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Harry's look at Gil Kenan's CITY OF EMBER at Skywalker Ranch!

Hey folks, Harry here… I just got back from Skywalker Ranch… yeah, Skywalker Ranch. I’m writing up an entirely separate article that is about that journey and experience, but what I wanted to write up first, was the main purpose of that trip. To chat with Gil Kenan and get a first look at a movie that doesn’t have a lot of buzz going quite yet, but that I’ve been following called CITY OF EMBER. Last Fall, Yoko and I were going to fly over to Belfast and explore a bit of Ireland and drop in on the set of CITY OF EMBER… ever since Gil Kenan and I chatted about MONSTER HOUSE when he brought the film to Austin early… we’ve exchanged emails – and well… frankly – he’s a geek. A very talented one. When we first sat down to lunch, he brought up CITY OF EMBER to me. It was the project he was working on in advance of MONSTER HOUSE – a live-action… possibly Post-Apocalyptic story involving children. Around the end of Summer 2007 – I had a surprise package on my doorstep, the script to CITY OF EMBER as written by the amazing Caroline Thompson – based upon Jeanne Duprau’s novel. I have to admit, that as much as I loved MONSTER HOUSE – I was more eager to read a new Caroline Thompson script. With her skills upon EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, HOMEWARD BOUND, THE SECRET GARDEN, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, BLACK BEAUTY and CORPSE BRIDE… Well… Hot Damn – turn the pages. The script, like most of her work, is not traditional Hollywood fare – it’s a story that builds… slowly, consistently to a fever-paced conclusion. There is no BIG beginning, instead it really plays out, less like a Post-Apocalyptic film – and more like a Post-Apocalyptic Fairy Tale… That said… I didn’t devote much thought to the world of Ember. At the time, I was going to end up visiting it… in the building where the TITANIC was created (the real ship, not the movie) and I was anxious to just see the entire town that was going to be housed in that giant space. Not long before the trip, my father had a stroke – and plans like Ireland and a cool movie set - well – there’s a scale to life – and in this case… Ireland and the film evaporated from my reality. Months passed. In fact – until last week I really hadn’t thought of CITY OF EMBER. I knew it was shooting… well, had been shot – but I really didn’t know where in the process the film was. It opens around the 10th of October… that’s pretty far off – and these days I’m more concerned about the upcoming Summer crop of films than the Fall and Holiday slates… but a little over a week ago – I was awoken by a phone call by Gil Kenan asking me if I’d like to go to Skywalker Ranch at his invitation to see some of CITY OF EMBER and watch them mix some of the film in the William Wyler mixing room. Well, I quickly answered to the affirmative. There’s all sorts of reasons – I could finally break my Skywalker Ranch cherry… and it’d give all of you the first real set of eyes on a film that wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. Besides… who knew what else was going on out there… right? So Wednesday morning at 5am, I headed to the airport to begin my journey. Approximately 6 hours later – I was sitting on a sofa in the Wyler room watching Gil and his sound crew mixing the temp music track for a test screening later today – somewhere on planet Earth. They were working on a scene in reel 1 of CITY OF EMBER where Saoirse Ronan (Lina) and Harry Treadaway (Doon) exchange their positions in life. I took Father Geek along and told him nothing about the story – he only knew it was the second film from the director of MONSTER HOUSE. In this early minute to two minutes of film we were watching – it was a designed universe. There was a hint of German Expressionism to the buildings. And at first thought – you’d think the “sky” was to be added later – but you see… in Ember… large lights in the sky that you would think were placed by the crew – but as those that have read this wonderful book know… they’re there because this world is very strange indeed. After about an hour of mixing on reel one – we went to see around 45 minutes of CITY OF EMBER – and it was there where I finally was able to put this movie together in my mind. Essentially – what Gil has made is a film that is LOGAN’S RUN, CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, GOONIES and METROPOLIS blended all together in one wonderfully unique vision. The opening credits are startling – a group of rushed men carrying a box with 3 LED windows on the front. They say, “Set it for 200 years” – and then hand it off to a person and it becomes part of the secret tradition of the mayors of Ember… You see the box handed from aged hands to younger hands that age – to then hand the box to the next set of hands… quickly… fluidly – showing us in human generational terms – the passage of the years and as we see the countdown reach 47… a mayor dies prematurely… having not passed the box on. And we find the box… stuck in a closet, forgotten and counting down till it finally ceases to countdown – and it opens, only nobody is there to see it. Now how long was it open till we see the start of the film? Nobody can tell – but as we start our story – it’s with Lina, and a graduation ceremony… technically called ASSIGNMENT DAY – where this selection of who you are to be… for the rest of your life in Ember, is chosen… at random… from a paper bag. The kids all have their hopes, their dreams – but no matter how well they might want to be in a different position – if they can’t convince another person on Assignment Day to switch jobs… they’re stuck. The man with the bag? Well, he’s the Mayor of Ember, played by Bill Murray… a dash of whimsy – and an ever so nice taste of warmth… Bill offers hope and encouragement to the children’s choices… helping them to feel good about it. All except Lina, she got PIPEWORKS – apparently – that’s not a good job. Then – as we move forward we begin to find out more… you see every person in the film is needed for the City of Ember to exist. To them – they are the last light in the world. The generator is the pulsating heart of their existence. The electricity is their life and at night – they shut it down and the lights go out and until that generator kicks back on, their world is darkness. The atmosphere is palpable. The society living in this city of Ember… had taken on an amazingly different vision of the future. No doubt they’re living underground… or in something. And the people in there are many generations removed by the incident that put them in this city. The city itself has begun to run down. Supplies are recycled. And it is starkly designed – based in part upon Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS – but not a direct lift – it has echoes of that world – this film doesn’t deal with the class warfare – here – the people serve the city because the city is all there is to serve. Nobody wonders about the outside world – instead – they do their job and everyone worries about the day the lights go out. In fact that’s the plot line of the film. You see – everyone knows that the generator could be failing and that they have a finite amount of power. When Lina and Doon stumble upon the pieces of the past from the box… they try to unlock the mystery of their town that had been lost to the ravages of time. This is a particular cast in the adult realm… folks like Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Martin Landau, Toby Jones, Liz Smith and Mackenzie Crook. Moreso – the townsfolk of Ember continue that sort of character to their faces. Odd and unique. I saw a sequence towards the end of the film that takes place in the great Generator room… a room with amazing gigantic Mechanical Age pistons and water wheels… the closest thing to its look is that great sequence inside the Engine room in TITANIC. The effects were far from done, but it really has a potential to be jaw-dropping when finished. As for the performances – the cast speaks for itself – and young Saoirse Ronan is fantastic, we will see a lot more from this young lady. And young Harry Treadaway – who you may have seen in the amazing film, BROTHERS OF THE HEAD as half of the Siamese Twins in that film – is great as the curious boy that believes he’s destined to help solve the problem with the Generator. There’s almost a panic to his desire to make it all work. This is a remarkable project – and I can not wait to hear responses from the screening later on today. CITY OF EMBER is a film to take notice on… it has elements of some of the best in science fiction and fantasy film – without being strictly derivative of any of those films. Instead it echoes that which came before while becoming something new on its own.

Readers Talkback
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  • March 1, 2008, 4:38 a.m. CST


    by Knuckleduster

    Loved Monster House. Cannot fuckin wait.

  • March 1, 2008, 4:49 a.m. CST

    I sort of got a Dark City vibe from early descriptions.

    by Knuckleduster

    But this sounds even better. Anything with Bill Murray is great in my book. Except that Garfield movie.

  • March 1, 2008, 4:50 a.m. CST

    That sounds really great.

    by Zakari Paolon

    Something else to add to the list. Yay!

  • March 1, 2008, 5:17 a.m. CST

    Did you ever actually come to Ireland?

    by vadakinX

    yeah I know, I really should be talking about the movie, but dammit I love my country too much (though Belfast isn't technically in my country...Tiocfaidh Ar La etc). If I'd known you were coming over I could have given you the grand tour and shown you the countries only arthouse cinema (yeah, we have a grand total of one). Here's a shock, in Ireland (at least where I am) a daytime screening of a film costs the equivalent of about $3...and a night time screening costs about $5.

  • March 1, 2008, 6:17 a.m. CST

    Sounds cool

    by kwisatzhaderach

    Nice to see something that isn't a sequel, prequel or remake.

  • March 1, 2008, 6:46 a.m. CST

    I am definitely diggin' it...

    by Sparhawk38

    Bill Murray is so great when his skill is used in the right ways. This sounds great.

  • March 1, 2008, 7:16 a.m. CST

    I have been waiting to see this

    by red_weed

    since i first heard about it. Wasn't tom hanks attached in some capacity at some stage, this was ages and ages ago... maybe i'm thinking of something else. Anyway since I stumbled across the stills on IMDB I thought it looked cool and was glad it was finally happening. Monster house rocks and i can't wait to see how this turns out.

  • March 1, 2008, 7:52 a.m. CST

    The book borrowe from a lot of different sources...

    by FlickaPoo

    ...both literary and addition to Harry's film references, there is a big dose of Lois Lowry and The Giver, some Ursula LeGuin etc, but it all pulls together into a unique stew and a very exciting young adult novel...I'm sure it will make a good flick. Only one small the book it takes quite a while for the reader to realize that there is no natural light in this world (it's the only world these people know, so nobody thinks to mention it and because it isn't a film you can't see makes for a good reveal half way through). Also, in the book nobody really knows about the generator, so the kids are accused of sky is falling type histeria...a big part of the fun is in the mystery of the kids putting together the puzzle that is their world...

  • March 1, 2008, 7:55 a.m. CST

    Hmmm...missed a "d" in my subject line....

    by FlickaPoo

  • March 1, 2008, 8:20 a.m. CST

    Saw you at SFO on Thursday

    by Avenging Disco Godfather

    Dude, you need a couple cases of SlimFast...either that or walk instead of use that wheelchair. Seriously take care of yourself.

  • March 1, 2008, 9:09 a.m. CST

    Book Was Fine. Movie Will Tank.

    by georges garvaren

    Kids want Potter or Narnia. Maybe a lesson has been learned from the string of poorly received children's book adaptations? Maybe not. On a side note, IMDB has a link on their homepage to an LA Times piece about Skywalker Ranch. Very interesting article; someone should option it!

  • March 1, 2008, 9:26 a.m. CST

    Too bad we need a "It's Die Hard in Rainbowland" description

    by Drath

    Sounds interesting, but it's so sad that we need to list off a line of similar movies to explain a new movie--as if our ability to understand fantasy has become more derivative than the movies themselves. Do real kids even know about Logan's Run or has that film become totally esoteric?

  • March 1, 2008, 10:13 a.m. CST


    by indiebum

    Harry loves the movie... b/c he was invited to the set. If Paris Hilton had invited him to "The Hottie and the Nottie" he would have been praising it as well. I loved "Monster House" and this sounds great, but Harry always just seems to overexaggerate just because he has "privileges." Or I'm just jealous...

  • March 1, 2008, 10:49 a.m. CST


    by Philvis

    I saw that Tim Robbins was in it at Doon's father. In the book he only had one or two lines. Did they give him a bigger part in the movie? Also the mayor in the book really didn't have too much dialogue, so I was wondering if they really expanded on him. It looks like the older characters may have more written for them instead of just being sidenotes like they were in the book. My wife and I loved the book and are now reading The People of Sparks. I have high hopes for this movie because it is a simple book but very in depth at the same time.

  • March 1, 2008, 11:18 a.m. CST

    who gives a shit tell us about the ranch!!!!!

    by _SnakePlissken_

    tell tell tell

  • March 1, 2008, 12:14 p.m. CST


    by sevadro

    Huh, did somebody say something? All I heard was City of something.

  • March 1, 2008, 12:42 p.m. CST

    According to Google Maps...

    by red1701

    I live 9.4 miles away from SkyWalker Ranch....go figure. funny story...years ago, i went to watch SPEED at a local theatre and George was there with his kid to watch the same movie. around here no one bothers or freaks out when we see a celebrity (Metallica, Barry Levinson,The remaining "Dead" members and such)...anyways, the lights go dark in the theatre and there in all its glory is the THX logo and sound....with the man responsible for it and worth 6 billion dollars sitting a few seats that was a surreal.

  • March 1, 2008, 1:01 p.m. CST

    Gil is a really cool guy and Monster House

    by s0nicdeathmonkey

    rocked my world. I honestly think Monster House is one of the best kids movies in years and years. Like The Goonies, but actually good!

  • March 1, 2008, 1:08 p.m. CST


    by FlickaPoo

    ..."Like The Goonies, but actually good!"...???!! you shame yourself and your family.

  • March 1, 2008, 1:43 p.m. CST


    by tig.Valen

    Thanks to scenes being filmed around the Malone road area last year I was late for a bloody appointment with a bloody important client!! (Me shakes fist at Tom Hanks)!!

  • March 1, 2008, 3:14 p.m. CST


    by Evil Hobbit

    Realy great, a good horror for kids and a good film for all of us. Genuinely scary at moments.

  • March 1, 2008, 3:49 p.m. CST

    I agree

    by milla jovovich

    another vote for "Monster House sucked."

  • March 1, 2008, 3:52 p.m. CST

    What? Tim Burton didn't direct this?

    by skywalkerfamily

    Sounds like something he might do.

  • March 1, 2008, 4:12 p.m. CST

    doesn't have a Tim Burton feel at all


    there's a quirk - but not a caricature feel. More Jeunet, than Burton.

  • March 1, 2008, 4:32 p.m. CST


    by kwisatzhaderach

    Seconded. About time THE KEEP got a DVD release too. Are you listening Paramount/Michael Mann?

  • March 1, 2008, 4:40 p.m. CST

    Who is Ember

    by skywalkerfamily

    If it's the City of Ember, do we get to meet Ember?

  • March 1, 2008, 4:48 p.m. CST in a very small coal that keeps a fire....

    by FlickaPoo

    ...alive. Not a person. You can't meet it.

  • March 1, 2008, 5:30 p.m. CST

    The Ranch

    by I_Snake_Plissken

    Best part of the Ranch, the Stag theater – great place to see a film. The worst part of the Ranch, the softball field – when you’re playing in the outfield there’s the occasional foot deep hole you need to avoid stepping in while chasing down fly balls (and it’s hard to see them since the grass was always pretty long). Other than that, with the possible exception of the archives the actual grounds themselves are not all that remarkable – it’s a bunch of nice Victorian houses that serve as office space – no movie sets, no large AT-AT walkers patrolling the grounds. So, your imagination is probably better than the reality.

  • March 1, 2008, 5:31 p.m. CST


    by Munro Kelly

    I hope I'm not jumping the gun on your follow up article about Skywalker. I have a question. I know they have six mix stages named after directors. I knew three, you told us the fourth. I knew of - David Lean, Akira kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick and you told us of Willim Wyler. What are the names of the other two?

  • March 1, 2008, 6:51 p.m. CST

    Thee screening started just under two hours ago

    by MistahSilvah

    at the Pacific Winnetka in Chatsworth, CA. The screening was scheduled for 3pm. I got the automated call about its screening late last night so I couldn't reserve in time to see it. Be interested to hear what someone other than Harry thought.

  • March 1, 2008, 7:08 p.m. CST

    Looking forward to it.

    by TattooedBillionaire

    Bill Murray is semi-retired, and has stated he'll only do movies now if they really blow him away. So, yeah, I'm excited for this one.

  • March 1, 2008, 8:10 p.m. CST

    Socialist Chum...

    by masterbrocksamson

  • March 1, 2008, 8:20 p.m. CST

    Based on a Great Book

    by Larry of Arabia

    Check it out. It's fabulous children's sci-fi.

  • March 1, 2008, 10:17 p.m. CST

    Only 45 Minutes?

    by alynch3

    So they're test screening it later in the day, yet they only show you 45 minutes of it? Why don't they show you the whole thing?

  • March 2, 2008, 12:34 a.m. CST

    You know what I'd love to see?

    by Jackie Boy

    "HEAD GEEK HERE... now the director- we spoke over email- wanted me to fly out to visit the set of the film- where they were filming. Now I had some family shit to take care of- that's shit with my relatives, if you will- so I had to stay stateside- in America. Seeing his chances of buying off the site- a fairly common practice nowadays, blame Bush- slip away, he instead asked me to visit Skywalker Ranch- to see some post production work- of the film. Now Skywalker Ranch- named after Luke Skywalker from STAR WARS... I own a 16mm print- was such a magical place... George Lucas- we shook hands once, we're pals... Jar Jar... my cameo in Clone Wars as Jabba the Hut- no relation to Pizza Hut, but I love me some chocolate pussy juice covered cheesy crust- sex with Yoko on Tatoonie with Banthas...I wouldn't mind falling into her Sarlaac, what? Oh yeah, City of Ember. Anyways- this means I'm moving on now- maybe I was so caught up in the joy of being at Skywalker ranch...or maybe I could still taste his DNA from the last time we pimped Monster House... that I was underwhelmed-that is to say- disappointed. Visiting the mixing suite- where they mix tracks etc.- was dull and they didn't have...anything show. They said they were preparing- that is, getting ready- for a screener later on in the day...but they only showed me 45 minutes...of their film. I wasn't even invited- to the screener- at al. -...- Also one guy was eating... out of those boxes of Entemann's mini chocolate covered- but no pussy juice- doughnuts...and he didn't offer me... my own box. ...-... So- fuck these cocksuckers. How dare...they."

  • March 2, 2008, 12:38 a.m. CST

    so at least

    by Jackie Boy

    there wont be any posts about the shit the director took after taco night and how it was so visionary and how they can't wait to smell it.

  • March 2, 2008, 1:24 a.m. CST

    Shilling for ANOTHER fantasy movie, Harry?

    by Merriman Lyon

    Remember that glowing preview you gave for that priceless turkey THE DARK IS RISING? And all because you were invited to the set. Even in that promotional puff-piece you wrote it was clear you hadn't a clue about the book it was based on - and how the movie was butchering it. Funny how you never mentioned the movie again. And Harry: the director of City Of Embers is NOT your friend - note that you WEREN'T invited to the actual test screening. He easily bought you off by inviting you to the "ranch" and showing you some footage. And have you subsequently posted any reviews from the test screeening? Thought not.

  • March 2, 2008, 2:54 a.m. CST

    Go watch's a terrible movie.

    by s0nicdeathmonkey

    It really is.

  • March 2, 2008, 3:20 a.m. CST

    The guy knows spielberg right?

    by y7jver01


  • March 2, 2008, 7:20 a.m. CST


    by Merriman Lyon

    Hmm, guess that would be Harry in his promotional blurb - sorry - "review" of The Phantom Menace...?

  • March 2, 2008, 9:38 a.m. CST

    frigging Morse Code

    by PotSmokinAlien

    enough "-"s and "..."s in there to be a god damn WWII spy communique. Commas, single periods, even the occasional semicolon or colon: too much to ask?<P>also, sorry about your dad, i hope he's recovering OK.

  • March 2, 2008, 10:51 a.m. CST

    sounds like The Gift.

    by Bekindrewindme

    well at least it reminds me of that book.

  • March 2, 2008, 11:02 a.m. CST

    Another children's book turned Hollywood.

    by Rakafraker

    Hoo-ray!<p> I mostly enjoyed Monster House. Luckily, the kids love watching movies with me (not so much with Mom), so I can justify watching movies like this (and enjoying them). Like I've said in other TBs, there is a whole other (technical) world to watch for in family films, so I don't really need any other justification (okay, also to rub it in their Mom's face. That's enough. A bit bitter today I sup.). <p>Let's face it: When Bill Murray signs on for a film, he's either been offered a stupid amount of money (Garfield), or it's truly a masterpiece (nearly everything else he's done in the last decade, IMHO). Mr Murray can nail whimsey like no-other (Scrooged, Groundhog Day (which I hated at first, but now is one of my faves (maybe more brackets within brackets? (Why not!?))), etc.), so I'm pretty sure I'm gonna dig this one!

  • March 2, 2008, 12:22 p.m. CST

    gotta mention Harry's caricature in the Entourage comiccon episo

    by lsleelee

    And will continue to do so until Harry stops doing this.

  • March 2, 2008, 1:59 p.m. CST


    by BringingSexyBack

    Gimme some.

  • March 2, 2008, 2:06 p.m. CST

    Lucas is a rich man.

    by skywalkerfamily

    THX, Skywalker Sound, Lucasarts, he pretty much boosted Hasbro/Kenner toys, ILM, had a small part in PIXAR.

  • March 2, 2008, 3:06 p.m. CST

    The giver

    by Staldo

    somebody said this sounded like The Gift. Which is funny because I immediately thought of the book The Giver.(also known as anti-conformism 101)

  • March 2, 2008, 6:03 p.m. CST


    by AllieJamison : >>Harry Knowles, who runs the movie fan site (his official title is Head Geek), says he first saw a bootleg version of the trailer online, then the official version online, and then saw it twice in theaters. There were cheers in the theater when the familiar theme song kicked in, Knowles said, and comments on his Web site have been positive. "People generally really, really loved the trailer," he said. "Some people think it's a little more cartoonish-looking compared to the prior (films), with him whipping the lights and swinging on them and stuff. But at the same time, it seems that everyone is extremely excited that there's a new 'Indiana Jones' film. The excitement for it is palpable. It's much more aggressively anticipated than anything else that's coming out right now.<<

  • March 2, 2008, 6:26 p.m. CST


    by AllieJamison

    Oh well ...and this CITY OF EMBER thing looks interesting. Can't wait for Harry to shed some more light on his Skywalker experience. Even though every internet-schmock seems to have been to Skywalker Ranch these days...and there has been an inflation of illustrated reports on these experiences online. <br> <br> Concerning Harry's cameo in this AP piece on the IndyIV trailer, I just had to put this in here when I stumbled across it. Harry may have done a good job in recapping the trailer reactions... if it is actually possible for a human mind to recap the usual extraordinary talkback craziness that took place after this poorly put together mess made its way online...magical pants and all.

  • March 2, 2008, 7:11 p.m. CST


    by nolan bautista

    ..i wish your Dad well and i pray that he is recovering..

  • March 2, 2008, 11:44 p.m. CST

    "Assignment Day"

    by Abhimanyu

    That concept seems to me to have been reipped off from an Asimov short story I read a long time ago. It was called something like "Profession" or "Occupation" or something. Anyone else know of what I speak?

  • March 3, 2008, 1:30 a.m. CST

    "I just got back from Skywalker Ranch"?

    by Motoko Kusanagi

    Sombody's crying for attention here...

  • March 3, 2008, 12:01 p.m. CST

    Skywalker ranch? Was Supershadow there?

    by Darth Macchio

    That guy's a legend man! A legend! I can't wait until the fan written and fan directed episodes 7,8,9 come out so I can pluck my eye out with a fork and kick it a few aisles over at the local Wal-mart. Nothing like hearing people scream when a strange and gelatinous eye lands on their shoulder from out of nowhere.

  • March 3, 2008, 1:05 p.m. CST

    Munro Kelly

    by kwisatzhaderach

    It's Len Wiseman and Brett Ratner.

  • March 3, 2008, 3:03 p.m. CST

    by vadakinX

    by emeraldboy

    and that really pisses me off. One arthouse cinema. its a joke. It takes forever to get there. So by the time you want to see the film in our only art house movie. its over. I live in Dun Loaghaire. I have only been in that cinema a couple times. There is access cinema. Which is a bus cinema. Which goes from place to place. Its a bus which was converted into a cinema.

  • March 3, 2008, 9:58 p.m. CST


    by The Belligerent Irishman

    For a big guy, you sure are long-winded. Once you got to the goods, about the flick, sounds pretty good. And I'm new to the message board, by the way. Name's The Belligerent Irish. Good to know you.

  • March 4, 2008, 10:40 a.m. CST

    godamn it

    by lucky slevin

    i thought we had star wars news

  • March 4, 2008, 3:23 p.m. CST

    If Lucas ever wanted to make more money

    by skywalkerfamily

    he could open up the Ranch for tours.

  • March 5, 2008, 11:14 p.m. CST


    by Munro Kelly

    That was a good one.