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Interview: Director Gil Kenan Talks ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ and How It Lives Up to the Original’s Legacy

March 18, 2024Ben MK

For 40 years, the Ghostbusters franchise has entertained moviegoers. Yet, despite the huge time gap between 1989's Ghostbusters II and the more recent installments, that hasn't stopped the fan-favorite series from ingraining itself into the subconscious of audiences around the world and becoming one of pop culture's biggest phenomenons. Whether it's its trademark blend of comedy and supernatural scares, its ghoulishly memorable antagonists, or its iconic and sing-along-worthy theme song, there are a multitude of reasons why the Ghostbusters films have proven as timeless and popular as they have. And with Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, director Gil Kenan is continuing the legacy started by original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, in this crowd-pleasing followup to 2021's Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

I caught up with Gil Kenan to chat about the making of Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, from working with the cast to maintaining the aesthetic of the original movies, and to find out what the franchise means to him.

With the previous film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, you stepped into the franchise by co-writing the screenplay with Jason Reitman. And now with Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, not only did you and Jason work together in writing it as well, but you're also stepping into the director's chair. Can you talk a bit about your journey coming off of Afterlife and heading into Frozen Empire?

Kenan: The experience of writing Afterlife with Jason, who I've been friends with for almost 20 years and who I've been talking film and story for that entire time with, was a really special creative collaboration in my life. There haven't been many moments like that where something has felt like it was being created with so much love and respect. And I'm so proud of the film that Jason directed, especially to have a front row seat to his relationship with his father maturing in the way that it did into a producer-director relationship with a film franchise that was so much at the core of his father's directing legacy. When it came to writing this next one, we already had some ideas in place while we were finishing up Afterlife.

We got to tell the story of Frozen Empire to Ivan shortly before he passed away. That experience of writing that script in the months after and the year after his passing was a really emotionally fraught experience, but also really beautiful in that we knew we were carrying on the legacy of Ivan's storytelling through the continuation of the character journeys that he began way back in 1984 with the first Ghostbusters film. For myself, as a director on this film, my relationship with Jason and how we approach our writing is that we always think of ourselves as two filmmakers who are sitting down to write, not two writers who then take off their writing hats and then put on a directing hat. We always think about the screenplay as a catalyst to a film project, something that will be realized visually on screen. And in this film, during the course of the writing, we started to have conversations about perhaps I would be doing this next one, and that sort of started to pull the narrative into a direction that leaned into some of the themes that I was drawn to exploring.

During the writing process, I also began to visualize some of the concepts in this film. Garraka was a drawing that I created while we were writing. Melody, the ghost character we meet in the story through Phoebe, was a drawing that I created while we were writing. And so those naturally began to develop into a place where, in a non-dramatic, very organic way, it became clear that this next one was one that I was gonna direct.

As a huge Ghostbusters fan yourself, it must have been the ultimate form of wish fulfilment to get the opportunity to play in the franchise's sandbox. How did you set out to make this movie both a love letter to the original films and a worthy sequel in its own right?

Kenan: It can't help but be a gesture of love for me, because I've grown up loving these characters and this story. I saw the first film when I was seven years old. My dad took me to see it in a movie theater in Hollywood when we first moved to America, and for me it was like a gateway experience. It was thrilling, it was hilarious even though I didn't understand a lot of the jokes, and it was kind of a gateway moment. And I think that the balance between honoring that same spirit of love and respect that I have for that film — you can't separate that instinct from pushing forward narratively. Because as a storyteller, you do feel like you have a responsibility to the characters to allow their stories to push forward into time and space.

Especially because with Afterlife, Jason and I made the conscious decision to pin our narrative on a family that was about to discover the true depth of their legacy and the weight that that carries with it. In this film, that legacy has been fully realized, but there is this inner storm that risks pulling them all apart. And that goes in lockstep with an external threat that's greater than we've ever experienced in these films. So the combination of those two created a natural balance between the dramatic forces that were pulling us into uncharted territories and the core concept of respect for these characters and a love for the stories that they've already been a part of. I guess those two elements were always in tension in way that created a balance.

It was great seeing the original Ghostbusters (Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson, as well as Annie Potts) not only back in action in this one, but working alongside the new cast. What was the camaraderie like on set, and what was it like working with everyone again?

Kenan: Sometimes it felt like comedy camp on set, because there were so many brilliant comic actors together. They're all so cool and funny that they entertain each other while I'm figuring out the next shot and how to block it, how to light it. So they were really good at keeping themselves occupied and entertained in between set-ups. But, for me as a director, there's no greater thrill than being able to work with actors who are so brilliant at their jobs. And watching Kumail [Nanjiani] bring this new character, Nadim, to life, standing toe to toe with Dan Aykroyd, Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Ernie Hudson, Bill Murray — you're talking about some of the greats of comedy of our time. Add Patton Oswalt and James Acaster to the mix, it's just a buffet of awesomeness.

Do you have a scene or moment in the movie that's most memorable for you?

Kenan: I do really love that final battle and the way that the OGs participate in bringing matters to a head. My favorite scene is one that I don't want to talk too much about because of its potential spoiler territory, but Phoebe is confronted with an extraordinary challenge in this film — an experience that she opens herself up to but that threatens to cost her and the people she cares about dearly. And that sequence is a scene I'm really proud of. I love watching that scene in a theater with a new audience, cuz they're not prepared for it.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Ghostbusters film without the ghosts. And we get to meet a few new ones this time around, as well as a couple of returning favorites. Do you have one that's your personal favorite?

Kenan: Yeah, I'm a Garraka ride or die, I love that guy. Maybe [he's] not technically a ghost, though; he's an evil god more than anything. I'm gonna re-answer your question with Melody, because I don't think we've ever had the opportunity in a Ghostbusters story to have a ghost that has a real backstory, that has a full-dimensional dramatic arc. And that alone makes Melody memorable in my book.

In terms of the visuals, I appreciated how there was a practical feel to some of the effects. Can you talk about the balance between using CGI and using practical effects?

Kenan: I think it goes right to the core of what makes a good Ghostbusters story. That first film was a mixture of cutting-edge ILM visual effects mixed with tried-and-true, tactile, brilliant puppet work from Boss Films that created Slimer and the Librarian Ghost, Terror Dogs, etc. Between those two worlds, you create an alchemy of something that is both fantastical, on the side of the visual effects, and something that's tangible. And when something's tangible, it creates an emotional relationship with the audience. You feel the humanity of the crafts that it took to bring something to the screen. It actually does make a difference. It starts to create an interplay that feels uniquely Ghostbusters. So I was always looking for how far we could push things in a practical direction, and then knowing that there were certain elements that could only be done [with] VFX.

With the film being such a crowd-pleasing homage to the original movies, there are a ton of Easter eggs and callbacks hiding in plain sight. Was there one that stood out the most for you, and were there any that maybe you wanted to include but ultimately didn't for one reason or another?

Kenan: There's no restraint when you're making a Ghostbusters film, it's all there on the screen. I'll tell you a couple of my favourites, cuz both of them are firehouse-related and I really love the idea that the firehouse itself has this continuum through the films. One of them is a tiny nod to the first film, when Trevor goes up to the attic the first time and he's exploring some paranormal goings-on in the house. As he glances around the room, there is an old, hand-painted sign leaning up against one of the walls. It's a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, but it's the very same sign that Ray was putting up on the firehouse when they were just starting out. And it makes me so happy every time I see it, because it's a direct connection to the history of these characters.

Another one, again a very minor detail — but Eve Stewart, our production designer, had the idea of creating scars in the building from where the original Manhattan cross-rip in 1984 took place. So if you pay attention, on the ceiling and on the floor, in a direct line going up from the old containment unit, are the visible repairs of what went on in order to make the building habitable again after those events.

Last but not least, if you were a ghost and could choose to have only one specific, ghostly ability (whether it's possessing inanimate objects, controlling other ghosts, etc.), what would it be and why?

Kenan: Yeah, I definitely would want to be able to be a free-floating, levitating spirit, because I feel like it would give you way more freedom of movement. I'll take a free second power, which is moving through walls, which I think would go with the territory. I don't feel like I would need to be a ghost that is shy and hiding behind objects. I would wanna be right out in the open, but I would wanna be able to fly around and goof around.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is in theaters March 22nd.

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