Written by Ray Carsillo
City of Ember is an adventure film about survival and the ability of the human spirit to rise above adversity. For generations, the people of the City of Ember have flourished in a breathtakingly beautiful world of glittering light, miles below the surface of the earth. Built as the last refuge for humanity and powered by a massive generator, the people begin to fear for their safety as the generator begins to fail as unbeknownst to them, it was only meant to last 200 years. Now as the lights of Ember begin to flicker and fade the hope for its citizens lie in the form of Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadway) as they race against time to unravel a centuries old puzzle and lead their people to safety.
Along the way Lina and Doon must find the inspiration from those close to them, such as Doon’s father, Loris (Tim Robbins), to overcome the overbearing laws of Ember and its corrupt Mayor Cole (Bill Murray) in a race to solve the mysteries of their glorious city before it’s too late.
I had a chance to take part in the City of Ember press day in New York City, which featured a press conference with Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, and Saoirse Ronan. They talk about how they prepared for their roles and the overall message of what City of Ember is. They also discuss how important it was to have an actual set there and not a green screen and the elaborate designs and beautiful visuals in the movie.
Q: How did you get involved with the movie and are there any underlying messages to the movie?
BM: I can’t remember but someone sent me the script and I opened the script and it said written by Caroline Thomson and Caroline Thomson is a writer that I met a long time ago, when I first went to California and my agent sent me around to meet other writers and we went out to a bar. It was a diner during the day, over on Lincoln Ave., and at night it became a Mexican horn bar. Full orchestra with like six horns and the temp was about 130 degrees and all people did was drink rum straight and dance. And I thought to myself, I can work with these people. But I never saw her again and she has written some great films like Beetlejuice and so when I saw that on the script I was like “Is that the one…” and they were like yeah. So I got her number and called her and she was on a horse. She was riding a horse somewhere in the valley. And she said you’re going to love this director Gil, so then I figured out who he was and saw Monster House, even though I had already seen parts of it via satellite and I figured this guy was good enough to work with…for my prime standards. So that was that. In terms of what the movie means, I’ll pass it to Tim.
TR: I didn’t really think of it as a message thing. It was more about the spirit of humanity that finds a way to survive under the direst of circumstances. The thing that really got me about this movie was that it had that great kind of dynamic with the two young people and that you have to be strong enough to have hope when others have lost it and if you believe in it enough, anything is possible. When I met Gil, I came on board quickly because I saw that he wouldn’t fall into the traps of the movie, the darkness of the movie, because he had a really great positive energy about him that I felt he was going make a movie that accentuated the human spirit of the two main characters.
SR: I was sent the script as well and my dad put me on tape and he forwarded it to Gil and he was touring around London at the time looking for Lina and Doon and we sent the tape over and then I went over and met Gil and we immediately clicked and I got a call a week later saying that I had gotten the part. Of course, I was thrilled. I think basically what Tim and Bill said is what I feel about the script. It’s not about environmental issues. I guess if you read into it, you could think that but it’s basically about the hope and the hope of the people of Ember and that there is a way out and that there is more to everything than just this.
Q: What research and/or preparation did you do to get into your respective roles?
TR: I dug a hole and crawled inside and covered myself and held a lightbulb.
SR: It’s kind of one of those characters that you can’t really research. Someone who is buried and lives underground and no one really knows how that is. It’s one of those characters that you just do it in the moment and as long as I had Gil there to help me, I was fine. Gil was like my research guide.
BM: I did do a little research and found that it was a book that kids in America read in school. Usually in middle school. When I told my sons that I might be in the “City of Ember” movie, their jaws dropped and were like “you’re going to be in the city of ember and you’re going to play the mayor?!” I hadn’t even read the script yet and thought they already know what is going to be in this movie because of the book so when I read it, I read from their point of view. Thinking about what they thought of this character and what they expected from him from the book to the script. To a degree, a mayor can be a father figure and he can disappoint you. I’m a father figure and I’ve probably disappointed on an occasion so when you most disappoint is when you talk the talk but don’t live up to it. And that’s what he did. So I figured that as long as I was really really successful at talking the talk, that the disappointment would just be there with a slight gasp.
Q: The City of Ember is like a character herself. What was it like being in a real built set with a minimum of green screens in today’s age with so much CGI and green screens?
SR: It was an amazing set designed by Martin Lang, it was in Belfast, actually in the Titanic corridors where they built the actually Titanic and it was huge. The whole city was like a mini-city. We didn’t have to leave a lot to our imagination. It’s great to have the set right there and makes it much more real.
BM: When you walk in and there’s a street in an underground city that is 55-60ft high with tunnels underneath it, there’s decaying doors and windows and bricks built as a street and concrete and plaster for the walls and real doors and real glass windows and beautiful design work too. The emblems of the city built into the streets and the fountains and the fountains work. It’s not hard to say you’re a part of the society when it’s right there. You walk into work and its right there, it’s so simple. The costumes as well. The best costumes I’ve ever worn. They exceed any other film, by far. Ruth Meyers, the costume designer, is a genius. That’s just my opinion. I only do this for a living. I’ve never seen anything like it though. The costumes that win the academy awards are the ones that are closest to the pictures in the book and these are all original. All created. And all look beautiful.
Q: Have you perceived any parallels to our current situation now in the world?
BM: Tim, would you like to handle this one?
TR: No, no, I took that one a while ago.
BM: Well, you certainly feel it. It came up today, is that was it written to be what we’re going through now because it seems like that. And to be fair, you don’t want to accuse a writer of being mirror-like or intentionally mirroring a situation. Or being metaphorical of what we’re going through now, but what I think is that the same combination of problems happen in that world as in this world and whatever your intention is, you’re going to encounter a lot of the same difficulties. I mean if it comes across as a movie to protect our environmental resources, no, not necessarily. I think it is more about the people who find a way to survive and their personal will and their spirit to emerge from a difficult situation and you come across this ecological consideration along the way of how am I going to live my life now? Will I live it this way or that way? Will being ecological help my spirit? I think it’s coincidental, not intentionally written that way. When you go on this search for your own personal enlightenment, you’re going to come across these things and it is almost a mathematical situation where if you go this one way, you will meet this much resistance along the way and that is just one of the things you meet.
City of Ember opens nationwide on October 10th.