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Mr. Beaks Takes The CITY OF EMBER Train To Comic Con!!

I often dream of trains when I'm alone. I ride on them into another zone. I dream of them constantly, Heading for paradise, Or Basingstoke, Or Reading, Or San Diego! Trains are so very Hitchcockian... Indeed, as I boarded the vintage Pullman lounge car that would ferry a group of journalists from Los Angeles' Union Station to San Diego for the 2008 Comic Con, visions of Cary Grant ordering a Gibson and lighting Eva Marie Saint's cigarette mingled with Robert Walker's suggesting a "crisscross" murder scheme to Farley Granger. Then came Robert Donat's kamikaze smooching of Medeleine Carroll, which gave way to Michael Redgrave romancing Margaret Lockwood, which ultimately led to a newlywed Fred MacMurray and Olivia de Haviland eating it on a bee-derailed train to Awesomeville. Finally, there were the talent bios provided by the Fox Walden publicists, which reminded me that producer Gary Goetzman was a Jonathan Demme guy dating back to freakin' CAGED HEAT, which meant he had a hand in STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK, and, yikes, is this a labored setup. Moving off of Hitchcock, the primary reason we were gathered on this 11:00 AM choo-choo to San Diego was Gil Kenan's CITY OF EMBER, a big-deal adaptation of the "young adult" novel by Jeanne DuPrau. Set in a 241-year-old subterranean refuge, the story centers on the desperate efforts of two young citizens, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), as they attempt to expose the truth about the city's failing generator before the city's lights go out for good (thereby consigning their entire universe to eternal darkness). Standing in their way is the slovenly, resource-hoarding mayor (a well-cast Bill Murray), who apparently prefers a head-in-the-sand approach to the looming disaster. Ultimately, to save their fellow "Emberites", Lina and Doon must work out a series of centuries-old instructions that will hasten their escape from the dying world. If I had to guess, I'd say Fox Walden's inspiration for renting these two old-timey train cars was the retro-by-necessity look of the titular city (which has its roots in everything from Soviet design to Jeunet and Caro's DELICATESSEN); mostly, though, it just seemed like an imaginative way to wow a bunch of jaded geeks as they prepped for the busiest week of their year. It worked. Had Fox Walden settled for a Hall H panel featuring Kenan, production designer Martin Laing and screenwriter Caroline Thompson, chances are the film would've been overshadowed by the the big guns: i.e. WATCHMEN, TERMINATOR SALVATION and WOLVERINE (and surprise guest TRON 2). But since we had the opportunity to chat up the key creatives on a cozy railway car (and watch footage in a rickety caboose that rocked like Ian Hunter at the Agora), the kid-skewing adventure has, at least for me, lingered in memory. Whereas most Comic Con interviews last a scant five to ten minutes, we were able to leisurely run the gamut with Laing, Thompson and Goetzman (Kenan was trapped back in the Caboose of Death showing off scenes from the movie, so we only got a quick Q&A with him - which we'll get to shortly). And while they were all happy to indulge our questions about their previous works and triumphs (Goetzman seemed especially tickled by my enthusiasm for George Armitage's MIAMI BLUES, a world-beater of a crime flick that he produced with Demme), they were careful to bring the discussion back around to Kenan. Sometimes, this is just bullshit junket politics ("SCTV was an amazing experience, but THE MAN wouldn't be THE MAN without the singular vision of Les Mayfield"); here, it was the byproduct of a genuine affection for a very young, undeniably gifted filmmaker. Laing, who left James Cameron's AVATAR to take on CITY OF EMBER, praised Kenan for giving him the freedom to run wild with a huge practical build (working three-story sets are an extreme rarity nowadays), while Thompson marveled at the director's storytelling inventiveness. Given Thompson's celebrated collaborations with Tim Burton (most notably EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS), I couldn't resist asking if she saw any similarities in the two filmmakers. "I don't really," she laughed. "Tim is a much more disturbed a person than Gil will ever be." (Don't take that as a swipe at Burton; they're still friends, and she'd love to work with him again.) Before we got to fire off a few questions at the much-esteemed director, we watched something like twenty minutes worth of footage from CITY OF EMBER. What struck me from the first clip - where we follow Lina as she scurries to the all-important "Assignment Day" ceremony - is how Kenan has once again nailed the kids'-eye-view of the world that distinguished the best Amblin movies of the 1980s; you can't fake a "sense of play", and, as with MONSTER HOUSE, it's readily apparent that Kenan's inner-twelve-year-old is alive and well. From there, we saw a series of scenes that brought us up to speed on the story and showed off Kenan's facility for shooting non-CG environments: watching his camera crane and glide all over Laing's meticulously designed sets, there's no doubt that the guy is a born filmmaker. Whether he can bring what he termed a "puzzle-based" mystery together remains to be seen, but I definitely liked the adventure elements he briefly introduced (including a log flume ride that seems partially inspired by the mine car chase from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM). According to Thompson, they've taken a number of liberties with DuPrau's novel in order to make the problem solving aspect of the narrative more visual; while I haven't read the book, anything that spares us a kiddie version of THE DA VINCI CODE is worthy of medals. Here's Gil!

Q: Can you talk about the central metaphor of the film?

Gil Kenan: That's a fancy way to start. (Laughter) Look, there's a lot about appreciating what we've got now, and part of it is... I kind of want the audience, after seeing this film, to walk out to the parking lot, look under their feet, and wonder if we haven't already begun our own City of Ember - and if there isn't already one down there. But... I don't think in allegory; I think in terms of the characters and their story. It's this idea that the city was created as a way to nurture them; it's essentially a giant concrete incubator. This city was for hundreds of years a marvel of ecology and civic planing, but like every organic creature, it has a finite lifespan. The most interesting hook into this movie and into this story, why I got so excited about it way back when was the idea of creating, to turning a city into an emotional character in the story.

Q: How close is the adaptation to the book.

Kenan: I'll have to read the book, and then I'll let you know. (Laughter) It's close in spirit and tone. The book knocked my socks off when I read it as a galley right when I got out of film school. I had a meeting with Tom Hanks's company and Gary Goetzman at Playtone; I told them the kind of movie I wanted to make, and they said I should read [CITY OF EMBER]. So I went home and read it that night, and it knocked my socks off. But when I finished reading it, I had a very clear view of what the place looked like, and some of the creatures and things that happen in the world. With a book like this, one of the real pitfalls of adaptation is... when you're taking a mystery that's word-based or puzzle-based, if you stick to that, you're going to end up with a really passive adventure; you're watching someone reading [clues], which would make me want to ram my head into the wall. My initial spark was... when I was able to make it into a visual puzzle rather than a text-based one.

Q: One of the things that was stressed during our set visit was that the kids didn't know they were living in an underground city. Why did they decide to reveal that in the trailer?

Kenan: When I was putting together, I realized what was really important, and what was really important was the getting out - and what happens to them when they get out. The most important thing to get an audience ready and excited to see this film is to let them know where they're going to spend the next couple of hours. At the end of the day, it's about putting the audience into the shoes of Lina and Doon.

Q: Did that decision force you to change anything about the story?

Kenan: No. Not at all. It was just something that was told to the Belfast press tour. And by the time I went back to put the movie together, I realized it was an insignificant detail. Also, it's part of what's cool about this film. When I was telling people what movie I was making, I said, "It's an underground city movie." If I was a kid and I heard that, I would go to see that without seeing a trailer.

Also the decision to build huge sets rather than suggest the scale through greenscreen and CG?

Kenan: I had just come from doing MONSTER HOUSE, which was essentially a virtual film. The biggest part of my directing duty for the acting portion of MONSTER HOUSE was convincing actors that there was a big house chasing them, or that they were in a really nice sunlit room. I knew that with this film grounding and texture really mattered. Building this thing meant I could place the characters in their world, and that didn't go away when the cameras stopped.

Why shoot in Belfast? Did that add anything?

Kenan: It ended up adding stuff, but we went there for a few reasons. One, the scale of the sets. I knew I wanted to build the kinds of sets they don't build anymore. The reality is that soundstages in L.A. have a ceiling. They're no longer built to house these huge sets, so we had to go halfway around the world to build full, working three-story sets.

Q: Did you consult with any city planners in designing this world?

Kenan: It so happens that I went and married an architect.

Q: During production?

Kenan: No. (Laughs) But I relied heavily on her expertise on civic planning. I'm also a big fan of buildings and building myself; I've essentially made two movies about it. So in terms of the look of the film, I sort of put my builder's hat on - Martin [Laing] did as well - and asked, "What's the most efficient, most innovative, most advanced kind of layout?" We created that, and then let the aesthetic derive from how that degenerates over 241 years. We almost had to design the film twice: once was the perfect science-fiction version, and then we sort of humanized it.

You'll get to visit the CITY OF EMBER for yourself on October 10, 2008. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks

Readers Talkback
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  • Aug. 5, 2008, 9:37 p.m. CST

    looks decemt

    by mefrog

    never read the book but the film looks nicely atmospheric

  • Aug. 5, 2008, 9:37 p.m. CST

    Was a Great book

    by Mr. N

    And sounds like a great movie. Maybe one of the few things that'll work in both mediums. Smart people make smart movies.

  • Aug. 5, 2008, 10:02 p.m. CST

    pretty cold interview

    by Crow3711

    talking about lacking any interest or personality in the questions. not to talk shit, but seriously, it seemed mean

  • Aug. 5, 2008, 10:09 p.m. CST


    by mrbeaks

    It was a group of journalists lobbing quick questions because we had a limited amount of time with Gil. It was far from "mean". Gil was in very good spirits, and we all liked the footage.

  • Aug. 5, 2008, 11:32 p.m. CST

    I'll give it a look

    by Dataset

    It reminds me of "Lost Children" and "Mirrormask" a little.

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 2:39 a.m. CST

    For some reason the trailer made me think of BIOSHOCK

    by Zeke25:17

    which isn't a film yet, but dammit it should be!

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 3:31 a.m. CST


    by drew mcweeny

    ... it will be. Gore Verbinski's developing it for Universal now.

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 4:07 a.m. CST

    the trailer looks awful

    by Mr Gorilla

    Someone who has watched loads of Gilliam and Burton. The two most over-rated directors on this site. (Did you guys actually sit through The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, Planet of the Apes, Willy Wonka?) Unless you include Ridley Scott, a man with a commercials background who is still making commercials. (Hence the lack of any intelligent sensibility behind Hannibal and Black Hawk Down - the latter, particularly, is like a commercial for killing Africans.) Bitch bitch bitch - sorry, it's a horrible morning here.

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 5:22 a.m. CST

    Mr Gorilla,

    by raw_bean

    I like the way you rag on those directors by mentioning a very select subset of their bodies of work. If those were the *best* of their films, then yes they would be undeserving of all the praise they get. But if, say, those were their *worst* films, by a significant margin, and yet still being a cut above the average empty, passionless Hollywood fare, then that would be a different story.

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 8:42 a.m. CST

    "Like a commercial for killing Africans"

    by half vader

    Wow, this thread's going to have to be something special to top the stupidity of that post!

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 9:19 a.m. CST

    The world is wrong. TIDELAND was genius...

    by FlickaPoo

    ...completely unique and captured the inside of a little kid's head like nothing I've seen before. Sort of a Gormenghast On The Prairie.......Brothers Grimm sucked three different kinds of fairy tale ass though.....sigh....

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 10:22 a.m. CST

    Gilliam and Burton

    by filmcoyote

    I'm with raw bean here, Gilliam and Burton over-rated Mr Gorilla? Did YOU sit through Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Brazil, Time Bandits, 12 Monkeys? I'm not sure the marketing department is getting City Of Ember right but i think it looks interesting and i loved Monster House, only good 3D movie so far of the new wave.

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 10:54 a.m. CST

    Dark City??????

    by picardsucks

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 12:07 p.m. CST

    The book was good, but The Giver was better

    by Freakemovie

    Many similarities between the two stories, but hopefully different enough that they won't keep The Giver on hold after Ember comes out. With some luck they'll finally get off their asses and make that one, but City of Ember will do in the meantime.

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 1 p.m. CST

    I'm just worried about the adaptation.

    by TheNoirPirate

    I swear I saw a monster tail in the trailer. It could have been someone dressed as one to scare the kids, just to add a bit of suspense to the film, but then it'd just taste like <i>The Village</i> and that's not good. But I just hope it still carries on the main themes of the book and events. Other than that tail, I really enjoyed the trailer.

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 1:49 p.m. CST

    There's A Big Monster Mole In The Film

    by mrbeaks

    It was in the footage Kenan showed us. Pretty standard-issue CG monster attack, and by far the least interesting element of the movie.

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 1:55 p.m. CST


    by VictorVonDoom

    DOOM often dreams of trains when DOOM is alone.<p> DOOM rides on them into another zone.<p> DOOM dreams of them constantly,<p> Heading for that fool Richards,<p> Or his accursed wife,<p> Or that idiot Johnny Storm,<p> Or at least the infernal H.E.R.B.I.E.!<p>

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 5:29 p.m. CST

    Even more important...

    by Heckles

    Tropic Thunder co-writer to work on Iron Man 2.

  • Aug. 6, 2008, 11:49 p.m. CST

    Viva Robyn!

    by Balcony Fool

    Nice pull, Beaks.

  • Aug. 7, 2008, 6:57 a.m. CST


    by Mr Gorilla

    You are completely right - those films are brilliant, brilliant films. But why I sounded off (a bit too agressively, I'll agree) is that Burton and Gilliam are often lauded as visionary geniuses, and, quite simply, they are not. Carl Theodor Dreyer was a visionary. Stanley Kubrick was one. I think Terence Malik too. (And of course many others.) But having a sense for amazing production design- which Burton and Gilliam do - does not make them visionaries. Oh, and rawbean, if Burton's Apes 'reimagining' was a cut ABOVE standard passionless Hollywood fare, I'd hate to ever, EVER, see anything a cut BELOW it. I'll add one more thing: I think Johnny Depp is a wonderful actor, and I hate to see him pissing his talent away playing Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka.

  • Aug. 7, 2008, 9:45 a.m. CST

    "Head in the say"?

    by LargoJr

    I believe that's 'Head in the SAND'... spellcheck is not the same as proof-reading :). In any case, I'm looking forward to this one.

  • Aug. 8, 2008, 9:57 a.m. CST

    Mr. Beaks is a soft boy...

    by seppukudkurosawa

    Way to quote one of my fave singer-songwriters, Clarence! I saw him perform the whole of I Often Dream of Trains live a couple of months back, and it's definitely been one of the highlights of the year for me; ain't no one makes with the between song banter as well as Robyn.<p> Sterling stuff as ever, Beaksy. </p>

  • Aug. 9, 2008, 5:31 a.m. CST


    by seppukudkurosawa

    Not sure you caught it, but that was a pretty smart way of crediting the article's opening quote to Robyn Hitchcock. Though with The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest and Crom knows what else, the other 'cock wasn't adverse to trains either.

  • Aug. 10, 2008, 12:45 p.m. CST

    Trains are...

    by sherlock_junior

    Very Keatonesque!