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Building 'Ember' Young director brings DuPrau's story to the screen

Five years ago, Gil Kenan was an unknown university student with a video camera; today he is an Oscar-nominated director strolling around one of the largest indoor movie sets ever made.

"It's amazing. See the height of this thing? The size and height of this thing actually allowed us to build sets that are practical," says Kenan, 31, as he walks underneath a canopy of lights inside a massive shipping hangar.

"City of Ember," which opens Friday, is based on Jeanne DuPrau's book about an underground city lighted entirely by a power generator that's starting to fail.

In making the movie, one of the biggest problems was finding a space big enough to build a city.

Kenan traveled around Europe for months before discovering Belfast's Titanic Quarter, so called because the RMS Titanic was built there, leaving behind hangars that soar 90 feet in the air.

It took five months to build the Ember set in a building that spans 64,000 square feet, and the result is an English village with winding alleys and concrete three-story buildings. "I'm really into these," Kenan says, pointing at the copper manhole covers. He explains that the engravings on the manholes are essentially maps of the city.

The film is co-produced by Tom Hanks' Playtone Productions and Fox Walden. The story follows two teenagers, played by Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway, as they hunt for clues to unlock the city's mysterious origins and help its citizens escape before it's too late. They are thwarted by Bill Murray, who plays the mayor.

Born in London, Kenan moved to Tel Aviv at 4 and Los Angeles at 7. His father used to take him to "inappropriate" -- his word -- films, he says, such as "The Tin Drum" and "Time Bandits," leaving him "really confused and really fascinated." But the films that influenced him most were Spielberg's "E.T." and Zemeckis' "Back to the Future."

Kenan's big break on "City of Ember" is the stuff film students dream of: His UCLA senior film project, "The Lark," a 10-minute film made in his kitchen, won a class award and caught the eye of an agent. Soon he was sitting across the table from industry titans at Playtone.

Kenan says he began pitching a kind of "non-intergalactic science-fiction film" when Hanks' executives "started looking at each other." "The City of Ember" had just landed on their desk. Would Kenan like to take a look?
Kenan called the next day and ended up giving a presentation about his interpretation of an "Ember" movie, complete with sketches. "We loved his energy, and Tom [Hanks] was delighted with Gil," says Playtone producer Steven Shareshian.

If some might think it risky to gamble so much on a young director, "Ember" producers could look back at Kenan's first film. The animated film "Monster House" from 2006 received an Oscar nomination.

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NeXt Book Club: Among the cool prizes for NeXt Book Club are "City of Ember" hoodies donated by Fox Walden. Readers 18 and younger are invited to read "City of Ember," write a short review (250 words or less) and e-mail it to next@buffnews.com or mail it to NeXt Editor Jean Westmoore, Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo NY 14240 by Oct. 15. Prizes including flashlights, hoodies and books will be awarded in a random drawing.

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