After the success of his superb animated film Monster House (2006), director Gil Kenan turned his attention to an adaptation of Jeanne Duprau’s childrens’ fantasy novel City of Ember, an eccentric adventure story set against a world immersed in eternal night. Atonement‘s Saorise Ronan, Control‘s Harry Treadaway and Bill Murray star.
City of Ember’s not a typical kids film, and the reaction in the US has been very mixed. What do you put this down to?
Well, a few things. The commercial reaction was less than mixed; it was nearly disastrous. The critical reaction is more difficult to parse. I think I always knew that Ember was not a film for everyone. I obviously didn’t make the film hoping it would get a mixed reaction, but my experience with the film was both epically glorious and really frustrating. I sort of had the opposite of my experience on Monster House, which was an incredibly exhilarating and supportive environment. I really had to fight for every frame of film in Ember. I’m very proud of the achievement and the undertaking and there are also many many lessons I learned in making it.
The film is difficult to catagorise.
It is, yeah, but I also think that’s part of what drew me to it in the first place — it’s the weirdest damn story I’d heard in a long time, and I was completely captivated by it. What interested me was the complexity of it and the depth of the world and the history of this place… how the society has grown under this ultraviolet light to create a sort of microcosm of some of the ills that got the people of Ember locked in there in the first place. All of those things are things you don’t normally find in a story, let alone a children’s story.
In all of your work so far the place is as much a character as the people. What is it that draws you back to this?
I’ve tried to make sense of that because clearly it’s something that’s interested me in a few of my works. Obviously in Monster House there’s a very direct relationship between place and character and, in fact, in my short film before that [The Lark]. I moved around a lot when I was a kid and I think that might have something to do with it. Even last night I had a very vivid dream and when I woke up I remembered that my dream took place in my boyhood home. I don’t know if that’s common or not, but every time I have a dream, whether it be a positive one or a nightmare, it never takes place in the house where I’m staying now — it’s always in my boyhood home. I lived on three different continent so I think that when we did move to Los Angeles, and into a protypical suburban home, I subconsciously dug roots and have been holding on to that sense of place. What that means to a kid growing up, or a character… the emotional relationship to your home, the town… all of those things are deeply rooted in my understanding of story and character.
Let’s talk a little about Saorise. She’s remarkable in the film.
Yeah, I mean I’m so in awe of Saorise’s talent. I searched for about six months and it was incredibly difficult to track down the right actress. The film was almost in jeopardy because it took so long to find someone. I knew the film wouldn’t be anything without someone whop could carry this world on her shoulders and make us understand that complex relationship to this place. Saorise instantly understood it. She had a real relationship to this city — it was like a human relationship in a drama.
What made you cast Harry, who’s both older than Saorise and his character in the book?
I first saw him in Brothers of the Head and thought it was cool. The real challenge with casting [Harry’s character] Doon was that I’d already cast Saorise. I felt triumphant in casting her but then almost immediately I faced the very real problem of “How the hell do you put a 12 or 13-year-old boy on screen opposite this force of nature?” Every reading I did where I paired her up with a Doon that was age-appropriate, she would just destroy them in a way that a strong woman can obliterate a weaker man. It’s about intellect, presence, strength, bravery — and she just exudes it. For her it’s automatic, but for every poor teenager I put up in front of her it was a real calamity. I would see their charisma and spark drain from the screen. These are all very talented actors, but they didn’t have the depth and maturity that Saorise had. So I had to start ageing the character up. But for me it was about finding a person with that spark that Doon has.
Bill Murray was introduced to you because he was a friend of the screenwriter, Caroline Thompson. Did you always want him for the role of the City’s Mayor?
Oh yeah. I mentioned to her that I was interested in casting Bill and she mentioned that she knew him from a long time ago, that he had read a script of hers in the ’80s and was a big fan. It was just sort of fortuitous. Caroline called him up and explained to him that I wasn’t a maniac and that he should have a look at the script. It’s not easy to get a hold of Bill but when you do — and you don’t blow it — you stand as good a chance as with any other actor. And Bill genuinely reacted to the material. I actually didn’t meet him ’til he showed up in Belfast to shoot. We had one incredible day on the set and it was empty and he and I just walked through the streets of Ember. From that point on we never looked back. He’s a very dear friend, and an incredible performer.
So you were a fan of Bill before?
Absolutely. He’s one of my gods. The reason I so wanted him for the role is his ability to control a crowd through tiny mannerisms — the flick of an eyebrow or the roll of one eyeball or another. The way he’s able to make a crowd fall under his spell is the kind of attribute I thought was necessary in a politician. It had to be an actor with a very deep and great control over his comic abilities.
He’s able to convey comedy and drama at the same time, in a way few others can.
It’s pretty amazing to watch. Trying to convey sarcasm, there’s many crude ways to do it, but when you watch a master at work — someone who’s used it as his vernacular for a couple of decades — it’s pretty amazing to see the layers of subtlety a tiny mannerism can hold, and how much comic power someone like Bill can weave with very little effort. Sometimes I would just be in awe of his abilities — and at the same time he came ready to work, and was very interested in not being Bill necessarily.
Did you ask him about Ghostbusters 3?
Basically what he said that the first one was one of the best experiences of his life and the second one was a lot of work, and that he hadn’t really thought about it until he went to do some work on the video game that’s coming out. He said it really reminded him of all the things he really loved about it, and that’s about it — he wasn’t really sure whether the thing was happening or not. I think the way he put it was that he was walking down the street and he started humming “Who you gonna call?” I thought that was kind of an amazing image.
Originally published on Empire online