Rachel House has been saying no to directing feature films for decades.

As one of New Zealand’s most recognisable actors — known for stealing scenes in Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Heartbreak High, among others — she would frequently receive scripts with an invitation to direct.

But when she first read The Mountain, she felt a pull from what immediately struck her in its absence: The titular mountain was unnamed, non-descript.

“When I read the script, I was confused as to where we were in the world,” she tells ABC Entertainment.

“As Māori, we see mountains as living ancestors, as part of our genealogy. I thought it was a wonderful gift that [writer] Tom Furniss gave me because it gave me the ability to rework the script and be inclusive of our worldview — and [show] why it felt so strange to me not to have a mountain named.”

A woman in an black and white Adidas tracksuit sits on a director's chair holding a megaphone, surrounded by film props.

While Rachel House is a prolific, celebrated theatre director and has also directed three short films, The Mountain is her feature-length directorial debut.(Supplied: Mataara Stokes)

In House’s reworked script, The Mountain is Taranaki, located in Aotearoa’s North Island — a mountain that House is connected to through her whakapapa — meaning genealogy — along with two of the eight surrounding iwi, or Māori tribes.

And where the original draft saw three young boys set out on an adventure to scale a mountain, House’s revised version follows Sam, a young Māori girl (newcomer Elizabeth Atkinson) with cancer who plots a daring escape from hospital to visit Taranaki in the hopes it will heal her.

“Rather than these three little boys wanting to go and conquer a mountain — a common idea for humanity — I thought, ‘what a wonderful Indigenous perspective to share,'” she explains.

“It’s a wonderful thing to connect with a mountain, rather than conquer it.”

A family film

Inspired by two of House’s favourite films — Storm Boy (1976) and Stand By Me (1986) — The Mountain is an adventure film, as Sam is joined by two other pre-teen misfits as they scale Taranaki, avoiding the search party trailing behind.

“I call it a family film,” says House.

“All ages can enjoy it. It’s one of those films you take your kids to and you end up having a really great time as well.”

Sam’s new friends include Mallory (Reuben Francis), who has just moved to Taranaki following his parents’ divorce, and Bronco (Terence Daniel), a precocious Māori boy who runs away from home to teach his always-working dad a lesson.

A boy on a bmx bike flies through the air on a residential street, wearing a bright yellow shirt and smiling.

In a statement, Terence Daniel, who plays Bronco, said “This film is amazing. It’s the best movie I have made. The only one.”(Supplied: Madman Entertainment)

Proud of his culture, Bronco is inspirational for Sam, who is eager to connect to her heritage but lacks any knowledge beyond what she’s read online after growing up with her Pākehā (non-Māori New Zealander) mother, and no father.

Just like House’s reference films, The Mountain deftly touches upon heavy topics but is filled with laughter and light, reminiscent of executive producer Taika Waititi’s coming-of-age comedies Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which House stars in.

House credits a lot of that whimsy to the lead trio, disagreeing entirely with the adage that filmmakers should never work with children or animals. In fact, she has worked as a children’s acting coach on multiple productions by Waititi and Jane Campion.

A young girl with a shaved head crouches stealthily behind an air-duct, trailed by a bunch of eye-grabbing helium balloons.

The Mountain opens with Sam’s daring escape, set to spy music. She soon picks up Mallory and Bronco along the way.(Supplied: Madman Entertainment)

“[They bring] joy, openness, possibility, curiosity,” she says.

“It’s a joy to be around all of those qualities. And I’m a big kid, it would be foolish of me to pretend otherwise.”

House hopes the film inspires all audiences, big and small, to reconsider their relationship to the natural world.

“Nature is inclusive, it’s there for all of us,” she says.

“That beautiful Indigenous knowledge, which is sort of global, speaks to that. It speaks to nature being there for all of us, and the importance of us all to be guardians.”

An informed approach to filmmaking

The reverence this film holds for Taranaki is evident in House’s gorgeous, tender shots of its forests, but it’s signposted in the opening credits too — Taranaki is credited as an actor, playing themselves.

For House, the top billing was a no-brainer.

“We bow down to our mountains,” she says.

“There’s a well-known whakataukī (proverb) that you should bow down to a worthy, lofty mountain. We were incredibly fortunate and lucky to even be able to film in and around that mountain because, rightly so, our mountain is protected.”

In 2023, Taranaki and the other peaks in the surrounding national parks were enshrined with legal personhood under the joint name of Te Kāhui Tupua by the New Zealand government. They are Aotearoa’s third geographic feature to be granted the same legal rights as people, readdressing their confiscation by British settlers.

Taranaki mountain looks large against a dusk sky. In a farm field, three people walk forward.

While usually covered by clouds, Mount Taranaki was unusually clear during the filming of The Mountain, requiring visual effects studio Wētā FX to add in clouds were necessary.(Supplied: Madman Entertainment)

A body called Te Tōpuni Kōkōrangi is the mountain’s face and voice, comprised of four Crown-appointed members and four from the Ngā iwi o Taranaki collective, who represent the eight tribes related to Taranaki. This lengthy process was underway while House was undergoing extensive consultation with iwi representatives for the film.

“It was because I was connected and related to Taranaki that we were able to [make the film]. But we did also have to ask permission of all eight tribes as well. We like to talk things through thoroughly as people and as a community. So, it took a long time,” she says.

“It was probably quite annoying that we were going ‘Can we make this little film?’, in comparison to what they were fighting for,” she laughs.

Another unconventional opening credit might stand out to viewers. Rather than “co-written, co-produced and directed by”, House’s name appears under the words “a film made by heaps of people including Rachel House”.

“When I read a film ‘by’ one person, I’m like, ‘How’d you make the film then?’ Heaps of people had to join in. It’s imperative, of course, that one person steers the ship, but we’d be nothing without all of those incredible heads,” she says.

“I’ve gotten a bit of flack for it — that it feels like I’m being too modest. But I would argue that all films are made collaboratively, and I think it’s just respectful to be inclusive of that.”

Two men - one in a Police uniform - wander through a forest.

The trio’s parents trail behind them throughout the film, played by Kiwi actors Byron Coll, Troy Kingi and Fern Sutherland (not pictured).(Supplied: Madman Entertainment)

As for the future, House is eager to continue directing alongside acting, with roles in global blockbusters, like Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire or Moana, hopefully offering stability to return home.

“Last year, I got to go and make some quick money here and there doing acting stuff, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived financially,” she says.

“You make better money outside of Aotearoa, or international productions within Aotearoa. It’s the pay-off system.”

But she is certain that she wants to direct more things in Aotearoa.

“I want to keep telling our stories, but I also want to keep telling diverse stories. I don’t want it just to be one thing. I like inclusivity.”

The Mountain is in cinemas now.

Posted Yesterday at 12:18amThu 27 Jun 2024 at 12:18am, updated 23 hours agoThu 27 Jun 2024 at 12:30am


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