A chat with ''Monster House'' director Gil Kenan. Steve Daly talks to the 29-year-old newcomer about having Spielberg and Zemeckis as mentors, giving kids a good scare, and why aspiring filmmakers don't need a Monster budget

Credit: Monster House: Sony Pictures Imageworks
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Four years ago, aspiring filmmaker Gil Kenan graduated from UCLA with just one project on his credit list: a ten-minute black-and-white short called ”The Lark.” It cost about $400 to make, and it was turned out largely on Kenan’s home computer. A weird, David Lynch-meets-Jan-Svankmajer-flavored affair about a tormented couple living in a broken-down old house, it was enough to make Kenan a hot feature-film prospect. Four years later, just short of his 29th birthday (which is in October), Kenan has gone from student to star. He turned out Monster House on a comparatively tight reported budget of $75 million (less than half the cost of The Polar Express, the previous major experiment in a technique called motion capture), and the newbie auteur has gotten some terrifically good reviews (including one from EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum) and racked up solid opening grosses in the process.

If you think Monster House is just a kids’ movie because it’s all CG, well, hooray for kids’ movies. It’s a sensationally clever variation on the suburban-kids-in-trouble tropes that Steven Spielberg patented with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. (Not surprisingly, Spielberg is an executive producer, along with Robert Zemeckis, whose company ImageMovers tried to get House off the drawing board for years before hitting on the idea that using the motion-capture technique was the only practical way to mix human characters with amazing, mansion-come-to-life effects in the last act.)

We caught up with director Gil Kenan for a chat last week, on the eve of two momentous dates in his life: His first movie opening, and his honeymoon.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you get married?
GIL KENAN: Ten months ago in New York. But before we could go on a honeymoon, there was the little matter of finishing Monster House. I’ve been working on this movie for four years. I had three days off for my wedding. Then back to the movie.

So now that you can finally get away, where to?
We’re going on a Baltic trip, to Russia. It’s always been a dream of mine. And it’ll be great to escape the country the day before the movie opens. Just unplug from the world and enjoy ourselves.

I keep reading different articles that have your age as between 26 and 29. What gives?
I was born October 16, 1976. I’m currently 29, but I got the movie when I was 26. I think maybe some authors just forget that these movies take that long to make.

How’d you land this movie right out of film school?
It was an original pitch that Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab, the initial screenwriters, actually brought to Bob Zemeckis’s company, ImageMovers. [The final screenplay also includes work by Pamela Pettler, who worked on Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.] Bob had a deal at DreamWorks, so that’s how Steven Spielberg became involved. The pair of them really took the thing under their wings, and fostered it for years before I came into the picture.

You had a pretty interesting childhood before you wound up in film school in California.
I was born in London and we left there when I was three. We moved to a suburb of Tel Aviv until I was just about 8. Then we moved to Los Angeles, to Reseda which was, you know, immortalized in the Karate Kid films as the armpit of Los Angeles. In many ways I could have basically grown up in, like, Ohio or Arizona or New Jersey or anywhere else in the country, because Reseda couldn’t be further away from what Hollywood is defined as. I didn’t know a single person who worked in movies until I actually was working on a movie.

But you started out in pretty exalted company, with Spielberg and Zemeckis. It must be a dream to have two heavyweights as your guardians. What were their notes like?
They were instrumental in giving me the confidence to not hold back on scares in this film. Both of them, at the earliest points in development, let me know I shouldn’t be afraid to make this thing as scary as it needed to be.

Why did you want it to be so scary?
All the movies I really loved growing up scared me. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Wizard of Oz, E.T., The Neverending Story, Gremlins — they didn’t hold back. I don’t know what’s happened in our culture and in our filmmaking in the 20 years since I was a kid. I think we’ve pulled every tooth from a lot of family films, and I think parents have become oversensitive. I miss the feeling of going to a movie not knowing what to expect — and feeling like there’s a potential to be scared, to be taken somewhere beyond my control.

And so you plugged yearning that into Monster House and made a horror movie perfect for 12-year-olds.
Horror is so naturally suited to that age in a kid’s life, when they’re moving from being a kid to being a grownup in their mind. It actually is a horrific time of life, because you’re on the precipice. You’re about to fall off a cliff into a place that holds a lot of mystery and dark corners and weirdness. I can’t imagine a better natural setting for a horror film than adolescence. It’s rife with emotional potential.

The movie’s pretty strong for a PG rating. At times it’s like a Little Rascals version of Tod Browning’s Freaks. Did the studio, Sony, demand that you keep it to a PG, and not PG-13 — and did you have to cut anything?
The ratings code is so amorphous. No one knows ahead of time what they’ll get. To the credit of my producers, I never had a mandate to make this movie PG. They just said, Make the movie right. I was really happily surprised when the MPAA gave us a PG. We didn’t have to engage in some kind of a grapple with them. I think the fact that it’s animated helps a lot. It lets you kind of push the boundaries a little bit. Truly, the movie is more about suspense and tension than violence.

You’ve got a story set on Halloween, but you opened in July. Did that seem like a mismatch?
I fought for the July release date for a bunch of reasons. One is I really believe that this is a summer movie. If you sell it as a Halloween movie, Halloween isn’t a big movie weekend for kids to see films. Plus you only get one weekend. On November 1, no one wants to see a Halloween movie any more. Spielberg was very quick to remind me that E.T. has the backdrop of Halloween, and it didn’t do too badly with a summer release.

Do you have other movies on the horizon?
I am in pre-production on something but I can’t go too much into it. It’s a live-action science fiction film that I’m very excited about.

What’s your best advice to other budding filmmakers?
The amount of money you spend making your student films has zero bearing on how they will be received. At UCLA, I kept seeing all these people making $100,000 thesis films. It just makes me want to bang my head against the wall, because you can tell a story with a person, a wall and a camera. You don’t need the crane shot. It’s not required for a good story.

Monster House
  • Movie
  • 86 minutes
  • Gil Kenan