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Director Justin Simien Opens Up About The Radical Black Love Story At The Center Of ‘Haunted Mansion’

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We’re a week away from the release of Disney’s Haunted Mansion and we are excited to share our interview with the film’s director Justin Simien.

Haunted Mansion poster and production stills

Source: Courtesy / Disney

‘Haunted Mansion’ Director Justin Simien Used To Love The Disneyland Ride

Global Grind’s Sr. Content Director Janeé Bolden caught up with Simien over Zoom this week. Inspired by the classic theme park attraction, Haunted Mansion is about a woman and her son who enlist a motley crew of so-called spiritual experts to help rid their home of supernatural squatters. The film features an all-star cast ensemble cast including LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon and Daniel Levy, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Jared Leto as The Hatbox Ghost.

Before we dive right in, check out the trailer for Haunted Mansion below:

What do you think? As Disney adults we are fully here for it!

It turns out that Simien is having a full circle experience after working at Disneyland during college and then going on to direct ‘Haunted Mansion.’

“It’s pretty wild, I gotta say! I don’t even think I was fully aware of all the coincidences when I first started the project,” Simien told Global Grind. “One of my core memories is going to DisneyWorld as a small child and riding the Haunted Mansion. I was part of the Longfellow Elementary Show choir so we would sing at Disney and I was obsessed with the ride and then I would go on to work at Disneyland while I was a film student. I’m not just saying this because it sounds good in an interview — I really would ride the Haunted Mansion over and over again and I’d be like how do I do whatever this ride is doing to me, as a filmmaker? I would really think about stuff like that and and so talk about a full circle moment.”

“On a deeper level, as a filmmaker there are so many Disney movies that are like pretty formative in terms of like the kind of filmmaker that I turned out to be. That might be surprising because you know my first two films come from a more indie satirical social satire kind of place at the same time I remember coming home from Beauty and the Beast and being floored, like ‘How do I do that one day? I remember especially the Pixar movies like Coco and UP and Wall-E. I’m a full grown man rushing out to see these movies and having these transformative experiences in theater. There’s a magic to that that I wanted to do justice to and it was pretty wild to play a part in that legacy. When Disney does a movie well and when they really knock it out the park there’s just nothing like it. I’m still processing it to be honest,

Haunted Mansion poster and production stills

Source: Jalen Marlowe / Disney

Justin Simien Reveals ‘The Haunting’ Served As Inspiration For ‘Haunted Mansion’ Scary Vibes

Simien also revealed some of the inspiration behind the film’s look and feel.

“The thing that makes it easy is the way Walt Disney conceived all of these rides, but particularly the Haunted Mansion, he conceives them as stories. To him it’s storytelling just as Snow White or Pinocchio is storytelling. It actually is done in very similar ways. It’s production design, it’s a meticulous attention to detail. Even though you are physically moving through a space — the lighting, the sound, the way the sort of ride is designed, it’s all about drawing your attention to very specific things and everything else is on the periphery. This is exactly what you do you know as a director. I think that one, it was about really understanding why they decided to tell that story in that way. Why they landed on these choices, because these choices have endured. Everyone is still talking about them even though that ride came out in 1968 and while it goes through changes and stuff, it’s the same ride, it’s the same format. So it was really about leaning into that and it was really about embracing practicality. My feeling was that what makes the ride so special is that you were so rooted in practical effects. Everything is smoke and mirrors. Even when a ghost is sitting next to you, you get the sense of that ghost is a real thing somewhere. It’s not just a screen, it’s not just digital. So there was a big emphasis on that. Like how do we take this idea of the Pepper’s Ghost Effect — where in a mirror you can see a ghost, but you can’t quite sort out where that ghost is. Or worse being how do we translate that into an idea for the movie? How do we take this obsession we’re putting eyes everywhere and use that to create a sense of dread and unease in the movie. It went back even further because I rewatched The Haunting, this Robert Wise movie from 1963. Even though I didn’t really see a lot of connections that were written about it, it was so obvious to me that the Imagineers and the production designers of that original ride were drawing upon that film. My production designer and my cinematographer and I, we really pored over that film and studied it, figured out like exactly how — I mean this is a movie where there’s almost I mean there’s no vision. It’s just shot really foreboding. There’s no ghosts, you don’t see anything and yet it’s so tense. Well they did that with angles and lighting and making sure that when you look through a doorway the other doorway was just like a little off in a way that you wouldn’t perceive, but it made you feel like something was weird. That’s the stuff that we spent a lot of time and attention on in designing the film.

Haunted Mansion poster and production stills

Source: Jalen Marlowe / Disney

Justin Simien Speaks About The Importance Of Centering People of Color In ‘Haunted Mansion’

Lastly, Simien spoke about how important it was for him to put Black people at the center of a film set in New Orleans and particularly showcasing a Black love story. We talked about how he came to cast a Black actress (Charity Jordan) to play Lakeith Stanfield’s character’s wife.

‘It’s stuff like that that’s really why you get up in the morning — or at least why I get up in the morning to do what I do,” Simien told GlobalGrind. I knew that if I was going to tell a story about anything happening in New Orleans, the lead of that story had to be Black and the studio kind of understood that if I was going to direct the film that’s just how it was going to be. Once it was Lakeith and Lakeith and I were talking about who his wife should be it was like, we have a very specific vision of who she should be and what she should look like and we have a specific vision of who this kid is that we want you to eventually decide to be a father figure for. Those are really radical things I think for the culture to see, and not just Black culture but but to see them in the center of a Disney movie, you know it’s not lip service coming from us. It really is very intentional. It is a radical notion, I think, to put Black love in front of people. But not just that — Black men feeling their feelings and showing sensitivities and being scared and little Black boys who don’t seem and look and act like other Black boys or like they’re expected to look and all of that stuff. That’s really why I do what I do. I know that’s not the kind of thing you use to market a movie like this, so it’s exciting to see people being able to pick up on that stuff because that’s really where my heart.”

We love to see it — and you’ll love to see it very soon. Haunted Mansion arrives in theaters July 28.

Director Justin Simien Opens Up About The Radical Black Love Story At The Center Of ‘Haunted Mansion’  was originally published on