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 Christian Rivers. Rivers is an Academy-Award winning Visual Effects artist who was mentored by Peter Jackson and worked alongside him on a number of projects including King Kong and as the Second Unit Director on The Hobbit trilogy after Andy Serkis. He is the director of Mortal Engines.
So, I guess, can you start by explaining a little bit of how you got involved? I mean, we learned a little bit from Peter Jackson’s Facebook post about –How you were involved in 2008. So, can you talk a little about, like, what created the project and then how this kind of developed?
CHRISTIAN RIVERS: Well, what drew me to the project is Peter asked me if I wanted to do it. I guess that’s the short answer. I mean, obviously, I’ve worked sort of alongside Peter very closely since I was 18. I was a storyboard artist in a number of different capacities, working up to second unit director on The Hobbit after Andy Serkis left.
And I mean, it’s been no secret to Peter or sort of anyone else that I’ve worked with that I’ve, you know, wanted to direct, but I’ve managed to keep–you know, I’ve managed to kind of have a career keeping so close I guess to that creative channel of Peter’s that I’ve sort of lived out vicariously through him and managed to learn and, you know, sort of fine tune a whole lot of other skill sets along the way.
And so, you know, recently, I sort of departed from where that–to direct a short film and also start developing some low budget features of my own. And sort of–yeah, just out of the blue he called me and said, do you want to, you know, direct Mortal Engines? You know, our other director has decided to leave the project.
And yeah, took me about all of three seconds to say yes. But, you know, there was a whole lot. You know, and I wanted to trench myself and I knew what I was sort of getting myself into. You know, and I was well aware that it’s a huge undertaking as a first feature.
So, yeah, the fact that I had been involved in the previous back in 2008–I think it was then. It was roughly around then. Meant that I knew the project quite intimately. I’m also–it’s my son’s favorite series of books. And so, yeah, I knew the world.
I also knew–you know, I think I knew the sense of the least that–why Peter would’ve asked me to direct a film that he at some point wanted to direct himself, that we do share, you know, a similar sensibility to the world. And therefore, yeah, I guess he thought I was going to be a good choice. So, hopefully I haven’t disappointed.
Can you talk a little bit about the collaboration between you and Peter because that’s changed now? You collaborated with him for, you know, what, over 20 years now almost, right? But, now, you’re in a different position here. Has that collaboration changed now that you’re behind the camera?
CR: Yeah, I think it kind of has in that, I mean, my role has always been sort of in service to his vision. You know, I mean, that’s what you do as whenever–I mean, you know, films are hierarchical. You know, and the director, you know, is essentially the creative dictator. So, you know, my services to Peter have always been, you know, to help him achieve his vision. And now, on this one, you know, I’m–you know, it’s sort of the other way around. But then, I’m also, you know–I’m absorbing as much as I can in the collaborative way from everyone who is around me, including Peter, Fran [Walsh], Philippa [Boyens], the studio, all our HODs [heads of departments.
You know, the world’s too big to just be, you know, complete singular vision, especially with the time and the budget and sort of –You know, agreed to do it … Aside. Certainly, the only that’s, you know, that’s changed is that we are now, you know–yeah, I’m now directing it. He’s helping me direct a film rather than the other way around.
There you go. Now, this is how it’s going to be.
CR: Yeah, that sometimes works. But, you know, anyone–you know, usually if Peter, you know, he’ll have a strong opinion about things, but it’ll be very defendable. And if it’s not defendable, he’ll give in to what you want. So, you know, it’s, you know–it’s a very healthy and fun and creative process. And yeah, everyday’s a [challenge].
Just given the unique vision … that Philip Reeve established with this world, I’m curious, kind of what presented the greatest challenge as far as just building the aesthetic style?
CR: Well, the biggest challenge is still to come. Which is the–which is all the stuff that we have to do with digital effects. And part of it’s just also from the way I want to handle it is I don’t want it to be–I mean, obviously, the city–all the moving cities have to be digital. But, I don’t want to–you know, I just want every shot to be telling an important part of the story. And not to suddenly be cutting away to a whole lot of CGI just because we can. And that’s what we’ve tried to, you know–try to, you know, shoot a lot of it in a quite a, you know, sort of a visceral way. Mainly because it is set in our world. I mean, obviously, it’s a big future of our world. But, it–you know, we’re not in a mythical realm. We’re not in, you know–we’re not in a, you know, fantasy, science fiction universe.
We’re actually–we’re in our world somewhere. And because it’s so fantastical, like the elements of it, I wanted to just try and–I wanted to at least have something that the audience could grab onto and to how it’s–you know, how we’re looking through the lens. So, yeah.
So, I think the post is going to be really challenging, just with the complexity –Of everything and the scale of everything. And also making it believable. I mean, there’s a lot of things within the world that are really hard for you to wrap your head around. So, you know, we’re sort of going to have to get there and see it.
I’m curious actually also about specifically bringing the history of this world to life because, obviously, there is a backstory that goes back to the Sixty Minute War. So, what is the kind of approach to bringing that into the audience’s prevue?
CR: Well, it’s sort of–I mean, we had all sorts of design–you know, we had a whole lot of design sort of criteria, you know, from the look of the film. We didn’t want it to be post-apocalyptic dystopia. So, we didn’t want it to be Mad Max. As much as we–you know, I love, you know, those films. That’s its own universe. Didn’t want it to be, you know, Hunger Games, or The Division that’s kind of quite, you know, sort of bleak dystopian kind of, sort of film, you know? And it–but, it needed to tie to our world.
And so, we just made a point, okay, let’s make everything–anything that we see from our world archaeological. Like, it’s about–you know, it’s–anything that is from our world is archaeological. And, you know, we didn’t want to make it overtly steam park, but there is obviously in the books is a very clear–I mean, the books are very steam park. I mean, it’s the way–well, the first one, anyway.
And so–but, we also wanted to, you know, have it not as aesthetic. And so, I mean, I kind of just caught on to what would happen if there was a, you know, a nuclear-esque kind of war or a new weapon that devastated our planet and what would sort of happen to London? And what would be left?
And we’re saying, well, let’s say if St. Paul’s is left or the ruins of it, then possibly the main thing that might be left around London is, say, bronze statues of which are more the Victorian age because there was the height of the British empire. And so, there are all these bronze statues that pretty much locked in that visual. But, glass, metal, everything else –Was gone. And so, you know, that was my way of at least saying, well, we can at least put that pig in that sand. And then we can explore out from there.
CR: And so, everything else was just–you know, it was just a lengthy exploration of different design ideas. And trying to steer away from anything that was overtly Victorian and clock-worky and just sort of twist everything just off. You know, so they might’ve discovered iconography of London, whether it was double-decker buses or, you know, old tube tunnels. And they would’ve recreated those to be part of the traction city.
So, it’s a weird mix. I mean, it’s–you know, we’re still exploring this. We’re still designing the film as we shoot it. And, you know, we’re all really, you know, I mean, we’re really kind of excited by what we’ve come up with. But, we–yeah, we have no idea how it’s going to land.
CR: Yeah. Which is fun–which is the fun part, too. I don’t think, you know, we’ve made quite a few daring design decisions, I think, that have steered away from being quite safe. But, yeah, I mean, that’s, you know–.
I’m sure the actors has a different answer, but what is the enormous challenging thing on set so far?
CR: Today? You know, today? You know, just each day towards the end is more and more challenging. Yeah, look. Yeah, yeah. Every day is–every day, you know–every day feels insurmountable, but then we get through it. And you get through it and there’s all the stuff that we did that we love. You know, it’s just–you know, it’s–yeah, I can’t really pick one day. I’m afraid. I wish I could.
Curious about the tone of the movie because it feels to me like it could–you’re saying it’s not a Mad Max dystopian. Is it more of an adventure? And secondarily, there’s a lot of information about how the world functions. Is that delivered via the action?
CR: A little bit, yeah. I mean, the–I mean, a lot of the stuff that’s crucial for the audience to really understand, to make sense of the story, we kind of have to show. We have to. But, a lot of the stuff, we just want to go by the by. We just want–you know, I want them to just want to know more rather than have it all spoon fed too much.
I mean, there is some sort of shameless exposition we need to get out of the way, which is why we have scene set in the museum. Luckily, though, you know, this isn’t the book. From the book is that Tom–you know, Tom is a historian. He’s an apprentice historian. So, it’s a perfect vehicle to show, you know, that his life isn’t all it could be. And also, you know, explain a little bit to the audience that context of the world.
But, yeah, no. There’s a lot of information. But, you know, I–you know, we’re trying to just give them a glimpse–just give them glimpses that they want to–you know, that they can follow what’s happening in the story. And then everything is just, you know, icing. And stuff that make you–make the world feel richer.
You know, we want to make it–this story–this love story and this, you know, this adventure in this, you know, essentially a political adventure and a love story going on within this big world. The world goes well beyond the, you know, the, you know–the canvas that we paint our story on.
What specifically appeals to you about these character and their arcs? And what’s the trick to making a good widely accessible adaptation?
CR: Well … you know, we have aged up our protagonists. You know, they’re more in the, like, Star Wars protagonist age group. You know, they’re not teenagers. You know, they’re sort of on that young–you know that cusp into, you know, what am I going to do with my life?
… I drew a triangle between, you know, Mad Max, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. And I said, this film needs to land in the middle of those three. You know, it won’t be any one of those, but it’ll–that’s a target there.
There’s an aesthetic and tunnel time that we’re sort of looking for, which felt right for the stories. But, the biggest thing is aging up the protagonists from the books than they are. They’re, like, 15 or something in the books and we’ve definitely made them, you know, older than that. So, I’m not sure that answers your question, but it –Dances around it.
We’ve heard from the cast about the collaborative process, working with them on their characters and kind of–what’s that like from your side?
CR: We’ve been blessed with an amazing cast. I mean, I’m not just saying that because I have to say that. You know, they’re all–I mean, you know, for the most part, they’re all fantastic. I mean, some of them have a few quirks and quibbles, but yeah.
No one–yeah, everyone’s shown up to work on time. They’ve all been, you know–and, you know, the script’s still being rewritten as we go and that can be really disarming for actors, you know? And then they take it with grace.
And there are questions, you know? It’s just–you’ve just got to be open to discussing it with any of them, you know? Like, you know, like, make sure that as a director I understand what the scene’s supposed to do and then I can help navigate–you know, help them navigate their way through it. Sometimes, it’s very clear. Sometimes, that’s not so clear. And then that just becomes a discussion with them.
And they may say, oh, I don’t want to say that line. And I’m, like, well, but your character’s thinking this. What’s a way that you could be saying that? Like, you don’t–you know, it’s not all don’t be stating the sub ticks. Let’s be done from another angle. And it might be, you know–and you’ll just sort of see within this experience that there’s–that that’s, like, oh, okay. I hadn’t thought about that. Whereas, you know, the more experienced will kind of get there by themselves.
But, I mean–yeah. You know, they’re all a lot of fun. Yeah. And they’re doing some really beautiful work. It’s pretty cool to see the characters come to life, you know? And they come to life in a way that you just weren’t expecting, you know?
Being collaborative about it also seem–gives them a sense of ownership over the character, too.
CR: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And, like, you know, and that’s all I’m trying to, you know–a lot of the times, you know, that’s the most important thing is to help them–you know, like, if I can discuss, you know, a scene in a way that they get excited about playing it –Then you’ve won.
The worst thing is when they’ve sort of–you’ve given them a note and they kind of, oh, yeah, okay. You can just feel that they’re going back –And they’re going to do what you asked, but, you know, okay. You know, that’s the worst thing. Okay. Yeah, okay. If you want, I’ll go down. It’s, like, well, I’ll never going to get–unless the scene’s about them being pissed off. And then sometimes that actually–then sometimes that’s a good way to do it, but, yeah. But, usually, you know, you want to be–yeah. It’s all about collaboration. It’s all about–it’s very important.
You mentioned that your son was a big fan of the book series. Does that put extra pressure on you to make sure that the film comes out as good as possible?
CR: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. No, it does. It does. It does. But, yeah. I mean, you know, it’s–yeah. It’s–he’s, you know–at least he’s someone, if he doesn’t like the film, I can have a long conversation. There are millions of people out there that I can’t. Yeah, it’s–like you say, you know, we just, you know, yeah. I love sort of, you know, genre adventures and I don’t think they have to be assigned to the, you know, just the–you know, [some] summer Blockbuster kind of, you know–I think they can still be, you know, good films and, you know?
You mentioned that casting was one of the most difficult parts of bringing this production together. Can you talk about bringing in–was it an active decision to bring in fresh faces for this franchise?
CR: Yeah. No, it was. And it was the hardest part, you know? I think as we, you know, we’re trying–you know, we are wheel building. You know, it’s very hard to–you know, to bring in, you know, faces that are too recognizable to other universes, I think, you know?
You know, we–you know, it’s not a superhero movie where we’re sort of making people larger than life. You know, and all we–I mean, obviously, we are, but, you know, these are real human beings. No one’s got superpowers or running around wearing masks. Well, Hester wears a mask sometimes.
But–so, yeah, it was just finding those, you know, those talented people who, you know, that–just finding people who were just right, you know? And that was a process was very new to me. I mean, obviously, you know, Pete [Jackson] and Fran [Walsh] have done that very well before. And so, that was very much a process that, you know, I relied on them heavily for.
Mortal Engines opens in theatres worldwide December 14, 2018.
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