"Black people, we are the ultimate outsider": Justin Simien on "radical" take on "Haunted Mansion"

The director shares his Disney past, what goes into making ghosts and what's at stake in the Hollywood strikes

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 4, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Director Justin Simien (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Director Justin Simien (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

White people don't have a monopoly on fantasy and science fiction. Black fans love Star Trek, Star Wars, X-Men, Harry Potter, The Avengers and everything else that non-Black fans with wild imaginations love too. Seeing real representation on screen in these types of projects is becoming more of a reality in Hollywood, thanks to directors like Justin Simien, whose Disney film "Haunted Mansion," an adaption of the Walt Disney theme park attraction, is in theaters now.

"It actually is extremely radical to see Black people, people of color and white people — and people who just look like Americans — facing these supernatural situations and coming together to get through them," Simien shared with me on "Salon Talks. "That is actually still a very radical image for cinema."

Simien, the director behind "Bad Hair" and the critically acclaimed film and Netflix television series "Dear White People," says that including lots of New Orleans culture, Black culture and a Black lead was part of his initial pitch to Disney. The film, written by Katie Dippold, has a star-studded cast including LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Jared Leto, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson and Jamie Lee Curtis, to name a few.

Watch Justin Simien's "Salon Talks" episode here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about the lessons he learned while directing so many A-listers for a big studio and what he wants to see come out of the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA Hollywood strikes. (Salon's unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.)

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I read that "Haunted Mansion" is personal to you.

It is personal to me for a lot of reasons to be honest with you. I think the central story revolving around a grizzled, kind of snarky, shady dude learning to befriend and be-father a young weirdo kid, that honestly is what made it so personal to me. But then the extra layer was I used to work at Disneyland and when I was a kid.

My mom took me to Disney World, and then I got into this choir. One of the best things about being a part of the Longfellow Elementary Show Choir, thank you very much, was that we would get to go to Disney World and sing there. I grew up a little, a lot, obsessed with Disney and this ride in particular.

How did this whole project come together for you?

I was working in the halls of Disney on a different project that I won't be working on anymore, as was announced, and I got this script and I thought the script was great. I thought Katie Dippold, the writer of the script, was just really funny and smart and found this kind of way into the mansion that I thought was like, "Oh wow, this is really cool for people who are not fans, but it also plays a lot of fan service for the people that are really hardcore fans." 

"Black people, we are the ultimate outsider. We are the ultimate sort of fringe character in American life, and we have to create our own spaces."

I just felt like I knew how to direct it. I felt like it was an ensemble comedy like my first film. It had a lot of horror-like flourishes like my second film. But unlike my first two films, it wasn't necessarily message-forward. The message of the story was much more embedded, and it felt escapist and it felt like fun. It felt like something that was really different from the stuff I was working on at the time.

I pitched for it and I pitched a vision of practical effects and wanting to really bring in the culture of New Orleans and bring in Black culture and cast a Black lead. I just kind of pitched as if, "Hey, you can go with my version or not," and they kept going with my version and maybe a few months later I was in Atlanta pre-prepping for this movie, like 2021, and we just finished it. It's been a journey.

I got to witness it in the theater with other people last night. When it ended, people didn't get up. People didn't want to leave.


I think something about those dancing ghosts at the end that just had everyone kind of stuck. There's no shortage of talent in the film. You have everybody from LaKeith Stanfield to Rosario Dawson to Tiffany Haddish to Danny DeVito, to Jamie Lee Curtis, to Owen Wilson, and the list goes on. What was that experience like for you working with so many veterans?

It was amazing. I mean, it was a little intimidating at first because especially with big movie stars, sometimes the personality can eclipse the craft, but that was not the case with these people. These people really all the way around Jared Leto, Jamie Lee Curtis, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, LaKeith Stanfield, we already know, Chase Dillon, Tiffany Haddish, oh my God. Everybody really came to play and they came to work and they came to do their craft and they came to support an ensemble film. There was no diva a**hole attitudes in the room. It really was a loving group of people and I felt so supported by them and I felt so honored to be able to support them in doing their work.

What did you learn from working with all of them?

Endurance. I think it wasn't even a logical, mental learning. It was a learning in the body. The longest thing I'd ever done is my series, and a series of the show took several months. This by far was the longest production time period I've ever been in in my whole life. The thought that you can't burn out every day, you literally cannot bleed on the floor every day or you just won't make it. You have to pace yourself and you have to take things as they come and just be with the process. I had to learn that. I had to learn that in my body, like I said, because something like this is so big, but it also moves really slow because it's so big.

"The thing about doing a studio movie is that it's like getting shot out of a cannon."

Some of the page counts, I'm used to shooting seven pages a day or 15 pages a day if I have to, which is a lot of pages in director speak. On this one it was half a page or a page because we had to shoot so much more for the visual effects. So much more had to be wrangled and arranged, and in spite of all of that, trying to keep everything feeling like it was alive for the actors, and we weren't just sort of props in this bigger smorgasbord picture. So that taught me some patience and some endurance, and I think maybe some compassion too for the process.

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Would you work on something that has this type of shooting schedule again?

Yeah, it would depend though. I think one of the things that I also learned is what kind of impedes my ability to create certain kind of spaces that I think really make the best kind of work. The thing about doing a studio movie is that it's like getting shot out of a cannon. It's literally a whole new world of people, places. The actual job of it all, that was exactly the same to me, but just the method by which you get to the job and get to work and get everything else off your plate, very different. I would absolutely love to play in the playground like this and do a shooting schedule like this. There are other things I might change though.

People outside of the industry, we see all of those special effects and we tend to think a lot of that stuff is done in post, But it sounds like a lot of that grind was just happening as you were shooting the movie in general.

Yeah, I was really, especially with "Bad Hair," I'm in love with practical in-camera effects. "Bad Hair," it was like that was the vibe of that movie, but it was also kind of like we didn't have the money to do anything digitally. It was just so much fun. I have such a love for movies before the kind of digital era where they're using matte paintings and they're using puppets and they're using stop-motion. They're using whatever they can to create this visual world. 

While some of those things may not be as photorealistic as what we can do digitally, the fact that it's real and it's tactile, it leaves an impression on the actors, it leaves an impression on the audience when they're watching it, so a lot of the stuff we built practically. We really built the house. Almost all of the effects, even the ghost swirlies have a practical or several practical elements that the digital team had to build up off of.

There's no going back for me in that regard. I really loved that process. Hatbox Ghost is a really prime example. He is part digital, he's part man, he's part Jared Leto, he's part our stunt guy, Colin. But before we even started shooting him walking around, we built his head as if we were going to do it animatronically. You don't even really feel that in the movie, but we had to do that because we needed to know how light would hit his skin surface. We needed to know what it would look like when his eyes moved. These are things that we needed to understand and put on camera before we could even really do the visual wizardry of it all.

It's just a beauty also to just see so many Black people participating and being a part of a film that could be considered sci-fi. Obviously Octavia Butler, but even beyond that, we love Disney. We love "Star Trek." We love "Star Wars." We love all of this kind of art. And it seems like sometimes when we have these conversations, people are surprised.

And I would say even further into the world of fantasy where you have, and you got a "Harry Potter," there's usually a Black face somewhere in there. Or something like "Wednesday," I think there was a big to-do over, what do Black people even look like in some of these spaces and do they even look like anything? Do they ever exist there? 

"You have to pace yourself and you have to take things as they come. I had to learn that."

Like you said, this is a world in which we all know intimately well. Black people, we are the ultimate outsider. We are the ultimate sort of fringe character in American life, and we have to create our own spaces and we have to pull from our ancestry and from understandings of the spiritual world that are different than what's in the [mainstream]. I mean, this is literally the fabric of our actual lives, so of course we love fantasy and of course we love sci-fi and frankly, so much of great fantasy and sci-fi is derived from white people's understanding of Black life.

These are the kinds of things that you don't really put out on the poster or talk about in all the press interviews, but these are the reasons why I make this movie. Why I make movies like this is because it actually is extremely radical to see Black people, people of color and white people— and people who just look like Americans—facing these supernatural situations and coming together to get through them. That is actually still a very radical image for cinema. And that speaks far more to how cinema has let us all down than it does about the movie being bold or something. It shouldn't be that radical.

Let's talk about what's going on in the industry right now. I'm a new screenwriter. I just started writing some things for HBO, and some of those things have just came to a halt because of the writers strike, and we're out here hurting. But your company Culture Machine is working hard at taking care of fellow artists.

We're trying to, man. We got maimed like everybody by the strikes, which I got to say, look, it's collateral damage, because the strikes are happening for a reason. Before the strikes were happening, there was an energy and there was an anger that was boiling up in all artist communities and especially in Black artist communities because we always get it the worst. We know this. It was bound to happen is all I can really say. 

Some of the issues that writers and actors are still fighting for and that the directors were fighting for are really existential issues, things that if we do not arrive at a resolution, they will wipe us out. And for, no shade, but if really wealthy, white writers and actors are in the streets concerned about this, then you better believe we should be concerned about this too because it's always a little bit worse for us, a lot worse for us actually.

It's been tricky. Our overall deal at Culture Machine got suspended, which is not even really shaped to our parent company, everyone's overall deals got suspended, but those overall deals are how we build. It's how we get office space and CEOs and make connections and make things happen so that when we're focused on making a movie or making a TV show, which is all-consuming, we can still continue to build our business and our brand and a version of Hollywood that we want to work in. 

We launched a GoFundMe campaign. People were very generous, and even in spite of that generosity, it really is only designed to take us to the fall, which here it is, we're in the fall. Strike is still going. Not totally sure what all we're going to do, frankly, but I think it's important to be out there and to let people know, hey, you can have a hit show, you can have a huge Disney tentpole movie and still really not make enough to cover run-of-the-mill costs to be in this industry and to build a footprint in it.

So that's what I'm doing. I tend to speak the quiet parts loud, and that's what we're doing right now. But at the same time, I really support the labor movement. It really is important that we drill down these issues and kind of let people know what's really happening here.

Ideally, what does the industry look like after these strikes end?

Man, I have no idea. I truly have no idea. But I would like to see a world in which, frankly — I'm going to be really specific here because I think what we do, I'm a big Baldwinite when it comes to this theory — What we do for the worst of us or the people at the bottom of the status, we do for all of us. If we have a Hollywood where Black people and trans people and women can operate and navigate it just as smoothly as every other white straight man, and by the way, that is not very smooth. Making it in Hollywood for anybody is an extremely difficult and masochistic and crazy process no matter who or what you are. But if we can at least get to where they're at, the whole thing gets better. I think we are already kind of seeing that in terms of what audiences are responding to in the television space. I think movies are still catching up to that.

"Give us room to fail and survive and do the things that it requires for artists to be great."

I think that we've really got to create a space where artists don't feel so freaking exhausted and exploited. I think artists are willing to bleed and over-deliver and give everything. You're a writer, so it's like when push comes to shove, it doesn't matter how many payments we have left. It doesn't matter how many drafts I'm supposed to get paid. We're obviously not doing it for the money. What a crazy thing to do for money. We're going to give it our all, just give us an equitable share of the profits that we are generating, period. And give us room to fail and survive and do the things that it requires for artists to be great. That's only going to help the industry. That's only going to make the industry richer and more profitable.

What's next for you?

I have no idea. There's a number of things that are just on hold until the strike is done. I got to kind of shore up the situation at Culture Machine. Obviously releasing this film is a huge weight off and something to celebrate, but I think it's probably time to kind of hit some picket lines, do some spec writing for nobody in particular, because we're not doing that. We're on strike. For myself, it's been a long time since I've been able to just write for myself, not on assignment. So there's a lot of that's going to be going on and yeah, we're just going to keep pushing, man.

Tell everyone where they can watch "Haunted Mansion."

Dude, come watch "Haunted Mansion." I promise you, you haven't seen anything like it. I'm going to say this, and it's all I'll say about it. We have one of the highest audience scores of all the movies out this summer. Come check out what audiences are saying about the film. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. And then watch it again on Halloween. Do that, do that. You'll be doing your part for Black art if you just do that, and I think you'll enjoy yourself too.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Disney Haunted Mansion Justin Simien Movies New Orleans Salon Talks