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.
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.