THE STORY TELLER
Film writer Philippa Boyens has an Oscar, but the neighbours have six. Philip Matthews meets an unassuming powerhouse of local cinema.
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.
PUNKS AND KIDS
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
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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.