Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
This was supposed to run months ago.
Problem is, my tape recorder, a state of the art device that has never ever failed me cough cough, totally crapped out during the interview despite my checking it beforehand. So when I went to transcribe it, what I got was garbled nearly beyond comprehension. I tried to fix it, and then I tried working with the tape to transcribe what I could. But my best efforts simply didn’t result in anything I could use, and I found myself staring at a blank page with absolutely nothing to fill it. I felt so shitty about it that I didn’t know what to tell the Sony publicist, the overly-patient Amy Conley. In the meantime, I ran into Gil Kenan, director of MONSTER HOUSE, out and about at the DGA one night and we talked a bit, following which he e-mailed me. Finally, I broke down and sent him an e-mail directly, explaining the situation and explaining why I was reluctant to tell Sony what had happened, and I asked him if I could visit to see what progress they’d made, and so I could tape a new interview with him.
The reason I felt comfortable asking Gil about it is because from the moment we started talking, it was obvious that Gil is a total geek, a film fan first and foremost, and our conversation had been more than just the typical pimp-your-film chat that normally happens when you’re set up with someone by a publicist. When I e-mailed him, Gil sent a response back right away, enthusiastically inviting me back down to the Sony lot, where his offices are on the same hallway that SPIDER-MAN 3 is currently using.
This time, I took my co-writer Obi-Swan with me, since I wanted him to get a look at some of the behind-the-scenes materials on display in the offices. MONSTER HOUSE is, after all, another adventure on the cutting edge of filmmaking from producer Robert Zemeckis, who seems dedicated to ushering in and perfecting this new motion-capture technology. Zemeckis directed THE POLAR EXPRESS himself, and is making BEOWULF right now. But in the meantime, Gil Kenan’s got the keys to the car.
When we walked into the lobby, the first thing we saw was the production art that lines all of the walls. It’s great moody stuff, and it doesn’t look like a kid’s film at all. It looks like a real horror movie, dark and dank and freaky. There was a table by the door stacked high with “props” from the film, which were all basically just white wire mesh shapes, each with a label on it. “Flashlight.” “Telephone.” That sort of thing. They were just suggestions of props, something for an actor to hold onto to get the feel of something so they don’t have to pretend.
As we waited for Gil, we went into an adjoining conference room, where maquettes of every major character stood together under glass. The walls of the conference room featured more production art, but also a number of photos taken on the set as the actors were recording their performances. Those photos were, for me, the most interesting thing hanging in the office. All of the actors were dressed in black form-fitting outfits, covered from head to toe in reference dots, small white pinpoints affixed to their faces, their hands, their bodies.
There was one still in particular of Steve Buscemi that I found eerie. I’ve seen some footage of his character in the film, and in that still, I could see the character. Sure, it was just Buscemi, covered in those strange dots, but his body language was so expressive, so particular to this character, that I imagine you could look at that still and pick the corresponding shot out in the final film.
As I was standing there, looking at Buscemi, Gil walked in and greeted us. He’s tall, think, with dark hair and dark eyes, and the first thing that I noticed when I met him is how insanely young he is. Spielberg and Zemeckis hired Gil right out of UCLA, after they saw his student film THE LARK, a dreamy piece of surrealism that mixes live-action and animation to unsettling effect. As I shook his hand, Gil noticed the HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY shirt I was wearing. And as you’ll notice... we talk about a lot of things other than MONSTER HOUSE in this interview. Like I said, Gil’s the real deal as a film freak, and those digressions are exactly why I enjoyed talking to him so much both times.
This is one nerdy interview on both our parts, and I take as much credit for it as Gil. When he name-checks STREET HAWK at one point, that is the heart of film dork darkness. Loved every second of our talk. If you’re expecting something more conventional as an interview, consider yourself warned.
GIL KENAN: Oh, I loved that film.
”MORIARTY”: Yeah, I did, too.
I didn’t know what to expect going in. It just felt like people had a lot of fun making it, and that totally came across.
We walked into Gil’s office, following him. It’s like a typical film geek’s bedroom, with laserdiscs stacked against one wall and toys and books scattered around the room. Gil’s laptop was open on his desk.
I’ve tried to go out and get all of the Pino Donaggio soundtracks on CD, and it’s so frustrating. They’re all re-recordings.
That was a big trend for a while in soundtrack albums... doing a re-record for the album.
OBI-SWAN: STAR WARS has those concert suite versions, and there are more of those on the albums than actual tracks used in the films.
That’s so weird. That’s not the case anymore, is it?
No. For the most part, no.
It’s really annoying. I feel like... I’m obsessed with the BODY DOUBLE score...
... and I went out to get it. It’s so evocative. Then you listen to the recording they released and it’s just... flat.
My favorite score from a De Palma film is probably Morricone’s work on CASUALTIES OF WAR.
Even so, that’s a short album, too. More like a sampler than the full score.
Well, in the CARRIE one, they take out the exercise sequence. I think that was some disco guy. I don’t think that was Pino. But it’s... yeah, it’s really weird. So, um, do you know if Goblin’s still around?
They are. Sort of. Claudio Simonetti, the keyboardist from Goblin, did Dario Argento’s score for MASTERS OF HORROR last year.
Yeah, that’s what I was curious about.
Yep. He did.
And how was it?
Sounded pretty good if you’re a Goblin fan.
I don’t think they still perform together as Goblin. And I think there were actually two different Goblins writing scores under the name, guys that stopped working together.
I recently picked up the SUSPIRIA soundtrack, and I think that’s really the stuff from the film.
Did you get it as part of the Anchor Bay disc?
Maybe that’s where I got it. But... actually, my dad was in Italy on some random business trip and, um, I had him look for anything that said Goblin on it.
And they had this little 2-disc Goblin multi-pack, so I have like this Goblin medley.
Really? I don’t have any of their non-soundtrack stuff, like that anti-heroin benefit album thing.
That’s what this is! That’s what I’ve got!
Gil started searching his computer as we talked.
I have a bunch of Tangerine Dream’s albums, though.
Which are great.
Where they aren’t soundtracks, but they sound like they should be.
Oh, man, Tangerine Dream is amazing. Do you remember STREET HAWK, the TV show?
I cried openly when... I forget whatever channel that was on. Some syndicated channel like Channel 9... and I used to sit, like, an inch from the TV screen. And I was there one week, and the announcer said, “And now, the final episode of STREET HAWK.” And as soon as I realized what they said, I was totally weeping. It may be the most pathetic episode of my entire life. Hold on. I’m going to see what Goblin stuff I’ve got in here. Still looking. So... what have you guys been up to? You writing something new?
In just a couple of weeks, we start production on the second MOH episode. John’s directing again.
Oh, awesome! So, what? Now he’ll work with no one else?
Dude, we’re just very, very lucky right now. As long as we’re making John happy, we’re able to get away with some wild stuff this time around. I think this one’s going to be fun. We got to tailor this to him from the start, and the cast this time...
Did it work differently last time?
Yeah. Season one, we wrote the script on our own, without any one of the directors in mind, and then they showed it to John and he signed on.
Which must have felt awesome.
This time, we took the story to him first, and really made it something that he had input on.
And his son scored it last time?
Will he do it again?
I hope so.
That was a really good score.
I think John really digs Cody’s work. I think he was really proud of the way that film sounded.
It sounds like he pulled out Dad’s old Moog or something. He should be happy with it. You should start training your own kid now.
Gil finally found what he was looking for. Double-clicked it. The sound started playing from hidden speakers behind us. Good speakers. Gil’s office is definitely wired for maximum sound.
Okay. Here it is. I think this one’s an all-original album. Is THE CHURCH a film?
Yeah. It’s a Michele Soavi film. Script by Argento and Lamberto Bava and a bunch of other guys.
Okay. I haven’t seen that. So maybe this is a collection, like a greatest hits. But it also has something called “Aquaman” on there, which is this... and I don’t think they never made an AQUAMAN movie with a Goblin score. Listen to this.
Man, you’ve got a nice rig in here.
Thanks. I had the floors drilled. No. I didn’t. I should. So did they make an AQUAMAN film?
With a score by Goblin? No. But I think I’d pay to see that.
This is getting better, right? Pretty cool. What else does this one have... “The Possession”?
He changed to another track on the album with a double-click. There was the sound of organs. Some crazy sound-effect.
Now, see, that’s sort of like mid-‘80s Goblin . Heavy on the cheese.
He changed tracks again.
Okay, here’s the titular track. Here’s Goblin’s “Goblin.” Okay... what the hell is that? Scraping? Cloven hooves on pavement? This is a long track. Eleven minutes or so. This is like their epic...
I wish I could have seen them in concert.
Or performing live to one of their films. How about that?
I’m not even sure... did they ever play live shows together?
It’s really tricky, though, with people who used to be amazing in the ‘70s. They feel like they can be better if they use all new state-of-the-art synthesizers, and you know, like, they totally lose their sound. It’s the most frustrating theing in the world, like when my dad would take me to Yes concerts when I was a kid in, like, the late ‘80s, and it would just be horrendously awful, like they would update their sounds to orchestra hits and stuff. It’s the worst.
Do the Goblin guys even still like each other? A lot of times, that’s the problem.
Right. Maybe there’s some awesome blood feud going on between them.
Okay... so tell me. Where are you guys now?
Uh... we’re close. You know we just had this Orange County screening a couple of weeks ago which went really well in the room. Mr Toons didn’t seem to think so. (laughs)
The other guy who wrote in did, though.
Hey, at least you know they’re having reactions one way or another, as opposed to them just sitting there and having no reaction at all.
I totally agree. And, not to read too much into his name, but if “Toon” stands for “Cartoon,” it may play a little bit into that whole motion-capture-versus-conventional-animation thing.
We were waiting for you earlier in the conference room, looking at all of the photos again. There’s that great picture of Buscemi with his back to the camera, sort of turned and looking back over his shoulder. And I’ll bet when we see that moment in the film, it’ll be recognizable.
Well, I’m going to show you a few little tidbits, and one of the scenes is with Buscemi’s character, Nebbercracker.
It’s just strange how those are really on-set pictures. It’s just that the definition of a set has changed now.
Exactly! That’s... that’s pretty much the greatest point of, ummm, uh... separation... between this and traditional live-action filmmaking. The performances, the camera blocking, all of that is there in the set. It’s just the way the stage is rendered, you know? And obviously what the actors are giving us on the set still has to be interpreted into the animated character. There’s still definitely that process of, of, you know, the magic that animation brings to whatever it touches. It’s like animation has that power to imbue soul into things.
That’s one of the big question marks that people have. In POLAR EXPRESS, especially in the 3D version, Zemeckis just sort of took the toys out for a first spin. It’s like “These are all the toys we have. This is what we can do.” It’s very much the first film of a new technology.
And you know from being online that people frequently judge things they haven’t seen yet by whatever came before... in your case, by POLAR EXPRESS. Have you made a significant jump from that film?
Oh, yeah. My personal knowledge coming in as an animator before I started work on this film, and knowing what I needed to do to harness as much expression and emotion out of what I got on the stage... that all helps. And the most important thing you have to realize, whether it’s the way motion capture was used to bring Gollum to the screen or King Kong to the screen, it’s a reference tool.
That’s a great way to describe it. I think a lot of people are afraid that this means animators suddenly won’t have jobs or performers won’t have jobs.
No! Jobs all around! I actually feel like animators have been using reference forever. On SNOW WHITE... I’m sure you guys have seen that amazing test of that actress walking through the soundstage in Burbank, pretending to wave to the flowers and the little birdies and stuff, and that’s what ended up... you know, with a little interpretation by the animators... as the animated Snow White on the screen. It’s really not stripping the animation out of the process. It’s just providing an absolute distillation of the actor’s performance and putting that into the hands of the animator for the animated character. As soon as you think of it that way... it really is a great disservice to some of the actors we were lucky enough to get on this movie if I just stuck them into a voice booth and isolated them from each other and had them speak into a mic for a couple of hours twice, then just say good-bye to them, you know? When you think that I had the opportunity to bring them into... when you think of it as a theatrical set, it makes a lot more sense. It’s like a black-box theater. You get them down there, you build whatever kind of minimalist abstract set you need for them to interact with... a chair... a table.
You’re really mixing the lowest tech version of what performance is with the highest tech version of performance.
Yeah. You take away all the kind of artifice of film from the actors, and they have to focus completely on their character. They rely on their own conviction about what they’re providing in that place and time. For them, it takes away a lot of safety nets. It’s scary at first for these actors, but that’s... my job was to get them feeling like, first, that I’m not some kind of madman, that the footage of them with dots all over wasn’t going to be the final image on the screen.
They’re jumping off the edge of the cliff here, just hoping there’s a chute.
The chute was my concept art. In every instance of this movie, I had the questions answered visually before I stepped on set. That was always, for everyone on the crew... because this was a regular live-action crew until we get to post. The grips, the sound guys, my D.P., my production designer... they’re all...
Who’s your D.P.?
Xavier Perez Grobet, who shot BEFORE NIGHT FALLS and NACHO LIBRE, actually.
He’s, like, this passionate amazing artist.
That doesn’t compute.
(laughs) “Does not compute” is the perfect way to put it.
It seems like you’re determined to make sure this isn’t just some high-tech demo reel. You’re making a film first and foremost.
My production designer, Ed Verreaux... I think I saw it on Ain’t It Cool that some of his RAIDERS storyboards had resurfaced. I think it came out concurrent with the DVD release or whatever. He designed the very first drawing of E.T. that got sent over to Carlos Rambaldi. He was the art director for Elliott’s bedroom. This guy defined the, um...
That’s huge. That’s one of the defining pieces of ‘80s production design. That was every kid’s bedroom.
Elliott’s bedroom is a masterpiece. I think it’s one of the best-designed sets.
You wanna talk about licensing and clearance killing a part of this business? You couldn’t do that room in a film now. You can’t have a kid pick up STAR WARS figures in some innocent gesture that isn’t negotiated for six months by a ton of lawyers in return for some product placement fee. It was just natural. We all had STAR WARS figures.
That was just part of our language with our friends. “What STAR WARS figures do you have?”
That’s so sad. That reminds me of my pathetic STAR WARS collection. I had, like, one Han Solo toy. I was living in England, and so, umm, I was actually there when EMPIRE opened. Every time one came out, they would screen... like when EMPIRE came out, they screened STAR WARS with EMPIRE. It was, like, to refresh people’s memories or something. So I went to see it with my grandfather, and I remember coming back home, and my next-door neighbor was this, like, blonde rich perfect kid who was kind of like the angelic version of me. Same height, same age, but perfect and rich, and he had... do you remember the Millennium Falcoln playset? It was ridiculously expensive, like... beyond the grasp of any mortal kid. And he had it, and he filled it up with, like, every... every inch you could fill, he packed it with every character, and it just... it shamed me.
He scared me off into the He-Man playsets, which were a little more manageable. There were at least fewer characters, so I could at least make a dent in it.
Did you see where Leonardo DiCaprio just sold off his STAR WARS collection on either eBay or another auction site... just recently?
I saw that.
How much did it go for?
I never checked in at the end. It seemed like there were just thousands of pieces of stuff.
You’re right, though. Some of those sets, like the AT-AT, were like $50, and for a kid in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, that’s, like, “Oh my god, how am I ever going to get this?” I realized early on that my collection was not perfect, and I embraced that.
You’ve got to set boundaries.
So, okay... Ed does your production design, and you were hand-picked by Spielberg and Zemeckis to direct the film... dude, you’ve been passed the torch in a big way. Now you’re almost at the end of it.
So how do you feel?
I feel good. Especially because at this point, both Bob and Steven have seen the film in its sort of quasi-completed form, and they love it. Like, that alone is pretty much the only thing I needed to keep living beyond this experience.
And it’s crazy, you know? They’re my heroes. Like... I think I told you this last time, but I stil haven’t had a chance to tell Bob. When I was... when BACK TO THE FUTURE III came out, my little brother and I sat down and drew a map of the continuity of all three and tried to find holes in it. We literally drew up a marker map of the entire structure of that film. This is the guy I’m working with on this film.
Our only-partially-joking nickname for him used to be Bob “God” Zemeckis. When we first moved to town, he was one of the few people who just knocked me flat when I met him face-to-face. I lost the ability to speak English.
Right, right. It’s weird, because I probably would have had that exact same reaction in our first meeting, but I had just read the script for MONSTER HOUSE, like, two nights before, and it was a really, really terrific draft I got that [Dan] Harmon and [Rob] Schrab wrote, and when I read it, I kind of went into this weird state of becoming, um, completely obsessed with it, and I started drawing up all these weird sketches for... I don’t know... the next 48 hours or so until my meeting with them, and so when I showed up, I had all these drawings with me. And it felt like holding those, they were kind of like my, um... like Dumbo’s feather. Like having these in my hand made me able to be coherent about the movie...
... and I feel like that’s probably the way I was able to get this job. Just being able to know, like, I know what this movie looks like. I know how this movie works. And also, I really understand these kids, and I understand what makes this movie tick. So that’s kind of how I got this thing.
The pace has been fairly relentless for you, hasn’t it?
Yeah, and it’s a huge film, but in many ways, it’s like three years of nonstop running. It’s not like, “Oh, I’ve got three years to make this. I’m going to go have some iced tea.” It’s like, “We have three years. I have to stay here every single day of the week for fifteen hours a day to just barely get it done before it comes out.” But we’re good. We’ve got it about 85% done, as far as rendering of the film, and in the next couple weeks, we’ll have it all done, which is awesome. We’re about to go up to Skywalker to do our mix, so I’m moving up there for three weeks... the best thing in the whole world. I’ve been there a few times for the temp mixes, and I just roll around on the floor. It’s not fair. No one should be allowed to have such great toys. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do my sound there. Um... I, uh, I talked to Harry the other day.
Very quickly. Very randomly. It was a quick little conversation about something that I wanted to do hopefully in the summer. You know we’re coming out in 3-D, right?
We want to figure out some sort of special Rolling Roadshow sort of outdoor 3-D nighttime show.
That would be awesome. What part of July are you coming out?
Uh... July 21st. So we’d want to do it before that.
You guys are actually finishing early, compared to how close it seems like a lot of summer movies are cutting it. I know X-MEN and SUPERMAN are still...
(laughs) Not quite. But that’s the thing with a lot of these films where the release dates are set in stone a year before the film comes out.
We had to be ready because it takes a long time to get the 3-D ready. They can’t start until we’re completely done, so they’re just working on it now. They have all the shots and they’re putting them through the process now. That’s going to go right up until July. And that has to be finished so we can do a, you know, worldwide day-and-date. And, believe me... it looks so good in 3D. It’s totally nuts. It’s crazy. And since it’s a monster movie, like, seeing that digital CG monster house coming at you... it’s amazing.
And just wait till we have our final mix. We’re doing this thing when I go up there. We had them treat this old barn on Skywalker Ranch, and... see, they’ve got crazy people working up there. They found these transducers, um, that are used by rock drummers, and so we’re taking a bunch of them... we got however many the audio company that makes these could ship over... and we’re screwing them into the inner walls of this rickety old barn, and we’re going to feed the, the... the sounds of the house through these transducers so the walls actually become the speakers. So if you place a microphone at the mouth of this barn, you’ll get the actual sounds of the house as a structure emoting.
Oh, it’s going to be amazing. These things actually shake the walls, so it’s not some little sound. This is the real deal.
So if you see this in an IMAX 3D theater and that thing comes at you...
Kids are going to start crying. (laughs)
It’s going to be an insane sound.