It isn’t often the director of a film looks younger than the teenagers he’s guiding through their lines. Gil Kenan is just such a director -- a wunderkind, dynamic personality who showed incredible talent during his college years at UCLA. Now directing City of Ember in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Kenan made such an overwhelming impression with his student thesis film that producer Robert Zemekis introduced him to famed director Steven Spielberg. A boy wonder himself, Spielberg took an immediate liking to the youngster and handed him the director’s chair for the 2006 animated film Monster House. Kenan came home with an Oscar ® nomination for his first film, and that put his name on the tongues of every studio in Hollywood.
About.com was fortunate to be part of a group of online journalists invited to visit the huge City of Ember set in Ireland. Director Kenan enthusiastically answered the group's questions and provided a little insight into what fans Jeanne Duprau's book can expect from the feature film adaptation.
How close is the film going to be to the book?
“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. The genesis of me getting involved with this whole project was a meeting that I had at Playtone, Tom Hanks’ company. When I had just got out of film school after The Lark had gotten me representation, I was going around kind of pitching these ideas. The good folks at Playtone handed me this glowing manuscript that had just arrived from the publishers called City of Ember. I read it and it destroyed my brain and put it back together again because it hit all the points that I wanted to tell in a story. It is exactly the kind of movie that I wanted to make.
So it’s funny, my relationship to this book, because I actually devoured the book that night. 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 wordsy in it’s 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. So a lot of the work that I and Caroline Thompson have done has been in taking something that’s purely a word-based mystery and puzzle-solving and making it visual and epic. That’s the most kind of important diversion.”
Can you talk a little bit about Tom Hanks’ role as a producer?
“He was incredibly helpful in the casting process, actually, and in other ways, too. Tom really kind of took this… He really dug the book and was really into the process of turning this thing into a script. He was around [during the] development of this thing and really kind of helped champion our cause: making this noble book into a movie. So he’s been amazing. He came out here a couple of weeks ago to hang out and walk through the streets of the city, and so he’s been amazing.”
How difficult was it to tell a story where the city is really a main character?
“For me, one of the big itches I’m trying to scratch as a storyteller 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. And in Monster House it was 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; it’s got a weak heart that needs one last push. It’s got a nerve center, brain. Every single character in this film is defined by their relationship to this city, either past, present, or future. And in every conversation I’ve had with my cast, the conversation begins by exploring their relationship to the other human characters in their world and concludes by defining their relationship to the city itself. And, really ,across the board you can draw a line that will kind of create, it creates a map of this story.”
It’s interesting that you spent all this time building the world and you don’t really waste screen time on it.
“No. I mean the key to making that work is by making sure that the story is always about the human characters. That you can’t avoid in a film like this, the exploration of how the human characters interact with their environment. And in fact, you know, 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 the box. It’s about how that box leads you down a path that leads you to a much deeper understanding of the city itself. And so I mean, the two are married in a way that can never be separated.”
Creating this environment must have been a real challenge because it’s a timeless place. It must have taken a lot of sit-down sessions at the beginning to make sure you accidentally include any visual cues as to the year the story takes place.
“Yeah. I mean, there was a kind of methodology in a way. The first order of business is putting our builder’s hat on. That’s what Martin [Laing, production designer] and I did at the outset of our conversation. Every instinct, every decision, had to be made from the builder’s mindset of function meeting form, and that includes signage, that includes design, color, esthetic. There was a purpose to everything. Then you take that hat off and you put on the pragmatic citizen hat, and that fills in the gap from when the city was designed and built until the point where the story starts. 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 did really seem to iron out a lot of wrinkles.”