[Interview] Justin Simien for HAUNTED MANSION

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, HAUNTED MANSION being covered here wouldn’t exist.

In HAUNTED MANSION, inspired by the classic theme park attraction, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), a single mom, and her son, Travis (Chase Dillon), enlist a motley crew of so-called spiritual experts including a tour guide (LaKeith Stanfield), a psychic (Tiffany Haddish), a priest (Owen Wilson) and a historian (Danny DeVito) to help exorcise her newly bought mansion after discovering it is inhabited by supernatural squatters.

For the upcoming release of HAUNTED MANSION, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew spoke with director Justin Simien. During their conversation, they discussed everything from how he discovered his love of the Disney ride, how he balanced horror while maintaining the child-friendly qualities needed in the film, and what Easter Eggs HAUNTED MANSION fans may be able to find.

Hi, Justin! It’s such a pleasure to be speaking with you today. To start things off, when did you first fall in love with the Haunted Mansion ride? 

Justin Simien: Nine years old. It was a goal of my mom to take her kid to Disney World, and she took me to Disney World at nine and it was one of the first things we rode. I was obsessed with it. It was like a movie but a ride. I had never seen anything like it. I had no idea how any of it was happening. The Stretching Room, the ghosts, none of it. I remember gasping [seeing] the hitchhiking ghost on your arm when you’re moving out [of the ride] and walking around the park wondering if somehow some way that guy was still there. I really wasn’t sure until I got older that he wasn’t there hitchhiking and following me around. It held a fascination for me that frankly never translated into even a dream of making a HAUNTED MANSION movie because that wasn’t a thing that was happening growing up.

When I joined the show choir, we would tour at Disney World, and it was always my favorite ride. Then, when I was in film school in Orange County [in California], I worked at Disneyland, and I rode it every time I was there. There was just so clearly something cinema about it. I would ride Haunted Mansion and Pirates and be like, there’s something here for me to learn as a filmmaker and translate. When the script came through, I was amazed by what Katie Dippold did on the page. She solved so many problems that I thought would’ve been insurmountable and that I could have never done myself. I just want to protect this work that she’s made.

Owen Wilson and Director Justin Simien on the set of Disney’s live-action HAUNTED MANSION. Photo by Chuck Zlotnik.

Also, my family’s from Louisiana. I know so much about New Orleans culture and if I have one complaint it’s that the house situated in New Orleans Square doesn’t really feel authentically rooted in the New Orleans that I understand, which is a very Black informed culture. This is the birthplace of jazz and the best food in the country and all sorts of things. If you really situate the house in the real New Orleans, you already do the job of the movie cause New Orleans is scary and funny. It’s literally both of those things, like in abundance. I just felt very protective over those elements. I just kept saying that and people kept letting me go further in the process and then all of a sudden, we were making the movie and I was like, great! [Laughs].

How did you navigate infusing horror into the movie while also keeping it accessible to kids? 

Justin Simien: I leaned in a lot toward Disney itself as a blueprint. I re-watched a lot of their movies, especially with hallmarks like Snow White and Pinocchio, which are still to this day some of the most terrifying movies I’ve ever seen. Disney’s most indelible movies really do go there in terms of darkness and a sense of life-and-death stakes. People die in these movies, are blackmailed, are hunted after and it’s terrifying [Laughs].

Yet what it gives you as a kid when you go through this experience is that you can actually get through hard times. One of my other all-time favorite things that’s not Disney is “Adventure Time.” It’s a show that I watch over and over. I kind of think of it as almost like a gospel. I need to get in a couple 15-minute episodes before I go to bed sometimes [Laughs]. Every single episode of that show is about death and it’s a kid show and it’s a great kid show because of that.

So I leaned into that a lot and I leaned into the conversations that the Imagineers had with Walt Disney when they were making the ride because they too couldn’t decide how scary or funny or whatever it should be. That was the guiding star. They figured out a way to blend all of these things.

For all of us HAUNTED MANSION fans, were all the HAUNTED MANSION Easter Eggs in the script or did you add in some of your own? 

Justin Simien: I would say that the visual elements came from me and our production design team. There were a lot of set pieces on the page that needed to be fleshed out like the stretching room, for example. There was a Stretching Room reference but there wasn’t a stretching room sequence.

The one thing Katie put in the script which I live for is that when you arrive at Crump Manor, she explicitly states which Haunted Mansion she believes that it should be and I thought that was amazing. But there was so much to figure out as a director and my production designer, Darren Gilford, is just a genius.

I brought in my cousin Jeremy Simien, who is an art researcher in New Orleans and specializes in restoring the understanding that free Black creoles of color were there and they were part of an aristocracy and they took all of their art with them. He brings that art back so that when you walk through New Orleans, you can see what people actually looked like at that time in New Orleans. We kind of put all that into a blender and this is what came out of it. There’s so much to discover about this mansion but also about a connected sense of other mansions out there, which I think is a really nice touch.

As we know, WGA (Writers Guild of America) and SAG (Screen Actors Guild) are on strike due to improper compensation from the studios as well as how their jobs will be impacted due to the rise of AI. All that being said, is there anything you would like to say to the writers and actors who are currently on strike?

Justin Simien: I support you. I’m working with you from inside the machine right now. Believe me. Frankly, I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to participate in press and stuff but having a conversation with my cast, and certainly feeling an obligation to the writer Katie, and knowing that I’m the only one that actually can talk about their contributions, and also I’m contractually obligated to because the DGA has already made their deal. It felt important not to pass up that opportunity. I’m a gay, Black man making a giant tentpole movie.  Can’t say that’s happened any time recently. So yeah, I’ll take the hits. I’ll stand in front of this movie and talk about the amazing contributions of the cast and the writers, and when it’s over I will rejoin you on the picket line just like I was before and we’re gonna make some change in this industry.

To help those who are on strike, please consider donating to https://entertainmentcommunity.org/.

HAUNTED MANSION opens exclusively in theaters on July 28.

Shannon McGrew
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