MOR­TAL EN­GINES

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS IAN NATHAN

A movie in which Lon­don is mounted on wheels and runs about where it fan­cies. The Oys­ter card now goes up to Zone 179,120.

MAS­TER­MINDED BY PETER JACK­SON. DI­RECTED BY HIS AP­PREN­TICE CHRIS­TIAN RIVERS. DU­ELLING-CITIES EPIC MOR­TAL EN­GINES IS A COL­LAB­O­RA­TION THAT MIGHT JUST MAKE MID­DLE-EARTH LOOK TAME

PETER JACK­SON WAS

, of course, as­sum­ing that Guillermo del Toro would make The Hob­bit. That was the plan. With the Mex­i­can head­ing into Mirk­wood in 2010, he could get down to pre-pro­duc­tion on Mor­tal En­gines. New Zealand’s favourite son had picked up the rights to Bri­tish au­thor Philip Reeve’s quar­tet of sci­ence-fic­tion ad­ven­tures in 2008, en­chanted by the idea of a fu­ture-earth where cities have upped sticks, shack­led on sets of ruddy great wheels, and set about eat­ing one an­other. Reeve called it “Mu­nic­i­pal Dar­win­ism”: town-eat-town con­sumerism in a world starved of re­sources.

So, leav­ing Mid­dle-earth be­hind, Jack­son was set to smoothly segue into build­ing a new world. There were other things cook­ing, too — gi­ant projects slid­ing into place like… well, like mov­ing cities. “Of course that’s not the way things turned out,” he sighs.

In fact, there ex­ists an al­ter­na­tive time­line where, be­neath Jack­son’s film­mak­ing um­brella, Chris­tian Rivers would re­make The Dam­busters, del Toro launched into two Hob­bit movies, and Jack­son drove Mor­tal En­gines. Quite how they were go­ing to squeeze it all into sub­ur­ban Welling­ton was a mat­ter for Weta Dig­i­tal to fig­ure out.

They fell like gi­gan­tic domi­nos. Even at a far smaller cost, The Dam­busters couldn’t land fi­nanc­ing. Del Toro got cold Hob­bit feet. And so Mor­tal En­gines was parked, while Jack­son re­turned to Mid­dle-earth.

By the time The Hob­bit was fi­nally done with at the end of 2014, the rights to Mor­tal En­gines were on the verge of ex­pir­ing. The prob­lem was, so was Jack­son.

“I wasn’t in the right frame of mind,” he freely ad­mits. “I just thought I could ei­ther di­rect the movie in an ex­hausted state or I could give it to some­one who is young and has a bit more en­ergy, and sim­ply help them.” His mind turned again to Rivers, who had done his share of sec­ond-unit shoot­ing on The Hob­bit. “He di­rected most of the bar­rels scene, the big stuff, and this seemed to be an ob­vi­ous mo­ment in time to tell him to get his di­rect­ing boots on and show up on set.”

The var­i­ous departments of Weta had been won­der­ing what had hap­pened to their rolling-city project. “It be­came al­most a bad joke,” re­calls Rivers. “Was ‘Squeaky Wheels’ ever go­ing to hap­pen?” He was about to find out. Walk­ing to Weta Dig­i­tal one morn­ing, con­tem­plat­ing leav­ing New Zealand to fi­nance a low-bud­get thriller and ful­fil his am­bi­tion to di­rect, his phone rang. “In the space of 20 min­utes I was pick­ing up where Peter had left off.”

THERE ARE TWO

weeks to go on the Mor­tal En­gines shoot at Stone Streets Stu­dios in Welling­ton, and Hugo Weav­ing is at the con­trols of St Paul’s Cathe­dral. The cam­era swoops down at him from the rafters like a fair­ground ride; dry ice blooms from hid­den can­is­ters. This grand sci­ence-fic­tion ad­ven­ture is brew­ing up its fi­nale, with Weav­ing’s schem­ing sci­en­tist Thad­deus Valen­tine crank­ing up the ME­DUSA, the nu­clear-pow­ered Macguf­fin at the heart of the story.

The three-month shoot might sound like chicken feed in Jack­so­nian time, but Rivers looks weary. “I’d never imag­ined what it would take out of me,” he con­fesses, watch­ing his cast and crew desert the set in search of lunch.

The in­te­rior of the cathe­dral, which sits atop the peri­patetic Lon­don, is full of chunky ana­logue tech, bring­ing to mind Terry Gil­liam’s junk­yard fab­u­la­tions and ’70s Doc­tor Who. Ca­bles spill from the walls like gi­ant in­testines. “My pitch was that if you could make a tri­an­gle out of Star Wars, Mad Max and Harry Pot­ter, we would sit in the mid­dle,” says Rivers. There’s no Force, no magic, he notes, but tonally this is their fu­ture-shock ball­park. “We sort of have the scale of Star Wars, the gritty re­al­ism of Mad Max, and in­her­ent in Philip’s writ­ing, there is this Harry Pot­ter-es­que, English, in­sti­tu­tional, al­most Dick­en­sian feel.”

Both Jack­son and Rivers boast English her­itage. “That kind of Bri­tish sci-fi is in our bones,” says the di­rec­tor.

Tall and se­ri­ous-look­ing, grey­ing hair spilling over his col­lar, Rivers makes an un­likely rookie. He’s been at Jack­son’s side since help­ing gore man­age­ment on Brain­dead. You might re­call his straight-talk­ing pres­ence from the doc­u­men­taries that pro­lif­er­ated around the Mid­dle-earth films, or, in­deed, his cameo as one of the guards at the bea­con of Mi­nas Tirith. The 44-year-old is an­other forth­right Kiwi, view­ing the world though clear, un-hol­ly­wood eyes.

Un­usu­ally for a film from the Jack­son sta­ble, the glo­ries of New Zealand have been left out­side the stu­dio doors. This, Rivers in­sists, is purely prag­ma­tism. “There is nowhere we can go for a lo­ca­tion,” he says dryly. “We are travers­ing through a dev­as­tated

Eu­rope. We have had to cre­ate over 60 dif­fer­ent sets.”

Though worlds apart, there is a shared grit­ti­ness with Mid­dle-earth — Weta Dig­i­tal’s house style of livedin mag­nif­i­cence. As Jack­son keeps ham­mer­ing into both the de­sign and mar­ket­ing departments, this is post-post apoc­a­lyp­tic. Mil­len­nia have passed. Veg­e­ta­tion has re­turned, be­tween tyre tracks the size of mo­tor­ways. “Ev­ery­one’s in­stinct is to make ev­ery­thing scorched,” he groans. Nev­er­the­less, oceans have dried up, new vol­canic ranges have reared into view, con­ti­nents have been re­ar­ranged like Scrab­ble tiles. Meat and drink for the small army of world­builders at Weta Dig­i­tal.

“It’s highly ad­ven­tur­ous stuff,” says Rivers. “At a scale that is hard to con­ceive. We had to work out how these cities would ex­ist on a phys­i­cal level, and it wasn’t easy. We had to con­vince our­selves it was go­ing to work.”

If there’s a hint of steam­punk, that is sim­ply ap­plied logic. After the Sixty Minute War that shat­tered the world, the film­mak­ers rea­soned there would be few traces of the dig­i­tal so­ci­ety left, but stat­ues, those old traces of em­pire, would have en­dured. Mean­while, a ri­val gang of fu­ture-folk are fo­ment­ing war with the Lon­don ‘Trac­tion­ists’ from aboard a fleet of fancy air­ships. Jack­son notes that they are pretty vi­o­lent: “That is the bones of our story.”

THE NEXT DAY

, Jack­son is up to his old tricks. He’s di­rect­ing. He had been de­ter­mined to give Rivers his space, but needs must. With the sched­ule reach­ing crunch time, he vol­un­teered his ser­vices sim­ply to keep the whole thing rolling. “If any sec­ond unit ends up with a main ac­tor, then I come and shoot it,” he ex­plains, the sight of Weav­ing storm­ing through a set of doors oc­cu­py­ing his mon­i­tor. “But I don’t get to do the real fun stuff like chases.”

The whole sit­u­a­tion has worked out well as far as Jack­son is con­cerned. Once they wrap, he can look at other projects (see side­bar over­leaf ) while Rivers heads into the long night of post-pro­duc­tion. “I feel like I’m do­ing a lit­tle part-time job here,” he smiles. “It keeps my hand in. I’m not think­ing of what Chris­tian is think­ing of, which is the over­all shape of the movie. Next week, I have the en­tire week off.”

How many first-time di­rec­tors can boast an Os­car-win­ner head­ing their sec­ond unit? As with Neill Blomkamp on Dis­trict 9, Jack­son and his pro­duc­ing part­ners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have over­seen pro­duc­tion on a cre­ative level, as well as pro­vid­ing the Mor­tal En­gines script. “The cost re­ports and the bud­get­ing and stuff is def­i­nitely han­dled by other peo­ple,” ad­mits the sec­ond-unit di­rec­tor-cum-mogul.

“With Chris­tian di­rect­ing it has felt dif­fer­ent,” re­flects Weav­ing. “He brings some­thing dif­fer­ent com­pared with work­ing on The Lord Of The Rings. At the same time, it is the same stu­dios, and lots of the same lovely peo­ple around. In that sense it feels like a fa­mil­ial place.”

The in­ten­sity of the drama cer­tainly has fa­mil­iar­ity. Against the back­drop of mov­ing cities, we are thrown into an over­lap­ping saga of re­venge, ro­mance and the busi­ness of sav­ing the world. All of which piv­ots around a stray young woman named Hester Shaw, her face as scarred as the Earth. She’s played by the film’s se­cret weapon — Ice­landic ac­tor Hera Hil­mar. “She is a rev­e­la­tion,” whis­pers Rivers on main unit, as Hil­mar sneaks be­hind cathe­dral pil­lars, gun in hand, ice in her eyes, edg­ing closer to the man who killed her mother — Valen­tine.

The scar has been a mat­ter of de­bate. In the books, Hester is com­pletely dis­fig­ured. “We spoke about it a lot,” says Hil­mar, who is step­ping up from small roles in Da Vinci’s Demons and Anna Karen­ina. “It would be such a big thing to have on a face, to cut the eye out and her nose off. It would be phys­i­cally dif­fi­cult for an ac­tor to deal with.”

Hester is no sim­ple hero. Hell-bent on re­venge, she’s nearly feral. Valen­tine left her for dead and she was raised by an an­droid relic known as Shrike, who is be­ing mo-capped by Stephen Lang, the Avatar star who is known to all as ‘Slang’.

“We’re try­ing not to pro­mote Shrike too much,” says Jack­son. “We want him to be a sur­prise. When you say an an­droid char­ac­ter, ev­ery­body ex­pects Ter­mi­na­tor.” Robocop makes a closer anal­ogy. The last of his kind, Shrike is a half-hu­man, half-mech­a­nised war­rior known as a Stalker, built long ago for war, his mem­ory wiped, an­other ex­am­ple of the film’s amal­gam of tech­nol­ogy and life. As he de­clines, he re­gains flick­ers of hu­man­ity, hints of chil­dren, a for­mer life, feel­ings.

“I love Shrike,” de­clares Rivers.

“I love him as a char­ac­ter, and I re­ally love what we’ve done with him.”

Much like Gol­lum, a huge com­po­nent of his cre­ation was cast­ing the right ac­tor. “First and fore­most was an ac­tor that had a great voice,” ex­plains Rivers. “And Stephen Lang was prob­a­bly our only re­al­is­tic choice. We looked at more ob­vi­ous choices, I could say, but they were so ob­vi­ous they weren’t right. It was ac­tu­ally Slang’s per­for­mance in Don’t Breathe that con­vinced us. That voice from the shad­ows is so ter­ri­fy­ing.”

Work­ing from footage of Lang, Shrike’s look evolved from what Rivers calls “a strange ver­sion of C-3PO” into a more elu­sive, stripped-back equipoise of hu­man and mech­a­nism, match­ing the con­tours of Lang’s face. As with Gol­lum, they needed the emo­tion; Shrike’s com­pas­sion­ate yet twisted re­la­tion­ship with Hester is the most com­plex in the film. If Mor­tal En­gines be­comes the fran­chise it wants to be, Shrike’s tra­jec­tory is piv­otal.

After the failed as­sas­si­na­tion that kicks off the drama, Hester will also be sad­dled with Robert Shee­han’s city boy, Tom Natswor­thy. A love story is brew­ing, but hardly a straight­for­ward

one. “She doesn’t deal with friend­ship,” says Hil­mar. “She doesn’t deal with small talk. She has to learn to be­have like a hu­man.”

These two out­siders from op­po­site ends of this uni­verse, lit­er­ally thrown to­gether against their wills, slowly come to a kind of un­der­stand­ing.

“You’ve got to base it around char­ac­ters, or you dis­ap­pear up your own arse,” ex­claims Shee­han, the for­mer Mis­fits star’s Ir­ish ac­cent burst­ing back into life off-cam­era. “You are at risk of that in these worlds.”

The two leads, de­lib­er­ately not su­per­stars, have that same fresh­ness that in­vig­o­rated the Fel­low­ship. “Tom doesn’t look any­thing like Robert Shee­han,” says Rivers. “Hera too. They re­ally be­came those char­ac­ters. We have a love story where no-one says, ‘I love you.’ Which I think is bril­liant.”

One thing ev­ery­one is adamant about is that this new-old world is not an­other grat­ing episode of teens top­pling tyranny. “Where the press is get­ting very con­fused is that we are not one of those films for the teenage mar­ket,” says Rivers. “This is not The Hunger Games or the Di­ver­gent se­ries, or Maze Run­ner.”

They are dar­ing to do some­thing new.

IN SEPTEM­BER 2018

, post-pro­duc­tion is draw­ing to a close. There is a mat­ter of weeks to go. Voices on the phone from the end of the world carry a note of re­lief. For Rivers es­pe­cially, a long road is com­ing to an end.

“I don’t mean this in a neg­a­tive sort of way,” he says, “but I wouldn’t want this to be thought of as a Chris­tian Rivers film. It is a huge cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tion with a lot of guid­ance from Peter and Fran and Philippa that I sort of got to di­rect.”

He sees him­self as a medium-sized cog in a big wheel. While it is he who shaped the tone, who did the lion’s share of the di­rect­ing, de­signed the shots and helped shape the per­for­mances, he in­sists that the film has a col­lec­tive DNA. He imag­ines this is what it is to make a Marvel movie, or a Bond. You are part of a big­ger ma­chine. Added to that, this was a project that Jack­son had orig­i­nally ear­marked for him­self. You can’t help but feel that.

Edit­ing has been a long and com­pli­cated busi­ness. Var­i­ous cuts have waxed and waned. “The film has ‘Peter Jack­son Presents’ all over it,” says Rivers. “Peo­ple will ex­pect a cer­tain cal­i­bre of film­mak­ing. I’m not Peter, but I hope peo­ple will see a film that has that, just through a dif­fer­ent fil­ter.”

Jack­son has had notes on the edit, of course, but has main­tained a re­spect­ful dis­tance. He knows he is the 30-foot go­rilla in this neigh­bour­hood. He tends to steer clear of Weta Dig­i­tal, not want­ing other di­rec­tors to think he’s get­ting a sneaky look at things. With Mor­tal En­gines, he em­pha­sises that it is Rivers who au­thored the film.

“It’s re­ally fast,” Jack­son en­thuses. “If I shot it, it might have bogged down in a few patches, but Chris­tian has kept the pace go­ing. It is a two-hour film! For me, do­ing a two-hour would be hard.”

Rivers is philo­soph­i­cal, won­der­ing what comes next. He’s very happy with the film, but this has been an un­usual way to start a di­rect­ing ca­reer. “For me, per­son­ally, I’d like to make a film as dif­fer­ent as I can from Mor­tal En­gines.

I don’t mean that to make a point.

I would just like a film that I can call my own, from my own cre­ative process. So that I know if I am good at it or not.”

His fate will be de­cided if the film does well. “Then ev­ery­one will be want­ing to make a se­quel and we’ll have to start those con­ver­sa­tions,” he re­flects. That’s Hol­ly­wood Dar­win­ism.

MOR­TAL EN­GINES IS IN CIN­E­MAS FROM 14 DE­CEM­BER

Above: Aboard Anna Fang’s (Ji­hae) air­ship, the Jenny Haniver. Right, from top: Tom Natswor­thy (Robert Shee­han), Anna and Hester Shaw (Hera Hil­mar) es­cape from a trac­tion town; Rivers di­rects Hil­mar; Hugo Weav­ing’s vil­lain Thad­deus Valen­tine plots and schemes from his ship, The 13th Floor El­e­va­tor; Stalker Shrike (Stephen Lang) is all aglow.

Clock­wise from top left: Be­hindthe-scenes shot of Hester in ac­tion; Tom and Hester in the tyre tracks of Lon­don; Thad­deus look­ing ev­ery inch the suave vil­lain; Mor­tal en­gine ME­DUSA in search of en­e­mies to con­sume.

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