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A confident mum and a communicative father helped make Gil Kenan a natural filmmaker, plucked out of obscurity by two cinematic giants, Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, to direct his debut feature, Monster House. It’s almost like an urban legend, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

Gil Kenan’s shock of black hair and black eyebrows frame a face that lights up with confident friendliness as he walks into my interview studio (aka a blank hotel room adjacent to Sydney’s Naval depot) and extends a hand for me to shake. “Hi, good to meet you,” he says like any average all-American boy who’s just been flown half way around the world to meet the press, on the eve of the Australian release of his feature debut, Monster House.

He doesn’t come from a movie making family: his father is a commodity trader and the family home hardly ever had a functional still camera, never mind a 16mm movie camera. But Kenan went to film school at UCLA (“simply because I was always a huge film loverand it was a way to combine all my passions”) where jumping from graduation straight to a Zemechis/Spielberg production as director is exceedingly rare.

"I was a just another nobody at film school"

Baut having been plucked out of obscurity by two of his cinematic heroes, Kenan is enjoying his fairytale start as a filmmaker; he says it feels almost like an urban legend. “I was a just another nobody at film school,” he says smiling, “and had only the one screening of my graduation short, The Lark, but someone happened to be there who was an assistant to a talent agent … they asked for a copy and I was signed to the agency a couple of days later.”

It wasn’t long before The Lark found its way to Robert Zemeckis, who instinctively felt Kenan was the right man to direct Monster House, and he passed it on to Steven Spielberg. "From the moment I saw his short film, The Lark, I recognized that Gil was a special talent," Spielberg says.

Zemeckis and Spielberg were acting as executive producers on a new project, written (very well) by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler; it was a script for a family film, scary but with something extra.

Across the quiet suburban road from 12 year old DJ (voice of Mitchel Musso) is a strange old house whose cranky inhabitant, Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) scares off any kids stepping onto his lawn, never mind getting closer to the house. While DJ’s parents are away for a day – Halloween, as it happens – DJ has a nasty confrontation with Nebbercracker, and he tries to tell his babysitter, Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who, like all the other adults, shrugs off the warnings as Halloween pranks. So DJ enlists his dorky friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) in a plan to get to the bottom of the mystery. They are joined by the smart and pretty Jenny (Spencer Locke), whose entrepreneurial spirit makes her a valuable ally. But the house has a temper, and it’s worse than they could ever expect – and a heartbreaking history they could never imagine.

Strangely enough, The Lark featured a house infested with tears and anger. “I became infatuated a few years back with the idea of creating an emotional relationship between a person and an environment,” says Kenan, “with making that relationship visual and dramatic, defining a personality and anthropomorphizing it. So when Monster House came my way, it was almost comically situated right in the bull’s-eye of how I wanted to tell a story — how humans and their homes and environments can interact. In the end, the house has more than just a vengeful spirit, it has a soul.”

To tell such a story, live action was out of the question; but the filmmakers wanted to avoid CGI or cell animation, so they opted for motion capture. In a sense, this was the perfect opportunity for Kenan, who had spent four years studying theatre at high school. Motion capture is a process in which the actors wear sensors all over their body and perform in front of – in this case 200 – digital cameras which capture the action from every angle. There is no need to sheet for ‘coverage’ of each scene, as it already exists. But the challenge is to get those performances, since it is all shot in “what looks like a laboratory,” says Kenan.

“You walk into a grey grid, and it’s very daunting. It took me a couple of hours to figure out that I should approach it as theatre … it’s about performance, with everything stripped away.” Luckily, Kenan seems to be a natural director, because he found working with the actors “the most enjoyable part of the job.”

The preparation for shooting a film in motion-capture was a lengthy daily ritual for the actors. At dawn every day, they had to don a special suit and shoes. In the makeup room, their hair was pulled back, a plastic cap was glued to their heads and plastic reflective dots were glued to their faces.

The 6m x 6m “volume” — the area in which the motion-capture equipment was set up and in which the actors performed — was constructed on Stage 6 at Culver Studios. For the most part, the film was shot in sequence over a relatively short production schedule. A 42-day shoot is pretty quick, says Kenan, “especially compared to most live-action shoots, which often go more than a hundred days. And we had kids who had shortened working hours, so our days were very short.” (I reminded him that in Australia, 42 days of shooting was a tad over average for a live action film.)

"a rich, layered and often funny script,"

It’s a rich, layered and often funny script, with some decent scares (especially for the 8 – 12 age group) as well as some knowing, hip scenes that satisfy with their edgy moments and lines, from characters who are brought easily to life by the actors behind the animation. (Motion-capture is the same technology that gave us Andy Sarkis’ Gollum in Lord of the Rings…) It’s especially enjoyable for adults who tune in: there are subtleties galore in the film, ranging from cinematic technique to tributes, and the calibre of the cast boosts the internal logic and credibility of the film. The technique, meanwhile, enables the filmmakers to tell the story of a house that can show feelings, is mobile in surprising ways, and has an interior that’s like a massive – scary – theme park ride.

If his parents aren’t filmmakers, they certainly armed their son with some skills that he finds useful. “I was raised with confidence,” he explains. “My mum is a superbly confident person and perhaps that has given me a slight arrogance that’s necessary to make a film like this … and my dad’s real skill is communicating – he’s able to talk to anybody in the world. Plus I had the four years training in theatre … you have to draw on every skill.”

Published September 14, 2006

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Gil Kenan


Monster House – Australian release: September 14, 2006

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