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Interview: Gil Kenan-Landlord of the "Monster House"

by Peter Sobczynski

The director of the delightful animated film "Monster House" talks about bringing the story of a house that eats people to the screen, working with motion-capture technology and making a family film that isn't just for little kids.

With his feature-film debut, the wonderful CGI-animation epic “Monster House,” Gil Kenan has launched himself as one of the new faces to keep an eye on in the world of fantasy filmmaking. Using the same elaborate motion-capture technology deployed by Robert Zemeckis on “The Polar Express” (Zemeckis serves as an executive-producer on this film along with Steven Spielberg), the film tells the story of a trio of ordinary kids (Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner and Spencer Locke) who gradually begin to realize that the creepy house across the street–the one owned by a creepy old man (Steve Buscemi) who confiscates any toy or ball that lands on his lawn–is actually a living, breathing creature ready to devour anyone foolish enough to ring its doorbell. Funny, fast-paced and genuinely creepy at certain points, “Monster House” is a throwback to the good old days of such films as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Poltergeist” and “Gremlins”–a time when family-oriented films were still allowed to maintain a certain intensity because they were made by filmmakers who knew that younger viewers could handle such material as long as it was presented in a fun and entertaining manner. As a result, “Monster House” is a blast from start to finish–not just the best family film of the summer but one of the best films of the year period.

What is it about the notion of a living, breathing house that compelled you enough to make an entire film about it?

I guess it has been haunting me for a while. Ever since I began making films in school, the idea of the place that we live in playing a role in our lives as an emotional character is something that has been itching at me and I have been trying to work it out in the movies. Even in the project I am starting on next, it is a key theme. I just really feel like it is an unexplored part of the human dynamic–that the relationship we have with our environment really shapes who we are. I know that every place that I have lived had something that I have taken with me and when I am living in a place, I always feel that the relationship that I have with it is one the stronger ones in my life. It is a very simple idea but it is one that chases me around. What was exciting about this film is that I was able to take that idea to the ultimate degree by making this house an actual living and breathing character. You give a face to a theme–you have a character here that is an environment–and I was able to, in a backwards way, work out an angle of a human relationship versus a homeowner/home relationship and unravel the story of the human players who created this relationship.

The tone of the film is very striking. While watching it, I kept flashing back to films from the early 1980's like “Gremlins,” “Poltergeist,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Joe Dante segment of “Twilight Zone”–films that were aimed at younger audiences but still had a certain intensity to them. This is something that has been largely lost in family films in the last few years, presumably in an effort to keep parents, toymakers and fast-food companies happy and protest-free.

Yeah. I don’t know what happened. I feel like this country has kind of chickened out in the last 15-20 years. I feel like the movies that I had growing up were totally kick-ass and didn’t hold back from a full experience–all of those movies that you mentioned and a ton more. People weren’t afraid of giving kids something they could relate to on the one hand but was a fantastical adventure that didn’t shrink back from the potential for danger. I don’t think you can have an adventure without a genuine sense of peril–it is something that is integrally tied into the journey. For me, it was just being able to give back the things that I had always loved in movies growing up.

There was this thing that happened where a bunch of animated films started coming out in the late 1980's that were really toothless–they were pleasant and had a bunch of songs in them–and they made a lot of money and reshaped the mold of what a family film was to Hollywood. All of a sudden, they became something that parents could play in the minivan for their kids while going on a trip or something. It is now a lot of pineapples coming to life and singing songs instead of telling a real story and for me, that just isn’t interesting. I’m interested in human stories and, animation or not, it is about telling a story that offers a full experience.

Did you face any resistance on the part of the studio in regards to the tone?

Well, it didn’t hurt that my two executive-producers basically defined what that tone was to an entire segment of the audience. Obviously, I had their full support in the making of the film. One of the key pieces of advice that they gave me at the start of this journey was to not hold back–to trust my instincts and make the movie scary. I knew that I needed their support to do that because I think there would have been some natural resistance to that but with them on board watching my back, I was able to make the movie the way it should have been made.

How involved were Spielberg and Zemeckis once the production started?

They were both filming while I was making this film. At the same time, they were like mentors to me and they gave me access to them whenever I had a cut of the film that I wanted to scream for them. Whenever there were key studio meetings, one or both of them would always be there. In that way, they really formed a creative cocoon around me and I could make the movie the way that it needed to get made.

I had all these really surreal experiences when I started out. I storyboarded the film before I shot it and made an animatic out of it that was the very first thing that I showed to the two of them in terms of what the movie would be like. I screened it at this theater at Amblin and when the lights came up, it was me and Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis sitting in a theater alone for an hour and a half talking about a movie that I had just put in front of them. It was crazy and I still can’t believe that I had access to them and that they gave me this chance.

How did you get in contact with them in the first place?

I can’t figure it out! I was going to UCLA film school and I made this really weird short film called “The Lark”–a 10-minute black-and-white film that explored this strange relationship between a husband and a wife. One of the things that I was dealing with was how the house where they lived was kind of a third party to their relationship–some of those themes were beginning to be scratched at even then. They saw this film and Zemeckis called me in and wanted to talk to me about “Monster House.” I went nuts–I couldn’t believe that I was actually getting a chance to talk to him, let alone vie for the role of the director of this film. We clicked and he liked what I had to say about the film. They gave me a chance and I never looked back because I knew that if I did, I would turn to salt or something. I do feel like every day on this thing was like I won a lottery ticket.

What was it about “Monster House” that particularly clicked for you and made you want to get the job?

First and foremost, one of the critical things about the story that really makes it tick is that it has a neat intersection between the horror of growing up and the horror of the house across the street. For me, who moved from country to country when I was growing up, one of the reasons that I’m so interested in the idea of places as character is because I was always struggling to plant some roots in a place and latch on to the environment. For instance, when I have nightmares these days, they always occur in my childhood home. That to me holds a lot of real emotional weight and it is something that I really react to.

When I first moved to the United States–my family was from Israel originally, I was born in London and moved to Tel Aviv and then to the U.S–we lived in this crappy apartment building in L.A. and there was an old man who lived there on the ground floor–he was vaguely the superintendent but I don’t know what else he did other than terrorize us. Any time we would be kids and try to have fun, he had a cane and he would smash it against the ceiling–that horrifying sound would just scare the crap out of us. Any time we would leave any toys around the pool, they would disappear into the abyss. Yet I don’t think that is a totally unique story. What makes this story tick is that it is a universal truth–if you don’t have that old guy, you have an old woman and if you don’t have her, you have the old house and this is just something that is part of a neighborhood. The tag line that was used for the first poster for the film was “Every neighborhood has a secret,” which I think is really an appropriate line. There are so many stories in our world that we don’t notice on our drive from home to school in the morning–Halloween is the one night a year where we do go up and knock on the doors of the same people that we don’t make eye contact with during the rest of the year.

What was your thinking behind the general look of the film?

The blanket philosophy that I had for the look of the film was that, because I was able to create an entire universe here and nothing was found, I was able to tap into the colors and textures and the feelings of growing up. For me, that really defined the palette–it was a palette of nostalgia and the colors were very evocative of the feeling of the innocence and potential for adventure that every kid has. That was a blanket start for the project and more specifically, I knew that in order for me to reconcile making a CG film, which for me has been an art form that has delivered some great stories but which hasn’t really captured my full visual imagination because I feel there is something mechanically off-putting about digitally-rendered image, I wanted to mess it up a little bit and create a tangibility to it that was a little more primitive and human. I wanted it to feel like there were human artists who worked on it instead of simply a render farm.

As soon as that idea presented itself, I had to find a way to model, texture and light a world that was tangible and where the textures felt like you could reach out and touch them. We weren’t trying to create a Pixar hair-rendering system. It really boggles my mind that how when those movies come out, the one story that emerges is how they were able to get 40 million hairs on this ant or something. I always get the feeling while I am watching those movies–even the ones that tell amazing stories like the Pixar films–that I am watching great hair simulation instead of a movie. For me, this was about creating a pure story environment instead of one that would simply break new rendering ground.

With all of the motion-capture technology deployed in the production of the film, what was it like to work with the actors as they were dealing with all of the hardware on them? After all, it can’t be very freeing for them to be bound up in all of that stuff.

There are two sides to that question. The first side is that it is scary at first because you are losing a lot of the things that actors use to create characters. Some people say that when they put their shoes on, they really start to feel like they begin to understand the character. Actors wears costumes and make-up and use props and sets to feed off of for their performances. By stripping all that stuff away, it made my job a little harder in the beginning because I had to create blinders around the actors because I didn’t want them to think about the technology. As soon as I was able to start effectively doing that, it was kind of like when you have bad eyesight and your hearing becomes stronger–when you strip away the artifice of creating a characterization, you get a more focused performance. It is much more like doing a scene study in a theater class–you don’t have a set or anything and you just become absorbed by the character. I found that within a couple of days, all of the actors were able to find that place and treat this more like a theatrical performance.

With Kathleen Turner, I think she is one of our great actors and I knew that the character that she would play in this story would have to be larger-than-life in every sense of the word. Obviously, she plays a house in this movie and one of the most difficult things for me in this movie was make the house more than just a roaring monster with wood and teeth–I wanted there to be a character and an emotional story to this house. It had to be an actor of her caliber who would not throw me out of the room when this idea came up and look at it as a challenge. I think it is a real testament to her abilities as an actor that she was able to get into it.

I found that it was the kids that had the easiest time imaging the world. With the grown-ups, I had to work a little harder to sell the illusion of the world that we were playing in. Kids are born storytellers and have these really fertile imaginations. The kids were a joy to work with and for me, it was about finding ways to bottle up their insanity. The process of casting the kids was almost as much matchmaking as casting because once I found a pool of really clever kids that I knew could act in this film, I wanted to find ones who had a charisma and energy that made real kid sense–not just movie sense. I wanted there to be something where when these kids were together, they were able to be weird and awkward and that is what I got from them.

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originally posted: 07/24/06 08:18:12
last updated: 09/05/06 20:22:42
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