A Conversation with ‘City of Ember’ Director Gil Kenan

First thing Thursday morning at Comic Con we got the chance to sit down on an outside terrace at the Convention Center to chat with film director Gil Kenan. His first film Monster House, produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, was very well received and went on to gross nearly double its budget. Gil’s first live action film, City of Ember, will be released on October 10th.

PCZ: Joe Dilworth, along with Dan Clark, for Pop Culture Zoo, talking to Gil Kenan today, director of City of Ember.

GK: I thought that was like a true or false. That was the easiest question I was going to get all day.

PCZ: Yeah, well, sorry.

GK: And weíre done!

PCZ: Thank you very much!

(laughing)

GK: How am I doing? Iím doing great. Itís a beautiful day, Iím excited. I havenít really been out on the show floor yet. Iím really excited to go out and nerd out. Iíve got a four-month-old daughter and Iíve decked her in a kind of exclusive Skywalker Ranch onesie, and Iím going to dangle her around in front of crowds.

PCZ: That will be great. People will part the way for you.

GK: Or rip the little onesie off her pink body.

PCZ: Or theyíll offer you a lot of money for it. “Dude, where did you get the onesie!”

(laughing)

PCZ: So, City of Ember. Thatís your first live action film, is that correct?

GK: Thatís right. Yeah, although in some ways, obviously, Monster House is animated through and through, it is sort of that my mode of making film was a good transition. I worked with actors on the stage in the sort of motion capture stage, and making the shots I worked with actually the same people who shot City of Ember who I brought on. So, it was an animated film but it was a good stepping stone towards my first live action effort.

PCZ: Now, I wanted to ask you about the motion capture. Was that project Ėwas that how it was going to be done or was it part of the process you came up with?

GK: Um, no, it was going to be a motion capture film although that still wasnít Ė no one knew exactly what that meant yet. [Polar Express] was actually in the first or second week of shooting. Maybe they hadnít even started shooting yet. It was something right in that zone. I came from a life of making experimental films that were sometimes live action, sometimes stop motion, sometimes pixelation, and so I was ready to wrap. I knew that as long as I had a story to tell I could tell it with whatever tools were right in front of me. So I was given a set of tools and it was kind of cool because it was like the Wild West, no one really knew how to make a movie this way or what the movie should look like. I got to sort of corral it and lead it to the theater.

PCZ: Excellent. Okay, moving over to doing live action with City of Ember Ė did making it seem a little easier since you didnít have to do the motion capture?

GK: No, every movie is really, really hard. Itís like, it should be hard. If making movies was easy then I donít think that they would be as good or it wouldnít be as much fun to see them. Every movie presents its own problems and disasters. We shot in Belfast, Northern Ireland, really far from home in a summer where it rained every single day for the entire duration of our stay. But I got to build an enormous city. I literally got to build a set the scale of which you donít see any more. I went from a film that was completely virtual to one where I knew I didnít want it to be like a green screen set extension kind of a film. I wanted my actors to be able to live in a world and interact and for there to be a sort of organic sense of life to the place. We got that when we built Ember.

PCZ: Now, how was location shooting? Was that something that was new to you?

GK: Yeah. I want to do more. I mean, the film is such a controlled story that it almost all takes place within the confines of the city under ground and so location shooting was limited to a handful of days. The majority of the shooting was all in this enormous set. And so the hardest thing was getting my light because I had to wait for the rain to stop and the clouds to move. That stuffís a bummer. The next time I shoot itís going to be in the desert. I want to know Iím going to get my light and Iím gonna shoot it.

PCZ: Weíre down from Portland so we empathize.

GK: Thatís funny. I was just talking to Tim Robbins because he might be doing a movie up in Portland, and by the way Portland is one of my favorite cities in the world, itís an amazing place. I was telling [Tim] he should go talk to Gus Van Sant about the nature of shooting there because in a way you sort of have to make peace with the gods and know that part of the quality of the film shot in Portland is that no two shots will look alike. Itís almost like a patchwork quilt of light and in a way that sort of defines the look of it and its cool. Itís really good. But thatís not the movie I was making, and so I had to have some control.

PCZ: Were you a fan of the books prior to this?

GK: What books?

(laughing)

GK: I was. When I started there was actually only a manuscript for the original novel. It hadnít been published yet and there was no sequel, or prequel, or whatever. I read it, it blew my mind. I called the next morning and said I had to make the movie, and then I came in two days later and pitched to Tom Hanksí company. I pitched them a three hour version of the film without breathing and willed them into submission.

PCZ: Theyíre like ďOkay, fine. You have to do it. Go.Ē

GK: I used my Jedi mind trick. ďI will be doing this movie.” “You will be making this movie.Ē

PCZ: Was there anything that you had to lose from the books that you really feltÖ

GK: It wasnít about losing, it was sort of about adding. The books are a word-based puzzle, and I knew that my job as a director was to create something visual, something cinematic. So it was actually kind of 
one of the challenges I enjoyed the most in this process, was taking something that works well on a page and turning it into something kind of involving, cinematic, visual puzzle.

PCZ: Following up on that, Walden Media is fairly new with Prince Caspian and the “Narnia” series, how was it working with Walden Media and especially translating their printed works to the screen?

GK: It was great. They have a real respect for stories, for writers. Theyíre very novel-friendly, and also to their credit they really embraced all the things that make this story great. Not a lot of companies would have gone out on a limb on a movie like “Ember”. So itís been a really great relationship.

PCZ: Fantastic.

GK: Well, Iíve enjoyed our chat.

PCZ: Likewise.

Thank you very much to Gil for his time at Comic Con and to Walden Media for the opportunity to talk to him.

About Joseph Dilworth Jr.

Joseph Dilworth Jr. has been writing since he could hold a pencil (back then it was one of those big, fat red pencils, the Faber-Castell GOLIATH. Remember those? Now that was a pencil!). As editor-in-chief and instigator of this here website he takes full responsibility for any wacky hi-jinks that ensue. He appreciates you taking the time to read his articles and asks that you direct any feedback, criticisms, questions about life directly to him by clicking here.