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

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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”

/JUSTIN LLOYD

KI­WIS AND PRO­DUC­ING PART­NERS PHILIPPA BOYENS AND PETER JACK­SON

HUGO WEAV­ING PLAYS THAD­DEUS IN MOR­TAL EN­GINES

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