Turning Your Directing Dream Into a Reality When You Love Being a Supporting Actor: Rachel House Talks 'The Mountain'

One of New Zealand's hardest-working talents is happy letting someone else lead the show on-screen — but now she's calling the shots on her first movie behind the lens.
Sarah Ward
Published on July 08, 2024

"The thing about acting is that you're not on every day. It's not go, go, go. You get a lot of time off, especially because my very favourite thing to do is to play supporting roles. So I'm not in there every single day. I get a lot of downtime." If you've ever wondered how Rachel House manages to pop up in nearly every film and TV show out of New Zealand, and sometimes from Australia as well, that's her secret: she's spent more than a quarter of a century on-screen, including 22 years since Whale Rider marked her first movie credit, and she loves her supporting niche.

House's resume as a performer has been exploding since the 2010s, but the 18 months since the beginning of 2023 have been particularly busy. Audiences have seen the Auckland-born talent in Creamerie, Bay of Fires, Foundation, Our Flag Means Death and Heartbreak High on TV and streaming. They've heard her voice echoing from Koala Man, What If…?, Pinecone & Pony and 100% Wolf: Book of Hath, too. The cinema side of her acting resume also hasn't been neglected thanks to The Portable Door, Next Goal Wins, The Moon Is Upside Down and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. But it's The Mountain, her debut feature as a director, that defines the past couple of years for House. 

"It felt like a really big year last year because it was all about The Mountain, to be honest," House also tells Concrete Playground. "When all these things come out and you go 'oh, wow, did Rachel have a break?' — yes, I had many breaks. But last year I didn't. Last year was all about The Mountain. The pre-pre-production was the year before, going all the way through Christmas. And then pre-production and then production, and then post-production. It just went on and on and on, and it was good, hard, solid work. And somewhere in there I got to do a few weeks here and there doing some acting."

Although The Mountain is House's initial stint behind the lens of a full-length movie, she has helming 2010 short The Winter Boy to draw on, alongside a wealth of experience on film sets. The latter has spanned not only notching up more and more supporting parts, but also working as an acting coach on projects by compatriots Jane Campion and Taika Waititi. For the first of the two Oscar-winners, she loaned her skills beyond the camera to the second season of Top of the Lake and The Power of the Dog. For the second, she built upon her appearances in Waititi's Eagle vs Shark, Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok and Next Goal Wins.

Combine decades carving out a screen career as an actor — something that House was actually told she'd never have, she explains — with helping guide performances out of other thespians, including kids, and the scene was always going to be set for an impressive first run as a feature director. With Taranaki Maunga on Aotearoa's North Island as its namesake, The Mountain tells of three children on a journey. In hospital undergoing treatment for cancer, Sam (newcomer Elizabeth Atkinson) hasn't grown up with her Māori heritage, but feels connected to it through the landmass that she's determined to climb: her mountain. Conversely, with ample time on his hands thanks to his busy dad, Bronco (fellow first-timer Terrence Daniel) considers himself a guardian of his culture. Mallory (Reuben Francis, another debutant) is the new kid initially tagging along, but appreciating more than just the chance to make friends along the way.

Following its date with NZ's big screens in March, The Mountain enjoyed its Australian premiere during 2024's Sydney Film Festival, then hit Aussie cinemas in general release at the end of June. When House was showing her film to Sydney's audiences — "we got a really big crowd, and not only a big crowd, but a really receptive crowd who all really wanted to be there. So we were very, very grateful, and it was a lovely feeling in in the theatre," she shares — we spoke with her about it. Always wanting to direct a movie, what appealed about Tom Furniss' (7 Days) original script and how she reworked it, making the kind of picture out of New Zealand that she's always wanted to see, scaling mountains in multiple ways, giving Taranaki Maunga credit as a character and producer, learning from her past directors: House chatted us through all of the above and more.


On Directing a Movie Always Being the Dream Back When House First Started Acting

"Yes, yes — but I think it's interesting getting older. You do want to really pursue your dreams, and you want challenge yourself and all this. But, I suppose I feel — it's not less ambitious, but if I didn't direct a feature film, I would have been okay about it.

I love storytelling, but I think it's because I'm in the the storytelling industry, and so I just feel very grateful to continue to tell stories in whatever way that means. 

I made a short film ages ago and it was a script given to me, and it was a really great lesson — because although I really loved the script and loved making the short film, it wasn't my a story that I was really connected to. And I think that was the lesson.

So I've actually been sent scripts for maybe over ten years now to consider to direct, feature film scripts, and nothing appealed to me, nothing resonated to me in the same way that this this film did."


On House's Initial Response to The Mountain's Original Script

"Three young kids on a mission, and the possibility of the magic of that. I keep saying it but this was a real gift, actually, because the mountain, Tom [Furniss, the original screenwriter] hadn't named the mountain for whatever reason. I think his reasoning was he understands the process of filmmaking and didn't want anyone to feel locked into a location. 

But for me to read it, it was like 'but where are we? Where is the mountain?'. You name your mountain — you name the mountain because the mountain is going to be part of that story. It's really important. 

So it was a wonderful gift. And I got to talk about our Māori worldview because of being able to rework it."


On the Starting Point When House Started Tinkering with the Story

"To share with our country, in particular, the strength and beauty of our Indigenous knowledge. That was my intention. 

And to have a conversation with our country about how we see our mountains and how they shape and form us, and how they should be revered and protected."


On Making the Kind of Movie That House Has Always Wanted to See Come Out of New Zealand

"100%. And I think, as well, I'd love to inspire an Indigenous conversation all over the world. 

Mountains here in this country [Australia] all are all named and they all have beautiful, resonant, incredible stories. So let's start that conversation, let's share that Indigenous knowledge, because it's everywhere."


On the Film Taking Audiences on a Journey of Finding Identity and Belonging — and Healing — in a Number of Ways

"In Tom's original script, it was about three little boys and they wanted to conquer a mountain. I think that's something that seems to be so important universally, conquering — and it's gotten us all in a lot of trouble, conquering.

So I wanted to really share with everybody the possibility of wanting to connect rather than conquer. It was all tied up in Sam not being raised in her culture but understanding that she was from that culture and, in the best way that she knew possible — which is Google, looking information up — she had this very, very strong belief that, even though she didn't have any evidence, that this mountain was one she belonged to.

I wanted to show Bronco being from the absolute polar opposite, someone who was completely strong in in the world of Māori and really understood Sam's plight.  Then I wanted to really embrace Mallory, who not only didn't understand it, but didn't believe it.

I just wanted to somehow make that conversation between these three beautiful kids, and share it."


On Climbing Not Only Literal But Internal Mountains in the Movie's Narrative

"I was talking to somebody the other day and she described it as 'three kids who run away for different reasons but are all brought together by the power of Taranaki Maunga'. They've all got pretty clear mountainous arcs, so that was a definite intention.

I suppose what I love — and maybe I would love it, I would say this — but I do love that it's Mallory who understands what's going on, that the mountain is saying 'go away. This is not good for you. This is too dangerous. I'm going to cover you in cloud. You've remembered the story of the two friends who stopped Taranaki from going into the sea and having an unhappy end.' 

So I love that it's Mallory who understands that it's the mountain communicating with them, and he's the one who says 'stop, we've got to stop'."


On Crediting Taranaki Maunga as a Character and a Producer to Pay Tribute to Its Importance

"Me and the producers and the team, we're quite a diverse bunch, the ones who make the decisions — and it just wasn't even a doubt. I don't think anyone thought that we wouldn't credit the mountain in the way that we've created the mountain.

We also have made the mountain one of the producers as well, so if this film does well and we miraculously make some money, some of that money will go to the mountain, and the wellbeing and upkeep of our mountain. Otherwise, why would we make this film if we didn't believe it? 

But I will say that I'm so proud of our team, who, as I say, are very diverse — and it just wasn't even much of a conversation, it was just a decision that was made very easily."


Lisa Tomasetti, Netflix

On What House Makes of Her Career So Far Both On-Screen and Behind the Camera

"I will say that back in the day, I'm really glad I didn't listen to some of the people who told me I couldn't do stuff, that I wouldn't be on screen. When I was at drama school, I was told I probably wouldn't do any screen work because of the way I looked. I was told by a director that directing was probably a bit beyond me.

There is a kind of tall-poppy thing that we have, I think particularly with women. There is a fear of women taking up space and shining.  I am of that generation that had all those beliefs — or disbeliefs, I suppose, is a better way of describing it.

So I feel like my age group and up — women, I'm just talking about — I feel like we're late bloomers because of the conditioning that we had when we were younger, particularly in our country. So I suppose it's taking me a long time to enjoy it and not feel so overwhelmed by gratitude, that it puts me in a sort of constant thank you, scarcity sort of vibe. 

I guess I feel good about it, but I don't feel up myself about it. I just feel grateful and empowered that I didn't listen to any of those voices."


On How Working with Other Filmmakers Across House's Career, Including as an Acting Coach, Helped Prepare Her for Directing Her First Feature

"I've told the story a couple of times now, but I think it's a really fantastic story for anyone who's going to be working with kids, and in fact adults, all actors. Something that I learned working on Whale Rider — there's an iconic moment in Whale Rider where Keisha Castle-Hughes gets up on stage and and does this extraordinary speech to Koro, her granddad. And I was in that scene, I got to sit there in the audience and watch her over and over — and watching Niki [Caro, Whale Rider's director] and the way that Niki was going through exactly what Keisha was going through.

I don't think Keisha ever felt alone. I feel like as a director, you've got to go through it with your actors emotionally. It's something that I definitely witnessed between those two. I'd see them in-between and they'd be talking, they'd be really close and talking to each other, and Niki would be crying and Keisha would be crying — and it was extraordinary to watch. And you could see that Keisha didn't feel alone.

And I've seen that with Jane [Campion], with adult actors as well, actually. I just feel like she goes through it with her actors. So that was an extraordinary learning.

With Taika [Waititi], he really creates a lot of fun on set, and that's incredibly important, too. I mean, you can have fun and when you need to have focus, you have focus. I feel like that's how we went about things as we were shooting The Mountain.

Although, I do have to say, we were in such incredible and sometimes difficult terrain on the daily — and because we're an independent New Zealand film, we were on the move, man. So we had to go into these incredible places that took quite a lot to get there, and  then we had to get out in three hours.

But it was a wonderful family dynamic that we had. And that's something that I've learned throughout my whole career: the importance of family in regards to the people that you're working with."


The Mountain opened in Australian cinemas on Thursday, June 27, 2024 and in New Zealand cinemas on Thursday, March 28, 2024.

Published on July 08, 2024 by Sarah Ward
Tap and select Add to Home Screen to access Concrete Playground easily next time. x