Rachel House and the three tamariki stars of her directorial debut "The Mountain".
Rachel House with the three Tamariki stars of her directorial debut “The Mountain”. Behind them is the film’s real star, Taranaki Mounga. (Photos: Supplied. Additional design: The Spinoff)

Pop CultureMarch 27, 2024

Rachel House on first-time directing and the power of mounga

Rachel House and the three tamariki stars of her directorial debut "The Mountain".
Rachel House with the three Tamariki stars of her directorial debut “The Mountain”. Behind them is the film’s real star, Taranaki Mounga. (Photos: Supplied. Additional design: The Spinoff)

After starring in iconic New Zealand films for decades, Rachel House steps behind the camera for the magic-infused The Mountain.

This story uses the Taranaki mita when spelling maunga, which local hapū and iwi spell as mounga.

Picture this: you’re doing some high-altitude camping on Taranaki’s Pouakai ranges, waking up just in time to crawl out of your cosy sleeping bag, unzip your tent and stand out in the crisp morning air to bask in the soothing sunrise. As te rā rises in the east over the world’s largest ocean, golden streams of light start illuminating Te Pouakai and its imposing neighbour, Taranaki Mounga. When the sun is perched high enough in the heavens to bathe Aotearoa in daytime, you notice something beautiful – a wavy blanket of clouds cloaks everything beneath your mountain-top perch, making it seem as if the mounga is floating like a waka does on te moana nui a Kiwa

For Rachel House and the cast and crew of her film, aptly titled The Mountain, such a view was just part of the job. Although House became a household name acting in movies like Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Moana and Whale Rider, The Mountain is her feature film directorial debut. “I’ve had offers before to direct fabulous scripts, but they didn’t resonate with me enough for me to want to stop being an actor,” she says, speaking from a New Plymouth hotel before the film’s Taranaki premiere. 

House sits on her director's seat on-set.
House sits on her director’s seat on-set. (Photo: Supplied)

The Mountain is a heartfelt, hilarious drama about three tamariki finding friendship and healing under the watchful gaze of Taranaki Mounga. “When I first watched it, I started cracking up and crying as well – it’s very beautiful,” says actor Elizabeth Atkinson, a Kirikiriroa raised Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Tama and Te Atiawa uri, who’s joined House for the Zoom interview. While Atkinson admits that “everything is based around Taranaki, and Taranaki is kind of the star in this movie,” she plays the lead human role – 11-year-old Sam who was raised outside of te ao Māori but reconnects with her mounga to heal her cancer. 

Sam is largely naive to te ao Māori at the start of the film, getting much of her information about her culture from Google, a source renowned for indigenous misinformation. But as she reconnects with her culture while trekking up Taranaki Mounga, Sam’s hauora reaps the benefits. “I really loved how (The Mountain) is all about te ao Maori and tikanga and finding who we are,” says Atkinson. 

During her journey, Sam meets two tama who help her healing haerenga. Mallory, played by Taranaki local Reuben Francis – who was stoked to work with “Rachel House from one of my favourite movies, Hunt for the Wilderpeople!” – is a Pākehā boy looking for connection and friendship. The other lead, Bronco, is played by Terence Daniel from Tauranga-Moana who has whakapapa to Ngāti Kahungunu ki te Wairoa, Raukawa ki Wharepūhunga and Kuki Airani. Bronco provides a natural counter to Mallory and Sam’s Pākehā upbringings since he is steeped in mātauranga and considers himself a guardian of Papatūānuku. As Atkinson outlined: “I love how Bronco’s character is a very beautiful Māori boy who loves tikanga and is staunch in his culture.”

The stars on-set.
Left to right: Daniel, Francis and Atkinson. (Photo: supplied)

House is no stranger to film sets, working as an actor for decades alongside some of Aotearoa’s biggest directors, namely Taika Waititi and Niki Caro. However, House’s own set was different since it had a whānau vibe. As Atkinson explains, “There were so many people who are now family to me.” 

“Everyone is very close now, and I’m glad they are. I haven’t seen everyone in a while, though, so I’m super excited to see them all again (at the premiere),” she adds. Each of the Tamariki stars are getting their own premiere in their home-rohe of Kirikiriroa (Atkinson), Taranaki (Francis) and Tauranga-Moana (Daniel). Hundreds will attend Atkinson’s – who mentioned, “You don’t notice how many friends and family you have until you bring them all together, eh?”. 

Atkinson on-set.
Atkinson as Sam in The Mountain. (Photo: supplied)

The three tamariki protagonists of The Mountain are all battling unique inner demons that motivate them to trek up Taranaki Mounga. “My character is, as a lot of people are, trying to find their identity – and she is finding healing,” the now 12-year-old Atkinson says. Bronco, on the other hand, claims to have run away from his father, who is too busy to notice him. When it comes to Mallory, his search for friendship is spurred on by his loneliness after his mother’s death. Together, these three troubled tamariki adventure off the beaten track and up Taranaki Mounga, along the way discovering how the magic of friendship can help them summit their internal mountains. 

The tale is told from the tamariki perspective because kids still believe in magic, says House. She says that it was vital that the actors were 11 years old “just before they were about to kind of move into being rangatahi while they still have their ability to believe in magic, for want of a better word.” After all, attempting to heal one’s cancer prognosis by summiting a mountain is a spiritual, and some would say magical, remedy. 

Alongside mounga magic, House says that the film highlights the power of friendship and how we can learn from our mates. That theme comes from the original script, written by Tom Furniss, which House adapted for the film. Furniss’ script followed three Pākehā boys, one with cancer like Sam, summiting a mountain. “When I first read Tom’s work,” notes House, “I really understood how it could actually be enhanced by infusing our culture. It felt like such a fluid kind of transition.” She took Furniss’ script and imbued it with Māori characters and stories – including “that identity crisis, which seems to be something that a lot of us (Māori) have. Not all of us are fortunate to be raised in Te Ao Māori.”

Taranaki Mounga looking very moody.
A very moody shot of Taranaki Mounga from The Mountain. (Photo: Supplied)

Filming The Mountain was done over four weeks in Taranaki, and across the wider process, House and key crew were in situ for several months. “There’s a feeling here that you just can’t match,” says the director. Taranaki is the film’s star – so much so that it is acknowledged in The Mountain’s credits. “If we weren’t giving Taranaki proper credit as an actor and also as a producer,” House explained, “then we’re not really standing by what we’re trying to say in the film – which is that we’re all connected to our mounga. We all find our strength from (our) mounga.” 

Taranaki uri acknowledging their mounga as a person is nothing new, as the area’s haukainga have always considered their mountain a living ancestor – an idea that the Crown recently got on board with. Last year, Taranaki Mounga, plus its neighbouring peaks like the Pouakai ranges, gained the privileges and rights of a New Zealand citizen by being bestowed legal personhood. As Ngāti Ruanui, Ngā Rauru, Ngāruahine uri Airanga Ngarewa explained, “The mountains would be given legal person status under the name Te Kāhui Tupua, and Te Kāhui Tupua would be given ownership over itself. Te Tōpuni Kōkōrangi, a group appointed 50:50 by iwi and the Crown, will develop park management plans and DOC will retain day-to-day management.”

Many of the movie’s cast and crew either live in the shadows of Te Kāhui Tupua or descend from these living tūpuna. Taranaki locals include the likes of Francis (Mallory), and those who whakapapa to the area include Atkinson (in real life and in the film) and House. The Mountain’s director and lead actor are coincidentally members of the same Taranaki tribes, Ngāti Mutunga and Te Atiawa. “When Elizabeth came into the audition, we didn’t know that. It wasn’t until the end of the audition – and in my head, she’d already got the role – that we discovered that we were from the same iwi,” remembers House. “So it was pretty special. And this film has been kind of full of those moments.” 

On her Taranaki connection, Atkinson admits, “I’d never actually been to Taranaki, so this was the first time I came here, and I saw my mounga, I went to my marae, and got to know a little bit more about where I’m from. It was very cool how my character, Sam, her whakapapa is from Taranaki as well. So I can relate to Sam, what Sam is like, where Sam comes from.” While she is unlike her character in that Atkinson always knew her whakapapa – because her nan ensured “everyone in the whānau knows who they are and where they’re from” – she still experienced beautiful moments of reconnection because of The Mountain. House recalls a specific moment: “One of the most emotional experiences we had was when some of the rangatira from Te Atiawa came one day and they really claimed you (Atkinson). They really made a point of how proud they were of you in this film. So it was really beautiful.”

Atkinson, in her nan’s beautiful korowai, and her co-stars stand in front of a haka from their fellow tamariki. (Photo: Supplied)

Atkinson and House’s Taranaki tribes being proud of The Mountain was on full display during the film’s New Plymouth premiere on Tuesday, March 19. The director explains that rangatira from Ngāti Mutunga proudly led key cast and crew “through the theatre and onto the stage.” At the premiere, Atkinson proudly wore her nan’s korowai, which includes a special pink pigment from a flower endemic only to Taranaki. 

Despite its three lead roles being only 11 at the time of filming, House says The Mountain isn’t just a kids’ movie. “Me and my friends who are my age, we love those sorts of films because it reminds us how we used to see the world and I think that’s really important.” As for the stars themselves – when asked how she found time to star in a film at the age of only 11, Atkinson only needed one word to answer: “skills.” 

The Mountain will be shown in cinemas nationwide from Thursday, March 28. 

This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.

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