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FALL SNEAKS / THE DIRECTORS

Life in a dying city

Gil Kenan found many challenges in filming 'City of Ember,' not least of which was making the novel's word puzzles visual.

September 07, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Even IN such dire times for the real estate market, director Gil Kenan holds a particularly bleak view of housing.

The young British director's first feature, 2006's "Monster House," looked at a scary mansion inclined to gobble up unlucky visitors. In his new movie, “City of Ember,” Kenan's scope expands to an entire town that's failing so fast its inhabitants must figure out a way to flee -- or else.

Adapted from Jeanne DuPrau’s ingenious middle-reader novel about a post-apocalyptic world in which everything -- including electricity, food and optimism -- is in short supply, "City of Ember" contains an inherently cinematic idea: It's a dystopian "Great Escape."

More than 240 years have gone by since the isolated town surrounded by the dark "unknown regions" was established as a contained shelter for several thousand people while the world recovered from some unexplained catastrophe. Thanks to poor stewardship by one of the town's since-deceased mayors, the city has lost its critical "instructions for egress" -- details on how to leave Ember after two full centuries, when its supplies begin to run out.

Worse still, no one knows the directions are missing; Ember's residents are stumbling around in the (ever-increasing) dark.

After 12-year-old Lina Mayfleet ("Atonement's" Saoirse Ronan) comes across a chewed-up document that may show the way out, she joins with her friend Doon Harrow (British newcomer Harry Treadaway) not only to interpret the directions but also to evade civic leaders (including the mayor, played by Bill Murray) who don't want anyone questioning their command.

DuPrau's debut novel reads a bit like a teenage detective story and many of its clues are literary, which made Kenan's adaptation (with "Edward Scissorhands" screenwriter Caroline Thompson) tricky.

"The main challenge was to take a word-based puzzle and make it visual," the 31-year-old director said while he was finishing editing the Oct. 10 release. "And to find a way to make the puzzle part of the fabric of the city."

Readers of the book will recognize several Thompson and Kenan creations, including an earthquake, a pipe-dwelling mole, some oversized moths and a mysterious, two-part key that factors in Lina and Doon's getaway.

Even though "City of Ember" is a fantasy fable, it feels as if it could happen as soon as today, which is why Kenan and production designer Martin Laing's decaying town looks intentionally familiar. Its design was influenced by references as diverse as Germany's Bauhaus school of modernist architecture and Disney's master-planned community of Celebration, Fla.

"I wanted to keep the start of Ember as grounded in our current reality as possible," Kenan says. "That there is a version of Ember under our own feet." To construct a full-scale model of the city, Kenan's filmmaking team took over a massive paint hall inside a Northern Ireland shipbuilding facility and spent nearly five months constructing and then aging the film's sets.

Where some could imagine a future metropolis filled with sophisticated computers and do-anything drones, Kenan's Ember feels more like a crumbling Havana. What few robots do exist bump into walls like wind-up toys. "They are way beyond their expiration date -- like everything else," Kenan says.

Kenan also wanted to ensure that the city's rapidly deteriorating power source -- a hydroelectric plant underneath Ember -- came across as anthropomorphic as possible. So in the film, you can actually hear it beating, much like a human heart. "When someone says, 'The city is dying,' " says Kenan, "it's literally true.

Havana "The idea that a city is a central character in a story -- a place that is designed to give life and then takes it away -- is really a compelling premise for a film."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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