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Gil Kenan Practically Created An Entire Physical Realm For City of Ember

Gil Kenan sparks City Of Ember.

By Violet LeVoit | Posted 10/8/2008

"In the city of Ember, the sky was always dark," begins the first page of Jeanne DuPrau's 2003 children's dystopic fantasy City of Ember. "The only light came from great flood lamps mounted on the buildings . . . when the lights were on, they cast a yellowish glow over the streets; [and] when the lights were off, as they were between nine at night and six in the morning, the city was so dark that people might have well been wearing blindfolds."

When Gil Kenan read those words as a recent UCLA film school grad sitting in his very first development meeting at a production company, he knew he'd found his next movie. "The [meeting] had happened so quickly, I didn't have any script under my arm," says Kenan, a charismatic guy sprawled in sneakers and an oxford shirt at the head of a hotel conference table, like a college student who won a contest to be CEO for a day. "I didn't have anything to offer other than myself, and I guess my potential. But I did talk about a kind of movie I wanted to make. Back then I was calling it `domestic science fiction', like a science-fiction film in theme, but not with blue cool lighting and laser beams and stuff. Something that was a little more human. As I was talking, the producers started looking at each other, and they stopped me and they said there's this manuscript they just got that had yet to be published. They gave that to me, and I went bananas . . . I couldn't conceive of letting someone else make this movie."

That manuscript became City of Ember, Kenan's second feature (his first, Monster House, was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2007). His scant portfolio already shows an auteur's focus on one theme--the idea of place as a living, breathing organism, an idea that's expressed quite literally in Monster House (where a possessed mansion menaces three nosy kids) but more subtly in City of Ember. Ember is a vast underground city created to house humanity, a termite colony of nooks and pistons and softly glowing light, and for two centuries it has succeeded in nurturing its inhabitants--until the generator starts to fail and young friends Lina (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon (Harry Treadaway) must find the way out for everyone.

"I think first and foremost that this place was designed to keep humanity going," Kenan says. "I love the idea of giving a place that kind of lofty purpose, and I love the idea that the expiration date had come and gone, and the city was dying. Giving place an emotional component was really exciting. I love the idea that a city can live and die."

Part of that emotional texture comes from the fact that the movie was shot on a gigantic rabbit warren of a set, a virtual city constructed inside the 90-foot-tall walls of the Paintworks, a ship-painting hangar in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (To give an idea of the scale of the place, it's where the original Titanic got her first coat of paint before setting out on her doomed voyage.) "It's funny that you choose the word `virtual' because I came from making a virtual movie [Monster House] and went to making a practical one," Kenan says. "And that was a really conscious effort. I really wanted to feel the place, let the actors live and breathe there and have lives there and feel grounded."

Kenan also made certain DuPrau got to experience her city by sending e-mails and photographs of the set as it was constructed, like an explorer reporting back to his mapmaker about slowly uncovering the lost civilization they'd both dreamed about. "She was super excited," Kenan says, "and said [the set] didn't look anything like what she had in mind while she was writing Ember, but it's amazing and totally valid."

When sci-fi landscapes on film these days are usually defined in the impersonal pixels of CGI, there is something grounded to Ember's steam-punky physical presence, like opening a gigantic brass watch to reveal warm and ticking clockworks inside. It's a worthy heir to other visually memorable fantasies like City of Lost Children, Brazil, and Tron--but will Kenan be happy if his movie is only beloved by a core group of art-direction fanatics? "No, I want a bunch of people to just like the movie--to go in droves," he laughs. "I happened to really love Tron. I think it's amazing. But I'm not in this business to make pretty images. I want to tell good stories. Tron doesn't succeed in telling a story, and I hope that I do."

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