This week everybody’s talking about... MORTAL ENGINES
Filmmaker Peter Jackson helped guide his protege through a world where cities are huge machines on wheels, writes James Wigney
PETER Jackson has often admitted he was absolutely terrified when he was making his acclaimed, hugely successful Lord Of the Rings trilogy.
And the Oscar-winning Kiwi director says that’s a perfectly natural response to the size, scale and complexity of helming any big-budget blockbuster, let alone one based on a novel as revered as J.R.R. Tolkien’s.
So when Jackson put on his producer’s hat and anointed Christian Rivers as director of his latest film, Mortal Engines, based on the fantasy novels by Philip Reeve, he did his best to put his long-time collaborator at ease that the rising fear he was feeling was completely normal.
“He was terrified, just the same as I was,” says Jackson of his protege.
“He has been around film sets a lot and shot some really tricky second unit scenes, which were big scenes with big crews and all the bells and whistles. But he hadn’t quite wrapped his head around the actual pressure on the director.”
The pair had been working together since Rivers did some storyboards for Jackson’s 1992 cult classic
Braindead. He became a key part of the tight-knit Wellington crew headed up by Jackson, his wife
Fran Walsh and producing partner Philippa Boyens, and went on to work on visual effects for the LOTR films and King Kong (he won an Oscar for the latter) and directed second unit on the Hobbit trilogy. But nothing could prepare him for the physical and mental exhaustion of not only directing actors, but also making decisions on every other aspect of the production from the sets to the costumes to the design.
“You are not left alone to focus on the details of directing actors on set,” says Jackson, adding that he mostly steered clear of the set to let Rivers forge his own path. “That’s a job you are doing in the middle of a storm of people who need answers from you. And I don’t think he had quite appreciated that either, so I warned him about that. But you can tell people to expect that and that it’s completely normal and don’t be concerned about it but to actually go through it is a different thing entirely.”
Ever since the LOTR films made them one of the hottest properties in film, Jackson and his partners have pretty much had their pick of projects.
Jackson says that he was intrigued by the premise of British novelist Reeve’s four books, which are set in a postapocalyptic world in which the great cities of the world are now giant machines on wheels that hunt each other down for the raw materials that will enable them to survive.
“The thing that appealed to me is that it’s set in a society that is obviously very much different to ours,” Jackson says. “It’s in the future but it’s a well-thoughtthrough political system that has developed and however outrageous it might be, he has certainly sold it in his books as this is the way the world is going to be. It was something that I had never imagined — that the cities of the world would become city states on wheels.” Jackson says while he is a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic world that Australian director George Miller built in his Mad Max films, he was fascinated by Reeves’ take on what happens after that. That created the challenge of dreaming up huge sets and set pieces — most of the action takes place on a mobile version of London — where things are somewhat familiar, but not quite right.
“The way we approached this film was as a post-postapocalyptic world,” he says. “It’s not the dystopian world where humanity has been wiped out and everyone has become tribal. That event occurred but now we have moved on a thousand years or two thousand years so where this film is set is those tribes and survivors have now built up a society that is completely different to our own and yet has a lot of the familiar trappings. It has shops and theatres and pubs and it just
happens to be that the cities they are in are on wheels.”
For the most part, the key roles in Mortal Engines have been filled with lesser known actors, with Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar playing the heroine Hester Shaw and Irishman Robert Sheehan as a city-bound apprentice who finds himself as her reluctant ally. But for their main bad guy — the ruthless, power-hungry Thaddeus Valentine — Jackson and his producing partners wanted someone who could convey the necessary menace and gravitas, without tripping over to into a moustachetwirling, pantomime villain. Aussie Hugo Weaving, who had played a half-elven warrior/king in the LOTR and Hobbit trilogies, was at the top of the list.
“Any time you get to cast Hugo in anything is a good day,” says Boyens.
“When we were writing the script we had a number of versions of Thaddeus going on … and when we finally talked to Hugo about the possibility of him playing it, he saw pretty early on that there was more complexity going on there. He didn’t want him to be an arch villain.”
Jackson agrees, saying that Weaving rejected the “cheap shot” of pretending to be a supernice, two-faced guy who all of a sudden turns to pure evil when the story demands it. “That’s not what real people are like and he wanted to play a real person, which is what Hugo always does.”
WATCH MORTAL ENGINES opens tomorrow
“I HAD NEVER IMAGINED … THAT THE CITIES OF THE WORLD WOULD BECOME CITY STATES ON WHEELS”
KIWIS AND PRODUCING PARTNERS PHILIPPA BOYENS AND PETER JACKSON
HUGO WEAVING PLAYS THADDEUS IN MORTAL ENGINES