Peter Jackson is bringing the Post-aPocalyPtic sPectacle of Mortal EnginEs to the big screen. bryan cairns is on set as civilisation fights to survive...
Peter Jackson excels at epic storytelling. every frame of his Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit trilogies – from the massive set-pieces and dazzling visual eye candy, to the lavish costumes and compelling characters – conveys that message, loud and clear. now Jackson’s taking another crack at world-building with the sprawling fantasy saga Mortal Engines. Based on philip reeve’s young adult novel of the same name, the project has been on Jackson’s radar for more than 10 years. truthfully, the new Zealand native always planned on stepping behind the camera for it, but a hectic schedule prevented that from ever happening. “it was probably one of the movies i would’ve done during the time that The Hobbit was being shot,” Jackson tells SFX on the Mortal Engines set. “But i ended up directing that and it sort of took me out of commission for five years. and coming out of it we were faced with a situation where the rights to the book, which we’ve had for a decade or so, were due to expire, and we had to move fast.”
it’s a love story, but i also just like the idea of seeing big cities eating each other
yet Jackson’s fingerprints remain all over Mortal Engines. He wrote and produced the movie alongside regular collaborators Fran Walsh and philippa Boyens. Furthermore, they tapped Jackson’s protégé, Weta digital effects veteran christian rivers, for his directorial debut.
“christian is a filmmaker i want to support,” says Jackson. “He’s worked with me for 25 years and he needed to direct something soon. He shot the short film called “Feeder”, if you’ve seen it. it’s probably on youtube. it’s great. and, he’s done storyboards for me forever, since Braindead.
“also, Fran and i ended up after five years on The Hobbit with so many other projects we wanted to write and develop ourselves,” he adds. “in fact, we went straight into another movie with me directing it. again, it took me two years out of commission. Whereas here we write the script as producers, which allows us to write our other scripts and screenplays, while christian does all the hard work.”
it’s June 2017 when SFX travels to stone street studios in Wellington, new Zealand to visit the set of Mortal Engines. the tale takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, roughly around the year 3800, where a cataclysmic event has almost annihilated civilisation. out of those ashes, survivors live in “traction cities”, enormous mobile metropolises on wheels that roam the harsh landscapes. these cities prey on tinier towns, essentially devouring their supplies and integrating the people. one of the imposing and predatory cities, london, dwarfs almost everyone else.
today’s sequence involves the human element of the narrative. london has gobbled up a smaller quarry. in the lower levels, affectionately referred to as “the gut,” the captured residents are being wrangled. it’s here that a masked, knife-wielding Hester (Hera Hilmar) attempts to assassinate respected politician and head of the guild of Historians, thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Hester blames him for disfiguring her as a child, as well as being responsible for the death of her mother. When Historians apprentice tom (robert sheehan) intervenes, Hester fails at her mission, but still manages to escape. Unfortunately for tom, thaddeus cannot allow anyone to link him to Hester, or his past crime. He consequently pushes tom down a chute, exiling him to the outside world.
now alone and on unfamiliar ground, tom and Hester forge an unlikely partnership in order to navigate the hostile terrains, return to london and put the kibosh on a conspiracy, one that jeopardises the traction cities’ way of life. to make matters worse, shrike [stephen lang] – an undead soldier reanimated with
mechanical parts, who also shares a past with Hester – is hot on the pair’s trail.
“this is one movie where i hope it’s successful enough that we get to do the other stories because the story mushrooms in such unexpected ways in the future books,” Jackson says. “i really hope we get to make those films.
“at it’s core, it’s a love story,” he continues. “it’s an unlikely love story. it’s about a young woman who doesn’t really think she will ever find love, and she finds it through a very unexpected way, in the middle of this chaotic, strange world that we’re in. i also just like the idea of seeing big cities eating each other. there’s a personal story and there’s the spectacle, which is going to be pretty amazing.”
as expected, the Mortal Engines screenplay takes liberties with the source material – all with author reeve’s blessing. Most notably, the key characters are no longer teenagers. instead, they now fall into a more captivating “Star
Wars protagonist age group”. “We’ve aged it up,” confirms Jackson. “the book is written for quite a young audience, to some degree, you know? i just don’t think anyone wants to see another teenage dystopian movie anytime soon. We made it a little more adult. so, in some respects, it differs from the book in quite a few places. philip comes out here, and we always send him script revisions as we do them, and he always seems to be very pleased with them.”
to bring Mortal Engines to the big screen, the production has constructed more than 63 sets. some require computer animation to extend their volume or allow them to reach the sky. others are more practical. a few rest on gimbals to simulate the motion of these roving cities speeding across the lands.
one gigantic soundstage serves as the set for the london Museum. glass cases display artefacts from our present day, including smartphones, videogame consoles, cDs, laptops and even Despicable Me Minions, which are labelled “ancient deities”.
obviously, back in 2008, the movie industry was vastly different. the technology alone has improved in leaps and bounds. Jackson admits
Mortal Engines’ scope could never have been executed in the same manner as it is now. “one thing that’s probably happened in the last 10 years in terms of digital effects, and i’m sure we’ll see it on this film, is the way digital humans can be made for a lot of the big stunt and action stuff,” Jackson shares. “even just some of the stunt scenes that we’ve been doing on the second unit… ‘okay, we’ll do this and this, but this shot has to be cg,’ because you want it to be something that’d be so hard to shoot. “that’s one development,” says Jackson. “Because by 2008, we had made Lord Of The Rings. We had done
King Kong. We knew what we were doing. But, certainly
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