The Big Picture
- Haunted Mansion director Justin Simien discusses making his biggest movie yet.
- He talks about his experience working with legendary casting director Carmen Cuba, and finding his young lead, Chase Dillon.
- The Haunted Mansion movie explores the idea of “ghost winks,” something Simien has experienced himself in real life.
There’s lots to love in the new Haunted Mansion movie. It’s a hugely enjoyable adaptation of the iconic Disney ride that’s packed with delightful scares and lovable characters. But, the element of the film that I find weighing most heavily on my mind is the concept of the “ghost wink,” a subtle way for a ghost to let you know that they’re with you.
The film puts the spotlight on LaKeith Stanfield’s character Ben Matthias. He was once an ambitious paranormal investigator developing a camera that could capture paranormal activity. However, after the death of his wife, Ben loses his drive to connect with the other side. When Owen Wilson’s Father Kent attempts to recruit Ben to help rid Gabbie’s (Rosario Dawson) new mansion of its ghosts, he initially refuses. But, Ben some comes to realize that spirits are indeed real and they manifest in all sorts of forms, like troublesome home haunts and also deeply personal connections capable of producing “ghosts winks.”
With Haunted Mansion playing in theaters nationwide, I got the chance to chat with director Justin Simien about making his biggest movie yet. From a 19-day shoot and a 24-day shoot to a 100-day shoot, Haunted Mansion marked an opportunity where the Dear White People director could swing big with a cast assembled by legendary Hollywood casting director Carmen Cuba.
Hear all about it straight from Simien himself in the video at the top of this article, or you can read our conversation in transcript form below.
PERRI NEMIROFF: There are so many exciting elements of this production. Going into filming, which part of it were you most excited to tackle, but then also what is something that wound up being more creatively fulfilling than you ever could have imagined?
JUSTIN SIMIEN: Wow. So I think going into it, the most exciting thing was just the canvas space. I’ve never had the opportunity to make something – we shot for 100-something days, you know? My first movie I shot in 19 days. (Laughs) I think my second movie I got it up to 24. So this was playing on a canvas that was so much bigger and as a director, there was very little that I wanted to do that they said no to, or said, “Oh, we don’t have the money or the time for that.” They really encouraged me to think big, so that was really cool.
And the thing that I knew would be great, but you just never know before you start casting is the experience with the actors. Obviously, it’s a Disney movie, it’s a big studio movie, I knew I’d be working movie stars, and everyone in this film is a big movie star, but they’re also really wonderful actors and performers. I learned how to direct doing theater, and so I have a real love for actors. It’s not just about looking cute. It’s like, “Let’s really find a character here. Let’s find a way to tell this story even better than the most obvious thing to think of.” And everybody across the board was so passionate about that process. It was truly, truly a bonding, fun, familial experience working with these folks.
It doesn’t surprise me to hear that. I’ll go to casting next. Can you tell me about your process when working with (casting director) Carmen Cuba, who’s one of the best in the business, and also because I have a feeling she was heavily involved in finding Chase (Dillon) who is also phenomenal in this film?
SIMIEN: That’s the thing about Carmen is that she thinks about casting in the way that I do. You absolutely want to find the perfect person for the role, but you also want a surprise. You want somebody who you wouldn’t think of. Who would think of Owen Wilson as a priest? (Laughs) You know what I’m saying? And of course, Chase Dillon, (was) the first person she said. The first person just out the gate. I’d just seen him in Barry Jenkins’ show, The Underground Railroad, and I thought he was so brilliant in that. He is truly a remarkable young man.
The thing about Carmen is that she knows how to use a cast to tell multiple stories. Not just the story that’s on the page, but other kinds of cultural stories. Putting people in places you don’t expect to necessarily see them. There are so many cameos in this movie, too, and one of the things that we had a lot of fun doing on my last film, Bad Hair, is making a meal out of these little, small moments and parts. There were so many opportunities to do this in this film and I think she just knocked it out of the park.
This isn’t a cameo. This is a significant role in the film. I want to talk about Jared Leto and working with him. There’s a quote I caught in our production notes. He’s giving a voice performance, but you said, “He puts so much work into the character and so much thought into every choice that he makes,” so can you give me an example of a choice he made in his voice performance that someone might say, “That’s trivial. That’s a little thing,” but it wound up being really impactful in shaping that character?
SIMIEN: First of all, when we first started talking about the character, we had a real in-depth series of conversations about where this guy is from, what he is thinking. He starts off as a visual sight gag on this ride that doesn’t even have a name. Eventually, fans start calling him Hat-Box Ghost, and now he’s canon. So you have some things to go off of but not really a lot else, you know? Down to not just the accent but the way in which he savors certain kinds of words. We came up with a character that really does delight in putting people down and being as petty as possible, and doing so in the most elaborate fashion. (Laughs) And so, we had a lot of fun. We played with the dialogue that we had, but Jared also, we just played. There were long stretches of Jared just talking. (Laughs) As we’re trying to figure out, “Well, how does he laugh? What does he make fun of about people? What are his favorite syllables?” We spent a lot of time in the weeds on that and I think it really shows. I mean, you would never know it was Jared Leto unless someone told you. That’s how complete a character it is. It’s really thoughtful and delightful, and I thought it was really fun.
Now because I’m curious, what is his favorite syllable?
SIMIEN: Oh god, lots of S’s. Lots of S’s and guttural slaps. (Imitates laugh.) Lots of those!
I love that!
A personal question inspired by the movie; I just absolutely love the idea of “ghost winks,” and I’m a big believer that they do actually happen. So, have you experienced one, and if so, what happened?
SIMIEN: I’ve experienced a lot of ghost winks in my life. I was raised Catholic and my family’s from Louisiana, so it’s a very specific flavor of Creole, Black, Catholic culture. Growing up that way, ghosts were just a matter of fact, you know what I’m saying? There was nothing spooky or weird. You just expected that to happen.
I gotta say, the one that I think about often is a close friend of mine in high school, his name was D’Unte. I named a character after him in my show Dear White People, so I’ve told this story before, but he passed at a really young age and a voice message that he had left me, maybe two years prior, and that I had heard at the time and deleted, to me it was very innocuous, it popped up on my phone the day he passed out of nowhere. And listening to this message in that context, it was a goodbye message. He thanked me for our friendship and he recounted on some of the good things that we’d done together, and he kind of put a blessing on my life and my future endeavors. And again, when he sent that message to me two years before I was like, “Oh, that’s sweet,” but coming back on my phone after I absolutely deleted it the day I found out he passed certainly felt like a ghost wink. I remember I was in the parking lot of a Target and a Ross, and I just wept because I felt him. I felt his presence with me.
Looking for more Haunted Mansion chats? Check out my interview with Rosario Dawson and LaKeith Stanfield below: