Rachel House Wants To Explore The “Buoyancy Of Grief” In Her Directorial Debut, The Mountain

Rachel House has been a cornerstone of the film industry for years. The acclaimed New Zealand actor and writer has been floating around our screens for a while: Moana, Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, Our Flag Means Death, and Heartbreak High are just a few of her acting accolades. Now, she'll be adding director to her belt of accomplishments, with her directorial debut feature film The Mountain finally hitting cinemas on June 27.
It's a big moment for House, who has been receiving scripts for 10 years with requests she enter the directorial game. But it was The Mountain that captured her attention. It's a heartwarming story about three children, including Sam, a young girl with cancer who's been raised outside of her Māori culture; Mallory, who is hoping to find any kind of friends; and Bronco, a self-proclaimed runaway with a deep connection to his Māori culture. Together, they endeavour to journey to Taranaki Maunga — a mountain that Sam hopes will heal her cancer.
A celebration of Māori culture and Aotearoa (the Māori-language name for New Zealand), you wouldn't be amiss in thinking that the story was made for Rachel House. But in fact, the story's celebration of culture really came about once House had signed onto the project. Explaining that initially, the story was a blank slate with no specific culture, House saw the opportunity to cultivate a film that was a distinct celebration of Māori culture. Specifically, the film centres largely around Mount Taranaki — celebrating the importance of mountains in Māori culture. "I thought, wow, what a great opportunity to write an inclusive story about the importance of our mountains and also our culture and knowledge," House tells Refinery29 Australia.
While the story, written by Tom Furniss, was intentionally culturally ambiguous, the process of naming the mountain that the children would be journeying to was a crucial part of the film for House. "I thought this would be a really great conversation around the naming of our mountains and also how we perceive our mountains," House says. "In order to be inclusive and share that, I rewrote pretty much entirely [the character of] Bronco. I ensured that the story wasn't so much about three kids conquering a mountain, but connecting with a mountain."
For House, the keyword here is connection. The characters of Sam and Bronco represent a spectrum when it comes to their connection with Māori culture — something that was a very intentional move by House, who connected with it on a personal level. "There's a lot of people who haven't been raised in their culture, who aren't fortunate to be raised in their culture," she explains. "I wanted to share with other people how that can feel sometimes. That's depth of yearning."
"It's quite personal," House adds. "I was raised around a lot of my culture but I wasn't raised in it. I wasn't raised with those values and all that knowledge. There are a lot of people like me all over the world who long for it. I thought in terms of the character, it just made sense to me that if someone is trying to connect with their mountain, it's someone who hasn't been able to."
Film is inherently healing. But for House, the process of directing The Mountain was even moreso. "Often Māori, we have a lot of different tribes that we connect to — and Taranaki was one of iwi (tribes) that I hadn't connected to as much, so that was a wonderful journey," she says.
House explains that often, Māori people connect more to one iwi than they do others, which can be influenced by circumstance, where you're raised, or what side of the family you're closest to. For the director, the film also acted as a lesson in her own culture. "I'd been going back and forth to Taranaki as a child for so many years, and I was in awe of Taranki. So when I found out that I had that strong connection there, it all just kind of clicked into place," she says. "I feel very grateful that I've gotten to know more about my Taranaki tanga — the teachings of Taranaki culture."

"It was life imitating art, which was why I didn't want this story to be engulfed by grief. I wanted to explore the nuances of grief, because there is buoyancy in grief."

Rachel House
Being a story about a child battling cancer, grief is soaked in the film — albeit in an uplifting light. For House, this depiction of grief was deeply personal and came at the same time she sadly lost her mother, Sheila House, at the end of 2022 while the film was in pre-production.
House describes the film as a 'meditation on grief'. "I understand that sentiment of allowing grief to just be — to not fight it or let it overtake you, but just to allow it in," she says. "It's definitely something I thought about as I was reworking the script."
"We can succumb to grief sometimes," she continues. "When my mum passed away, I remember thinking, how am I going to carry on? How am I going to carry on being a director and working with a team and getting this done?"
While the film addresses death in many different ways, ultimately, it's still a story of celebration and triumph. For House, this was incredibly important to her own grieving process. "It was life imitating art... which was why I didn't want this story to be engulfed by grief," she explains. "I wanted to explore the nuances of grief... because there is buoyancy in grief."
"You're filled with love and that feeling of love," House says. "There is beautiful buoyancy to feeling love when you've lost someone that you love."
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