Friday, April 19, 2024

Interview With “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” Director Gil Kenan

There are quite a few things that differentiate “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” from its 2021 predecessor, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” including the fact that the new Ghostbusters, played by Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, McKenna Grace, and Finn Wolfhard, have moved into the fabled Ghostbusters H.Q. in a downtown New York City firehouse. But also, there’s a new director on board as Gil Kenan takes over from Jason Reitman in that respect.

Kenan’s name might not be as familiar to the fans who saw Reitman inheriting the franchise from his father, the late Ivan Reitman, but Kenan co-wrote and co-produced “Afterlife,” which he does again on “Frozen Empire.”

Joining the cast this time around are new characters played by Kumail Nanjiani and Patton Oswalt, called upon to help the new Ghostbusters and the O.G.s (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts) take on a new supernatural menace to New York City that literally freezes people with fear but also can control other spirits to do its bidding. This happens just as the storage facility where the Ghostbusters keep the ghosts they capture is at capacity and ready to explode.

Next Best Picture spoke with Kenan over Zoom about the latest Ghostbusters movie and the “SNL 1975” biopic that he co-wrote with Reitman, which is currently in production.

I’m familiar with your work going back to “Monster House,” and you’ve been in Ghostbusters world with Jason for a few years. So at what point does someone go, “Okay, we’re going to do a sequel, and you’re going to direct it”? Is it as organic as that?

Jason and I are both filmmakers first and writers second. It’s just how we’ve come up in our world of filmmaking. We’ve been friends for 20 years. We’ve been talking about film and stories for that long and have been collaborating on scripts for almost ten years now. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” of course, was the first big outing for us as co-writers and creative partners, but the process of handing off directing duties came about organically during the writing of this. As we were finishing up the writing, we had written another script that Jason is now in production on, and it felt like that one was going to come together. That was our “Saturday Night Live” script that just started shooting last weekend. Looking at this film, at the supernatural scale of it, and how, in your face, the ghost element is in this story, it felt very much in my sort of wheelhouse as a storyteller. It’s the thing I get out of bed for in the morning, and so it just felt like the right moment.

I was kind of surprised to see Jason at the premiere last night because I knew he had started shooting the SNL movie. He must have just gotten on a plane and flown right to the theater to introduce the movie.

That’s exactly what he did, and he did it because he’s a hell of a good producer. I have to say, I could not have done this without Jason supporting me every step of the way, just like Ivan was there for him on “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” Jason has impressed me every day on this film with his passion, care, and respect for this franchise. As the director of this story, he has shown me incredible support, including getting on a plane in the middle of production for our next film to be there to introduce me in front of the premiere audience.

I know when you’re making a movie, as you were with “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” you’re not necessarily thinking about a sequel. When writing that, were you already thinking of stuff you wanted to save for a sequel, like bringing the new Ghostbusters to New York?

Absolutely. We knew we would be bringing the story back to New York City. We knew that an important bit of the through line of the saga of the Spangler family, a discovery of their legacy, and the embracing of it, or at least the potential of that. And then, this film, “Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire,” is about now beginning to take full advantage of what it means to live and work as a ghostbusting family.

I also like the bits with Melody so that Phoebe can have a little side adventure. That storyline is kind of the heart of the movie. 

Absolutely. I really believe in ghosts as characters and stories. Some of my favorite characters throughout film history are ghosts, so I love that I was able to bring a ghost story to life in a way that was more than just a gag.

You mentioned last night that this is a scarier movie, and I know you have experience directing horror, so for something like this, do you have to be a bit careful with how scary you make it, knowing that a lot of kids are as into Ghostbusters as their parents now?

I’m really proud of having a filmography that can terrify kids but that they still feel access to; they still feel safe in the theater. I think that is a feeling that we don’t give our younger audiences enough anymore in movies. The ’80s was a decade where there were no-holds-barred experiences for young audiences, and then, it went away in the ’90s. There was this kind of retraction where everything became a bit more neutered and safer. Sadly, that sort of stayed the default for how we approach four-quadrant entertainment, but that’s not the experience I had watching “Ghostbusters” as a seven-year-old with my dad in a movie theater in Hollywood. I felt like we were on the edge of the abyss. It felt terrifying and exciting, which made it funny, too, when you feel that charge of electricity — you’re heightened, and a joke lands better. I knew that going into this… my first film, “Monster House,” always skirted that line between horror and comedy, and I got a sense of how to measure that tone for an audience. The answer is there’s no secret alchemy to it. It’s just being able to remember my own experience as a seven-year-old or eight-year-old in a movie theater, remembering what made me feel a thrill.

You brought back some of the O.G. (original Ghostbusters) for “Afterlife.” So, when you’re figuring out this sequel, how much do you have to talk to those actors in advance before even writing them into a script? I assume some of them may be more game than others.

We had a great time promoting “Afterlife” and getting a sense of how much passion our actors have for their characters. They really love their characters and each other, so we wrote this story with the confidence that they would want to go there. If we did right by their characters on the page, they would go along for the ride. They impressed me to no end with their commitment to the cause. They just went at it with absolute ferocity. I felt such passion and commitment from our four original Ghostbusters, and I feel so grateful that I got to tell this story with them.

Is it true that Bill Murray makes any line funnier just by saying it?

That’s actually true. I mean, Bill Murray is the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life. He has honed his tool to such a degree that it’s a thing to behold. This is my second time working with him. I made a movie with him way back in 2007 (“City of Embers”), and we became close on that film and started a friendship that continued over the years. So it was really nice to be able to make this film with him.

One big difference between the movies you and Jason made vs. the movies Ivan made in the ’80s is that visual effects have advanced and are vastly improved to the point where you can really turn Slimer into a living character, more like a person. 

Interestingly, you chose one of the characters where I used much of the same process that Ivan did — it’s just that, if I can get a bit technical, Slimer was always a combination of a puppet performance and a visual effect composite to put the character into the scene. That is the part that has advanced dramatically; the compositing is in a totally different world, and back in the day of 1984 “Ghostbusters,” compositing was done in the same method that Tron used, which is shooting against black velvet, and then, actually optically printing the exposed ghost puppet element into the plate and hoping that they match up in scale and lighting. We obviously have a lot more tools for better integration. Still, at the heart of it, it’s a puppet-driven performance, sometimes enhanced by animation, but always with that soul of the puppeteer at the center of it.

I think I saw one of the cast members on T.V. say that much of this was shot in England, even though it’s all set in New York City. Was there any shooting in New York at all, even if it was just that action scene at the start?

Movies are magic, man. One of the cool things that I always held on to is actually the first Ghostbusters film, which is a quintessential New York movie; almost every single interior other than the library in that film — and even then, half of the library, all the stacks and stuff, all the interiors were shot in Los Angeles, including the firehouse interior itself was in downtown Los Angeles. There’s a rich history of trickery in “Ghostbusters.” Yes, we filmed the interiors, and much of the film was shot outside of London. We were fortunate to do so because we had an incredible team of artists who could build sets with unbelievable detail and precision. But we did film some key sequences in New York City, and it was really important for me that we could root the story in the city where it takes place. There’s nothing like filming in the streets of New York, down to the pedestrians that gawk at an Ecto-1 flying past, turning their heads, or pulling out their phones to film it. That stuff is part of what makes “Ghostbusters” cool. If you watch that first film when the guys are running down the street, people turn and look at the camera, and it’s all part of that interplay that makes it feel authentic and grounded.

I recognized almost every block, and I think every New Yorker will cheer when the Ecto-1 mows down what you have in place of CitiBikes because those stands are an eye-sore to most New Yorkers.

Fantastic. [laughs]I love Gary Grooberson’s line, “Who puts bikes there?” at the end. Actually, another interesting detail was we were the very first film ever cleared to do cinematic drone photography in the city, so for every aerial shot that takes place, I wanted the camera to be able to move through the streets, and when Garaca begins to send out his tendrils of control on the supernatural elements of the city, all of those are the very first images of cinematic low-altitude photography ever shot in the city.

I want to ask you about the SNL movie because I remember when it was announced as Wolverines, I messaged Jason (whom I’ve known for 15 years or more) to congratulate him since it sounded like such a great project. You obviously had been working with Dan Ackroyd already, so did the two of you end up interviewing every living cast member to figure out what you might put in that film?

I’m hoping we’ll get a chance to really talk about it when we’re promoting that one, but I’ll just say that the process of researching that film was one of the highlights of my life. We spoke to everyone still alive who worked on that first season of SNL, from P.A.s to Lorne Michaels. Every actor on the show, every writer we could reach, and [we] filled notebooks with stories that we condensed into one of my favorite screenplays I’ve ever written with Jason.

Did you bring it to Universal first, and they passed on it?

No, we didn’t need to. We’ve got our home at Columbia Pictures, so Jason and I started a producing deal at Columbia just before “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” came out. That’s our shingle; that’s where we make movies.

I feel like Universal is so into the synergy between its T.V. brands and its theatrical releases that they’d want to do this one. 

Yeah, but we’ve got our own story to tell.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire” opens nationwide on Friday, March 22nd. You can watch the latest trailer below.

You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter @EDouglasWW

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