Film writer Philippa Boyens has an Os­car, but the neigh­bours have six. Philip Matthews meets an unas­sum­ing pow­er­house of lo­cal cin­ema.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - FILM -

This is the nerve-rack­ing time. The film is fin­ished, the ads are run­ning, some word of mouth is build­ing, the jour­nal­ists who are do­ing in­ter­views have seen it but none of the re­views are out yet, and the ac­tual pay­ing pub­lic? You won’t hear from them for weeks.

There must be a name for this in­terim pe­riod in the movie re­lease sched­ules, the time of jun­kets and em­bar­goes, of photo ses­sions and hair and makeup, of world pre­mieres and air-kisses. “It’s nerve-rack­ing, al­ways,” says Philippa Boyens, co-writer and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of the movie Mor­tal En­gines.

But she seems chip­per: easy­go­ing, friendly, with a sharp sense of hu­mour. She sips a bot­tle of wa­ter and talks freely for 45 min­utes in the spot­less, art deco-ish lounge of Park Road Post, the post-pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity in sub­ur­ban Mi­ra­mar, Welling­ton.

“Ah, Peter Jack­son,” the cab driver had said when he was given the ad­dress. Jack­son is do­ing in­ter­views else­where in the build­ing with his pro­tege, Mor­tal En­gines di­rec­tor Chris­tian Rivers. But this is a key part of the house that Jack­son built, the world-class film-mak­ing in­fras­truc­ture that grew out of al­most noth­ing, was willed into ex­is­tence in re­mote Welling­ton.

Boyens has been on the ride for 20 years, since Lord of the Rings, which she co-wrote with Jack­son and his wife, Fran Walsh. Then the three worked on King Kong, The Lovely Bones and the Hob­bit tril­ogy. It is a close friend­ship: Boyens, her part­ner Seth Miller and their 8-year-son Isaac live next door to Jack­son and Walsh, and Boyens and Walsh try to go for walks to­gether most days.

“The neigh­bours!” she laughs. “It’s so funny be­cause I’ve got my Os­car in my of­fice and some peo­ple go, ‘Oh my God, it’s an Os­car!’

I go, ‘It’s amaz­ing but they’ve got six next door.’ It keeps you hum­ble.”

The Os­cars poured like wa­ter when the third Lord of the Rings film, The Re­turn of the King, was hon­oured in Hol­ly­wood in 2004. How long ago that seems, though: 14 years. And will

“I re­mem­ber re­mem­ber

lead that we have turned into a fe­male. All her prob­lems, all the things she needs to over­come, all her self-doubt, all those things are en­tirely based on and rooted in a fem­i­nine per­spec­tive on the world.”

She takes a long sip of wa­ter af­ter that tremen­dous so­lil­o­quy.


No, this will be the last plug. There is a way in which the world Reeve cre­ated is fairly steam­punk-ish, not un­like the world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Ma­te­ri­als. It’s about the look.

“I think they were prob­a­bly both punks,” Boyens says. “Lit­tle punks in the 1970s.

I guar­an­tee both Philips were punks. The 13th Floor El­e­va­tor? Come on.”

The 13th Floor El­e­va­tor is an air­ship in Mor­tal En­gines. The 13th Floor El­e­va­tors, on the other hand, were a pi­o­neer­ing psy­che­delic punk band from Texas.

So is the film steam­punk? No, it’s just punk.

“That’s why it was per­fect for it to be made down here be­cause it’s that op-shop feel. You grab a bit of this from here and you smash it to­gether with that. There is a clam­our about it.”

Sal­vage punk. Scav­enger punk. Maybe just punk.

There was noth­ing very punk about Lord of the Rings. It was more fey, or goth. Amaz­ingly, that was Boyens’ first screen­play job. An early news­pa­per re­port about her work on an Os­car win­ning-se­ries is head­lined, shame­fully enough, “Dream comes true for a Kiwi mum”.

Yes, she was a mum, but she had also been a writer. She grew up in Auck­land, where her fa­ther was a school prin­ci­pal. She worked along­side Auck­land the­atre leg­end Gil­lian Sut­ton, who died this year, at The­atre Cor­po­rate, which had a side­line ded­i­cated to train­ing young act­ing ta­lent.

“I never wanted to be an ac­tor,” Boyens says. “I’ve never wanted to per­form. I’ve wanted to be more in con­trol. I had a vague idea of maybe di­rect­ing. But I fell into writ­ing be­cause I started to write scenes as a tool for teach­ing.”

Then she wrote plays about top­i­cal sub­jects. One on a baby aban­doned in an Auck­land park, one on an ME out­break in the South Is­land, one on some teenagers who shop lifted.

“I did that then ended up hav­ing ba­bies rel­a­tively young. Not so much for those days, but def­i­nitely young for these days – 22, you know. I stopped at that point. Not com­pletely. Still teach­ing and im­mersed in this world of the­atre, of ac­tors, then get­ting to know more and more screen­writ­ers.”

Her old­est son, Calum, is 32. Right now he is in Los An­ge­les try­ing to break into the

Philippa Boyens says New Zealand was the per­fect place to make Mor­tal En­gines be­cause it has an “op-shop feel” to it. Photo: Mark Tantrum

that’s not go­ing to hap­pen!” Sin­clair had writ­ten with Jack­son and Walsh on Brain­dead and the pup­pet shocker Meet the Fee­bles, and he was on Rings too. Boyens came on board as some­one who knew the books bet­ter than any­one else in the group.

The Lovely Bones? That was Boyens, too. She picked up Alice Se­bold’s novel about the rape and murder of teenage Susie Salmon at Heathrow, read it one sit­ting on the plane and handed it to Walsh in Welling­ton.

But the rights had gone to Lynne Ram­say, “an amaz­ing di­rec­tor”. A year later, they were avail­able again.

“It was so in­ter­est­ing, that film,” Boyens says. “We still get letters from peo­ple say­ing, ‘Thank you, that was re­ally im­por­tant and helped me a lot.’ Per­son­ally, I feel like we failed a lit­tle in the sto­ry­telling. We never quite got to grips with how to tell that story.”

But there was strong act­ing – Saoirse Ro­nan, Stan­ley Tucci – and, in Boyens’ opin­ion, some of Jack­son’s best di­rect­ing.

Ar­guably, it is a story that is more timely now than then. Maybe pres­tige tele­vi­sion could do it jus­tice by putting you in that world for 12 hours. The same could be said of Mor­tal En­gines, which crams a lot of story into two hours.

“Maybe you could do more ser­vice to it,” Boyens muses. “Does that mean films are dead? I don’t know.” Speak­ing of episodic tele­vi­sion, Ama­zon is do­ing a Lord of the Rings pre­quel. “I think they’re go­ing to do an in­cred­i­ble job. A lot of the early Aragorn story hasn’t been told.”

But the next Boyens’ film? Af­ter more than 20 years, it will be one with­out Jack­son and Walsh. Her adap­ta­tion of writer TA Bar­ron’s young Mer­lin se­ries is in pre-pro­duc­tion, with Ridley Scott set to di­rect it in Lon­don for

En­ter daily for more chances to win!

Dis­ney, which is ex­cit­ing. So if Boyens has gone solo, has the band bro­ken up? “We will al­ways write for each other,” she says. “I’d read any­thing they wrote. They’ve read other stuff I’ve writ­ten.”

But Jack­son has been ab­sorbed in his highly per­sonal World War I doc­u­men­tary, They Shall Not Grow Old, and Walsh has “an­other pro­ject that’s re­ally very per­sonal and spe­cific to her, which is ex­tra­or­di­nary. We went our sep­a­rate ways but in a good way. We came back to­gether for this.”

There are other projects, still too em­bry­onic to name. She re­cently “had a re­ally great catch-up with a young New Zealand pro­ducer”, but the work will gen­er­ally be in Los An­ge­les. And that place too has changed over her years in the busi­ness.

“Look, this is so weird,” she says, mov­ing closer, as though con­fid­ing. “Of­ten stu­dio

Mor­tal En­gines tells the story of Hester Shaw, played by Hera Hil­mar.

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