Peter returns with ‘Mortal Engines’
‘Lord of the Rings’ director steps in as producer for the postapocalyptic adventure film
History does not record if the late Sir David Frost ever approached Peter Jackson to star in his seminal television show
Through the Keyhole. But the chances are he didn’t. It would have just been too easy. Who else could possibly live in a mansion in New Zealand with an exact replica of a Hobbit house in the basement?
Jackson, who is worth an estimated $500 million (Dh1.83 billion) and was responsible for a total of six films about JRR Tolkien’s flat-footed heroes, employed some of his best set designers to transform the lower ground floor of his house into a perfect reconstruction of Bag End, Bilbo Baggins’s home.
The planes would also be a bit of a giveaway. The 57-year-old director owns a hangar full of First and Second World War aircraft, and an airfield on which he hosts a bi-annual air show. And it is now common knowledge, thanks to the broadcast earlier this month of his astonishing documentary about life in the trenches, that Jackson is something of an expert on the conflicts of the 20th century.
They Shall Not Grow Old was a mammoth project, which involved restoring and colourising original, flickering, black-and-white footage of everyday life on the front line, much of it previously unseen, and adding audio from 600 hours of BBC interviews.
“It was a passion project,” he tells me when we meet in an editing suite in Los Angeles. “I wanted it to be 120 men telling a single story: ‘What was it like to be a British soldier on the Western Front?’ “
Jackson, who has regained a portion of the weight he famously lost after the end of The Lord of the Rings, is softly spoken, with the thoughtful demeanour of an academic. Born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand, the son of English immigrant parents, the director was ob- sessed with movies from an early age.
He began making short films with his friends on the family’s Super 8 camera, and first attempted to remake King
Kong at the tender age of nine, with his own clay models. His special effects expertise is entirely self-taught.
Over the years, he has become known for his big-budget, special effects-heavy films, including not only
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but also his (second) remake of the 1933 monster classic King Kong.
His latest film is in this mould. Mortal
Engines is adapted from the Young Adult novels of the same name by Philip Reeve, and is an ambitious, post-apocalyptic adventure, which Jackson wrote and produced.
But it is very different, he tells me firmly, from the recent rash of dystopian tales. “There are very few dystopian films that I enjoy,” he says, running his hands through a thatch of grey hair. “Lots of them have themes about trying to crush people’s spirits, and they make the survival of those people look absolutely miserable. They’re just unpleasant films to watch. We wanted to make a movie where you could imagine, ‘Well, OK, if I had to go and live in this world, it doesn’t look too bad’ — there are museums, there are parks, there’s a library. It is not an unpleasant world, it’s not an unpleasant existence.”
Starring Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan, the high-concept
Mortal Engines is set in a world ravaged by the ‘Sixty Minute War’. “Countries don’t exist anymore, so there are no borders,” explains Jackson. “The oceans have gone down and the land has risen up. Britain no longer exists — it is just London.”
What has emerged from the ruins is a new, traction-based society, with cities on top of tank-style wheels marauding across continents.
The action centres around Tom Natsworthy (Sheehan), an apprentice historian from London, who has never set foot on solid ground, and Hester Shaw (Hilmar), a fugitive assassin seeking revenge for the murder of her mother when she was six years old. In Reeve’s four books — the first of which is the basis for this film — the lead characters are teenagers; Jackson has aged them almost a decade. He has also handed over directing duties to his longtime collaborator Christian Rivers.
What are his hopes for the film? One would expect the man who directed
Lord of the Rings, the highest-grossing film trilogy of all time — with its final instalment, Return of the King, tying with Ben Hur and Titanic for the most Academy Awards in history (11) — to be confident. You could even excuse a little arrogance. Not when it comes to a perfectionist like Jackson.
“You’ve always got something to prove — fear drives you,” he says. “There’s nothing I do that isn’t completely terrifying, because you don’t know if what you’re making is good or bad.” He pauses. “It’s easy to make an awful movie, any time.”