See Jamie Lee Curtis’ Madame Leota have a ball in ‘Haunted Mansion’

See Jamie Lee Curtis’ Madame Leota have a ball in ‘Haunted Mansion’

Jamie Lee Curtis has a ball as Madame Leota in Haunted Mansion first-look photo

Director Justin Simien exclusively previews the meticulous process of translating the Disneyland ride into a movie, from the stretching room to Jared Leto’s “terrifying” Hatbox Ghost.

Joey Nolfi

By Joey Nolfi May 10, 2023 at 01:00 PM EDT

Haunted Mansion | Official Teaser Trailer

Haunted Mansion (2023 movie)

With source material boasting 999 happy haunts to choose from, Haunted Mansion helmer Justin Simien knew he had to be selective about which of the grim grinning ghosts he wanted to check in for his movie adaptation of the beloved Disney theme park attraction. One of the best ways he ultimately balanced the ride’s extensive lore with a fresh take on a classic property, he discovered, was by putting Jamie Lee Curtis inside a crystal ball.

The Dear White People creator calls the Oscar-winning actress’ take on the beloved medium Madame Leota — a fan-favorite character who appears during the ride’s iconic séance scene — “a little subversive” and “a little funny” in its translation from park to screen. Though, it also packs “the gravitas you’d expect” from the legendary conduit between the realm of the living and the spirit world beyond.

“She starts off as one of the relics, one of the items, one of the aspects of the house that has to be discovered, but becomes a functional character and a useful ally in the film,” Simien explains of Leota. In the film, the medium assists a single mother (Rosario Dawson) and her young son in ridding their New Orleans home of infesting spirits.


Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota in ‘Haunted Mansion.’

| Credit: Disney

The visual cues Simien employs to introduce the audience to his version of Leota might ring a bell of nostalgia, but the story built around her is “entirely new,” the filmmaker stresses. Its foundation is rooted firmly in Haunted Mansion history, with the house becoming a vital character in itself.

“When I got the job, the first thing we did was we extensively toured [the ride],” says Simien, a former Disneyland employee and Disney World choir singer. The original attraction opened at the California resort in 1969 before becoming a global hit via the launch of four other incarnations (some with more aesthetic similarities to the OG house than others). The Disneyland team granted him access to both the ride’s physical set pieces as well as its backstory “bible,” which explains the full canon of the final ride Walt Disney oversaw designing before his death in 1966.

From there, Simien pulled both aesthetic and narrative inspiration, ranging from “extremely direct influence” (e.g. copies of the ride’s chairs, doorknobs, and paintings) to fan-favorite characters, rooms, and even noises. (The “Grim Grinning Ghosts” song is interpolated throughout the movie, he promises.) This, by the way, was all done with practical effects wherever possible.

“You really do meet the mansion the way you would as a guest at the park: through the eyes of a new cast exploring the lore along with you,” Simien explains. His team obsessed over replicating the awe park guests feel when approaching the antebellum exterior of Disneyland’s New Orleans-set ride for the first time, which served as inspiration for the movie’s massive central set.

“The script firmly plants it in the New Orleans mansion. That’s not to say there are not other mansions in the movie,” Simien teases. He also says that he used Eddie Murphy‘s 2003 Haunted Mansion family comedy — at first widely derided, but recently re-appraised by a new generation — as a reference point for how he could “go awry” in straying too far from what people love about the ride.

Haunted Mansion

Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride and Justin Simien’s ‘Haunted Mansion’ movie.

| Credit: Walter Leporati/Getty Images; Disney

“We got down to the point where we were obsessing over the angle you first see the mansion when you walk onto the ride in Disneyland, when we see it through the gates and we see the pillars. That angle has to hit. That’s how specific we were,” he says. “When you first glide through the dining hall and you see the waltzing dancers, that angle had to be right, because that’s the one where you gasp on the ride.”

Simien didn’t stop there. In addition to cobweb-laden organists, the “Ghost Host” Hatchet Man, and what he describes as Jared Leto‘s “menacing and terrifying” Hatbox Ghost, the director insisted that the film include as many Easter Eggs as possible. He even slightly reworked Katie Dippold’s initial script to include a scene based on the attraction’s entry point: a room that, through a blend of visual trickery and physical machination, appears to stretch while guests stand inside it.

The movie’s stretching room, which depicts all of the signature paintings seen on the walls of the Disneyland ride, serves as a “missing piece” of the story’s puzzle, as his characters unravel the layered intentions of the manor’s ghosts.

That balance of mystery, terror, and lighthearted fun, Simien suspects, is the magic potion to the ride’s appeal. He hopes the film speaks to the still-beating hearts of (not so foolish) mortals strapping in for his cinematic ride.

“You know there’s a trick being played on you, but you’re not sure how they did it. The Pepper’s Ghost effect [during the ride’s finale], it’s so old school, you know it’s not a screen, but it’s because it’s so old school that it feels like it’s really there,” Simien says of the feeling he hopes his Haunted Mansion movie captures. “There’s a practicality to the tricks on the ride that I felt was important. When I took the job I said, ‘I don’t want to make CGI soup. We have to build the house.’ Even if we’re not doing an effect practically, we have to make it look like we did, because there’s something about the grounded-ness of the ride that makes it what it is. It makes it charming.”

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