Poltergeist: Director Gil Kenan Interview

The Monster House and The City Of Ember director Gil Kenan talks to us about remaking horror classic Poltergeist.

Gil Kenan has now returned to the haunted house genre, after his debut feature Monster House, and the world of working with young actors once more, after his follow-up, The City Of Ember. The result is a new remake of Poltergeist, and we spoke about the film at length this week – touching on what was shorn away in the edit, how the 3D gets really sexy, and the influence of the actors on the screenplay, amongst plenty of other things.

First though, it started with Gil picking up the phone and, whether he intended to or not, evoking the so-called Curse of Poltergeist. Here’s our conversation from the very beginning.

GK: Bodies are falling left and right here…

It’s quite alarming to hear that.

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Just so you know, not to stress you, but the first reporter who interviewed me this morning showed me unexplained scratches that he got all over his hands from his hotel last night.

Well, I’m an evangelical disbeliever in the supernatural, so you can’t scare me.

Famous last words! That’s exactly what ‘they’ want to hear, Brendon.

Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum and talk about reason. Tell me how you work out some of your filmmaking choices, starting, generally, with the camera. How much do you use process and how much is instinct?

I began my life as a storyteller by making picture books as a kid and for me, the drawn images was always the first way I told the story for myself before I then picked up a Super 8 film camera, later on a video camera and now whatever monstrosities that we’re using today. I do begin with a sketch, and for me, the drawings are important and they help me get into thinking about what height I will want to put the camera at.

This might seem trivial but especially because so much of a film like Poltergeist is about the discovery of the space, and that dark potential of that space, it becomes critical to think about the eye level of the camera. If you place it at the height of the children, who are the first ones to detect that there are strange things going on, this creates an immediacy for the audience with that dawning awareness. This strips away this ‘adult’ instinct to look down on children and disregard their fears and thoughts as childish.

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Stereography is a language that a lot of people don’t understand at all. How did you make your choices with the 3D?

I had a little bit of experience with stereography with Monster House, but with that film, the stereo process was something that happened about half way through and I had already laid out most of the film, it luckily worked out well and I was able to make the most of it. With Poltergeist I was able to design the photography of the film around the idea that I’d be creating a stereo release.

One of the things I wanted to explore was not only how to get the spectacle to play out in 3D, and we already have many examples of that working well, but also how intimate, domestic moments can be enhanced through the use of scale and the relationship between subject and camera in 3D. It’s subtle, and it creates something that most audiences won’t be aware of but will feel, a closeness to the characters. For me it’s an exciting and underexplored region of stereo filmmaking.

Can you cite a choice in this film that you’re pleased with?

There’s an early moment of intimacy with Sam and Rosemarie when they begin fooling around and it seems like it’s going to lead somewhere, and their bodies naturally go horizontal. It’s a very strange frame, one dictated by performance, but I got excited about the horizontal nature of their interaction. It holds for quite a bit and they’re having a very intimate, grounded moment, but the subtle angle of how they lay across frame and towards camera mean that we’re in there as a kind of voyeur. I always get excited to see that film in 3D because it feels like we shouldn’t be in there, we shouldn’t be that close. It ramps up the natural sense that the foreplay is leading somewhere, it’s exciting and risky. Knowing that 3D can do this too got me excited.

Another sequence where I was able to much more conspicuously was with tracking cameras. I’ll cite the example of the first ‘electrical awakening’ of the house than leads to the iconic television moment. I was thinking about the shift in tone that film was taking, and also the visual shift that we were now going to move through the house in a more ominous, subjective role. This felt like a shift that would give rise to the awakening of the spirits, and stereo was able to create not just this feeling of flying through the house but also some discomfort as well.

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You talked about how that “horizontal shot” was driven by performance. Do you generally bring the actors in and block with them, change your plans around what they do?

Absolutely. If I’m working with purely younger actors my process is more one of coralling them through the story as I had it mind, but I learned so much about making movies with this group of young actors that I think I’ll treat things differently on the next one. But with Sam and Ro there was, right from the beginning, even at the scripting stage, a want to get as much of their experience and souls and trap that in the film. This included David Lindsay Abaire the screenwriter being there with us as we workshopped scenes, even with individual actors, not necessarily bringing actors together.

Then all the way through to filming where if I knew I was doing an intimate scene like the one I described, or a scene of drama, generally I’d have an idea of where it goes but I’d hold off on making a specific shot list until we’d blocked it. Sometimes because it’s a little more exciting this way, and you don’t want to get to the point where it feels like you’re just checking off shots from a list, you want the high-wire act of “How are we going to tell the story today?”

Let’s clarify the journey of the screenplay, then, through this. Was there a draft when you came on board? How did that change during the workshops and development? Did you leave a lot of pages behind before shooting? And did many minutes get cut out in the edit?

I’ll try to go through it in order. There was a very strong draft that Sam Raimi sent to me at the beginning of this process – I’m a huge slack-jawed fan of his so I think I probably mumbled through our first few introductions. I took the script very seriously, though I was terrified of stepping into the perfect world of Poltergeist, and the script changed my mind. It took the characters seriously, and the drama of the daughter’s abduction seriously, and it posited an examination of the modern family, 30 years after the original.

I had grown up in a world very similar to the one depicted in the original film and couldn’t escape it fast enough when I finally became a University student. I would rather die in the city today than have to go back and live the rest of my days in the suburbs I grew up in; they feel like part of a life that I was excited to leave behind. I loved the central conceit that this family would begrudgingly accept their defeat in this subdivision.

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And there were a lot of things I wanted to explore. I had a solid six months of script development with David who is incredibly talented and a very generous writer. He did so much in that process to help shape the film into the one I was able to shoot. And then with the actors, sort of by necessity, I holed up in a hotel with Sam Rockwell and David and worked through the script so it felt like there was not this locked, formal document but rather something living that could breathe and adjust to get the most out of our actors. A lot of the dynamic between Sam and Ro came through those workshopping experiences.

The script had several scenes that I shot but that did not end up in the film. I like a lean film, I’m not yet at the point where I want things to play out luxuriously, I like efficiency in storytelling. So I was very brutal with my own cut before I presented it to the studio, trimming off things that were either moving character forward or not story or which were interesting for one reason or another but didn’t support the final cut. A lot of those scenes turned out great so I’m hoping to put together a longer cut for the Blu-ray or whatever phantom format is out when the film is getting released.

Yes, who knows what we’ll have in a few weeks time.

I’ve started the process with Fox Home Video of figuring out a probably 100 minute cut of the film. It will have a lot of really nice development of character and relationships that it will be nice to have in the film.

Another six or seven minutes is it?

Probably seven or eight.

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So, before we go, I would like to know what was happening to your Giant movie.

My great heartache. I love that movie so much and I came so close to shooting it twice. Both times we got into pre-production. The tragedy with films that you would love to make but which are not a commercial mandate by the studio overlords is that the universe is predisposed against them not happening.

There’s a lightning in a bottle moment that could mean they happen, and I came close twice, and I hope to make it again. It’s always been a factor of casting, where I’d need two actors of a certain value and I’ve always had one amazing one at a time but have never been able to line up the schedules of two in the right way. I’m still very committed to it, and the script – which I wrote but I can humbly say is beautiful – is burning to get out. Hopefully one day.

I hope so too. Thank you, Gil Kenan.