City of Ember is the latest entry into the children’s fantasy film pipeline, but aims for a darker, more serious tone than predecessors to the screen such as “Potter” and “Narnia.” It concerns the denizens of the eponymous underground city, which was built exactly 200 years prior to shelter its citizens from the environmental disaster at the earth’s surface for 200 years! The power is beginning to fade from Ember’s generator, causing mass blackouts and panic. With time running out, two young children use an ancient parchment to navigate their way out of the labyrinthine city. Along the way they meet the resistance of the corrupt, dimwitted Mayor of Ember, played by the great Bill Murray.
Murray came to New York to discuss the film, its magnificent production design, and its political implications. He also gave some juicy bits of info on the currently-scripting Ghostbusters 3, as well as his voice role in another children’s film – Wes Anderson’s animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Q: How did you get involved with this project?
Bill Murray: I can’t remember who, but someone sent me the script. And I opened the script and it said “written by Caroline Thompson.” Caroline Thompson’s a writer that I met a long time ago when I first went to California and my agent sent me around to meet other writers. We went out to a bar that was a diner during the day on Lincoln Avenue. At night, it became a Mexican horn bar. There was a full orchestra with, like, six horns. The temperature was about 130 degrees, and all people did was drink rum straight and dance. And I thought, I could work with this writer. (Laughter) But I never saw her again. Never saw her again. But she’s written some great films. So I got the script and went, “Caroline Thompson wait, is that the one?” And it was the one. So I got her number and I called her. And she was on a horse. She was on horseback somewhere in the valley. And she said, “Oh, you’re gonna love this director, this Gil Kenan, you’re gonna like him.” So then I figured out who he was and I saw “Monster House,” which I’d already seen some of on the satellite. And I figured this guy’s good enough to work with by my rigid standard. (Laughter) So that was that.
Q: What type of research did you do to prepare for your role as the Mayor?
Murray: I did a little research. I found that the book was a book that kids in America read in school now. They read it in middle school. And when I told my sons I might be in “City of Ember,” they said, “Oh! You’re gonna be the mayor?” And I hadn’t even read the script yet. And I thought, “They already know what’s being spoken about and I don’t.” So when I read it, I read it from their point of view. I tried to think of, like, what they made of this guy, what this mayor was. And I think a mayor can be a father figure who can disappoint you. I’m a father figure and I’ve probably disappointed on occasion. So, I just thought of when you’re most disappointed is when you talk the talk and you don’t live up to it. And that’s pretty much what he did. So I felt like as long as I was really, really successful in talking the talk, that the disappointment would be there just like a gasp.
Q: Was having a pot belly your idea?
Murray: What’s that supposed to mean? (Laughter) Well, he’s the only one that’s eating three squares in the whole town, so he’d be the only one that would be putting on any kinda weight.
Q: Have you ever been in a blackout, earthquake, or any traumatic experience similar to those that occur in Ember?
Murray: I’m from the Midwest, so we don’t have anything like that there. I missed all the big blackouts, but I was in the pretty good sized hurricane that came a few years ago and the power went out in my neighborhood. All the power went out except for this kind of alarm system I have in the house that, you know, is for fires and everything. And it has backup batteries which will last for several days. (Laughter) Even though the power is all out, the batteries will still sound the alarm. But because the company that services it is about 60 miles away, I was the last person on their list. And they had 450 people between me before they got here. So I left my home, and I moved to the Plaza Hotel, New York City, with an entire group of kids and a dog. And they gave us the Presidential Suite, which is kinda funny, ’cause the same architect that built my house built the Presidential Suite in the Plaza Hotel. So it felt like I was home. It was very strange. Does that answer your question? It’s just an odd point of fact. (Laughter) But I don’t know what the question was. But, yeah, in terms of tragedies, that’s about as bad as it got, ’cause to just have sirens going off or alarms going off nonstop, I mean, it drives you nuts.
Q: The title character, the City of Ember itself, was built practically for this film so that it pretty much surrounded you 360 degrees everywhere you were on the set. What was it like, in an era of CGI and green screens, to actually be immersed into a real, physical world like that?
Murray: When you walk in and there’s a street and an underground city that’s 55 or 60 feet high with tunnels underneath it and there’s decaying doors and windows and bricks built as a street and concrete and plaster that’s made its walls, real doors that open, real glass, and beautiful design work, too… the emblems of the city built into the street and into the fountains, fountains that work it’s not so hard to say, “I’m living in a crumbling society,” when you walk in for work and there it is. It was so simple. And the costumes as well, the best costumes I’ve ever worn. The most beautiful I’ve ever seen in any film by far. It’s just my opinion, but that’s what I do for a living, and I’ve never seen anything like it. You know, the costumes that win the Academy Awards are the ones that look the most like the pictures in a book. And these were all original, all created. And they’re beautiful.
Q: Do you percieve any correlations or metaphors to our current situation in Ember? It felt like now.
Murray: Well, you certainly feel it. And it came up today, this idea that “is this movie like what we’re living through now? Was it intentionally written to be like what we’re going through now?” To be fair, you don’t wanna accuse a writer of being intentionally mirror-like, you know, intentionally mirroring the situation, or being metaphorical about your current situation. But I think what it is, is that the same combination of problems happen in that world that happen in our world. Whatever your intention is you’re still gonna encounter a lot of the same difficulties. So whether you say, “Oh, it’s a movie about preserving our environmental resources,” well, no, not necessarily. I think it’s more about a person that finds a way to survive in spite of all that’s around him, that finds their personal will and can follow their will and their spirit to emerge from a difficult situation. And on the way to that, you encounter this ecological consideration that we have of, “Well, how am I gonna live my life? Am I gonna live my life like this or is behaving as an eco-creature gonna help me serve my spirit?” I think it’s maybe inevitability coincidental, but I don’t think it was intentionally written that way. I think when you go on this search, this seeking for your own personal answer, that you are going to encounter those things. It’s almost a mathematical situation, where if you say, “I’m gonna answer this one thing,” you’re gonna collide with all this resistance on the way, including that.
Q: You play a hero in “Ghostbusters” and a villain in this movie. Is it more fun playing a good guy or a bad guy? And what persuaded you to go back for the rumored “Ghostbusters 3”?
Murray: Well, you’re way ahead of me, but that’s okay. There’s someone trying to write a script for another “Ghostbusters” movie. There’s two fellows from “The Office” that are writing a script, but I have yet to see it. And I’m more involved with, you know, trying to get the dessert we order at lunch than I am with the new “Ghostbusters” sequel. (Laughter) But it’s possible. It’s a great idea that they hired these two guys to do it, ’cause I think it could be a fresh look at it. And it could be funny. We did a sequel and it was rather unsatisfying for me, because the first one to me was ‘the goods.’ It was the real thing, and the sequel, you know, it was a few years later, and there was an idea pitched. They got us all together in a room. We just laughed for a couple of hours, and then they said, “What if we did another one? Here’s an idea these guys have got.” So they had this idea, but it didn’t turn out to be the idea when I arrived on the set. They’d written a whole different movie. And the special effects guys got their hands on it, and it was just not the same movie. There were a few great scenes in it, but it wasn’t the same movie. So there’s never been an interest in a third “Ghostbusters” ’cause the second one was kind of disappointing, for me, anyway. But the third one could happen.
But you asked me a question about bein’ a bad guy and a good guy. It’s so much easier to be a bad guy. It’s a piece a cake. It’s a joke. (Laughter) And, you know, I keep saying, “Why do they give Oscars to guys that play bad guys,” ’cause it’s so simple. Play a good guy some time. That’s hard. Play a really, decent good person. That’s hard.
Q: So would you go back for “Ghostbusters” again?
Murray: Only if I could play an evil person. (Laughter) No, it’s mostly all about the script. I don’t have any obligation to the franchise or anyone. If the script were good and I thought we could do it, it’d be fun. But, you know, it’s only now that this has ever been a prospect. No one’s ever talked about it for a long time, ’cause the second one was the way it was. This is just kind of a clever idea. I think they see that, and the fact that every interview today has asked me about the “Ghostbusters” movie–every single person–means that there is some interest for it. You think you’re talking about the “City of Ember,” but I’ve answered as many questions about the “Ghostbusters” as I have about well, not as many, but, I mean, on every single one. So there’s interest in it.
Q: What is your role in Wes Anderson’s upcoming animated “Fantastic Mr. Fox”?
Murray: I’ll be playing the badger.
Q: What is your badger voice?
Murray: Unfortunately, my badger I worked really, really hard on a Wisconsin accent, ’cause I thought that would be an appropriate badger voice. And for the first couple scenes I did this Wisconsin badger voice that I thought was so funny. I did the first couple scenes and then Wes goes, “Nah, I don’t think so. I would think it’s kind of a Savile Row badger.” Who here has seen a badger walkin’ down Savile Row? Anybody? (Laughter) Yeah. That’s what I said. But these are these new directors. You know, you just gotta give ’em their you know, let ’em hang themselves. I’ve seen some pictures of it. I think it’s old-fashioned ’cause it’s taking ’em a very long time to get it done, but they’re very excited.