”
Haunted Mansion currently playing in theaters.
Watch the trailer: