Interview: Rachel House on her directorial debut The Mountain; “I set out to write a film for our country.”

Sam, a fearless young girl raised outside of her Māori culture, is determined to fulfil her mission of connecting with her mountain in the hope they can heal her from the cancer she battles. Along the way she meets some misfits and new kids in town – Mallory, hoping to find friends, any kind of friends – and Bronco who claims to be a runaway from his dad who is too busy to notice him. As they make their way through the difficult “off the beaten track” route, they learn the true spirit of adventure and the magic of friendship.

Such is the story of The Mountain, Rachel House‘s directorial debut, which takes the acclaimed screen presence’s unique work behind the camera, exploring the importance of Māori culture.

As the film opens in Australian theatres (you can read our review here), Peter Gray spoke with Rachel about the story’s origins, which filmmakers she learnt from across her career thus far, and how being an acting coach has served as a director.

The Mountain is credited to both you and Tom Furniss.  Was this a collaborative effort?…

He had an original script which was about three little boys, one of them had cancer.  The (main) character’s name was Ben.  They wanted to climb and conquer the mountain.  What was so wonderful about (this script) was that I loved the idea of these three little kids, but Tom hadn’t named the mountain, so I thought it was a perfect opportunity to speak about why mountains aren’t just mountains to us.  We connect to them quite differently.  We don’t want to conquer them.  We bow down to our mountains because they’re ancient ancestors.  I thought what better way to do that with a main character, who isn’t from that culture, to do their very best to try and understand and connect with a mountain that may or may not be who they belong to.

I had to re-write the character of Bronco, so that that character was our access to the world of Māori from an indigenous perspective.  Sam (the main character) only has Google (laughs). And then we have the character of Mallory, who actually stayed a lot like Tom’s original character.

When you were filming was it collaborative at all? Or because you had reworked it it was very much your production?

I think because it had changed so dramatically into something quite indigenous, with such a strong indigenous perspective and world view, it felt like it was better in my hands.  Also, I’m a descendent of (Mount) Taranaki, so it felt better to stick with that voice.  But (Tim’s) stuff is still in the script, and it’s really great.  But there’s a lot of stuff that was taken out, but a lot of stuff that stayed in.  There’s a lot of me.

With the short films you’ve made, did you ever tinker with adapting one of those into feature length? When did you decide that The Mountain was going to be your announcement as a director?

(Laughs) Announcing? Eww, I’m not announcing myself (laughs).

That’s just me flourishing with my words.

(Laughs) No, I love it. But you know how you forget things you’ve done? I went to film school, and about a hundred years ago I went to drama school to (study) acting.  I did some theatre directing, and then I thought I’d love to direct screen.  I think what frustrated me about theatre is that I didn’t know who I was talking to anymore.  Theatre started shifting and the audience felt less like a broad amalgamation of real people.  I thought screen was going to be great to explore, and I do love it, so I went to film school in my early 30s.  It was a wonderful time because I was much more studious.  I studied a lot of surrealism.  And then I came back and did a whole lot of acting coaching for T (Taika Waititi) on his films, and there was just nothing that I was dying to say.

For about 10 years I got sent scripts for me to consider, and I just didn’t like any of them.  But I don’t know, was it laziness? Or was it just a lack of passion to write something myself? Also, truth be known, I probably lost a lot of confidence to write something for myself.  But, poor Tom, I just re-wrote his (laughs).

With that filmmaker brain of yours, were there people you worked with that you took inspiration from? That you took note of what to do? And what not to do?

Yeah, absolutely.  Even back when I did Whale Rider, watching Niki Caro work with Keisha Castle-Hughes, that was such an extraordinary relationship to witness.  It was so magical and special, and I realised that I was learning.  I completely absorbed (that).  I didn’t get to be around them all the time, but I did get to sit and watch.  That felt formative.

I’ve been able to work with Jane Campion.  She’s a very private person.  She doesn’t like anyone watching rehearsals, or anything like that.  But I had to fill in for Nicole Kidman (laughs).  It was for Top of the Lake.  She wasn’t able to do a rehearsal, so they asked me to step in, but it was only because they knew I had acting experience.  I’m clearly nothing like Nicole (laughs).  But I got to see first-hand what it was like to be directed by her.  Again, it’s all about relationships and the way you engage, and feeling completely safe in that person’s hands.

Of course, the person I’ve worked with the most is Taika, and he always has a sense of fun on his sets.  He’s a delight.  That was sort of my training.  And I think because Taika has mostly young people in his films, and I was a coach for them, I feel like I had to be on set a lot, so I got to see the process of filmmaking.

That was one of the great things about The Mountain, that we see kids just being kids.  I think we’re starting to lose that type of genre where we let kids go out and explore.  Technology feels like it’s ruined that feeling of kids going outside, which that notion is such a rarity now.  Because of your background as an acting coach, do you have to separate that from being a director?

No, I loved it.  I got to be the good guy.  The thing about being an acting coach is you have to get them to do all the work.  The acting coach’s job is really to help the young actors do all the preparation that adult actors know how to do.  Often they just don’t want to do it (laughs).  “Who’s this auntie telling me what to do?” (Laughs)

So it was really lovely that I had a brilliant acting coach who, similarly, was an actor and a theatre director, and the kids absolutely loved her.  She did that prep work with the kids.  I then got to play the cool director that comes in and asks them to do the scene (laughs).

Given that culture is so important, do you look to something like film as a preservation method?

Yeah, I wanted (the film) to be very inclusive for everybody.  I set out to write a film for our country, and I think it’s important to have that in mind as well.  I’ve seen projects that are written as solely to be an international blockbuster and I don’t think that always goes right.  It’s all got to feed into the story.  It can’t just be a knowledge film, or a lesson film.  We’ve got to love these characters.  They have to go on a journey.  But it’s wonderful to weave all of that in.

The Mountain is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.