Into the ‘Monster House’

with Director Gil Kenan

Share on Social:

The animated feature film Monster House marks its 15th anniversary this year, and Amblin had the pleasure of reminiscing at length with director, Gil Kenan, about the film’s production and what it’s meant to him and his career.

Monster House is the story of young teenager DJ, his friends Chowder and Jenny, and their battle against a creepy house in their neighborhood. The house proves to be more than the normal spooky abode that leads to tall tales and rumors passed amongst kids and adults alike, but a “monster house” in the very literal sense of the phrase.

Kenan was only a year out of film school when he impressed producer Robert Zemeckis with his pitch for how he envisioned bringing Dan Harmon (Rick and Morty) and Rob Schrab's screenplay to cinematic life, so much so that Zemeckis gave him the reins to direct his very first feature film. Here’s the story of Gil’s journey from film school, to working with Zemeckis and co-producer Steven Spielberg, to releasing what is now considered a spooky season favorite for kids and adults alike.


Amblin: To begin, let’s go back before Monster House, back to your time at UCLA film school. Your animated short, The Lark (2004) was your MFA thesis film. Looking at it, I can see a number of possible influences. David Lynch, in particular The Grandmother (1970) and some Eraserhead (1977), maybe Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1980) in some of the animation, and in at least a couple shots a bit of Lotte Reiniger. [Reiniger was an innovative animator who employed silhouette animation and other figural animation techniques in films between 1919-1980.]

Kenan: You’ve hit on three of the major influences. I’m huge fan of Forbidden Zone and actually had the great experience of meeting Richard Elfman…Eraserhead was formative in my life. I love Lotte Reiniger. As an animator who is more interested in the world-building potential of animation, like trying to tell as big of a story as possible through the ability to conjure a world through art, her films were a major influence. The only other reference point that I would add to that mix is a filmmaker by the name of Zbigniew Rybczyński, who you probably know through Tango (1981), his Oscar-winning short film. If you add those four into a blender, you end up with the soup that got me through The Lark.

The Lark (2002)

Amblin: Were Eastern European stop-motion animators an influence in general as well, filmmakers like Jan Švankmajer?

Kenan: Yes, Švankmajer’s a god, and basically, I started making stop-motion before film school and mostly did it because I was champing at the bit to tell stories and that was for me the most sensible way to go about telling stories because I didn’t really have anybody to make films with. I didn’t have a lot of equipment, but I could conjure things up out of clay or wire. And I always wanted to use a camera, so the idea of 2D [cel] animation never fully appealed to me because I loved the way that light and camera come together with subject to create a cinematic reality. And so yes, the Eastern European stop-motion artists, especially Švankmajer, were major influences.

Amblin: Apart from those influences on The Lark itself, did any other filmmakers or films have an influence on you in general?

Kenan: Yes, I became aware of filmmakers’ signatures in movie theaters in the films that I saw in the 1980s, and I started to be able to interpret a filmmaker’s or storyteller’s signature. The first time I actually remember that feeling was as the lights came back up in the theater after I’d seen Time Bandits (1981). I became really aware that its director, Terry Gilliam, had a point of view that I could define at the end of that film. That opened my eyes to other specific voices. Obviously, as a child of the 1980s, the work of Steven Spielberg and Amblin became a very clear storytelling signature that I identified with. It’s like the equivalent of the Grimm tales for a different generation. I had the VHS box set of the Back to the Future trilogy and my younger brother and I created our own map by taping together 10 sheets of paper to visually plot out the time-space continuum across the three films. It was a big task. I think we were moderately successful. Doing that as a kid gave me tremendous respect for the craft of film and storytelling, and also started to create an itch about how to use craft in ways that could help to tell my own stories, which I was already starting to think about. The only other person I would add, especially for The Lark: I became really interested in early Hitchcock, especially the films made in England where they were still a little bit rough. The adventurous spirit of visual storytelling that was on display in those films, and the playfulness of the camera. And also the hint of melodrama that I found really, really delicious. I became a big fan of the idea of the slightly upturned acting, especially for a certain kind of story.

Amblin: The Lark received a screening at the Directors Guild of America, which leads to a big turning point. There was an agent in the audience who saw your film and approached you with an offer to represent you. How quickly did that lead to your interview with Robert Zemeckis’s ImageMovers about potentially directing their Monster House project?

Kenan: There was one year where I did what I called the “free-lunch circuit,” where I was a starving graduate student sent out on general meetings with really nice producers who had no idea what to do with me. I would get taken out to lunch almost every day of the week and it was great. I got good at meeting and talking about who I was and what I wanted to do, but none of it was really leading to anywhere except for one very funny side gig where I got to write the un-produced screenplay for the Pac-Man adaptation [laughs]. Other than that, I was just reading, writing and sharpening my ability to present myself as a storyteller when I was sent the Monster House screenplay that Dan Harmon and Rob Schrab had written for ImageMovers and I had a meeting where I was able to pitch my vision for it.

Amblin: Your vision for the film alone impressed ImageMovers because they sing the praises of the pitch you walked in with. Your producers said it wasn’t your filmmaking experience that necessarily sold them, but it was how you saw the film: like no one else that they talked with.

Kenan: The first meeting was with the head of story, a gentleman by the name of Bennett Schneir who worked for Bob [Zemeckis] as the head of development at the company…Very quickly thereafter, within a couple of days, there was a meeting set with Bob. Between me reading the script and talking to Bennett, they must’ve been heavily in the process of looking for filmmakers so there was certainly no time to waste before either eliminating me or moving me up the list. I met a lot of people in my year around town, but none of them were heroes of mine like Bob, so this was a huge leap in terms of my access to people who I truly respected as storytellers. I took that meeting very seriously, but I also now had a couple of reads of the script and realized not just my excitement for it, but also where I thought it could grow. And so I decided to come into that meeting with a plan for what I would do with the film…The original screenplay was absolutely brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny. My goal was to preserve all of the character and tone work that Dan and Rob had done, but to add a soul to the house and to the film. That sense of backstory, the sort of bass notes to the film is the thing that actually got me excited about making it because I felt like it was connecting to the mood of films that made me a passionate film fan as a younger person. The films that didn’t hold back from young audiences and gave them full-throttle experiences. I was really excited and passionate, almost zealous about this idea that Monster House could be a film that restored the idea of animation as an all-audience film.

Kenan: I started drawing while I was reading the script in preparation for the first meeting with Bob. Those drawings are stylized, they’re cartoonish drawings. There’s one of Chowder eating a sandwich, there’s one of Constance’s tomb. There was no Constance in the original screenplay, there was no death, there was no tomb, all of those were new ideas. I wanted to have a piece of art for that. I was really excited about the cop car being eaten in half by the house and can’t remember exactly how that idea was realized in the script, but it was bursting out of me when I was thinking about it, so I drew that as well…I brought in the four or five sketches. I remember that there was a real effect that they had, like putting them out on the table, creating a sense of an idea being converted into reality in a way that only drawings or art can do. You just take something that’s intangible and make it tangible…

Amblin: As so many have noted over the last 15 years, Monster House feels so much like the Amblin Entertainment films of our company’s first decade, films with that Amblin feeling that Bob had a huge hand contributing to with Back to the Future, his Amazing Stories episode Go to the Head of the Class, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Films that played for wide audiences, not just films for kids.

Kenan: Being an Amblin Entertainment film was something that was very quickly raised because ImageMovers had an overall deal with Amblin, so there was a possibility that this could happen… After Bob got excited about my pitch and ImageMovers brought me on to develop the film, I put together a very quick but pretty robust presentation. I had a few months to get my act together about what kind of movie I would be making. That was the first time that I met Steven [Spielberg] and pitched him the film. By then, I had a handful of paintings with my core team of artists—maybe 30 paintings, maybe a little bit less—that gave a clear sense of progression, tone and ambition for the look of the film…

Kenan: I remember Bob saying, “This is really good. Steven was excited.” I said, “I have the film as an animatic waiting in the theater next door.” In the few months of prep, I put every part of my being into working with a very small, but brilliant team of storyboard artists led by Simeon Wilkins to put the entire film up on rudimentary boards with scratch voice acting and temp score. It was a very risky strategy. It was not just as you normally do in Hollywood, getting people excited about the potential of the thing, but actually saying, “This [the animatic] is the thing. Let’s go and make it.” It totally played. It was the most out-of-body experience in my career so far. When the lights came up in that theater, I realized that Steven, Bob and I were talking story. It had gone beyond the politeness and the trivialities of, “Well done,” or, “I can’t believe you got all this done.” It was talking about real nuts and bolts story stuff. I realized that I had somehow skipped a step and we were actually now making the film! It was a profound experience…We ended up staying and talking for about 45 minutes after that first screening and very quickly the conversation went to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Back to the Future and to the roots of essential American storytelling. I just felt so privileged to be able to hear the stories from the trenches from the two master storytellers. Also, the respect that they showed to the story that I’d just put up in front of them…Bob and Steven were both were just exceptional producers and they worked to give a first-time filmmaker not just support, but confidence in putting the story up on the screen. I was spoiled to a degree making Monster House that I didn’t understand until later in my career because both of them went to the mat over and over again, to be there for me, to be by my side for pivotal meetings, and always there in a supportive way, so I’m forever grateful.

Amblin: You’re in a rarefied position because Steven did the very same thing for Bob on I Wanna Hold Your Hand back in 1978, and together they were both turning around and doing the same for you.

Interview: I was walking on air as I left the room every time. It was incredible. To this day some of the greatest moments of my life were the post-screening conversations we had in those early days of the film…


Amblin: You chose to bring screenwriter Pamela Pettler, who had just written Corpse Bride for Tim Burton, on board to help you revise the script and introduce your new ideas about Constance and Nebbercracker, their backstory, etc. Was Pettler’s work on Corpse Bride what sold you on her?

Kenan: I had read a bunch of stuff in that year including Pamela’s Corpse Bride script and loved it and we met. The meeting was the thing that really sold me because she had this innate ability to get ideas that were just starting to bubble up and help grow them into something better. It was easy, and we got to work in her house on the floor in her office, surrounded by her cats, and just started to build out the renovation [laughs] on the script. It was not a lengthy process because we were, at that point, pointing towards getting this thing off the ground. I remember it was a pivotal deadline to get the script to Amy Pascal at Columbia. We worked furiously to get it there and then the film was green-lit on the back of that draft. Obviously, I kept tinkering with it as we were making this thing but for all intents and purposes, that became the template for the whole film.

Amblin: At the same time, you were working on the screenplay, you were given a budget to bring in artists.

Kenan: Yes, Khang Le and Chris Appelhans. I was given a small amount of seed money. It was very, very small but for me it seemed like all the world. We got a crappy office in Studio City and put all the energy into the work. I think the film really was born in those couple of months where Khang and Chris were working on the paintings, and Simeon, the lead storyboard artist was working with me on the sequences. I had an editor, and then soon enough, a second editor, Adam and Fabienne. We were a very tight unit. We all worked very closely together and everyone saw what everyone else was working on. We talked every day about the film that we were hoping to make. By the end, we were surrounded by these glorious paintings and drawings and Monster House was something you could start to feel.

Amblin: Back to the notion of that 1980s-retro feel, yours was one of the films, along with JJ Abrams’s Amblin production of Super 8, that really recaptured that before this nostalgia wave of films and television now that play off of some of the tropes and touch points that people identify when they think of Amblin films.

Kenan: Monster House was not written as a period film. It was through the process of designing and visualizing the thing that I just kept drawing on the touchstones that I felt I could see in the story, and then the potential as a film. It was informed by my own suburban ‘80s childhood and in a pivotal way by the films that I watched during that suburban ‘80s childhood.


Amblin: Considering the work Bob had been doing in motion capture and performance capture, was it already decided, “We need to go with animation and look for an animator,” or was it open as far as whether you do a live-action or whichever form of animation you felt best for the film?

Kenan: I remember the conversation with Bob suggesting that it was a possibility but “let’s not get too worked up right now about how this was going to get made.” He was in the process of making The Polar Express (2004), and I think he was actually just about to start shooting when I first met him. I remember during development that I was able to go and visit his shoot and that was helpful for me to see in those early days. I think he was still feeling like, “This was something really exciting, but who knows? The jury is still out on it.” The story comes first and then the methodology is led by it. I felt excited by the possibility of creating a world where a house could be a living character. I just had a hunch and I think I discussed this in those first meetings that there was a better shot of making a living house a viable threat and character if the world and our lead characters were animated because it would create just a nod towards the impossible being possible…

Amblin: Top to bottom, there’s not a moment that feels off in any of the casting with veterans include Catherine O’Hara and Fred Ward, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Lee and John Heder, and of course, Steve Buscemi, but with the three main kids—Mitchel Musso (DJ), Sam Lerner (Chowder) and Spencer Locke (Jenny)—you went through a laborious process finding them. They couldn’t have been more perfectly cast because those personalities shine through in the digital puppets. These are real characters. Just the little nuances of performance, whether they come from the performance capture, the hands of the animators or a combination of both—they are really defined characters.

Kenan: I have to call out Troy Saliba the head of animation just because it is important for me that it’s acknowledged that what we see on screen would not have had as much of the illusion of life if there wasn’t an artist and under his wings, many artists who took the performances that Mitchel, Sam and Spencer gave on set and interpreted them and enhanced them through good old-fashioned posed animation that drove the exaggerations of those performances to end up with something that actually felt subtle and real. It’s really part of the secret of what works in the film is the synthesis between natural performance and very astute, observational, and exaggerated pose animation done by artists.


Amblin: You shot the performance capture elements in something called “The Void.”† Despite the oddity of working with actors in a situation like this, there’s a sense of real play between you and your actors in the behind-the-scenes footage.

[A sort of blackbox theater where the actors are outfitted in suits with sensors that are tracked by cameras all around the dimensions of the set. In turn, the data from their movements that the cameras capture are fed into computers.]

Kenan: I’ll say my job, a lot of the play that is there on display onset is in service of two things: One is just creating something that’s more human and exploratory rather than something that’s prescriptive and on tracks. You’ll always get something that feels like it smacks of honesty or reality if you arrive at it through a play and exploration. That’s just my philosophy to directing. The other side of it was really an important job of mine. Maybe the most important job with the actors is to find a way to eliminate the oppression of the technology. The idea that they were standing in a world where they were extremely uncomfortable win tight-fitting wetsuits with a bunch of people standing around looking at them through metal-wire furniture. I had to find a way to neutralize the effect of that stuff. The goofiness or playfulness was a tool in my kit to help them get there.

Amblin: Did you find there was a big technical curve for you and your cast because of some of the innovations but also because performance capture is just such a weird, unintuitive way to create film performances?

Kenan: I would say that at the beginning, the threat of the curve seemed much bigger than it was once we got into it. I actually feel once you start doing the work, it just becomes about performance and storytelling. I wouldn’t hesitate to do something in an experimental mold again if a story called for it or circumstance did. Because for me, the process is as thrilling as the final product and a lot of times informs it. I loved the weirdness, the kind of experimental nature of making the film because it made me feel I was the person who could do it. I had come up and cut my teeth telling experimental stories in experimental ways because that was what got me excited about the process and the end goal. Monster House really, I felt if anybody could do it, it might as well be me. [laughs] That’s important when you’re barely out of college and trying to convince yourself that this is something you could actually take on and do a decent job at.


Once the performance capture of the actors was logged, the production would go on to essentially make the film again…and again, over multiple passes that married the performance data to rough CG animation; a detailed combination of performance capture and character animation at the hands of the animation artists; and finally, the fully textured, lit and rendered animation as audiences would see it in the film. Despite nearly a decade of CG-animated films that Monster House followed, Kenan and his collaborators still had their challenges in bringing such a unique computer-generated world to screen life.

Kenan: We encountered some real obstacles in realizing those images and the beat boards into a piece of a living film with our partners at Sony Pictures Imageworks. We had a real uphill struggle to be able to find a way, but not just because the technology wasn’t quite there. I mean if you remember this, it was still the wild early days. Toy Story (1995) was not a distant memory in 2004 when we were really kicking off with the animation and visual effects side of the film. What I was hoping to do was something that was a lot more filmic and where the lighting was a lot moodier than was possible, but also, we were trying to do it on a fairly tight budget. Monster House was not a ‘whatever it costs’ film. It was a film that was produced on a budget that was much smaller than Polar Express. That meant innovation was needed, and I think that actually ended up being really beneficial for the look of the film. Jay Redd, the visual effects supervisor, was very bold in coming in on the show. He had been working for a long time at Imageworks and had done some really brilliant work…I was excited to partner up with him and also to rely on his knowledge of the inner workings of Imageworks to try to get something impossible and ambitious off the ground. One of the things that they did, and I give huge credit to Jay, is they bought in an experimental render technology that had not been proven, in that it had only been seen at SIGGRAPH and on some short experimental work in Europe, this Spanish rendering platform called Arnold. It completely rethought the way that light worked in digital renders, very counter to the way that things had been done at Pixar and DreamWorks/PDI, etc. That allowed us to almost use a skeleton crew without getting bogged down in technicalities. In a traditional animated CGI shot in 2004, it wouldn’t be unheard of to have 40 [virtual] lights that were generating the look of the final image. With Arnold, you could have the sun outside the room and through bounce and global illumination, you’d be able to light an entire shot.

Amblin: There are some specific shots up in DJ’s room, heading toward dusk, that are just so beautiful, just the lighting in the film in general is so gorgeous. It feels like such a Midwestern film, and the lighting quality and texture feels like Midwestern autumn. How did you guys come to that decision? It just has a different light quality that’s so evocative.

Kenan: I remember in conversations with Dan and Rob, they told me that the film was inspired by Wisconsin, Minneapolis, just the prototypical cinematic American Midwest Northern Midwest neighborhood, and so I just immersed myself in photographs and in film of the area. Once Ed Verreaux, the production designer of the film, came on—which was not very long after that meeting with Steven where I showed the beat boards and the storyboards—Ed understood that the film was as much about the cinema of the 1980s as the reality of the 1980s and embraced that. Ed has a long and illustrious career with films like E.T. Just being able to soak up with him the “movie-ana” of it all. He took me on one of the most memorable [research] scouts I have ever had and I’ve had some really cool scouts in my life. The entirety of the scout was on the Universal backlot where we went to incredible detail on the houses of the backlot, the relationships between them, what creates the ideal suburban movie “reality." We were able to have an all-access pass to that great suburban street on the backlot, The ‘Burbs, and later on, Desperate Housewives neighborhood. We were able to walk into the Psycho house and just really get a feel for what makes a perfect movie neighborhood, and so that became hugely influential in the process.

Amblin: The beautiful thing about the film apart from the lighting is that’s plainly CG, but it feels so different from all the other films of that era. I still think that, looking at it today with all the progress made in the technical regards because those differences are all about texture.

Kenan: There was a lot of emphasis put on the tangibility; I do think that ties into stop-motion, knowing that especially with stop-motion animation there’s a feeling the tangibility, the humanity of the work, the sense that artist fingers had access to the models or the sets, the cloth of the fabrics. All of that, I think, breaks down the artificial veneer that a normal computer-only generated environment can create. The pursuit of photorealism, in my mind, has always been a misguided pursuit because photorealism is an impossible ideal. What’s attainable is a photographic reality where you can feel texture, you can feel the movement of the camera, the weight of the objects in physics and space, but then it’s still the goal and task of the artist to create the style, the shape, the design that allows the thing to have its own life, its own voice, etc.

Amblin: In that way too, stylization is everything in animation and the idea of trying to get photorealism…On Monster House, you said no motion blur. I think that’s another thing that helps make it feel so unique as a CG animated film, in that you’ve still got one foot back in puppet animation. They’re digital puppets, but not having the motion blur on it gives that wonderful odd and tangible feeling that physical stop-motion animation always had. It’s another thing that I think makes Monster House stand out to this day.

Kenan: I really appreciate that, and I can’t believe I got away with that. I remember the first test that we got to put through the render chain at Imageworks. We all went into a screening room where we were headquarters at that point. When the test came up, it was like running a first bit of film through a new camera and it played and it just felt absolutely magical. I felt like I was seeing something that I had never seen before. The quality of the movement and the stylization of it, I was thrilled. It was, for me, a massive bit of wind in the sails to know that this entire enterprise was heading somewhere cool because it was totally unproven.


Monster House Theatrical Trailer

Amblin: Following Monster House, you directed three live-action features—City of Ember, Poltergeist, and this holiday season's A Boy Called Christmas. Do you have any preference for live-action versus animation or vice versa?

Kenan: I miss animation. I expect that I will be doing more. I’ve developed some animation over the years and got really close to making some using new experimental methods again. I hope to be able to do that again in the near future. I really can’t say that I have a preference. I love every story on its own merits. I feel like each story is a new adventure for me. I love the control in animation. I love the expediency of live-action. So much of my work on Monster House was just making the subtlety between lines feel real, and that’s the thing you get for free and effortlessly with live-action. Each of [the films], they all offer their own challenges. I’m just really lucky that I’ve been able to tell stories in a few different ways. I think that it’s definitely something that I want to keep exploring.

Amblin: In closing, what’s it been like recently looking back to Monster House, your debut feature film, after 15 years have passed?

Kenan: It’s a warm feeling, especially because of the weird vortex of time that we’ve all been living through in the last few years. There’s a sense of disbelief that 15 years have gone by, but also a real sense of pride that the generation that saw Monster House as kids, maybe the film that scared them the most in a movie theater when they were growing up and now that they now hold it in a place that was a gateway experience for them to other more intense, cinematic experiences. That is something that I’m intensely proud of. And like any film, once you’re done with it, the thing belongs to the world as much as it does to the artists who made it. Specifically, with Monster House, it took so many people to get that film up on the screen. I just feel a deep sense of pride that I was able to be the person to lead the orchestra to tell that story. It’s a film that has a lot of me on the screen. The fact that it has connected, resonated, and continued to have a life of its own is something that I just find deeply gratifying. I love Monster House.

Gil Kenan is a filmmaker who has directed Monster House, City of Ember, and Poltergeist (2015, a remake of the 1982 Steven Spielberg production), the upcoming Ghostbusters: Afterlife as co-writer, and this holiday season’s A Boy Called Christmas as writer-director.

Steven Awalt is editor and digital content producer for He’s written extensively on the career of Steven Spielberg over two decades, including in his book, Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), about the making of Spielberg’s breakout 1971 thriller.