Universal is set to release a live action adaptation of Philip Reeve’s best-selling book series The Mortal Engines on December 14, 2018.
“Thousands of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, humankind has adapted and a new way of living has evolved. Gigantic moving cities now roam the Earth, ruthlessly preying upon smaller traction towns. Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan)—who hails from a Lower Tier of the great traction city of London—finds himself fighting for his own survival after he encounters the dangerous fugitive Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). Two opposites, whose paths should never have crossed, forge an unlikely alliance that is destined to change the course of the future.”
Last year our own Ashley Victoria Robinson was fortunate enough to visit the set of The Mortal Engines and interview many of the creative forces behind this major motion pictures – including Philippa Boyens. Boyens has written in partnership with Peter Jackson since The Fellowship of the Ring and along with Jackson and Fran Walsh she won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for their work on The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King. She is a Co-Producer and Screenwriter on Mortal Engines.
Mortal Engines is such a huge unique world. Where do you start with this adaptation?
PHILIPPA BOYENS: I thought, you know, this is going to be great. It’s fantastic. Great ideas. So visual. You know, level of [mythology]. And then you get into it and you’re, like, wow, there’s so many ideas in here. And then there’s some tricky stuff that you have to face when you turn something into a reality. And it’s interesting. You know, in the book, London’s destroyed and we just–right from the go, I just went, I’m not having nothing to do with that. I love London. I’m not going to–you know, and we talked–the great thing is we talked to Philip Reeve, who’s wonderful, and we had that chance. I first talked to him years ago. I couldn’t believe it when I actually–I think it was 2007. I said, do you remember when we met in 2007? I do.
… Also, you know, it was–this is a new world. It’s an action adventure I think is the best way to describe it because we want it to be one of those films that, you know, we grew up with. Well, I’m way older than you guys. But, when, you know, like, I was–I can remember when the first Star Wars came out. You know, so, we want–always wanted to create that kind of world and that kind of freshness to it. But, that doesn’t mean you can do a three hour Lord of the Rings, unfortunately. So, it’s a different type of storytelling. So, that means you have to make choices about whose story you’re following, whose story is it. And like I said, it’s just ridiculously chalked full of incredible ideas.
The notion of Municipal Darwinism versus static settlements and the way people would live isn’t dystopian. And then we decided no, we don’t want it to be dystopian because we want this to be a film–it’s not post-apocalyptic. It’s post-apocalyptic. Because the world could come back. The world is coming back. If these [expletive]Traction engines would stop rampaging all over. And if we would stop eating ourselves. And so, those sort of ideas are really interesting. So, that’s the kind of the geopolitics of it.
And then there’s the–it’s not even politics, is it? I don’t even know. It’s the morality of the weapon is another really interesting idea that we really got fascinated in the notion of–I don’t know if any of guys know Dan Carlin? And he did Destroyer of Worlds [Ashley’s note: on the podcast Hardcore History]. Well, we have that line in there. We used that line, yeah, because it’s–and when he was talking about it and then he was talking about–I didn’t know that back story about Truman and Truman having, you know, like–the generals were in charge of these weapons. And the generals saw these weapons as weapons. There was no moral choice.
There was–this was war. And war is conducted in a certain way for them. So, there was no moral choice. So, the moral choice of–you know, to bring such a weapon back into the world. And medusas, like, ours not near what an atomic weapon could be. So, that was interesting. So, there’s that whole kind of concept and, like, those ideas about that. And then, you know, a love story. We wanted it to be a love story because of it–you’re also dealing with the ideas of a girl who has been disfigured, who has been brought up by a monster, literally.
So, yeah … And then always keeping in mind, it’s got to be a ride. I mean, you do want it to be. It’s one of the reasons to go and see a great film, right?
What did you prioritize then when you looked at all that stuff? And what, to you, was, like, there was no even point of making this adaptation without bringing these elements into the feature? Was there one specific?
PB: Yeah, I think the hardest thing was the love story because they’re quite young in the book and it’s this [subdued]thing. But, when you know–where you know where it goes with the rest of the storytelling, it only keeps getting better. I mean, those two characters and then [romantic]involvement as well.
And so, until it ends up, it’s quite extraordinary epic, heart breaking but beautiful place that it ends, that that love story of Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy, but this is the beginning of it. And so, that was a trick. That was a trick. And that’s why we aged the characters up. That was one of the reasons to do it.
But, also, you telling a love story against a background of survival, which actually discovered is actually helpful because if you –Because you could die–.
You want to be with somebody.
PB: Exactly. Makes you think fast.
They always say those relationships don’t last, though.
PB: Yeah. Yeah, exactly … The great thing about this, though, is when Hester Shaw falls in love with somebody –that’s what amazing about where this story goes. But, yeah. So, the love story was one of the first things that we focused on, to see how to make it work and not make it–like, what–at what opportunity–how do you get them from her basically–like, him thinking she’s a mad woman who’s trying to kill somebody to I love you, Hester Shaw? You know, how do you do that and make it real and believable? That’s always a trick and not mushy. And then of course, you know, Christian [Rivers] and Pete [Jackson] are, like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever, it’s your problem.”
How about the world building? I mean, you have 63 sets. How challenging was it to realize your vision of what this universe would look like?
PB: I didn’t know. If I’d known, I would never have come here. Because it’s, like–63 sets, it’s, like, oh my God, they’ve got that many scenes. How many scenes are we writing? And it’s–.
PB: I know. But, it is hard. No, you’re absolutely right. That’s exactly right. It’s those–it’s a gift and it’s wonderful. It means you need–man, Christian has been superb because it’s, like, this thing will break you if you’re not–if you do not say to yourself and understand what filmmaking is and that mad sprawling mess of get through it, you know, and figure out how it’s done. And hold on to the story and shit is going to happen because it’s just going to happen and it’s going to happen every day.
And so, you do need that flexibility, but you also need to hold on to a vision that can’t continue to shift and change, you know? Yeah.
Christian talked a little how there have been some rewrites along the way. What kind of things, as the movie was being made, inspired those rewrites?
PB: Often the talent that turns up, to be absolutely honest with you, always is really interesting. Partly also, this was a case of it–some of those things work–it’s such a delicate balance that certain things are working.
You know, casting–even casting becomes something that can shift and change some of those elements. You know, for a while, you know, we had a notion of who we thought–for example, exactly who we thought Valentine was. And then we–and then it shifted and changed. And then Hugo–just Hugo Weaving just brings so much to a character that, again, it just raises it. And you look at what you’ve written and you’re, like, needs more. You know, like, he can do more with this.
We had a very quite a–it’s not that he wasn’t–we didn’t see that there was complexity in his character and we didn’t want a cod villain, but they weren’t the labels that someone like Hugo can bring to it. And so that, you know, of course, we immediately start talking to him about what–where this is coming from.
But, then you have an actor like him and what happens then? And what happens when you have an actress like Hera? And then you realize, oh, no, we want to play this moment now. So, it’s that sort of stuff.
And having that ability and Christian’s been amazing because he–like I said, he copes with it really well. And not only that adds to it, comes up with–solves big problem. And is very unafraid, which I love because it’s scary. Shooting some of this stuff is hard. It’s–conceptually, it’s hard to even–it’s, like–I mean, things that when you write it on the page, you don’t have any concept of.
Like, I didn’t actually think about well, what direction is the city facing in? I mean, where is the dome when the dome opens that stream, which becomes so powerful? And then you were, like, I was sort of at the front–top of the city, kind of front of the city.
And then you realize, well, no, but people are seeing it from here. How are they seeing it from–they’re seeing it from the side? No, no, no. You’ve got to see it from–you know, it’s all that sort of stuff which drives you crazy.
Where is the script right now, like, in the process of things? Like, are you still rewriting or are there still scenes you haven’t flushed out yet?
PB: Oh, no, no, no. We’ve done–everything’s written. It’s all written. We’ve got a couple of little tweaks of stuff. And usually where we are right now in terms of the shooting is what’s happening with the schedule. And you always have a kind of little wish list of things that you don’t want to let go of. But, also, realistically, you want–you know, it’s a two hour movie.
Well, when you’re looking at a script for something like this that you know could easily be so CGI. And you’re thinking about what we can do practically and what we can do –are you collaborating during that process to see, like, what could we do and how could I write this in a way that this can be done practically?
PB: Yes. Well, Christian’s very good at that. That’s one of his great strengths because he’s won an Oscar for that. But, beyond that, I just don’t think they want that now. I mean, it doesn’t feel like the audiences necessarily want that either. So, you know, building a huge library rather than just having–yeah. Was worth all the effort. And yeah, they had some extraordinary stuff. Airhaven was just–oh, my God. So cool. And that was a great–that was a really great set.
I have a question about writing for some–a character that in your mind wouldn’t be a specific–it wouldn’t be as defined. You know, when you’re writing an adaptation, your vision of the character is whatever is in your mind from the book. But, when you’re doing rewrites or writing a sequel or something –Now, these actors are so locked in to the character. But can you talk a little bit about–because the experience rewriting and adding to these characters with them in mind and how that differs?
PB: No, I thought I could do Patrick Malahide. Like, I was, like, different . Okay. You know, and so I thought–and then you sit with Patrick Malahide and I’m, like, oh my God, he could say anything and sound awesome. His voice is so–but, yes, that’s a perfect example because he does have–I mean, he has that status. And he’s an–he has–we needed a character who was–he’s different from the book. He’s quite different from the book.
Of all the characters we’ve changed, we changed Crone. We made this conscious decision because we felt we couldn’t–it’s hard. You can’t–to me, in the book, he’s a little bit–and I think Philip would forgive me for saying this because he’s kind of considered himself, he’s a really fascinating and interesting character but he’s an obvious villain. He’s just–he’s exactly the same at the beginning and at the end.
There’s a lot about him that we love that we’ve kind of given to Valentine a little bit more. There’s that recklessness about him that sort of sits better with Valentine. What we understood really early on was you’ve got your main villain, Valentine, who does the most shocking thing in the film and in the book that you can possibly think of. Then becomes really equivocated. He equivocates through the rest of the story.
He goes from being, like, creating this terrible act and actually two terrible acts as you discover and then trying to redeem himself somehow. And that would be okay, except he fails, which is not okay. So, at that point, you’re, like, no, we need to shape this character and make sure that we’ve got a really strong through line for him.
To that point, we did–we also knew that he had to have something to push against. Otherwise, he’s working against nothing and that had to be Crome. And then Crome had to be a genuine threat to Valentine in a weird way because no one else is a threat to him. He’s on London for most of the story, except for a little bit, some pieces. And he needs some–and that has to be Crome.
So, in a weird kind of way, although they begin on the same page and Crome is onboard with this whole project, he changes. And at that point, he becomes a threat to Valentine.
And very early on, we thought as someone who has once–and like I said, Hugo Weaving has made his character way more complex and more interesting than what I’m about to say. But, once he kills for that thing and that object, he’s committed to it. He’s committed to that act. He has to commit himself to that act. And the end of that act, killing for that object, is the creation of that thing. He is on that trajectory and nothing, not even his daughter, is going to stop him.
And so, that became a really interesting journey and gave his character much more clarity.
So, what happens with Tom, you know, sort of when you realize–because he does start off as incredibly charming, incredibly likable. The adventurer.
He said he’s Valentine, the adventurer, the archaeologist. He’s, like, a really cool guy. And then the truth about what’s underneath all of it becomes really interesting. And actually, the truth of what’s underneath it is, you know, he’s not–he’s a scavenger. He was born on a scav town and he grew up under an extreme quality. He’s not an archaeologist. You know what I mean? Like, he assumed the role of the archaeologist.
And he becomes like the cuckoo in the nest and then the mask slowly gets pulled away until at last Crome realizes what he’s dealing with. And what you’re dealing with is someone who is so reckless that they could recreate this thing and use it.
How do you find that balance in terms of the type of language you’re using and the dialogue and things like that?
PB: We try and make it appropriate to that the age of the character. So, we definitely aged them up. There’s some beautiful lines in the book that we–you know, you do always go through and you pull those ones out. And so, they’re in there.
But, we have made it age appropriate in terms of that. And for the characters, I mean. So that’s–it’s interesting. I think we let you let go of the book at some point. Once you hold the threads and you understand what you’ve got. And then we often do this process. I think I’ve talked to you guys about this before. You know, where you go quite far away from it and then you work your way back.
Because you realize you’ve gone too far. And then you work your way back. But, it’s been interesting. There’s some big things that change the storytelling when you make those decisions, like, we’re not going to destroy London. This isn’t as dystopian story. It’s the aftermath of that. What world–what the world should be.
It places them very much where we are, kind of like we’ve all got choices that we should make about where we’re going to go. This is a world that–this is a society that needs to make some choices about who it wants to be and where it wants to go.
And … of the past. And then also, the most–one of the most important things is it’s got some incredibly brilliant set pieces that you want to see on film. I mean, I–you know, the opening of that book is just fantastic and it captures anybody’s imagination. So you get to write some of the best lines. Going to your paint, lilac.
I was laughing with Patrick Malahide yesterday because he’s driving the city and, you know, commanding the city. And one of his lines is, “Prepare to ingest.” Calling the little–yeah. We think it should be a t-shirt.
I’m also just curious about kind of the handling of the exposition because, obviously, there is entire history that if that 1,000 years that at least that has happened before the story starts. So, how do you kind of implement that and just kind of let the audience know what–where things went to get us to this place?
PB: We start with a school tour through the museum … We have a little bit of that. But, we do have a museum –Which was perfect. And also, that was the perfect place to understand that, oh, wait, they’re talking about something. And you don’t know what they’re talking about. And then you realize that what they’re talking about is an object–one of ours.
Yeah. And it’s, like, oh, we’re the agents. We’re the agents that these guys are talking about. And then there’s the lovely confusion about what it really was. But, Colin Salmon, who’s playing Pomeroy –And so, you know, that was one of the reasons we cast him because he carries quite a bit of little bit of exposition. So, an answer to your question, how do you get to the exposition? You cast Colin and you cast Patrick Malahide.
So, it’s not just, like, a huge prologue at the beginning explaining it all or anything like that.
PB: No. I wish. Yeah. No, but we don’t–I think of visuals, I hope to God I’m not crazy. And you know, we make mistakes all the time about it because you think it’s clear and it’s not clear. And people go, why did that happen? And it’s, like, because of the thing. They put that in the box in the corner. Everyone’s, like, I didn’t see the box in the corner or whatever, you know? And so, then–so, we don’t always get it right.
And you have to try and, you know, hold it all. And what’s important, too, because sometimes you can chase things that just aren’t important down rabbit holes all the time. So, you just need to know and trust the audience. And also, even sometimes, I think when I watch a film, even if there’s something where I’m, like, oh, I really–oh, what? Hang on, wait. I’m okay so long as I know what the characters are feeling, I know they’re in danger, and I know something, you know, like, oh, my God, I think something bad’s about to happen or whatever, you know. I think you’re okay so long as we haven’t confused the audience.
You do that. The main tiny dirt is when you’re trying to do something mysterious and you try to set up the mystery and all you do is set up a confusion. And so, hopefully we haven’t done that.
Mortal Engines, there’s multiple books. Obviously, you want this to be a franchise. So, what kind of discussions did you have about how much you have to set up for other movies and how much you can mine from the other books into this movie?
PB: Mining the other books was really interesting because keeping an eye on–and I’ll tell you, quite honestly, you don’t lightly cast Clytie because, you know, [she]might become very important.
So, not saying that we lightly cast anybody, but that was an interesting thing because you almost don’t–because we never–we honestly, truthfully–I certainly never sat down and I know Pete did sat down and thought of this in terms of a sequel–you know, sequels. I mean, we’re just, like, get this thing working first. And then think about what may happen.
And then the one time this one tiny moment that doesn’t even–just about Anna [Fang] and how she got her name and what that means and that if there is a sequel would have a beautiful path or a very tragic path.
So, there’s a little bit of that. But, mostly, this has to work as a film. This may be the only one. Who knows? I hope not because I think it’s a–I think the story just keeps getting better and better. And I want to see the other traction engines now that I’ve seen in this one. I want to see Panzerstadt. I want to see Arkangel. I want to see these ones that are bigger and meaner.
Now, London’s ruined and wrecked, what the hell’s going to happen to it? And we’ve talked about a war between the anti-tractionists and the–but–and the tractionists, but we haven’t resolved it. So, I think there’s good possibilities for the sequel. But, having said that, this has to work first and foremost in and of itself. And that, we don’t know until 2018 or whenever you guys see it, I guess, which will in about a year and a bit.
Mortal Engines opens in theatres worldwide December 14, 2018.