City of Ember was the surprise closing-night film at Fantastic Fest, but I found out about the surprise a little early (which is always fun). I was able to see the film earlier in the week so I could interview director Gil Kenan, who showed up in Austin with surprise guest (to me, too!) Bill Murray for the closing-night festivities. Kenan has directed a pair of entertaining and visually stunning family-friendly features, the Oscar-nominated animated film Monster House and now the City of Ember adaptation, which opens in theaters on Friday. Not only that, but Kenan landed both of these projects right after he graduated from UCLA, where his short film The Lark won him a lot of attention. We talked about what he's done to make City of Ember as beautiful a film as it is, and how he found such compelling lead actors. He's currently linked to a new Robert Zemeckis production, Airman, and we took a minute to discuss that too. Check it out after the jump.

Cinematical: First of all, I want to know where we can see
The Lark, because that was so key to your career getting started.

Gil Kenan: For years, I was really into the fact that it wasn't around anywhere -- this movie got the door open for me, and it could never live up to the promise of that. But Caroline Thompson, who wrote the City of Ember script, started this great website called Small and Creepy Films, and she asked me if The Lark could be the first film she posted there. Her site is all about keeping the "weird" in short films, which is why I went to UCLA in the first place. I'd seen all these student films that were so well-made, but didn't have any of the scrappiness that is part of what makes short films so exciting as an art form.

Cinematical: How'd you get involved in the City of Ember project?

GK: It was right after I got out of UCLA, and The Lark basically got me an agent. When I got an agent, I thought I hit paydirt -- that's it, the doors are all about to burst wide open, I'm going to have this totally awesome film career -- and then I realized that a lot of people have agents. They send you around town to show you off, so you sit down with a lot of studios and producers and charm them -- it's strange, it's almost like a cotillion.

One of the first meetings I had was at Playtone, Tom Hanks's production company, because they saw The Lark and wanted to talk to me. I was elaborating on the kinds of films I wanted to make -- like a science-fiction film without laser beams, something with a human point of view on a science-fiction theme, and I had already started to get interested in the idea of place as a character. When you see The Lark, you'll see the genesis of that concept, where there's an emotional assignment to that environment. So I was talking about my love of place, and the executives started looking around at each other and said, "We have this manuscript you should take a look at that we just got, it's for a novel that hasn't been published yet called City of Ember." They sent me home with it that night. I read it -- went bananas, started drawing a bunch of stuff, and I called them the next morning and said, "I have to do this, I want to come in and talk about it." Two days later I came in ... and I was really adorable back then, it's like I was still a student so I made all these presentation boards, and I came in there with 10 presentation boards and laid them around the room, during this three-hour pitch of what the movie was going to be. I think they were frightened into submission! They decided to support me, and Playtone bought the property and started developing it.

Cinematical: But then you also ended up directing Monster House.

GK: A few weeks later, I got a call that Bob Zemeckis had seen The Lark and wanted to talk about something -- and then Monster House became my life for three years. Because there was no script yet for City of Ember, I was able to use that time to bring Caroline Thompson on, and work with Playtime to develop that script. And as soon as my preproduction team -- my art team -- wound up work on Monster House, I was able to keep them all working on City of Ember stuff. We were able to smoothly transition from one film to the next, and that way when Monster House was finished, I had a movie I was ready to shoot.

Cinematical: You mentioned drawing sketches of City of Ember. Do you do a lot of illustration?

GK: I think almost everything I've ever done has started with a drawing. The first image I drew of Ember was the generator -- the shape of the generator, the bivalve. I was getting really excited about this place as a living city that's dying. Trying to reinforce that metaphor visually without hitting you over the head with it was driving my excitement visually for the film -- finding ways to make the place feel like it had a pulse.

Cinematical: In the movie, people talk about the generator as the heart of the city, and they compare themselves to the generator in their pledge --

GK: That's right, and if you watch the film a few times you'll start hearing that every environment has, very subtly, the heartbeat of the generator reverberating through it. It's played almost subconsciously but when the generator goes out, you feel it whether you know it or not, the heartbeat's gone.

Cinematical: In both your feature films, location is as much a character as the actors are, and I'd planned to ask you if that was a coincidence. But now, I'd assume otherwise ...

GK: I think it's the great unexplored corner of drama. For me, the idea of our relationship to the place where we live, and the places where we lived when we were kids, is really important, at least at this point in my life. I moved around a lot as a kid, and I think that the first house where I felt like I had settled down was -- is -- still burned into my subconscious. Whenever I have dreams or nightmares, they usually start off in that house, or take place exclusively in it, regardless of what actually happens in that dream. I feel like that's not an accident, because whether we know it or not, we have a real emotional connection to those places. And it's not just people that we can draw an emotional part of our life to, it's also places where we spend time -- places that keep us safe, and witness the unvarnished truth of our life, when no one else is around.

Cinematical: The cast on this film is stellar -- so many good performances.

GK: I had a hard time casting Lina and Doon especially. I started with Lina, because I knew she was the emotional core of the film, and I wanted to find someone who could take us along on that journey without it seeming artificial. I was in the States for almost three months, looking in New York and LA and everywhere in between. Finally, my UK casting director, Gail Stevens, told me about this girl Saoirse [Ronan] who had just finished shooting Atonement. And I'd read that book, I knew it was an amazing role. She came in and within a few minutes of our meeting, in my head I called off the search for Lina. It's so great to work with her, she really commits to everything she does, every moment she's in front of a camera. A lot of the work you have to do with younger actors of keeping that focus, keeping them in the moment, she does for you.

Then the task was finding a Doon because originally I was looking for Doons who were 12 or 13, the age that the character is in the book. I was not feeling good about the kids that age even before I met Saoirse, it seemed like they hadn't gotten to a place emotionally yet where I would believe them on their journey, for whatever reason -- the way the character was written. I was starting to have this hunch that I should look for older ones. And as soon as Saoirse came on board and I started pairing her with kids her age, she was tearing them apart, she would demolish them -- this wasn't an effort on her part, it was just the strength of her acting, her presence and charisma. I had to find someone who could stand up to her.

Cinematical: And you found Harry Treadaway, whom I hadn't seen since Brothers of the Head, and I love that movie --

GK: Me too, and I thought he was amazing in Control, in a very subtle role. It's my favorite movie of last year, you have to see it, it's the most beautifully shot film. He came on and he doesn't take s--- from anyone, he owned Doon from the minute I met him. He has this kind of street pluckiness -- that's a really lame way of putting it. He has this very earnest, raw energy that made him right for the kind of dirty job that he has to do in this movie.

Cinematical: Well, City of Ember is beautiful -- tell me a little about the kinds of effects you used to get the film to look the way it does.

GK: One of the rewarding things about making this film is that I got to build a city. The sets themselves were almost completely practical -- everything you see in the film that's the city, other than a couple of aerial shots, was built physically. But because so much of the city was built, I wanted to have a physical effects component. So I brought on this guy, Kit West, who's a legend in physical effects, he did Raiders and the original Star Wars films. There's a big mechanical clockwork sequence that happens later in the film, and every shot in that sequence is totally practical. To be there on the set and watch that was amazing.

I'm not really impressed by special effects. I feel like I grew up in a generation where -- I knew how a blue screen worked when I was a five-year-old, and growing up with magazines like Cinefex around, there's no illusion to it. It's much more interesting to me to tell a story in a primitive way. That gives me the excitement that another generation of filmmakers has had of pushing the technological envelope -- I feel like it's a backlash to that stuff. And I feel like it's important to balance. There's a lot of fancy digital effects in the film, but they were used when the effect could only be created digitally, when there was no way to do something practical.

Cinematical: One last question -- I read [in Hollywood Reporter] that you're going to be working on Airman next, working with Robert Zemeckis again.

GK: That was kind of a presumptuous announcement -- I'm working on it, I'm really excited. But I had just gotten involved in it, it was a very new thing, and usually I don't like to announce something until I'm actually on the set directing the film. I hope I'm lucky enough to end up on the set of Airman, it's going to be an amazing movie. Not only did I learn a lot making Monster House, but I feel like there's a whole other side of using that technology, using motion capture in a way we haven't seen onscreen before. I had all these ideas while I was finishing Monster House about the way to take it in an opposite direction, and that's one of the things I'm looking forward to doing.

Cinematical: Is Airman going to continue your theme of "place as character"?

GK: Oh, yeah. If you take a look at that book -- Eion Colfer is an amazing novelist. It's rooted in this mythical land, it's drawn from our world but the place has so much to do with the story, it drives every character in the way they live their lives. I can't help it -- it's this itch I keep trying to scratch.