The director found himself alone on the promotional tour because his stars couldn’t take part. Still, as a writer, he’s made connections on the picket line.
By Melena Ryzik
The filmmaker Justin Simien was researching the Haunted Mansion long before he realized it. As a boy, he was a big fan of the Disney attraction. “I literally remember riding this ride over and over again and thinking, ‘God, how do they do this?’” he said. In film school, he realized, “This is all cinema. It was production design — smoke and mirrors and lighting and music and sound.”
Now he is the director of the movie version of “Haunted Mansion,” which turns the enduring ride into a family-friendly mystery with an unexpected cast, including LaKeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito and Jamie Lee Curtis. “I was a little nervous about working with big stars because you don’t really get to meet them before you agree to them,” he said. But it turned into a rollicking ensemble. “There were so many buddy comedy mash-ups,” he said. “I need to see LaKeith and Danny DeVito going on a couple road trips.”
Simien parlayed his first feature, the Sundance hit “Dear White People” (2014), a satirical campus comedy about race, into a Netflix series, and went on to direct the campy horror flick “Bad Hair” (2020). Still, he was perhaps an unorthodox choice for a Disney film. But beyond his affinity for Disneyland, where he worked as a college student, he had a personal connection to the script, written by Katie Dippold (the 2016 “Ghostbusters”), as a genial comedy with a subcurrent of familial grief. “My dad died when I was 6,” Simien, 40, said. “And I started to just consciously be aware of how much that sort of longing for a father figure was playing in my work.”
He spoke by phone from London, where he was alone on a promotional tour; his cast could not participate because of the Hollywood strike. That lack of star power in the campaign is one reason it hasn’t caught fire at the box office, analysts say. Still, as a member of the Writers Guild, he was also itching to get back to the picket line. “A lot of us that were siloed before, just too busy to meet each other, are now having really robust conversations,” he said, not just about labor issues, but also about the whole entertainment framework. “Particularly around storytellers of difference and the ways in which we’re brought into the business to kind of prop up these industries. But then our stories are so compromised on the other side. Why is that? And how do we get around that?”