Justin Simien
Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

How Justin Simien Woke Up Hollywood

The creator of ‘Dear White People’ and director of ‘Haunted Mansion’ opens up about his filmmaking journey

Justin Simien has a knack for finding a way where others would remain stuck in place. As a child, the filmmaker and director dreamed up homemade mini movies by using the resources available to him (including lifeless action figures and a family PC). He generated feverish anticipation for his breakthrough screenplay by spending his tax refund to shoot a DIY trailer for Dear White People, an indie cult classic that Netflix has since adapted into a five-season series. Simien’s ability to improvise and create by any means is a testament to his tenacity and the necessity of past predicaments.

In his latest endeavor, the Houston-bred filmmaker had none of those obstacles. Disney pulled out all of the stops for Haunted Mansion, the PG-13 horror-comedy with a $150 million budget that tells the tale of a mom and her son enlisting the services of a team of ghostbusters. The film (now available via all major digital and physical retailers) finds Simien giving direction to the likes of LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, and Danny DeVito. 

“I think of it like a jazz ensemble: Everyone gets their solos, but the whole thing has to feel cohesive,” says the 40-year-old auteur of working with such an elite cast. “Everyone had that mindset, so, for me, it was really fun.”

Now that I'm older, I understand the film industry: When something is working, the industry goes, Okay, we're just going to do that. Especially for Black filmmakers.

Haunted Mansion is a flip on 2003’s Eddie Murphy-starred The Haunted Mansion—both movies are based on the popular Disneyland ride of the same name. Simien serving as director is a full-circle moment, as he worked at the Anaheim theme park while in film school in the early 2000s. So he’s well aware of the controversy around the Splash Mountain log flume, which was shut down at Disney’s U.S. parks earlier this year. The attraction was based on Song of the South, a 1946 animated film that has been long criticized for racist undertones and stereotypes. 

“It’s about time,” Simien says of the park’s pivot, which will replace Splash Mountain with Tiana's Bayou Adventure (inspired by the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog) next year. “It’s funny, if you don’t know, you don’t know. But I knew what Song of the South was. I rode that ride many times; it was always just a nagging thing… I also really love The Princess and the Frog, so the fact that they’re remaking [the ride] in the image of that movie is cool to me, too. It’s still Black—just more authentically so.”

Authenticity is at the heart of every project that Justin Simien puts into the world. Earlier this month, he spoke with LEVEL about the experiences and life lessons that have paved his Hollywood journey. Don’t expect him to stop telling stories any time soon. —As told to John Kennedy

From when I was a little kid, I was obsessed with projected images. This little Fisher-Price toy where you peek in and crank and it would show you Disney cartoons. I was mystified by this thing, just basic animation. 

I was a really nerdy, introverted kid. When I had the house to myself, I'd put on a soundtrack tape, take out my action figures, and tell stories in my head. 

We couldn't afford cameras, so I would make audio plays and use really archaic PowerPoint presentations to make little movies on our family computer. The moment it took off is when I realized it was a job.

I remember watching the X-Men cartoon credits and seeing executive producer, producer, director, trying to suss out which was closest to what I was already doing. When I figured out it was director, it was over. That's all I ever wanted to be.

People seemed to like the Dear White People screenplay, but didn't think there was an audience for it. I didn't know that at the time, but this is being a Black filmmaker. This is always the conversation.

I picked the scenes out of the screenplay that I thought would make for a great trailer, got all my friends, got my tax return and all the coins I could scrape together, and we just stole the hell out of these locations. I wanted to make it like this was a real movie, but then sort of pull the rug and say, “No, it's not. We would love it to be, though! So give us some money.”

I've apologized to Tyler Perry personally. In my first movie, there's a lot of anti-Tyler sentiment. Now that I'm older, I understand the film industry: When something is working, the industry goes, Okay, we're just going to do that. Especially for us—for Black filmmakers. They don't really want to think it through any further. It’s frustrating.  

Related: Tyler Perry Is Ready to Defend Himself

It’s not like I invented anything, it’s just that when my time came around, the industry was very myopic about these things. In the 2010s, if you wanted to make a Black movie, it felt like it had to either be an extremely broad comedy—usually with a man in a dress—or it had to be tragedy porn, like slavery or drug addiction. Those were the two categories and it was kind of airtight. It felt very natural to fight against it.

Because President Obama was in office, it almost felt forbidden to talk about racism in front of white people—particularly liberal white people. I was like, That's the stuff of movies! We should have movies about this experience!

I went to film school, but Dear White People was like my master's degree. Haunted Mansion was like trying to be a doctor and get your degree, but you got to be in the emergency room for 1,000 hours. That's what that was. Just like, Throw it all at me, baby. Let's figure out how to make a big studio movie.

[Directing] Haunted Mansion was great because they're all real actors who know their craft and are courageous, willing, and generous. I think of it like a jazz ensemble: Everyone gets their solos, but the whole thing has to feel cohesive. [Individual performances] have to support the work everyone else is doing. Everyone had that mindset.

Related: Enjoying A Goofy Movie With My Son, 25 Years Later

Actors are the most important special effect on any screen. A movie lives and dies by what they do on camera.

I'm glad to see the influence of Dear White People. I do see it. More than anything, I'm glad the actors we were able to showcase in a new way are out here thriving. They are the architects of so many franchises, whether we're talking about Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, or Teyonah Parris. You see them everywhere, and that feels really good.

I look back at the past 10 years as a lot of self-education. Things I did in Bad Hair and the Dear White People movie and series I did because no one else was going to let me do those things. No one said I could do a musical, so I made one out of my show. In season two of Dear White People, I went for the weird thriller-noir thing. Like, What do I want to experience as a filmmaker to grow?

Disney's Haunted Mansion is now available via all major digital retailers, including Apple TV, Prime Video, and Vudu/Fandango, plus on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD.