Answering the Call: Writer/Director Gil Kenan on GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Are you troubled by strange noises in the middle of the night? Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic? Then you know who to call. Ghostbusters became a cultural phenomenon in the summer of 1984 when director Ivan Reitman’s supernatural comedy took the box office by storm. Nearly forty years later, filmmakers Jason Reitman (son of Ivan, who died in February 2022) and Gil Kenan brought the Ectomobile–and the franchise–roaring back to life, providing a much-needed boost to box office recovery in 2021. Ghostbusters: Afterlife landed among the top ten highest-grossing movies of the year at the domestic box office, earning $129.3 million in ticket sales. 

A fitting homage and continuation of the original film and its 1989 sequel, Ghostbusters: Afterlife introduced a vibrant new set of characters to carry the story forward alongside the legends of ghostbusting. As Afterlife director Jason Reitman shared with Boxoffice Pro in our 2021 interview, “There’s a reverence that was a part of the work. That had to be a part of the work.” That admiration for the franchise and its legacy continues in Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, once again co-written by Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan, with Kenan taking his turn in the director’s chair.

Writer/director Gil Kenan has the kind of Lana Turner soda fountain discovery story that every film school student dreams of. After having his student short film The Lark screened at the Director’s Guild of America as a part of the UCLA Spotlight Awards, he was signed to a major talent agency and soon landed the role of directing the 2006 film Monster House—a film produced and presented by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg—before going on to direct films such as City of Ember, 2015’s Poltergeist remake, and A Boy Called Christmas. Like his writing and producing partner Jason Reitman, Kenan has his own special connection to Ghostbusters: it was the first movie he saw in cinemas after moving to the U.S. at age seven.

Kenan straps on his proton pack again as something strange arrives in your neighborhood theater this March 22, courtesy of Sony. In this new film, an ancient artifact unleashes a new force of evil into the world, leading the Spengler family back to the iconic New York City firehouse to team up with the original Ghostbusters to save the world from a second Ice Age. Boxoffice Pro picked up the phone and called Ghostbusters’ Gil Kenan with all of our supernatural elimination queries. Kenan spoke with reverence for the late Ivan Reitman’s work and how much he relishes the opportunity to continue the story that he started with Jason in Afterlife. In addition to bringing the story back to its New York City roots, writer/director Kenan shares how he’s been considering the theatrical experience of Frozen Empire from week one.

I was at the theater recently and at the moment of the firehouse reveal in the Frozen Empire trailer, a boy rows ahead of me gasped and shouted, “Ghostbusters!”

I am that boy! [Laughs.]

It sums up what adult fans are all feeling internally.

I felt that every single day making this movie.

It’s also a great example of what the theatrical experience of Afterlife was like, where multiple generations got to come together and further explore this universe.

It’s been so thrilling on a lot of different levels for me. Being there for the ride as a writer on Afterlife, I got to see how authentic and meaningful the roots of Ghostbusters are to the fans and the people who have held these characters in their hearts and imaginations since 1984. I got to go around the world with that film and see just what a connection the world of Ghostbusters has with its fans. I felt it.

For me, in 1984, it was a threshold moviegoing experience. We had just moved to Los Angeles, and it was the first movie I saw in a big movie theater. I remember the crosshairs [of the film] being aimed directly at me and the audience. It triggered all the instincts that have defined the way I tell stories. The blend of terror, suspense, comedy, wonder, and classic movie magic felt like a formative experience for me. So I understand that kid yelling “Ghostbusters!” in the theater more than you will ever know. I channel that instinct every day while working on this story.

Audiences of all ages now know and are invested in the legacy characters and the next generation of characters from Afterlife.

The most startling and important discovery with Afterlife was how resilient the shoulders of Phoebe Spengler [played by Mckenna Grace] are as a vehicle for the stories of this franchise going forward. We believed in Phoebe and her family. It was a world of characters that felt like a natural extension of our passion for Ghostbusters; that felt like they would allow us to have these stories breathe going forward, to branch the mythology and the world of Ghostbusters in new directions. As we hinted at the end of Afterlife, bringing them into Manhattan, to the epicenter and the heart of classic ghostbusting, meant that we could now take a big step forward in terms of scale, stakes, and the obstacles our heroes face.

You approached writing Afterlife with Jason as fans and lovers of Ghostbusters. Were the two of you able to return to that same pure form of storytelling in writing the sequel?

[Laughs.] Your question makes me remember a moment when we were writing this new film and returning to that original passion as fans. I remember trying to work out a pivotal set piece in this new film, and we reached for the best tool we had to solve it: a Lego set of the firehouse that we have in our office. I remember us lying on the floor with this Lego set, moving our character figurines within the floors. Somebody walked into the room to ask us a question, and it was about as pure a moment of storytelling as you can imagine: two grown-ass men lying on the floor playing with a Lego set. It captures just how pure of a storytelling experience this is.

We could view [the filmmaking process] with so much of that original spark of excitement and movie passion. The first film animated us in very different ways. Obviously, Jason’s point of view on the first film was sitting three inches to the side of the director’s chair, where his dad was sitting. For me, it might as well have been 1,000 miles away, even though it was only 10 miles away in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where I saw it play for the first time. It was the same respect, excitement, and sense of what was possible through these characters.

Jason followed in his father’s footsteps, taking on the director’s chair for Afterlife, and now you move into that chair. How did you hash out the directing responsibilities this time around?

It felt like a natural handing off of the baton. We are filmmakers first and consider writing a part of the filmmaking process. We both came up as directors. We met while I was editing my first film, Monster House, and he was editing his first film, Thank You for Smoking. We were both climbing that same mountain for the first time, and our friendship began there and then. It’s a conversation we’ve been having over the years as we’ve been writing—even before we wrote Ghostbusters: Afterlife—“You take this one, I take this one. And we’ll write them together.” All I’ll say is that it did feel as thrilling, as frightening, and as fulfilling as I hoped.

It was largely possible because Jason, as my creative partner and collaborator, was an impeccable producer on this film. I felt his support, his confidence in me, and his enthusiasm for the work—the performances and the moments we were capturing on set—in a way that made all this possible. It’s strengthened our creative bond. I wouldn’t have known that until after having crossed the rubicon as a director on this film.

When filming A Boy Called Christmas, you went to the Arctic Circle, and now the Arctic is arriving in New York City. You’ve previously talked about striving for location sets and actual builds. What was the worldbuilding process like in bringing the Ghostbusters back home to NYC?

It’s ingrained in the DNA of Ghostbusters to have as much of the performance happen in as real an environment as possible. We built enormous sets for this film—beautifully detailed, expansive environments. The firehouse interior was built out in London to incredibly exact detail by our production designer, Eve Stewart. As was done in the original 1984 Ghostbusters film, there is a movie sleight of hand that happens in the interplay between filming location and story location. Fans will know that in 1984, the interior of the firehouse was in downtown Los Angeles while the exteriors were in New York City.

To your point, it was critical that in the moments of heightened action (where Ecto-1 is called on to engage with some supernatural threats in this story) that every single one of those moments was filmed, not just with the actual car on actual streets, but in Manhattan. That creates a sense of reality and movie magic that you just can’t put into words. You know it the second it comes on the screen: you’re watching something real, visceral, and authentic. You get that sense of slight danger, the grit on the street and buildings, even onlookers craning their necks as the car goes past. It feels like Ghostbusters. It’s part of the DNA of these stories, so it was crucial for me that we got all of that.

What can you share about reassembling this iteration of the ghostbusting crew and bringing this ensemble cast back together? 

It’s a big cast—always a thrilling challenge for a director—but also an embarrassment of riches. There are so many talented performers. A lot of the work had to happen for us at the writing stage to ensure we were creating a balanced platform for these incredible performers to do their jobs. It was the thrill of my lifetime to stand back and realize that I was directing shoulder-to-shoulder the great names in ghostbusting past and present. I can’t tell you how wondrous it is for me to be the person who calls action on the legends of ghostbusting in a scene that Jason and I conceived of, where they’re facing off against a new and terrifying villain that feels like a classic Ghostbusters threat. In that way, it feels the fulfillment of all of the hopes and dreams we have as storytellers; it allows you to take characters you have tremendous respect and love for and give them a story worthy of their abilities.

Ghostbusters films are meant to be seen on the big screen. How did you design sequences for the theatrical experience?

Ivan set the bar very high with his Ghostbusters films. Making sure that Frozen Empire is a thrill for audiences on a large canvas is a direct nod to the templates that Ivan created with Ghostbusters in 1984 and Ghostbusters II in 1989. And one that Jason so beautifully hit with Afterlife. These are big screen experiences, designed that way from the beginning—in lens selection, in the way that action is conceived of, and in the way that we allow the camera to move through this world.

I was screening dailies projected in a movie theater from week one on this film, because it’s not enough to review dailies like we usually do on an iPad screen or even in the editing room. Something important, different, and magical happens when you project on a large screen. It creates a different equation for an audience, including the people making the film. It’s very integral to the way that this film was conceived. It was written as a big screen experience, it was created as one, and now, as I’m editing and finishing the film, in every instance we are going to a large screen to set the experience to the right parameters for our audience.

Growing up, did you have a favorite Ghostbusters toy or product?

I was really into the weird-ass toys Kenner made [for the animated TV show “The Real Ghostbusters”]. We have somebody on our team, Eric Reich, who is a master Ghostbusters archivist. He knows all the names, but I just remember there was a police officer character whose stomach would flip up and change his expression to a ghostly one. [For the record, the Haunted Human figure was called X-Cop Ghost.] I remember that being such a thrill as a terrifying Ghostbusters toy. I love that Kenner line.

We watched many episodes of “The Real Ghostbusters” as we were beginning to hatch this story. We did that because we knew those stories were not beholden to the original mythology. They weren’t afraid of getting weird and wild and going off the beaten path. We wanted to embrace those instincts in writing this new chapter of the saga. Those toys and what they stood for are in the DNA of Frozen Empire, a movie that I hope will spawn a whole new generation of weird toys for the children of tomorrow.

Was there one particular moviegoing moment growing up that inspired your interest in filmmaking?

The one that comes most readily to mind is my dad taking me to watch Time Bandits when I was young. The movie experience was so persuasive, so visceral for me. It was the first time I started to think about it existing beyond just a story I watched. I became curious about who those people were after that film.

I could point to The Empire Strikes Back as a pivotal moviegoing experience. My grandfather took me to see it and fell asleep the second we sat down in the movie theater. It was a double feature, so I felt like I experienced it all on my own. It was thrilling and dangerous. I felt that way in 1984 when I saw Ghostbusters as my first American moviegoing experience. It blew my mind. I felt like it was the first scary and funny—and very American—that I saw after moving there.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a pivotal experience for me. I saw a 16 mm projected print of that in my elementary school gymnasium when I was a kid. It terrified me and made me think about what’s possible through movie magic. I’m made up of the fragments of magical experiences I’ve had in a movie theater growing up.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

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