Now Entering the City of Ember (Part 2)


| Read the Saoirse Ronan & Harry Treadaway Interview

Down another street and under a fake archway brings us to Garden Square and the home of our other main character, Doon Harrow. It’s a smaller version of Harken Square, with various booths instead of large buildings, set up for selling vegetables grown in the greenhouses on the outskirts of town. Unfortunately we won’t get to see those as they were one of the few sets by necessity not connected to the city, and have already been shot and torn down. The vegetables themselves are real, carted in from a grocer, and bring a sense of warmth and color that the city has been lacking. A small street leads off from the square and down towards one corner of the soundstage, and sitting at the entrance to that street is an old phone booth. “[I]t’s been reappropriated as a messenger center. This is actually Lina’s station here and if you need a messenger you can either flag one down as they’re running through the streets in their red cape or you can go to one of the designated spots that are peppered throughout the city.”

“We’ll walk down this alley way and you’ll see at the end is one of our little neighborhoods – this is the Pipe Works – there’s a bunch of them throughout the city.” We actually have to take a slight break here because second unit is busy with the films other young star, Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”), as she tries to escape from a giant mole. Luckily a filming unit usually means a craft services table is nearby, and so it is here, although you do have to be careful to throw your garbage away in an actual trash can and not one of the fake Ember ones that are everywhere. Unfortunately they’re shooting in a very confined space, one of the city’s store rooms, and it’s impossible to get a good look inside, so we just wait for a moment to move on to the cul de sac where the Harrow family lives.

“This is Doon’s apartment upstairs. His Father’s Odd Bits store is just down here. His Dad basically takes junk – a lot of the old mechanical junk. There was a, the city was designed to be a technological marvel, so at conception and for the first while things functioned really well but mechanical things and electrical things have a shelf life and where we start our story most of those shelf life’s have been reached and have expired. So now there’s people like Loris Harrow – Doon’s father, played by Tim Robbins – who have gotten good at taking these things that once worked and ripping them apart and putting them back together again into other things, things that are functional or help pass the time or somewhere in between.”

Just like the Yarn Shop, the Odd Bits shop is a marvel, identical and yet completely different, filled with books and bits and pieces of metal. It looks like the art department bought out a junk yard at some point. Every so often some of those bits have come together into homespun contraptions that look like they could almost work. Some even do, albeit sometimes with the help of hidden electrics or effects technicians just off screen. It may all really be here, but that’s not quite the same thing as being real.

Signs scattered around the shop (and the apartment above) warn us that it is a hot set. All of the bits and pieces have been painstakingly set up for filming, which the second unit will do later in the day, so unfortunately we can’t play with any of the makeshift gadgets. “So, that desk in the back is Loris, Tim Robbins’ character’s work station, that’s where he makes the wonderful things that he makes. He clearly brings his work home with him, especially when the set is dressed. In a contrast to Lina’s space, which is really a warm, bright, colorful environment and by contrast Doon’s father… you basically needed a tetanus shot to come into this apartment and that really speaks volumes about their world views to, where they come into this story.”

“I’ll let you come up for a minute but there’s not lights up there but I just want you to see why it’s cool to have a practical set, and then we’ll come back. And watch these stairs, they’re Ember stairs. They’re tricky.” He’s not kidding. At least half of us, including Gil, trip on them on our way up.

The apartment itself also has the one thing no other building in the city has; a functional roof. A scene later in the film, which second unit will be shooting part of later today when Saoirse and Harry trade places, calls for Doon to climb out of the apartment onto the ledge of the roof to get away from the city guards.

Which is why the entire set is still dressed and covered with warning signs, which doesn’t stop Gil at all from showing us Loris’ breakfast machine, “something I’m unnecessarily proud of. It’s one of the contraptions that Doon’s father has built, an automatic can opening breakfast machine which I believe every good family film needs to have. So I’m perpetuating a long standing rich movie tradition of breakfast machines and I’m really, really proud of this one because it totally works. It’s amazing. It went from a sketch in my sketch book into a completely non-working, working model in a matter of weeks because we’ve got some brilliant, brilliant physical effects dudes working on this film.”

“I think his dad built it as a way, because Doon’s raised in a single parent home, partially for function and partially to amuse his son and that’s why some of it is a little bit unnecessary but I think is the sort of thing that would really bring a glow to a kids eyes. And, oh my…” and then he niftly breaks it. I can only imagine there is a props person outside somewhere preparing to commit seppuku.

Unfortunately, destroying painstakingly assembled props is all he has time for as an assistant arrives to tell him that cinematographer Xavier Grobet and has finished and everyone’s waiting on him. Waiting, in fact, is what you spend ninety percent of your time doing on a working film set. Back in the Gauge Room set, all the extras have been sent away. Now Gil has his attention fixed squarely on his principals, Harry, Saoirse (who’s rejoined first unit), Martin Landau’s Sul and Lina’s four year old sister Poppy, played by identical twins Catherine and Amy Quinn (today it’s Catherine). Everyone’s has taken their marks and are waiting for the call to action. Harry jumps up and down to keep warm (there aren’t any heaters – or air conditioners but in September they hardly need them – because the sound recorders would pick up the noise). Catherine, just waiting for the shot, is still very much the little sister, clutching Saoirse’s leg and demanding attention. Martin Landau does not jump around.

Then camera’s role and it’s all business. Harry runs in to talk to an anxious Saoirse and then both run over to Martin and Catherine as they shoot the master. They circle the set, checking the Saoirse’s map (the central Macguffin of the film) trying to work out what they’re supposed to do next, before grabbing Catherine and running out the door to the locker room.

They’ve already done this a few times, and they’ll be doing it a quite a few times more. That’s what you spend the other ten percent of your time doing on a film set. In between Gil comes out to give them notes. Video village is nestled behind a wall somewhere else – there just isn’t enough room on the set proper – so he tends to stand behind the camera and give notes personally. Unlike the actors though, he gets to be on the set with a parka on. Despite the cold it actually does look like a great deal of fun. Saoirse and Harry both seem to think so as they told us later [which you can read here].

In between each take the clang of hammers takes up the silence, relenting only for the jarring alarm that warns filming is underway. That’s usually the way it is with films in production, with sets being built up to the last minute (there are about three weeks of filming left), and City of Ember is no exception. The real question is where they’re going to put it as the city seems to use up every square inch of the gargantuan stage.

To find out, we’re handed off to Production Designer Martin Laing, James Cameron’s designer of choice, and the man responsible for creating Ember for real. At the moment, though, he’s leading us not to another section of the city but outside and across the street to the Harland and Wolff Building, where the art department has set up shop. It’s a fantastic old red-brick building (it even still has a lot of its old iron work, including a gate that leads into their loading dock, originally built for horse drawn wagons), until you get in-doors. Lots of rooms look like they were hit by a tornado, but the front is spectacular, right down to the old fashioned, non-electric revolving doors that lead into it. They’re quite heavy, with thick wooden frames, and look oddly familiar. Which stands to reason as I’d been looking at them not that long ago.

“These doors here where you walked through there, are the doors from the Gathering Hall,” Martin tells us. “We came and shot the Gathering Hall, which is the little hallway just inside, here at this location and then we reproduced those doors and built them on the set so that we could shoot the exteriors inside.” Which sounds as unintuitive, but makes perfect sense when you’ve built your own city. The only other location shooting they’ve done was for Lina and Doon’s school, which was shot inside of an actual old school building just down the road.

Unfortunately we can’t look around the building itself too much, we just have enough time to be herded into the Titanic art department room. It’s a brilliant old room. Because they were working in the days when getting a lot of incandescent lighting in one place was difficult and expensive, the art room is actually it’s own tiny wing protruding from the building stretching up almost two stories, with huge bay windows at one end and sky lights along the great curved roof, all to let in as much sunlight as possible for the engineers and designers to work by. Like everything else here it’s wonderfully decorated, with delicate molding on the columns and along the walls and ceiling. It’s hard to believe anyone ever went to this much trouble for what is essentially a drafting office. Nowadays its just cubicles and drawing tables. The building itself is now a historical landmark. Placed along the skylights themselves are various blown up photos of the construction of Titanic, reminding everyone why the building is there and what this room was originally used for. This is where the Titanic and her sister ships were dreamed up.

The photo’s and the room itself are actually quite familiar to Martin, from his time working on James Cameron’s Titanic a decade earlier. “Titanic’s there on the left hand side, already under construction, and then if you look over there on the right, Olympics already left. And then the building on the right hand side is actually this building. It’s weird, we looked at all of these pictures during ‘Titanic’ then to actually come here…”

It’s strangely fitting then that his own art department has taken over in here, setting up some concept art from the film, to give some context to the set we’ve just seen.

“This is a painting that I did of the city, with its lights, showing it as a kind of star in the darkness.” And that’s exactly what it looks like, a birds eye view of essentially the set back on the stage, only more so. It’s larger, with parts that haven’t been built, or have already been built and remodeled. The exterior of the school, which is ostensibly on the opposite side of the city from Doon’s apartment, was in actuality directly in front of it, having been redressed into what is now Garden Square. But the one key difference, that really does make all the difference, are the strands and strands and strands of lights hung over every square inch of the city. “One of the shots that we did, that we’ll actually start with, starts off high establishing the city just like this and float down and down and down, and pick up on Lina as she runs through to her last day at school.”

“This is just a quick concept sketch that we used to start ourselves off back in September. It’s a very simple kind of 1970’s modernist architectural style, no frilly Victorian bits. Most of the buildings, because they had to be built quickly are built out of concrete. A little bit of ’30s in some of the areas, but we were trying to push it more into the ’70s. Reading the book you could take it down a kind of Harry Potter feel, but we wanted to give it more of a realistic feel. There is a little bit of Communist feel in there.” – insert Seinfeldian ‘I knew it!’ here – “This statue [from the fountain in Harken Square] was actually taken from a Korean statue, though we’ve obviously taken it and made it our own. Not to say this is a fascist kind of place or anything like that, just the architecture of that time was like this. We did try to keep the color up, within the design. So we added in some lovely pastels. We looked at some books on Cuba; they have some wonderful buildings that have been colored over time, that aren’t quite so grey. When were in the city we went for these kind of pastels. When we’re in the tunnels underneath we went for this kind of green, when we’re at the generator we go for this red color, then as they make their way out through the tunnels it goes to blue.”

“It is, basically, a fall out shelter and that’s what led us down the path to the architectural forms we’ve chosen.” It all, it seems, comes back to architecture in the end.

“In the English system you start by learning architecture. Actually you’re first job is making tea. English art departments are regimented by how you’re supposed to make the tea, based on colors charts. You use different shades to tell which teas everyone wants. It’s hell,” he laughs. “Then you work your way up to assistant where you have to learn to do the drawing and set design and all that kind of stuff. But it does give you a good grounding so that when you do become a production designer you know what all the different disciplines are. And occasionally I make the tea.”

Further on down the line are several paintings we’ve seen before, in the Mayor’s office. They are the portraits of the various Mayor’s, including Bill Murray’s correct and ruined versions. Although an actor in the film will be the on screen artist, in reality they all come from the hand Martin, who like Ruth, still does quite a lot of his work personally.

“I remember twelve years ago on ‘Titanic’ someone brought a computer into the art department, we’d never had one before, now I can’t live without it. All these paintings, the mayor’s portrait, were done on computer. I miss it sometimes, but after so much time painting on computer with a Wavecom tablet, you go back to do it for real and your hand gets in the way. But it’s great, the director can come in and make his notes and you can just slide a bar, whereas in the old days you’d throw it all away and change it.”

“This is Michael Stevens over there,” he says, pointing to one of the ‘past’ Mayors. “Then we have our 1st AD Patrick Clayton. Then we have Bill Murray, obviously. Bill Murray was a fun guy. When I actually painted that painting, I started the process of painting it but then realized that because there’s a scene where he falls into his painting and the painting comes off onto his face I had to get a measure of his head. So I went into his trailer and said ‘do you mind if I measure your head please?’ because I’d done this painting and needed to make sure it was the right size. So he said yes, you can, and he was lying on his bed, just completely horizontal, and he said, ‘do it then.’ So while he was lying there I measured his head and then came and painted the whole painting.”

From there it’s back to the set again, to pick up where Gil left off. It turns out there is an entire subterranean world beneath Ember where the pipes handling the city’s water and sewage run (hence the occasional giant mole problem). This is where many of the films chase and suspense sequences take place. Nothing’s quite as moody as a good steam tunnel I guess. Quite a few pipe areas were already extant in the building when the production moved in, leftovers from the not inconsiderable ventilation system used to evacuate paint fumes that were strong enough to literally kill a person.

“Because this is an industrial space it just comes alive, it’s so great. When I first scouted this place I’d just wander up the stairs and take flash images and look at them. But there’s so much you can work with. All the pipes you just walked through are all us, but large parts of this were here.”

The pipe set itself is almost like a second city. It starts at the Pipe Works entrance on Doon’s street in Garden Square, and from there it snakes around all the different corners and empty areas of the soundstage, even going underneath some of the higher levels (such Lina’s street) just like the real pipe works would.

“We’re in green here because we’re in the tunnels, where Doon is learning his job. We built all the round shapes, and we built all these pipes in. And down here, up in the ceiling, is where Doon first discover’s the store room above. He comes up and opens up the hatch and comes into the store room we just passed. So we had to make it structurally sound as well, so we could have our actors on it. And when we have all the smoke and water on in here, it’s really fun.”

Like the city above the tunnels are a maze to themselves, but eventually Martin brings to a dead end. Or what appears to be one, anyway. It’s actually quite dark; it’s the one portion of the tunnels that doesn’t have interior lighting. A well made faux brick wall, with an equally well made hole in it, leads into a dark tunnel and up to a door marked 351, the Mayor’s secret room.

“And off to the left hand side and down there is Room 351. This is an uncharted part of the Pipe Works and you see it’s still in rock work, and as Doon is discovering what the tunnel’s do, this is where he discovers Room 351. It’s locked the first time he comes here, but he opens it the next time and this is where he discovers the Mayor. Unfortunately we’ve shot it already and it’s not as beautiful as it was. If you’d come last week it was marvelous last week. We actually had to do all the graphic design for all the different cans and food and whatnot. You find you build these lovely sets and dress them exactly how you want them, and then the film crew comes in and ‘ruins’ them and takes out everything. The Mayor loves to collect things and this is where he keeps all of his goodies.”

It looks at the moment as if looter’s had gotten a hold of it. The antechamber inside is lined with shelves, half of which are full and half are empty, with quite a few cans and knick knacks rolling around on the floor. From there, with a little bit of feeling around because it is quite dark, we make our way to the Mayor’s sanctum, an octagonal room, like the city itself, with shelves also half filled with made up can goods, and a single wing back leather chair in the center. It’s one of the few rooms that can be seen well, because of an art department created crack in the wall through which you can exit not onto the set but back onto the soundstage proper.

We’ve been wandering around in the tunnels so long, I’ve lost my bearings. It turns out that’s because we’re headed to the one part of the stage we haven’t been to before, because it’s the one part not connected to the others, and this is the only way to get there. It’s the studio’s green screen stage – even with everything that’s been built, it’s still not a completely set (or even location) based film – in the studio’s fourth quadrant. The interior of the giant soundstage is separated into quadrants by giant sheet metal walls. “We’ve actually cut through them in order to keep the city together,” Laing says, allowing the city to sprawl across the soundstage as it needs to.

“Cell one was the street where Doon’s area is, cell two was the center of town with Harken square, and cell three is over where Lina lives and where the Generator Control Room [where they were shooting earlier] is. This is the only one of the cells that doesn’t connect to the others. Because we wanted a big L-shaped street we connected cells one through three, and this is the one that stands alone, and the one we’re busily working on to get finished.

The holes have been so cleverly hidden (mostly at archways, where a false upper street crosses a lower one) you can’t tell you’ve actually moved into another quadrant. That is until you start trying to find your way back to the building’s one and only door. A search that becomes all the more frantic when you come to the realization that this giant, marvelous, and very old building has no plumbing and all the bathrooms are outside.

The one quadrant that isn’t connected to the others is the one we’ve been brought to, and not just because of the green screen, but also because of all the water being used in it. This is the generator set. Everyone’s been describing it as the heart of the city, and it turns out they mean it literally. “This is the heart of Ember, the generator that pumps not so well, in the same way that a 200-year-old heart would be beginning to fail. It’s actually going to have the feel of a beating of the heart when they come down here and start their journey to the top where they go into the Emergency Control Room, there’s lots pistons that are actually pumping in the same rhythm that a heart would do as well. It’s actually going to be supported by scaffolding, the way you’d put a shunt into a heart to keep it alive, here they’re trying whatever they can.”

The scaffolding’s not entirely set dressing, either. As big as this soundstage is, even it isn’t big enough to build the generator itself to scale. Instead, a massive set of turbine’s sit above a man made pool, surrounded by lots of man made rock and a green curtain so tall and so wide the Titanic might have been able to successfully use it as a sail. It’s covered in small crosses matchmovers will use for motion reference later when compositing in the rest of the generator set, and I can’t help but feel sorry for the poor grip that had to put them all on there.

As it turns out, we’ve also tracked down where all the hammering and sawing noises have been coming from. While City of Ember hasn’t been shot in sequence, most films aren’t, they have been saving the climax for the end of first unit filming, not least because of all the practical water effects involved that are both time consuming to set up and test and potentially destructive. But even though the generator isn’t finished yet (or at least the piece of it they are building isn’t finished yet… never mind), it’s definitely starting to come together.

“Obviously because the generator is huge, going up hundreds of feet, we don’t build the whole thing. We just build the bits that are going around the actors. This is connected to the Locker Room and Gauge Room that you saw earlier. The water wheel and the cave and everything else will be added in later on by the wonderful guys in the visual effects world. This we’re actually shooting next Wednesday so there will be a team of magic pixies coming in here and making this thing work.”

It’s not all completely fake either. There are one or two pieces of heavy equipment that were left over from the shipwright days that they didn’t bother to move, just incorporated into the design of the generator, the most prominent being a giant red boxy-type thing who’s original purpose I couldn’t begin to guess at. There’s also quite a lot of water all over the floor, causing several of us to slip, as they test their man made pool. It unfortunately keeps us from getting too close to the set itself. All we can really get a good look at is the top of what eventually will be giant wheel, one of two that use the flow of the river to turn the generator’s great turbines.

“The water wheel will be CGI, we’ve just created our own little one, but the distance on film will be much greater than our actual stage will allow. This will be one of the last things we shoot. There will be real water; it will be about three feet high. As the water level rises they make their way up to the highest level and then they’ve [Lina, Doon and Poppy] got nothing else to do but get in their boat and take it. So that’s going to be a lot of fun.”

If they get it finished in time. Which I don’t doubt that they will. Most set heavy films are usually scrambling to finish their final sets; it’s just the nature of film making and a side effect of the fact that no soundstage, no matter how large, is infinite. The only way to get around that problem is lots and lots of carpenters working around the clock and that’s exactly the case here. It also means that Martin can only spend so much time with us before he has to get back to his day job, which brings our second tour to an end.

And then, in just a few weeks time (almost a year ago, by the time this is getting read) all of this will have to be destroyed, to make room for the next film shooting here. It’s too bad, because the film itself, just by its nature, will never be able to fully convey just what they’ve built here. For understandable security reasons they won’t let anyone take pictures in here, but it almost seems like they should, just for the historical value. This is the sort of set building that’s becoming more and more rare in Hollywood. Green screen is in many ways much, much easier to work with. Like the saying goes, I don’t know if I’d want to do it that way myself, but it’s a nice place to visit. Or something like that.

After a day and a half inside I almost feel like I live there, and like the Emberites themselves, you quickly lose the feeling of being in-doors at all. It’s an exhilarating experience, one that may well not be fully appreciated until after the film has come and gone. But, I have to admit, nothing in the trip is anywhere near as rewarding as telling one of the PR people which part of the city her boss is waiting in, and explaining the best route to get there. Despite living in the city of Houston for twenty years I’m still the last person you’d ever want to ask for directions downtown. But by God, I know my way around the city of Ember.

You can read our full interviews with director Gil Kenan here and with Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway here!

City of Ember opens in theaters on October 10.