The Mountain: Rachel House on First Time Film Directing and Crafting a Heartwarming Adventure

The Mountain: Rachel House on First Time Film Directing and Crafting a Heartwarming Adventure

Rachel House is an icon of the entertainment industry. She’s been an actor in a long list of hits (including Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Heartbreak High), an acting coach for the young actors on films like Jojo Rabbit and Boy, and now she’s making her mark as a director. House’s directorial debut, The Mountain, is a New Zealand-made heartwarming family film full of comedy and adventure, making it a perfect culmination of her many talents over the years.

With The Mountain now officially in Australian cinemas, we spoke to House about what other films inspired her directorial debut, what advice from directors she has received and why you’ll see a real mountain with top billing in the credits.

Directing The Mountain

the mountain film rachel house
Image: Madman/ IG

Having starred in hundreds of other people’s projects, what was it about The Mountain that made Rachel House want to direct her own film?

“I didn’t know until I read Tom Furniss’ initial script that I wanted to make a family film. I didn’t know what I wanted necessarily to make, but none of the scripts were kind of giving me the heart burst,” House said.

The script at the time was focused on three young boys, all Caucasian (aka Pākehā) New Zealanders, one of whom had cancer and was seeking to conquer a mountain to see if it would heal him. While the core of that story remains the same in The Mountain, when House came on board, she provided a new perspective, shifting up the lead characters with more cultural specificity and, more importantly, naming the mountain.

“The mountain didn’t have a name, and that was strange to me as an Indigenous woman,” the director said. “[We] just reworked the script to have all of that Indigenous knowledge interwoven and reforming of characters. I thought, wow, this is such a great conversation this is a great opportunity to discuss those things.”

Having worked with so many incredible directors over her career, House said the main advantage she had was the ability to “watch and learn”:

“I learned a lot watching Niki Caro work with Keisha Castle Hughes in Whale Rider,” House said. “There was a scene where Keisha gets up and does that iconic speech to her grandfather… Niki was really kind of empowering her emotionally to get through that scene. So that was a really great lesson. I’ve also watched Jane Campion do the same thing with her actors. And I’ve also watched Taika (Waititi) create a really great sense of play on on his sets as well.”

Speaking on her inspirations for The Mountain, House pinpointed a few formative films of hers, in particular, Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me:

“It did something to me. For me, it was a formative film. It speaks of the importance of friendship, you know, and that spirit of adventure and the adventure of being together as kids in the wilderness, in the great unknown,” she said.

E.T. to some extent as well,” she added. “Storm Boy, definitely… it’s the cycle of of life and death, which is so beautifully interwoven into that film through Indigenous knowledge.”

Finding three young heroes

the mountain film rachel house
Image: Madman

The story of The Mountain lies within its three young leads, Sam (Elizabeth Atkinson), Mallory (Reuben Francis), and Bronco (Terrence Daniel), who come together to reach Mount Taranaki to avoid their varying troubles at home.

Where House changed the original story of Sam (apart from the gender swapping of the character) is in the character wanting to conquer her mountain.

“What naturally followed was that Sam wanted to connect with her mountain, not conquer it, but connect. And I thought, Well, why does she want to connect? She wants to connect because she doesn’t really know if she belongs to that mountain. Why doesn’t she know if she belongs to that mountain? She wasn’t raised in her culture, but she knows just enough to know that she could be one of the descendants of that mountain,” House explained.

After nailing Sam’s character, the fleshing-out of Bronco and Mallory came naturally.

“So, what do we need to understand the yearning that Sam has to belong? We need someone like Bronco, who is entirely at home in his identity, who has been raised in the world of Maori,” she continued. “Mallory is, in fact, the most like the character that Tom Furniss created… the other two, they have these really fantastic beliefs, and it’s Mallory who struggles the most with them.”

The Mountain’s major star

the mountain film rachel house
Image: Madman

We can’t talk about The Mountain without discussing the real star of the film, Mount Taranaki. In 2017, Taranaki was recognised by the New Zealand government as a legal personality, supporting the beliefs held by the Taranaki iwi that the mountain (maunga) is a person. That same acknowledgement is held in The Mountain, where Taranaki is given top billing in the cast.

“We couldn’t make this film and not do that really,” House said.

“You know, our maunga is also one of the producers of the film. So our belief, our worldview, is that our mountains, all of them, not just Taranaki, but all of them are living ancestors. And we’re not alone in those Indigenous beliefs. They’re everywhere.

“We wanted to really share that world view, not only in the story, but also in walking the talk. If we make a film with the content that this film has it would be pretty weird if we hadn’t credited the star.”

Mount Taranaki has such a presence in the film, and House explained that it was important for them to permeate Taranaki throughout the story, even when it isn’t on screne.

“The most important thing for me was to really try and capture the omnipresence of Taranaki,” the director said. “So it was a big discussion with my production designer, Andy McLaren, of how we could keep feeding in the presence of Taranaki at all times. So [there’s] signs and graffiti and murals, just giving the sense that this town and this place revolve around our beautiful mountain.”

House explained that in legend, Taranaki is typically covered in cloud, but in a twist that could only happen to a film crew, the mountain was uncovered for most of the shoot.

“We had Weta Digital, who do extraordinary VFX work, [come] to the rescue and create all those amazing clouds that you see,” House said.

Where to watch The Mountain

If it isn’t clear from the above, The Mountain is a must-see this season, for viewers both young and old. Luckily for us, the film has made its way to Australia following a premiere at the Sydney Film Festival and is now screening in cinemas nationwide.

Lead Image Credit: Madman


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