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Scary ‘Monster House’ comes direct from the basement

by Naomi Pfefferman

February 22, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Chowder, left, and DJ cross over to the other side of the street to unlock a mystery and experience the greatest adventure of their lives

Chowder, left, and DJ cross over to the other side of the street to unlock a mystery and experience the greatest adventure of their lives

When Gil Kenan received a call from Robert Zemeckis in 2002, "I freaked out. I kind of flailed my arms and legs," he said.

This Sunday, Feb. 25, Kenan's feature directorial debut, "Monster House," a Zemeckis/Steven Spielberg production, will vie for Best Animated Feature Film at the Academy Awards ceremony.

But back in 2002, the Israeli American Kenan was 26 and a graduate of UCLA's film school with just one student short to his name. He had made his 10-minute short -- about a house that comes alive -- in the kitchen of his Pico-Robertson apartment, as eviction notices came and went on his front door.

Although the film had won the prestigious UCLA Spotlight Award, Kenan was understandably "shocked" when Zemeckis called with an offer to direct a movie -- this one about a more monstrous anthropomorphic dwelling.

After Kenan had finished freaking out, he says his "Israeli chutzpah" kicked in and he arrived at his first "House" meeting with sketches he had drawn of the titular mansion, including cockeyed window eyes and a sagging porch mouth. He also had ideas to transform the original screenplay, which had called for the house's elderly owner, Mr. Nebbercracker, to die and animate the house. Instead, Kenan suggested a new character -- Nebbercracker's wife -- a former circus performer who dies in a freak accident and becomes the Monster House. Kenan was virtually hired on the spot.

He says his chutzpah continued to sustain him through "House's" three-year motion-capture animation shoot, which he likens to "the ultimate film school" with Zemeckis and Spielberg.

For the film's characters and design, Kenan at times drew on his own childhood memories of creepy houses and neighbors. When he lived in Ramat Gan, he says there was a dark, shuttered house across the street from his family's apartment; a weird woman sometimes shouted from within.

When Kenan's family immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, an elderly custodian terrified the children who lived in his Los Angeles apartment building.

"This guy hated his wife, he hated children, sound and movement, and whenever one of those things encroached on his peace he'd let us know by smashing his cane," Kenan recalled. "If we left any of our toys outside, he'd take them and we'd never see them again."

The fictional Mr. Nebbercracker also confiscates toys -- and looks more than a bit like that cranky custodian.

"I designed the character with the same sagging pants on a withered body, the same exaggerated and veiny hands," Kenan said.

He adds that the greatest challenge was achieving the correct tone for "House," which he wanted to "be scary enough not to coddle kids but not so much that they need counseling." The result is a dark fairy tale with a happy ending, like something out of the Brothers Grimm.

Kenan feels like he's living his own Hollywood fairy tale.

"I'm still pinching myself," he said.

The 79th Annual Academy Awards will air Sunday, Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. on ABC. {--Tracker Pixel for Entry--}

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