Commentary: Deal for 'City' followed film school

Gil Kenan was in right place at right time

"City" conversation: Film school has become a great launch pad for first-time filmmakers, typically leading to entry level production jobs that enable would be-directors to gain experience and establish relationships within the industry.

As nice as that is, what happened to Gil Kenan is a lot nicer. Kenan managed to go directly from graduating UCLA Film School to doing a deal with Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman's production company Playtone to direct the fantasy adventure "City of Ember." No sooner did he do that deal than he was hired by Robert Zemeckis to direct the motion-capture animation fantasy "Monster House," which wound up getting made before "City" and became a 2007 best animated feature Oscar nominee.

A Walden Media and Playtone co-production, "City" opens wide Oct. 10 via 20th Century Fox. Directed by Kenan, its screenplay by Caroline Thompson ("Edward Scissorhands") is based on the best-selling novel by Jeanne Duprau. Starring are Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray, Harry Treadaway, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Toby Jones, Tim Robbins and Martin Landau.

The film takes place in the underground City of Ember, built as a refuge for humanity and powered by a massive generator that's only good for 200 years. Now with that generator starting to fail, saving the City is its desperate citizens' goal.

"I had just graduated from film school at UCLA and had started making the rounds," Kenan recalled when we spoke recently about how he broke into the business. "I didn't have a script, but I had a big notion of the kind of film I wanted to be making. I knew it takes place in a sort of controlled environment and (would be) domestic science fiction so that you deal with what is essentially a human story in a broader science fiction context. And that's all I had other than my enthusiasm."

Playtone had just gotten in a manuscript for an as yet unpublished novel called "City of Ember," he added, "so they thought it would be a good fit. They gave it to me and I freaked out. I read the thing that night and called back the next morning and said, 'What do I need to do to make this movie?' So we started that process. I came in a day or two later and subjected them to a three hour pitch of my version of that book. They hired me to develop it.

"A couple of weeks after that -- you know, when it rains it pours -- I got a call that Bob Zemeckis wanted to talk about something called 'Monster House' and that ended up becoming my first film. At the same time that I was developing 'City of Ember' with Playtone, I hired Caroline Thompson to pen the screenplay so we were in a good place when I finished 'Monster House' to kick into pre-production on 'City of Ember.'"

Needless to say, not everyone who's just gotten out of film school is as incredibly lucky. "I don't know how to explain luck," Kenan told me. "That's really what happened. There's plenty of talented people who I graduated from UCLA with, but I was in the right place at the right time. My (UCLA) film was seen by the right people at the student showcase that UCLA has every year and it really was this kind of supernatural chain of events. I'm worried to examine it too much because I'm afraid it will disappear if I think about it too much."

It was 2004 when Kenan started working on "City." "I start everything by drawing," he explained, "so I made a bunch of drawings that were the first simple design cues for what the film would look like. I made those before I even created an outline or before I came back to pitch the movie to Playtone. But those things always stuck around as compasses for me to come back to when it was time to actually figure out what this thing was going to look like. While Caroline was writing and I was busy on 'Monster House,' every once in a while I'd pull out the sketch book and add a couple of drawings and fill in some scenes."

It helped, he pointed out, that he already "had a core art team that I worked with on 'Monster House' (so) that when they finished on that film I got them working on 'Ember' stuff. We created hundreds of drawings and paintings that articulated the look and feel of the film. While (the script was being completed), I was kind of hammering away at the design of the film because it's an important component in a story like this where the film takes place in a world that's never been seen before. So you can't really rely on conventions."

Asked how he worked in directing the film, Kenan replied, "I did storyboarding. I have a storyboard artist that I've worked with closely now on both films on the major sequences where there were a lot of physical or practical effects or really intricate camera work that had to be plotted out in advance. I would start every morning off with a set of drawings that defined the shot list for the day. I do a visual shot list when I'm working. I have a little piece of paper with me with all the thumbnails and I just check them off as I shoot. That way I know the thing's going to cut (together well)."

One of the film's key roles is played by Saoirse Ronan, a supporting actress Oscar and Golden Globe nominee for her performance last year in "Atonement." "I looked for many months for the lead role in the film of Lina," he said. "I looked in the States, at first, on both coasts and in the center, and I just wasn't really feeling it. Then I started looking in the U.K. and Ireland.

"My U.K. casting director Gail Stevens called me one day and said there was this girl who had just shot a film called 'Atonement.' I was familiar with the novel and I knew that (she played) a significant role. When I first met Saoirse she walked into the casting room in London and uttered a couple of lines of dialogue and I immediately called off the casting process for that character. It was the easiest decision I had to make on this movie."

Ronan plays Lina, a young girl assigned to work as a Messenger in the service of her fellow citizens, which is the City's system for determining the lives people wind up living. She then finds herself in possession of a long lost secret and clues that can lead the City's people to safety.

Bill Murray plays the City's Mayor. "The Mayor was always an interesting part," he explained, "because he's a villain -- but he's not a villain in the classic sense. He's more a politician than he is a villain. I really wanted to find someone who had a kind of natural charisma, someone you would believe would get elected to office and could look his constituency in the face while he was lying and stealing from them. There aren't many people out there who have that sort of electric charisma. Bill really came in and from the second I started talking to him about it I knew I'd made the right choice. The way he walks into a room and kind of electrifies it is the exact same thing I've felt from politicians I've been in the same room with."

As for the film's story, without giving anything important away, Kenan noted, "It's about a City built as an incubator for mankind, essentially, a way to keep our people going. The City was planned to be closed (after) 200 years, at which point everybody would be able to move elsewhere, but somewhere along the line the instructions got lost and the film starts well after the expiration date of the City. The infrastructure is collapsing and the City is dying and nobody really knows what to do about it. It's up to a couple of (people) who through a twist of fate uncover clues that lead them on this adventure that reveals the secret of the City."

Production took place in Belfast, Northern Ireland: "We went there because I needed a massive space in which to build an entire City. You know, one of the great things about making this film is that I came from making a virtual film, 'Monster House,' and with film I was able to actually build a living, breathing town, a place where citizens had daily routines and buildings stretched out as far as the eye could see. It made a really significant difference (shooting in Belfast), not just in my (visual) cheating of the film but in the actors' ability to relate to their home. It was about 80 days (of shooting), a little bit less than that. We finished shooting at the end of (last) October."

Looking back at the challenges of production, he recalled, "We set out to do the impossible. For the resources available, we shouldn't have been able to build a city and shoot a movie there. And being halfway around the world is never a convenient place to set up camp and tell a story. But in a way, living in an environment that was unfamiliar and working with what was really just a rundown old shipbuilding factory that didn't have any of the sort of comforts of soundstages as we know them -- all those things sort of worked together to make us all feel like we were living in Ember while we were shooting the film.

"In a way, that permeated our work flow and our understanding of the story we were trying to tell. It was a really difficult shoot by any definition and it's always difficult when you're shooting with younger actors because your days are very limited. There's only so many hours you can work in the day and it becomes very rigid. But we got through it as a team."

Rehearsing was an important part of the process. "I rehearsed for three weeks with Saoirse and for about a week with Harry Treadaway, who plays her counterpart in the adventure," Kenan said. "With the adult actors, I would rehearse for a couple of hours as we were building a scene. I was really lucky to have Saoirse for a few weeks ahead of time to sort of get intimately familiar with the City."

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