Monkeybone

Here are some pre-production drawings done for MONKEYBONE, a film directed by Henry Selick. I worked on the film very briefly, perhaps only a week or two, helping with story beat boards. It was a fun gig, in part due to the location in The Presidio.

Nowadays The Presidio is one of the jewels of San Francisco – a truly beautiful mixed use parkland for residents to play in – but when I first arrived, it was still a functioning military base. It was already known that it would soon close, however. So discussion about what was next for the site bubbled for the first few years that I lived here. Would it become low income housing? Yet another swanky property development, seemed likely. Who else but big money could pay for the cleanup required after the military had left so many toxic cooties (asbestos etc) behind? 

Anyway, while such things were being decided, some of the abandoned buildings would occasionally be rented out for short term projects. One being an animated/live action comedy, that was in pre-production circa 1999 (adapted from the graphic novel DARKTOWN  by Kaja Blackley & Vanessa Chong). I worked on MONKEYBONE in the early, eager, happy, anything-is-possible phase. It may have been so early that our work was merely a proposal, before a ‘green light’. 

Henry himself was in a great spirits, now that he was out from under the shadow of Tim Burton, and Chris Columbus was his exec producer. Many of the crew were Henry’s old cronies from Nightmare Before Christmas, such as production designer Bill Boes. He’d already built models of some of the sets & locations, and these were great reference. With a tiny lipstick camera we could shoot the models from all kinds of angles, and this was enormously helpful, allowing myself & Lawrence Marvit to bang out panels relatively quickly, under the guidance of Mike Cachuela.

Many things had not yet been decided on, such as casting. The protagonist in my sketches here was based on Nicolas Cage, but of course Brendan Fraser eventually got the role of of Stu. Other roles were played by Rose McGowan, Dave Foley, Bob Odenkirk, John Turturro, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Kattan and even Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito. The final film really had an amazing cast.

The Presidio was not yet full of the multiple dining options of today, but our workspace wasn’t far from The Presidio gates, where we’d have lunch at nearby Liverpool Lil’s, a great little pub (that has recently burned down, sadly). I also remember a really fun swanky dinner (I forget now where) with the entire tiny pre-pro crew, where Henry was in a jovial mood and writer Sam Hamm was too. Both hilariously regaling us with their Hollywood horror stories (and comparing their scars inflicted by Tim Burton). Best of all, someone else generously picked up the exorbitant check! (I think it was Sam Hamm?)

Years after my brief stint on MONKEYBONE I got an invite to a preview screening in early 2001. The film was madcap, weird, & even disturbing at times. Much of what I’d thought would be animated was actually handled with costumed humans in the final film, surprisingly. But it was exciting to have finally worked on a feature film that actually got made. This was a period where I worked on many great projects that collapsed before making it to the screen. I remember enjoying it until the very end, when I saw that I hadn’t got a credit (I hadn’t worked on it long enough apparently).

In the lobby after the screening, I was not the only person who was downcast, and there were a lot of concerned/worried/disappointed faces. Whereas I was bummed that my name was was not in the credits, many people seemed unhappy that their names were! Sure enough, the film was a financial & critical flop and has low score to this very day (despite a tiny subset of viewers who still love it, and look back on it fondly). I subsequently learned that there had been much tussling along the way to the screen. Was Henry out of his element with so much live-action shooting? Perhaps the guy who’d done Home Alone was not the right choice to ‘mentor’ Henry? Did things go sideways after Rupert Murdoch fired Bill Mechanic? Or was it merely typical studio meddling at fault? My guess is it was another case of AOTA: all of the above.

Henry himself sums up MONKEYBONE this way:

I have two thoughts: it never would have been a big hit. It certainly would have done better if they advertised it a little… I would still like to do a Director’s Cut because there’s a lot of cool stuff that was removed… my main lesson learned is, I don’t really do well in the live-action universe… I love my world of stop-motion… I went down a slippery slope to make Monkeybone, but the film that came out it’s not my vision of what the film could’ve been, and I just don’t thrive in that.”

Not long after I worked there, the fate of The Presidio was finally decided when George Lucas’ proposal to develop The Letterman hospital into a media centre was accepted, and The Presidio become the play-space SF that residents love today.

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Just last weekend, we spent a day in The Presidio, enjoying its restaurants & bars and exploring the new Tunnel Tops park. As we strolled around, I tried to figure out which of The Presidio’s many buildings we worked in back in 1999, but couldn’t pin it down (of course, the Letterman hospital complex was levelled to build what became ILM/Lucasfilm, so perhaps the buildings we worked in are gone).

6 thoughts on “Monkeybone”

  1. Well at least you got to etch in another hieroglyph into the impressive “ cave of James” AS wELL as working in the historic Digs of the presidio! The movie is living proof that despite the individual talent framing it, you can still end up with a $2.75 bag of pick-n- mix candy. I can claim responsibility for a smattering of those!

    Reply
    • Ha!
      Yeah, talented & creative people busting arse is NOT the foolproof recipe for success that you’d expect it to be. I’ve seen many gifted & hard working crews produce MEH material, and been on quite a few such mystery projects myself. Sometimes the reasons for failure become clear after the fact, but not always.
      Thanks for reading & commenting Deane!

  2. Hi, I’m just curious but was Monkeybone supposed to be live action or was it supposed to be stop motion, because I’ve seen pictures of the dark town set with characters and was supposed to be more close to kaja blackley story. When did that change? Also, was Henry fired midway through the filming of the movie?

    Reply
    • I’m not exactly sure when that decision was made (or why). There was always supposed to be live-action for the real world stuff, but when I worked on it (in a very early stage) I’d thought everything in Stu’s mind was going to be done with animation or puppets. I was only on the project very briefly, so I’m unclear on why decisions were made later on, or what happened re Henry.. For more accurate answers you might try asking MIKE CACHUELA: https://www.mikecachuela.com/contact

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