Gil Kenan on City of Ember


Set Visit Part 1 | Set Visit Part 2

Every prospective film school student has the same general dream, whether they admit it or not; to make a brilliant senior short that brings attention and representation by graduation so they can jump right into big budget feature film directing. In reality this never happens. Like any other profession, you have to pay your dues and learn your craft before you’re really qualified to sit in the big chair. The fact that he actually pulled off this most improbable of improbable scenarios is just one of the many infuriating things about Gil Kenan. Another is that he’s so likeable in person you immediately forgive him for his youth and success.

It’s ridiculous that someone would give $75 million dollars to a 26-year-old who’d just barely finished receiving his MFA from USC’s film school, and whose previous directorial effort was a ten minute black and white that cost all of $400. It’s even more ridiculous that his first feature, the computer animated Monster House, should turn out to be so good. Maybe it’s because he’s got a natural affinity with actors, especially young actors, and a strong grounding in art and visual design. He carries a sketch book around with him wherever he goes to doodle designs and ideas for the various projects he’s developing. He even sketches on the back of all the pages of his script while directing. He seems to have a particular fascination for hands.

It’s those sort of skills that probably made him Tom Hanks’ pick for his current project, the big screen adaptation of City of Ember. While Monster House was a fully computer animated film (albeit shot with live actors against green screen), City of Ember is the exact opposite; a traditional stage-based film complete with a giant set of the entire city.

Which has brought a small horde of reporters down onto the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, to see the production first hand and meet with the young but increasingly experienced director. Talking with a director on the set is usually the worst place to get any sort of meaningful back and forth going. Their minds are just too much on the work at hand. Fortunately, after a brief tour in the morning Gil’s given up some of his much needed downtime to sit down with us at The Merchant, a wonderfully baroque (even the crenellations have crenellations) Edwardian-era bank that’s been converted into an upscale hotel with an excellent, excellent bar.

Gil is in person quite tall with too much hair and immediately likeable. He tends to talk very fast and then take long pauses as his words rush to catch up with his mouth. We’ve gotten a private room in one corner of the hotel and Gil’s been installed in a single chair up front like a disobedient pupil in order to put him at ease.

Gil Kenan: This doesn’t feel quite so much like an interrogation. [laughs] A little bit more formal. How about I sit on the couch and all of you sit on this chair. [laughs]. Now we’re like a family.

So what’d we do today? Um… we spent three fourths of the day in the Pipe Works then as promised we ended up in Doon’s [Harry Treadaway] apartment and shot a couple of things. But yeah, I love that Pipe Works, the Gauge Room set; it feels good to be in there so I’m glad you guys came to be in there on a day that we were shooting something that I like.

Q: Then what?

We went to the Costume Department, and spent some time with [Production Designer] Martin Laing.

Kenan: Costumes. I love them because you look at them you’re like oh, right, but then you look closer and they’re filled with so much character. I always insist that Ruth draws things for me and they’re always amazing documents. She always captures, it’s really deceiving at first glance because there’s so much shape in her drawings and they always end up defining the road for the costume as it’s assembled in the end. I’m really lucky to have her.

And Martin’s amazing, we’re really lucky to have him. That was pretty much everything I showed you, but better? So I’ll see you guys later. [laughs] Isn’t that [generator set] amazing? It makes me want to cry to go in that room. But the best part is, if you saw the paintings, that enormous set is this much of the generator that’s this big. Which is mind blowing. It’s exactly the scale of filmmaking that I always hoped to get to with a film like this. And it’s exactly what the generator needs to be. In the scheme of things it’s the heart of the city, it’s the heart of the film, so it has to be that special and it has to be worth fighting for. I’m really glad you guys got to see it. It’s going to be crazy. We start shooting that in a week and it’s going to be a ball of fun.

Q: Is it going to be ready?

Kenan: They’re spraying paint as we speak. There are construction crews that work feverishly through the night. You know those shoe cobbler elves? You show up in the morning and a little bit more generator is done. Is that a story, shoe cobbler elves, or did I just make that up? Just say yes. [laughs]

So have into me.

Q: It was an impressive set, but it’s not great for a camera crew. How are you dealing with those spaces?

Kenan: It’s… a lot of stuff has been Steadicam, there’s a lot of handheld work, but there’s a lot of modular spaces. A lot of walls wild out. And the cool thing is because we have practical sets I can take a wall on the side of a building and a thirty or fifty foot Technocrane on the ground and I can actually get into a room. Xavier [Grobet], my DP, is kind of really good at finding ways to sneak cameras into impossible situations. But we’ve definitely imposed some difficulties on ourselves by having the buildings all be functional.

The normal way to do this would be to have every single interior in a separate stage and take any piece of wallpaper out you want to put the camera in. But in a way you lose the grounding of it, and it was more important for us to be able to connect the characters to their city. Because it’s not like another movie, it’s not like we’re recreating Paris in the 1700s. We’re creating a completely new place and this is a story where every character’s relation to the city is fundamental to the story telling. So it was critical that Lina [Saoirse Ronan] is a part of her home and that Doon as you saw is kind of cut from the same cloth as his wallpaper, as the bits and bops in his father’s shop. That’s kind of right to the heart of the film we’re making.

Q: Was it difficult to convince the powers that be that was the way you had to shoot it and you needed to build it?

Kenan: It was never really… no. I think people were really excited by the idea that we were going to do something impossible. There’s something really cool about it. We’re living in an age where the de facto answer to a problem like this is to shoot the film 75 percent green screen and fill in the bits later. And I just spent three years of my life filling in the bits later, so the opportunity to have kind of a tangible environment for me to play in and for my actors to play against was critical. There was never a question that this was a film that was going to be made in front of the camera. There’s a few things like the generator and a few other bits that have to be green screen just because what I want to show on screen as part of the finished frame. But it still amazes me how much of this film we’ve been able to shoot practically, from effects, from mechanical sets, on and on and on.

There’s something we’re gearing up to shoot tomorrow and next week, which I can’t go into too much… one of the things I’m going to be – there’s going to be areas where I’m going to want to be very vague or just tap dance around a question. Because I’m really happy to let you guys into the process this early, but also I’m in a really vulnerable place because I’m making the movie. Until I get back home and edit and put this thing together there are a lot of things I want to keep for future conversations we’ll undoubtedly have down the line. But I think that it’s been amazing to have that stuff there.

Q: There’s a definite benefit for you and the actors to film it for real. What benefit do you think there is for the audience?

Kenan: I think when it’s good for the actors; it’s good for the audience. The performance is grounded. You can’t put a value on that kind of thing. And second of all it’s a mode of filmmaking that hasn’t been done in a while. The idea of a big set that’s alive where I can have citizens who have a daily course of action that takes them from their house to the Market, stop at the way home at the Washing Station and then end up at City Hall. That sort of detail…

Q: Do you have any shots like that?

Kenan: Sure, yeah. It allows me to have the camera move through the city in a way that would only be done as a trick. I love the ability to do that stuff without having to bring computers into the conversation. It allows a sense of grounding of reality.

Q: But not because you have anything against CGI.

Kenan: Obviously, I made a film that was 100% CGI; I’m a firm believer the powers of storytelling that it affords and that it opens the filmmaker up to. But I also understand that there are stories that need simplicity and humanity and things that humans do better than any amount of pixels that has or will ever be created. And this is one of those stories. I just believe that you let the film dictate the technology and you let the story dictate the modes of creation, and this film charted its own course. It’s a different course.

Q: You’ve been living with this since you were first showing “Monster House.” Did that help in really physically realizing the world, and deciding that’s how you wanted to do it?

Kenan: I don’t think that would differ from any film I would make. I think if you’re making a film that’s so driven by its visuals, so driven by a specific aesthetic, design is fundamental. It’s part of the writing process. So I think that I had to take that time. If I wasn’t taking it while I was out promoting “Monster House” we would be all sitting here a year from now when I was shooting this.

Q: Did you storyboard less? Did you feel more at liberty to shoot from the hip, given you had a practical set?

Kenan: Yeah. It’s been kind of a fun process of discovery for me in that sense. There’s a lot of scenes that have been completely boarded that worked exactly the way I always imagined they would and came out amazing. And then there’s some sequences where I maybe had boards a year ago, but as the process of casting and of building the space and of shooting and me getting comfortable with the world of the film, I would just abandon the boards and shoot from the hip as you say. And it’s been totally liberating. This film has been a real healthy balance of the two. And part of the rewards of having a space that’s not limited, that’s 360 degrees of freedom for me to shoot has allowed me that freedom, basically.

Q: There’s a tonal issue I’m curious about. Everyone was saying today this is a society that’s breaking down, but they aren’t a fascist society, they aren’t people who are unhappy, they’re happy people. But the visual cues can lead you to think these are downtrodden, depressed people. How do you in the film get across the message that they aren’t?

Kenan: In the film and in the story, my perspective has always been this is a film of light against darkness. This is a film of characters that are filled with light, in fact are glowing, against a backdrop of darkness. And it’s the same as the city. The city was once a shining beacon of light and it’s begun to lose its luster. But the citizens still have that spark. And that goes right to the heart of the story. It’s a story about humanity persevering. The spark of what we all have inside of us being able to push through the darkness to resolve and so to me that’s always been the balance. We’ve got characters that are full of humor, full of light. It’s the same thing all of us recognize in the most dire of circumstances, where we can all dip into humor. We can find the lightest moment against the darkest backdrop. That’s the tone of this film. And that’s how I’ve been able to find humor in situations, to find absurdity, to find fun, adventure, and to keep the tension and suspense of the reality of this world.

Q: You talked about bringing Bill Murray on, he hasn’t done any kids films except voicing the Garfield’s in years, how did you convince him to do this. And since almost everyone else in the film is British, is he doing a British accent?

Kenan: No, no. We’re doing an Ember accent, first of all. Which is important to note. We spent…

Q: What’s it sound like?

Kenan: I’m just directing the film. [laughs] Don’t ask me to make noises. [laughs]

Q: We haven’t heard a single actor speak so we don’t know what anyone sounds like.

Kenan: Right. Didn’t they tell you it’s a silent film? [laughs]. It’s what I call a movie neutral. You’ll see. It’s an Ember dialect, so there’s a bit of weirdness. They’ve been living in a bubble for generations. In a certain sense, there are words, turns of phrase and parts of the dialect that have kind of evolved down a certain path. But there’s no certain accent in the film. Though certain people would say I have an accent, which is completely ridiculous. I’m completely neutral.

But, getting Bill Murray into “Ember” was a great day in my life. For me the character of the Mayor is critical to the tone and to the story, because in a world that’s filled with characters that are fighting so earnestly to make a better place for themselves there’s one character that’s got a black heart and it just so happens that he’s the politician in the story. And I new that in order to make that character rich and human, it had to be an actor who could play the role the way that every great politician, great with a little ‘g,’ the way every great politician does their stuff and that’s with an abundant amount of charisma. ‘Cause when a politician is lying to you they’re making you love them, and when they’re telling the truth they’re making you love them. And it took someone with a mountain of charisma like Bill Murray to bring that character to life.

Q: How much humor does he bring to it?

Kenan: A lot. He’s amazing. It’s an interesting balance because he’s totally menacing – he’s got a real interesting character you’ll see in the film when you guys come and visit me in the cutting room one day if you guys behave yourselves – his ability to turn that corner has been revelatory. It’s been amazing to watch. He’s really able to point into a moment of real tension and threat and then make you laugh till you’re crying a moment later.

Q: Is that improv at all, and how much does his portrayal differ from the book?

Kenan: It’s defiantly, he’s definitely playing a character. It’s weird for me to talk about this because I feel it’s so much better for you to just see it. It’s like me describing a performance. Just watch the performance and it will answer the question. But he’s great and he’s funny and he’s scary as hell and kind of all of the above.

Q: How close is the film going to be to the book?

Kenan: What book? [laughs]. No, no, no. First of all this book’s been close to my heart for four years. I read this manuscript actually before I ever started on “Monster House” and the genesis of me getting involved with this whole project was a meeting that I had at Play•Tone, Tom Hanks’ company, where I was – when I’d just gotten out of film school where “The Lark” had gotten me representation. I was going around kind of pitching these ideas and the good folks at Play•Tone handed me this glowing manuscript that had just arrived from the publishers called “City of Ember.” And I read it and it destroyed my brain and put it back together again because it hit all the points I wanted to tell in a story and it was exactly the kind of movie that I wanted to make. And so, it’s funny my relationship with this book because I devoured the book that night and then as soon as I finished it I kind of… a path for the film took place, and it wasn’t totally symmetrical. There’s things that you’ll see in this film that take real turns and most of them involve taking a book that’s very word based in its puzzle solving and making it visual. I really believe that people don’t go to films in general, or films like this in particular, to see people reading on screen and so a lot of the work that I and Caroline Thompson (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”) have done is taking something that is purely a word based mystery and puzzle solving and making it visual and epic. So that’s the most kind of important diversion.

Q: Did you change anything related to the sequel, in order to give the film more closure?

Kenan: It’s funny because I think there was actually a second printing of the book that added in a chapter from “People of Sparks.” We’ve got a really definitive ending that I’m not going to talk about but it tells the audience everything they need to know, but not a frame more.

[Note: Play•Tone and Fox have bought the rights to “People of Sparks” and signed Gil and the cast for a sequel, if “City of Ember” is successful enough to have one.]

Q: How was it working with [Producer] Tom Hanks?

Kenan: He was incredibly helpful in the casting process actually. In other ways, too. Tom really kind of took this… he dug the book and was really into the process of turning this into a script. So he was around in the development of this thing and he really kind of helped champion our cause in making this little book into a movie. He’s been amazing. He actually, he came out here a couple of weeks ago to hang out and walk through the streets of the city.

Q: Any cameo?

Kenan: October 2008. [laughs]

Q: How does this film relate to “Monster House?” If that was about a house becoming a character, is this about a city becoming a character?

Kenan: Yeah, I had to go somewhere! [laughs]. Absolutely. For me, one of the big itches I’m trying to scratch as a story teller at this point in my nascent career is to explore that relationship of humans and their environment. I feel like there’s a critical emotional tie that all of us have to the places that we live. In “Monster House” it was kind of a simple, linear relationship. The house was infused with the spirit of a human. And in the “City of Ember” that relationship is a lot more complex and I think a lot more interesting. It’s a city that’s a character in every way other than being physically alive. It’s got a heart that beats – a weak heart that needs one last push – it’s got a nerve center, a brain. Every single character in this film is defined by their relationship to the city; either past, present or future. And in every single conversation I’ve had with my cast, the conversation begins by exploring their relationship to the other human characters in their world, and concludes with their relationship to the city itself. And really across the board you can draw a line that kind of creates a map of this story.

Q: That’s interesting that you spent a lot of time building the world, but you’re not wasting a lot of screen time on it.

Kenan: The key to making that work is by making sure that the story is always about the human characters but you can’t avoid, in a film like this, the exploration of how the human characters interact with their environment. In fact a key part of the plot of this film is about unlocking the mystery of the actual city. It’s not just about the contents of a box; it’s about how that box leads you down a path that brings you to a much deeper understating of the city itself. So the two are married in a way that can never be separated.

Q: Kind of like “Brazil.”

Kenan: Right. And both of those are examples of films that take place in new environments, right? It’s not recreating a place that exists in our world. It’s not trying to show Los Angeles in the future or Belfast 100 years ago. So I think there’s an opportunity, and almost a responsibility when you’re making a film about a new place to give it its due, its screen time, its close up.

Q: Where there a lot of meetings at the beginning about what you couldn’t do, in order differentiate the world from what we do already know?

Kenan: Yeah. There was a kind of methodology. The first order of business is putting our builder hat on, and that’s what Martin [Laing] and I did at the outset of our conversations. Every instinct, every decision had to be made from a builder’s mindset of function leading form. That includes signage, that includes design, color aesthetic… there’s a purpose to everything. And then you take that hat off, you put on the pragmatic citizen hat. And that fills in the gap from when the city was designed and built to the point where the story starts. And as long as we follow that path we’re mostly going to be okay with the occasional surprise that has to be dealt with. But that approach really seemed to iron out a lot of wrinkles.

Q: So you started with the city at its foundation, then went forward.

Kenan: Yes. Everything was designed to work perfectly across the board, including the kind of key parts of the plot as well. There’s big parts of this puzzle that, had certain events not taken place, would have made the mystery a non-mystery. You would have just been able to follow this and do this and the end of the film would have happened an hour earlier. But as it happened those events did take place and an adventure did create itself and that led us down a separate path.

Q: Can you talk about the casting of the two leads? I understand the boy in the book is much younger than the character Harry plays.

Kenan: Yeah. It was an interesting process. I spent the longest time of my casting life finding Lina and Doon for this film. It took me from coast to coast in the states to London and Ireland and every English speaking country on this planet and the process started by trying to find the perfect characters. At first we started meeting characters that were exactly the age in the book and then I quickly saw that there was something more important to get, and that’s perfect characters. So, I started to get a better sense of who this character was and Doon in his actions, in his voice, in his predicament and in his place in this society, became an older character. He became someone who was at the higher range of the graduating class than at the younger age. And Harry came along and knocked my socks off. And he became Doon and the age issue became irrelevant. So you asked in ways we diverge from the story, I had to be able to be honest to the film and say I’d much rather have a Doon that works in this story than one who is faithful to an age in the novel.

Certain other things kind of presented themselves as well – the relationship of two twelve year olds has been kind of beaten into the ground in family adventure films, but the dynamic of that kind of few years age gap between them in the film is really fascinating. It creates a completely different dynamic between the two of them. I’ve really enjoyed kind of watching that develop and nurturing it, so that’s the answer there. And of course I won the lottery with Saoirse and she’s about to take over the world and she’s amazing. I don’t know if any of you have seen “Atonement” yet, but she’s mind-blowing and she fills the screen with light, which is exactly what she needs to do.

And Tim Robbins is great. Loris is kind of not a fully fleshed out character in the novel and so Caroline really was able to find a really fascinating citizen in Loris, one with a history that’s deeply linked to a part of the mystery of the city. And bringing someone like Tim on board was a major coup for all of us because he’s an incredible actor and back to tone, is able to bring fun and lightness and humanity and yet feel completely rooted emotionally and completely connected to this world. He’s a really interesting character. You’ll see when you see the film, he’s got a real past, and bringing someone like Tim on board for the ride was… his eyes just go on forever and his face is so expressive, it was a real pleasure to work with him.

The end. [laughs]

Have a good Ireland; I’ll see you guys on set tomorrow I’m sure. Don’t make it awkward. If you see me just wave. Don’t do that thing in the grocery story where you pretend like you don’t see someone. All right, have a good night everyone.

City of Ember opens in theaters on October 10.