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.