By Connor Dalton

Busy New Zealand actress Rachel House (Heartbreak High, Penguin Bloom, Next Goal Wins, Moana) turns director with the charming, highly engaging coming-of-age drama The Mountain.

Through several mediums, Rachel House has routinely proven herself as a manifold talent. With her sardonic wit and indomitable presence, she has fashioned scores of scene-stealing performances. Many first caught sight of her in her various collaborations with another versatile New Zealander, Taika Waititi. For others, it will be her voice work for The Walt Disney Company. While closer to home, House has generated flocks of new admirers as Principal Woodsy in Netflix’s reboot of Heartbreak High. But before receiving household recognition as an actor, House was the director of numerous theatre productions and a celebrated acting coach. Her contributions to the arts even led to her appointment as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Now, Rachel House has reached her next summit, moving behind the camera for her feature directorial debut, The Mountain. The film is a coming-of-age fable centred on youngsters Sam (Elizabeth Atkinson), Mallory (Reuben Francis), and Bronco (Terence Daniel), who embark on a mission to connect with Mount Taranaki. As the trio launch into their quest, they hope to find healing, friendship, and a greater understanding of their culture. It’s a charming little odyssey permeating with House’s distinctive personality. The film effectively balances comedy and melancholy, and serves as a compelling calling card for House.

In the wake of the film’s Australian premiere at The Sydney Film Festival, House sat down with FilmInk to discuss what she sought from the filmmakers she’s previously worked with, the cultural changes she made to the script, and how she cast her three young stars.

Rachel House and cast on the set of The Mountain.

The Mountain marks your feature directorial debut. After helming shorts and theatre productions, did making a full-length film feel like the next natural step?

“Yeah, it did. Although, it’s a funny thing because I feel like I’ve been almost going to direct a feature for a long time, and I just haven’t felt connected enough to the content. I’m not going to say it was easy because it wasn’t, but it didn’t feel unfamiliar. It didn’t feel like I was in any kind of new situation. So, yes, you’re probably right, darling. It probably did feel like the next sort of natural step, but I suppose I wasn’t conscientiously thinking that at the time.”

You have such an illustrious career and have worked with some powerhouse filmmakers. Once this project was a go, did you seek advice from any former collaborators?

“100%, and they didn’t always come back to me [Laughs]. To be honest, it was mostly about the script, so I reached out to Taika, but he was too busy. I reached out to Jane Campion, who read it and gave me some great feedback. I also reached out to Osnat Shurer, who was the producer on Moana, just because I felt it was a genre she could speak to in terms of the family film, and she also sent back great feedback. Another person I reached out to was Madeleine Sami; she co-directed and co-wrote a really fantastic film called The Breaker Upperers. What I worked out is, ultimately, it was about encouragement. That’s really what I needed the most, and that I got from Taika, Jane, Osnat, and Madeleine. I didn’t know what to ask for specifically; I just knew that was the thing to do. All I was after was some support, and I got that from many places.”

Rachel House on the set of The Mountain.

You are credited as one of the film’s screenwriters. What were the major contributions you made to the script?

“When I read the script, it was about three little boys. I’m not sure what culture they were. I think it’s fair to say maybe they were all European. There wasn’t anything culturally discerning about any of them, and the mountain wasn’t named. It was much more adventure-packed, like what you’ve seen in good adventure films: cars falling down bridges, just making it over a ravine in the snow, that kind of thing. It was great, but I thought, ‘This is such an extraordinary opportunity to present some Indigenous knowledge.’ I found it so weird to read a script about a mountain and it not be a part of the story or even named. That’s where it really all started changing.

Ben became a little girl called Sam, and rather than wanting to conquer the mountain, which is what these three little boys wanted to do, I thought it would be great to be very inclusive of how we see our mountains. She wanted to connect with her mountain in the hope that it would heal her, so I made that mountain our mountain: Taranaki. Also, in order to really give that beautiful, Indigenous worldview, I needed to completely rewrite Bronco and make him a little super Māori fella so we were all included and able to understand this mighty worldview and knowledge. So, yeah, massive changes. Also, the origin story of the characters was new. A lot of the intention was different. Basically, all the Indigenous knowledge within this film has been my contribution.”

Reuben Francis and Terence Daniel on the set of The Mountain

The film dextrously balances humour and sorrow. How were you able to procure that equilibrium?

“I never get sick of hearing that. It hasn’t been said a whole lot, but when it gets said, I’m just like, ‘Thank you so much.’ I knew what I wanted it to feel like and to be, and I stuck to the plan. I don’t know that I ever thought, ‘We’re walking a fine line.’ I suppose it’s actually my tone when taking any kind of leadership role. It would be that, and it would be my vision. It was a vision and a time that I wanted to pursue, so we just did it. I don’t know what else to tell you [Laughs]. I wish I could be more analytical and academic in my answers, but it’s just feel, right? You have to follow your gut and instincts.

I find it intriguing that so many people think that Māori humour belongs to Taika because they don’t understand that it’s Māori humour and Taika is just reporting what he knows and hears and sees and feels…that’s shared amongst us. Over the years, I’ve watched some people be accused of copying Taika, but the fact of the matter is, this is how we sound and who we are. In regards to your question, to outsiders, our haka and Kapa haka looks incredibly ferocious and powerful. But to us, it’s full of spirit and heart, and suddenly, we’ll drop all that and be cracking up and throwing a ball around and making jokes and throwing shade. It’s a beautiful thing. Our culture is funny, as well as wonderful and deep…it’s all the things. That’s not to say other cultures aren’t. Sorry if I sound elitist in any way, but the big highs and deep lows are definitely a part of us.

One of the greatest examples I can think of is when we have a funeral. We call it a tangi, and it lasts three days. There’s so much emotion and wailing and extraordinary shared sadness of the loss. Then we’re all making jokes and laughing around our beloved who we’ve lost.”

Elizabeth Atkinson on the set of The Mountain

If I were to be analytical, your blend of tones is buoyed by your formal choices. The camera moves with a lot of verve, and your score is plenty groovy. What motivated those decisions?

“Thank you! Now, in the next interview, I can say, ‘Well, you know, the choices I made with the camera …’ [Laughs]. You make a film, but then you forget why you did all the things you did. I love nothing more than comic camera movement. It doesn’t all have to be arthouse beautiful with gorgeous drifts, which I was always having grumbles with my DOP [Matt Henley] about. I was going, ‘Think Stand by Me, think The Goonies, think E.T.’ I feel like I’ve grown up watching a whole bunch of fantastic films that embodied the camera being another character, if you like, or directed us to feel a certain way. That’s a wonderful thing to explore.

I always imagined it’s indicative of my age group, but when I was really young, I fell in love with ’70s funk. I just remember the first time I heard it, and I would listen to it long after it was cool. That kind of soul-funk music is never going to go away, but I remember when it was around and when it disappeared into disco or another genre. I love the buoyancy of it. It makes you feel like running around and hiding behind a wall, looking to see if anyone’s chasing you. That kind of funk music has that feel about it. But we didn’t have a lot of money. I had Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, and KRS-One as temporary tracks. I was only allowed one song out of all the temporary stuff I had laid down, and I chose KRS’ ‘Sound of da Police.’ We couldn’t afford anything else. But luckily, we got this brilliant musician, Troy Kingi, who released an album in 2017. It’s all soul-funk. He did all the music for us, and we cast him; he played Bronco’s dad. That was cool, and they’re all OG tracks.”

Elizabeth Atkinson, Terence Daniel and Reuben Francis

When making a film, they say don’t work with kids or animals. You’ve proven the first part of that statement wrong with the performances of your three leads. When casting the film, how did you determine that Elizabeth, Terence, and Reuben were the right picks for their respective parts?

“I have to say they all just emerged naturally. Of course, we auditioned a lot of kids, and there are so many talented, young, extraordinary performers in our country, which was a joy to see. But it’s no secret that when you’re casting, you want to look for kids who have the qualities and essence that you’re after. Terence was pretty easy to cast because he is Bronco in many ways. He does have that depth. He walks so strongly in our culture. He was raised in the world of Māori. He has his language, a very clear understanding of our world, and is absolutely charming and charismatic. So, he was easy.

With Reuben, it was the same thing. He came in, and he was so eager to please. He was also very charming and delightful. He had been living in the UK, and his family had to quickly get back to Taranaki, which is where they live, which is a very cool coincidence. So they had to quickly move back before lockdown. I think they were on the last plane that got into our country before the doors closed. He came into the country and had to not only go through lockdown but start again. He had to find his feet in his home and at school. He had that quality about him; he was a bit of an outsider, and it’s marked by that time in his life. Now, he’s a wonderful, confident, fabulous young man that we see today.

The person that we were struggling to find the most was the character of Sam. We saw so many people, but none of them had the quality that I was looking for the most: absolute determination. Elizabeth isn’t someone who would be really dominant and order everybody around. That’s not her natural disposition, but she had the determination. That’s what got me in the end. I absolutely fell in love with her, and she had the biggest emotional stuff to get through. She did incredibly well. We really missed her at The Sydney Film Festival.”

Elizabeth Atkinson, Terence Daniel and Reuben Francis

This has been a lovely little chat, Rachel. Before I go, Moana 2 is coming out at the end of the year. I hope I’ll be hearing you as Gramma Tala again.

“Well, thank you! That’s all I can say [Laughs].”

Have Disney got their snipers nearby?

“Yeah, there are people in black suits who will burst through my apartment.”

The Mountain is released in cinemas on June 27.