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Gil Kenan Makes a Monstrous House

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Gil Kenan



by Brad Balfour

What a break for first-time feature animation film director Gil Kenan. After Executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis saw his live-action/animated horror-fantasy short, The Lark he was awarded the directing seat for Monster House – and now is nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar.

The story goes something like this: three kids DJ (Mitchel Musso), Chowder (Sam Lerner), and Jenny (Spencer Locke) discover that the house across the street from DJ’s is alive and it eats anything that goes on its property. They try to convince the babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the police, and some weirdo named Skull (Jon Heder) but must unravel the mystery of the house themselves. Once inside the house (voiced by Kathleen Turner) rears its ugly manifestation and they all run for it to a happily resolved conclusion.

Following Monster House, Kenan is now developing The City of Ember, adapted from the Jeanne DuPrau book.

Did you always have an interest in fantasy?

This film is kind of a documentary of my life. I grew up moving from city to city, so the idea of home and place is important to me. I became aware at a really young age that the places we live play an important role in who we are as people. That’s been percolating in my head for a while, which led into some of the things that are explored in Monster House.

Beyond that, I’ve just been a huge fan of film since my eyes opened. There are millions of key experiences that shaped who I am; all defined by movies – ironically, many of them created by my producers. The person I am is an amalgam of where I’ve lived and the movies I’ve seen.

Monster House

Did that have an effect…?

…And I hate my dad. No, no, no, [laughs]. We moved to three different continents by the time I was eight.

The film is pretty scary. Isn’t it too intense for kids? Who is your target audience?

Family movies don’t need to be pacifiers. We’ve dumbed down what we feed to kids in terms of entertainment these days. There used to be a healthy tradition of kids’ films offering a full range of experiences, from scary to funny to emotional. You can go back to Snow White and it’s got some real terror, but it’s also got the rest which creates a fully rounded story.

I remember Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which starts off lightly and pleasantly as a romp and then takes this sharp turn into the perverse. It always really captured me on that turn. I always felt that experience made watching the movie more satisfying. I’m proud this movie doesn’t talk down to kids, but appreciates them for who they are, which is a really brave, smart audience that can handle a lot more than we give them.

The answer to the other side of that question was answered for me with the last few screenings I had been to with family audiences before the film opened. In Pleasantville the theater was filled with three-to-ten-year-olds. It was wall-to-wall kids and every single one – their eyes were open the entire time, but they were scared. A four-year-old girl had her hand over her face most of the movie, but as soon as it was over, her mom asked her, and she said, “I loved it!” She came up to me and thanked me for it. I feel like being scared is not a bad thing; it’s part of being entertained. I have every confidence that this movie plays to a family audience.

Why did you or the studio have a Halloween film come out during the summer?

Kids are in school at Halloween. Once inside the house and leading up to the third act, it’s very much a summer film so it shouldn’t have to be squeezed into a one-weekend Halloween release. There is a tradition of films based on a holiday not coming out around the holiday, but ET was a June release.

Monster House

Were you worried that you’d get crucified for making fun of fatties?

I think she’s a tragic character more than a villainous character. You see in the role of Chowder that fat’s heroic in equal measure. Speaking as a former fat kid myself, and for a few years, as a fat adult, I can say with some certainty none of it is against the weight, it’s more a character trait of who Constance is.

There’s no motion-capture for the house?

I had Kathleen Turner on set performing for every instance she and Neb were interacting. She would be there to perform with him. In every way she is the soul, the spirit of the house, the embodiment of it. I thought it was necessary to have a real performance to capture that.

Kathleen Turner is one of the most giving, generous actors I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I asked her about building the neighborhood out of foam and motion-capturing her going through the house’s rampage. She agreed and we built the entire city in foam and that’s going to be an awesome DVD extra. It’s pretty amazing to watch. Although the ultimate performance of the house is mostly animated, her kind of inspiration is there in every nuance.

How did you pick the other actors?

At the first meeting, Robert Zemeckis had a list of names. I was naïve – but it did end up working that way. I told Zemeckis no one except Steve Buscemi could be Neb.

Monster House

It’s uncanny how individual traits come through even though someone is animated. You couldn’t miss Jon Heder.

It’s fascinating what it takes to distill a performance – to communicate who they are. It’s almost like cutting off an arm and it living on beyond its connection to the body. Even without the facial information, just take an actor’s movement, the way they stand and listen, so much of that humanity is transferred. That’s what fascinated me about using motion capture to extract these performances. I was able to learn what a human performance was made up of, mathematically, which was fascinating.

That’s an amazing shot when ambulance pulls away.

I shot that scene as if I were shooting a live-action film, with some allowance for reduced laws of gravity. I knew I could do some things that would be impossible in the real world. It’s very important when you’re shooting a film virtually to respect all the laws of narrative filmmaking. I think that’s been a weakness in CG films. Generally, the camera is allowed to do these flights of fancy that have no bearing to gravity, the camera has no weight. When the camera doesn’t have weight, it chips away at the emotional weight of the shot.

I had a hat of reality on, but I’m glad you like that shot because that’s one of those times when I kind of peeled away the fabric of reality a little bit and that’s something that wouldn’t have been possible in live action.

Part of the way I assembled my crew was picking people who hadn’t done CG work before. [I picked] DP Xavier Pérez Grobet because he shot Before Night Falls, one of most beautifully shot films in the last 15 years, because it’s real emotional filmmaking, not technical. I knew the technical side would be in place because of the machine it takes to make a film like this. Every place I could chip away at the CG ness of what I was doing I would take advantage of that.

Monster House

But you’re shooting them on a motion-capture stage.

The process here is slightly dissected. The mo-cap shoot is purely about performance. His job on the mo-cap stage was strictly to capture performances – to have coverage on actors without any sense of my camera placement in the cinema phase of this film.

Once all the shooting was done, we moved into our post production offices where Xavier and I and four camera operators at computer terminals had a virtual reproduction of every set and every actor’s performance I selected from the shoot. We began to place virtual cameras in those sets, so all the cinema happened after the actors had gone home.

What do you think sold these producers on you? Your career had been up to that time…

Non-existent? My film got me into that meeting, but I knew going into that room it was my one shot, one chance to sell them. I was the right man to make this movie. Partly that was done in spite of myself. When I read the script, I started going into convulsions. I was kind of panicked by the amount of imagery and ideas it forced into my head, so I stayed up and drew a bunch of pictures I brought with me and ideas I jotted down. In the meeting it was more me, more spilling forth all the things that had attacked me.

Monster House

Are you always thinking about making films?

I always watched films – I never had video camera. I expressed myself through drawing, storybooks, wrote stories. I ended up in theater in high school. I thought I was going to be a theater director. Then the Northridge earthquake happened the night before my first directed play in my senior year, and the auditorium was eaten up by the earth. That was the end of my theater career and I went into film.

What are your plans for The City of Ember?

[To explore] the further idea of relationship between humans and their environs, but instead of a house it’s a city. It’s based on a novel about the last city with light on it after all lights have gone off in world.

What insights will you carry from Monster House to The City of Ember?

I’m still working it out in the movie. We’ll have to ask that in a couple of movies. Obviously, a sense of place is really important to me. There really is such a strong bond with every house that I’ve lived in. When I have dreams at night, they usually take place in my childhood home in a Nightmare on Elm St. kind of way. There’s just something I’m figuring out.

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: February 21, 2007.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2006. Courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.#2 © 2006. Courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.#3 © 2006. Courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.#4 © 2006. Courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.#5 © 2006. Courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.#6 © 2006. Courtesy of Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.


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