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SDCC 08: Conversations with GoD: ‘City of Ember’ Director Gil Kenan
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Geeks of Doom Invade SDCC 2008

City of Ember Concept ArtWhile at the San Diego Comic Con this past weekend, I had the chance to sit down one-on-one with Gil Kenan, the Israel-American director of the Academy Award-nominated motion-capture animated Monster House.

While relaxing casually on the back upper patio at the convention center, Kenan talked to me mainly about his latest project, City of Ember, the big-screen adaptation of the Jeanne Duprau children’s fantasy novel.

Kenan gave a few details on his big-screen adaptation for City of Ember, which will be released in theaters by Fox Walden on October 10, 2008, and a bit about how Tom Hanks became involved with the film as a producer.

Gil KenanGeeks of Doom: We saw the teaser trailer for City of Ember in May. Can you tell us when we’re gonna see a full-length trailer or some more footage from the film?

Gil Kenan: Yeah, it should be in the Fall. You’ll have to ask the marketing dudes. I’m focusing on finishing the film right now for the October release. We’re almost done actually.

GoD: So what stage are you in right now?

GK: Around about five weeks. We’re kinda fine tuning the cut. Last few weeks of polishing and then scoring and sound design. Then we color-time and rock. I really love this part, cause I know the film now. I know it’s gonna work. It’s about getting it as good as it should be.

GoD: So it’s all about shaping now?

GK: Yeah, it’s fun. This is like pre-production, ya know. Production is grueling. It’s like war.

GoD: Yeah?

GK: Well, I mean the good side of war. [laugh] The carnage side of it. Not the like waiting around for something to happen. But the pre-production, the design process, and then now the kind of fine-tuning. You can sort of take a breath and enjoy yourself.

GoD: Getting into the book itself, the resources in city of Ember are finite. They’re not replenishable. With the inhabitants being forced to conserve, is there going to be an overly environmental message to the film?

GK: Nah, I’ve kept it very story centric. I don’t make allegories, I make stories… or I tell stories, and so a lot of the sort of environmental themes are cleverly kind of written into Jeanne Duprau’s novel. There’s never a “let’s take a step back and realize what we’ve just learned here, kids” and there certainly isn’t that in the film. But when the film wraps up and you walk out of the theater I hope there’s a realization that this place where we live, ya know, is finite and we do need to appreciate it while we still got it. That’s woven into the fabric of the film.

EmberGoD: Also in the book, the heroes — Lina and Doon — are fairly young. Eleven, twelve years old. In the trailer, it seems that they’re a bit older. What brought about the advance in age?

GK: Mostly finding the right actors. I had casting calls all the way from ten to… I was gonna say fifty, but that wasn’t quite right. I ended up just finding the two right actors that had the personality, the spirit, the energy that I always imagined for Lina and Doon. And it just so happened that they weren’t twelve. And at the end of the day the number twelve is a) terribly arbitrary, and b) and it’s fairly commonplace. We’ve seen that character threshold over and over again in films both recent and past, and it was more interesting for me to see, because one of the very things about the story of Ember is that when you finish school and you graduate, you receive the job that will define you for the rest of your life… almost on a lottery system. And to me to make this thing feel relatable to my audience, I wanted to make it like everyone’s first summer job. The first job that you had when you’re old enough to do it. You don’t do that when you’re twelve, you do it when you’re a teenager.

GoD: How closely does Caroline Thompson’s screenplay follow the story. Were there any new elements added?

GK: Yeah, we did add some elements. We’re very respectful of the material because Jeanne Duprau wrote an incredible novel. But novels are meant to be read, not seen on screen and so to create this thing as a living, breathing presence of its own, we had to take a story that was kind of text-based puzzles and find a way to translate that into something that was cinematic. We created a visual language that gave the audience the thrill of solving the puzzle, but in a non-passive way.

GoD: There are two other books in the series, we have a sequel and prequel. Are there any elements from those two books being brought into this film?

GK: I’ve kept this as a stand-alone. I really like stories with a beginning, middle and an end. And knowing that there’s things out there is great, but I didn’t let them inform my process. I wanted to stay very pure.

EmberGoD: Are there plans at all to adapt any of the other books?

GK: We’ll see how we do in October… [laughs] or possibly November.

GoD: Tom Hanks is involved as a producer. Can you tell us how that came about?

Well, Tom Hanks and his company are actually the ones who first brought Ember to my attention. I had kind of a general meeting with them where I described at length but kind of obtusely [laughs], a kind of film that I would want to make. Something that was a grounded science fiction. No laser beams. No intergalactic travel, in a controlled environment where the place plays a part of the story, and they sort of looked at each other and said there’s this manuscript that we think you should read. And this is obviously City of Ember before it was published. That’s how early this journey started. And Tom really loved Jeanne Duprau’s novel. He was really excited about the adaptation that Caroline created and the look of the world that I brought in. He was really instrumental in getting this film made.

GoD: Can you tell me anything about some of the future projects you’re working on?

Just that they’re great and they’re coming up. And I’m sworn to secrecy but I’m.. [laughs]

GoD: Heh, no scoops for me?

GK: No. I’m sure at Comic Con next year, and New York Comic Con we’ll have some pretty exciting stuff to talk about.

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