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 Peter Jackson. Jackson is the Academy-Award winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (along with The Hobbit trilogy, King Kong, to name a few). He is the Producer and Screen Writer of Mortal Engines.
[Director] Christian [Rivers] was saying that one of the earlier plans was for you to direct the film. So, can you talk about that evolution? And why did you decide to not direct?
PETER JACKSON: Well, yeah, I mean, it was probably one of the movies I would’ve done, you know, during the time that The Hobbit was being shot, but I ended up directing that and sort of took me out of commission for five years. And really, coming–you know, coming out of it, we were faced with a situation where the rights to the books, which we’ve had these rights for, you know, probably nearly a decade or so. They were due to expire and we had to move fast.
And I didn’t really–you know, well, two things, really. One is Christian’s a, you know, is a filmmaker I want to support. And, you know, and he’s worked with me for 25 years and he needs to direct something soon. He [directed a]short film called Feeder, if you’ve seen it. It’s on–probably on YouTube. It’s great. And, you know, he’s done storyboards for me for–yeah, about since on Branded.
So, you know, so, Christian’s one of the ones. Also, Fran and I ended up, after five years on The Hobbit, with so many other projects that we, you know, wanted to write and develop ourselves. And in fact, we went straight into another movie with me directing it. It’s, like, a two year–two years. Again, as producers, you know, we wrote the script as producers. It’s much later, you know, we can write our other scripts, screenplays, and things while Christian does all the hard work.
So, that’s really, you know, combined. But, I would be–as a movie, I would be happy to direct is a movie I want to see. So, I just–it’s good to have someone else to do the hard work this summer.
Well, it’s an idea that you’ve been with you since 2008. What about this story has kept you, you know, hooked for so long in wanting to continue bring it to the world in film?
PJ: Well, it’s–I mean, have you ever read the book?
PJ: Have you read all the books, all four books?
PJ: Two. No. You should because they actually get better and better. It’s–this is one movie where I hope is successful enough that we get to do the other stories because the other books are really–I mean, it just gets–you know, this story mushrooms in such unexpected ways in the future books. So, I really hope we get to make those films.
But, it’s–yeah. You know, and it’s cool. It’s a love story. It’s an unlikely love story. It’s, you know, about a young woman who doesn’t really, you know, think that she will ever find love and she finds it through a very unexpected way in the middle of all this chaotic strange world that we’re in. And I also just like the idea of seeing big cities eat other.
So, it’s–you know, there’s a personal story and there’s … It’s going to be pretty amazing.
Can you talk about some of the stuff that you’ve been leading on the second unit?
PJ: Well, I mean, I’m not really [the person]direct[ing]it. Liam Vogel’s doing that. But, sometimes he’s busy doing flight arrangements and rehearsing stunts. And I just say, look, if you want me to come in, I can come in. And so, I’ve just been doing odd bits and pieces. Like, just doing it a bit here, a bit there, shoot, let’s shoot that. I get told what to do. It’s quite good. I mean, Christian gives me a list of things that he wants shot and I can shoot them at some time.
It’s actually–you know, it’s fun to do–to shoot some of the stuff that if I was a director I wouldn’t get to shoot because the stuff is [difficult]. So, you know, you won’t realize that [Second Unit Directors] get a little fun job. So–but, you know, I mean, I’m not shooting today. You know, I only just do bits and pieces every now and again.
Plus, I get to use a camera, too, because I haven’t been able to do any camera operating for years and I always loved doing that. So, if I ever am doing anything on the second unit, I usually get a third camera. I’m the third camera and I find myself a place to shoot and I get to shoot some stuff. So–which is also fun.
But, yeah, I’ll be mainly–you know, what I’ve been doing is mainly sort of fight type stuff and suits and [effects]type stuff.
Can you talk a little bit about collaborating with Christian and–in this role, you know, finally after all these years? I mean, you tried to get him doing Dam Busters a while ago as well and finally, he’s in the director’s chair. So, will you talk about maybe your expectations leading up to that and how he’s performing for you?
PJ: Oh, he’s performing great. I mean, it’s–you know, I saw him today. I came into production, you know, and I said, how you going? Oh, all right. And just you’re in that survival state. Yeah. Yeah. I know exactly what he–what that feels like.
No. I mean, look, he’s–I first met Christian–well, I–he wrote me a–you know, around–long, long time ago, around the time of–around my first one or two movies, Bad Taste or Meet the Feebles, somewhere around there, he wrote me a fan letter. He was this young kid in school. And he wrote me a fan letter and he sent me pictures of dragons and, you know, and a list of stuff. And, you know, he said if you ever want anybody to do actually films or design stuff, you know, he’d be really keen when he leaves school.
And so, when we did Bad Taste, which–no, sorry, when we did Branded, which is in 1992, maybe, we hired him. He just left school and I wanted to do storyboards for that movie. I’d done storyboards before and I can’t really draw myself particularly well.
So, I thought of Christian and I thought of that fan note and I looked him up and it was [fate]. And I began to call and he came and joined us. And so, you know, he was–and it was also part of the fix–there was a fix team on Branded as well. Was doing storyboards. And then he’s–he’s literally done storyboards for me for virtually every film since then.
Although, most recently, storyboards have become more like animatics, you know, because it’s, like, more 3D and sort of previews now. So, he started to do previews. He started to get into computers and do–and direct previews. He did a lot of previews for this movie, for this film in 2008 when I was going to shoot it. He did a lot of the previews board. So, it’s–you know, he’s very familiar with it. And the previews was great. So, [great].
And, you know–and he’s also done won an Oscar for Kong, the animation or supervision on Kong. So, he’s just someone who’s just has been with me and I know he knows stories and I know he knows how to shoot because of the storyboarding he’s been doing for me I know. And so, I, you know–I just–I mean, you know, he’s someone that I’ve always wanted to find a way to support somehow into a feature film.
And, you know–and Dam Busters may still be on his will, but at the moment, just because the rights were expiring for this book, we had to move fast. And so, this the one that he’s doing. So, yeah.
Do you still have that fan letter?
PJ: I don’t know. I locked them in a box somewhere. I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I should try and find it.
Obviously, the–I mean, back in 2008, the industry was completely different. And even especially here in New Zealand, the capacity of what you could actually do. I’m curious just how kind of the vision of the movie that is being executed now compared to what could’ve been done then. Like, are you able to do … More with it now?
PJ: Well, you–yeah, to a degree, we are because one thing that’s probably happened in the last 10 years in digital effects terms, and I’m sure we’ll see it on this film, if it’s not too early by now, is the way that digital humans can be made for a lot of the big stunt stuff and action stuff. So, you know, normally you–you know, even just some of the stunt scenes that we’ve been doing on the second unit and things using little–okay, we’ll do this and this, but this shot is to be done by CG because you want it to be–do something that’d be so hard to shoot.
And so, you know, in a way, that’s one development. Because by 2008, we had made Lord of the Rings, we had done King Kong. So, we got–you know, there was a fair–we sort of [learned]what we were doing. But, certainly digital CG people and digital doubles are the thing that has really clicked in the last few years.
And I’m sure we’ll be seeing quite a bit of that in some of the people I’ve shot on this film. Because this movie is sort of scale that you can’t really build sets. I mean, we’re building as many sets as we can and we’re building what we can, but it’s just such a–you know, having, you know, a city that’s like a mile long on wheels and these massive–you just can’t build anything that this size. So, it’s going to be great to be able to do that and to have it full of realistic looking people. And you won’t be able to tell that they don’t–they’re not real.
Was there a consideration of miniatures?
PJ: There has been. There certainly was back in 2008 when we were thinking about doing it. There was. But, again, with miniatures, it’s really–it’s almost to the point where miniatures are more expensive — Than doing things on a computer. Plus, you–you know, with a miniature, you have to decide on your shot. You know, you–you know, obviously you’ve got the shot and there’s a miniature DP and you decide on what the camera move is and you do it and that’s your shot.
Whereas the thing with digital is that, you know, in something like that absolutely loved on The Hobbit, which I’m sure we’ll be doing on this, is that you can build your miniatures in the computer as such and … you can go on to a major picture stage with a camera and actually camera operate your shots yourself.
I’m sure that Christian will be doing that. So that you actually get to–you know, you get to experiment, find great angles, and–you know, whereas with the miniatures, it’s always just, you know, this is the shot and that’s the shot.
So, I think the flexibility and the discovery of how, you know–of how to cover some piece of action with a visual camera is a great tool. It’s fantastic.
Is any of this being shot for IMAX?
PJ: No. Not shot with–you know, not shot with IMAX, but it’s being shot with these new red helium cameras, which is shooting at 8K. So, I mean, I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. But, we’re probably shooting it–8K must be close to IMAX quality anyway. I’m sure it’ll–I mean, it’ll be fantastic on an IMAX screen, but no.
I–you know, I think that with the camera technology, the way it’s developing now, I know there’s other filmmakers in the world that don’t agree with me, but I think that really, you know, you are getting incredible quality just out of a regular camera now that would be–look absolutely great on an IMAX screen.
It’s not–but, you know, we’re not shooting anything with IMAX cameras or anything like that.
I’m curious how you’re thinking about what you want to do next as a filmmaker. Heavenly Creatures is one of those movies that made me fall in love with movies, period. Do you ever want to return to sort of the smaller, more into it?
PJ: Well, that is something we do want to do. I mean, that’s something that–that’s one of the reasons why I’m not directing this in a way is that Fran and I just want to have time to write. We’ve got a few projects, which are all kind of museum stories … but smallish. These are, you know, stories which we want to develop and, you know, and we’re not getting any younger. So, we thought that, you know, this will be the best plan is to have Christian direct this. And that’s why …
But, yeah, the next two or three movies that I direct myself are probably going to be small Pee-Wee sort of themed films.
With zombies, hopefully.
PJ: Well, not all of them
It seems a little bit, based on what Philip Reeve has kind of said in the past that there are some things that he wanted to fit into the Mortal Engines. For example, like, specifically, more, like, details on, like, the hierarchy that goes on in the city. Did anything that didn’t make it into the book make it into this movie just by virtue of your conversations?
PJ: Anything that’s outside of the book. You mean, that’s hid. I don’t–well, I mean, we’ve changed the book a bit in places. But, not really for those reasons. I mean, we’ve aged it up. I mean, the book is written for quite a young audience, to some degree, you know? And, you know, I don’t–I just don’t think anybody wants to see another dystopian–teenaged dystopian, you know, any time soon.
So, it’s one of the reasons why we’ve actually–we’ve aged it sort of up and we cast it a little bit earlier than what’s–you know? Tom and Hester in the book are younger. And so, we have Tom and Hester are in between these instead of being teenagers.
And so–and we had made it a little bit more adult. And so, that’s–so in some respects, it differs from the book in quite a few places, but not really for those reasons. Although, Philip came out here and we always send him script revisions as we do them and he always seems to be very pleased with them.
You know, I think he–having written the four books that he did, you know, he said that he wish he could go back to the first one again and, you know–and revise some parts of it because you certainly you see the–you see his confidence in the–and his storytelling kind of grows as these four books progress. You really–you should–if you’ll just go read all four of them because they go places you’ll never imagine. Or you can wait for the film.
If you do more of them, would you want to have the same sort of level of involvement?
PJ: Yeah. I mean, I guess so. It’s–I mean, I have to see if Christian wants to direct some. That will be up to him. He might go off and do another–other things. I–you know, I mean, I’d like to direct. I thought–you know, I thought I was going to direct. I’d love to direct the last one if we got that far. But, by then, if he’s directing them, I’ll let him decide. He doesn’t really–I would–yeah, I mean, we’d produce them for sure. And obviously, Christian would be having first offer to direct and hopefully he would.
Given that the story does go on in other books, if there are sequels, as you wrote the script, you kind of believe, you know, like room to grow. Because the first book by itself, you could take it and leave it as a complete story.
PJ: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, we have a little bit because I think that is where we have an advantage where Philip Reeve didn’t because when he wrote the first book, I don’t think he knew he was going to write the other books. I mean, you know, I think he wrote that one book as a story. And then, you know, through the–the fact that people liked it and obviously he thought he had more story to tell, he carried on.
But–so, we have benefited, obviously, knowing now what’s in the other books in the future. So, there are little subtle things we’re doing that will help us flow into the other. They’re not anything that changes anything much, but it’s just stuff that–because we know what is going to happen in the future with these books in the story we’re able to plant little things here and there that, you know, will be helpful to us if–should we be so lucky to make more films.
We’ve talked to a lot of the cast and they’ve all talked about the collaboration element of making the film. You know, talking with everyone in developing the characters in their own way. What’s that been like as producer/writer? And also, how has that shaped what you think things might go in the future?
PJ: Well, we always like to collaborate with the actors. I mean, we’ve always done that as we’ve–because in a way, you know, we write a draft of a script or several drafts of a script. You know, you want it to be green lit. You want to write something that’s good enough for a studio to see it and so they’ll green light it.
But, then once you cast it, you’re casting it now with actors who you didn’t necessarily imagine or you didn’t even know would be playing these roles when you wrote the initial draft. And so, you always take into account what your casting is doing now. So, you know, we–now, we know who–you know, we eventually found out. We went through that process and we had the green light and we were able to do casting and we found out that Rob was playing Tom and Hera’s playing Hester and so on and so forth.
So, we were able to then, you know, write it with their voices in mind and sit down and talk with them. Because there’s a point in time, too, where you realize that, you know, as a filmmaker or as directors, writers, you know, producers, whatever, you’ve got to stick as a whole thing. And, you know, you’ve got a few–everything on your mind.
Whereas an actor, an actor just is, you know, focused on their role and their character and there. And so, it’s always good to, you know–we’ve always found it really–it’s rewarding to sit and talk with them about their character. And they sort of take ownership of the character in a way. In a sense, you’re sort of handing it over to them.
And, you know–and if they–we often get emails from actors, you know, saying, oh, we’re shooting this scene next week and, you know, I thought we could–I could say this or we could change this line or I have this idea. Sometimes the ideas are good, sometimes they’re not. But, we certainly always happy to encourage it and sit and meet with them.
And even if, you know, the idea is just isn’t necessarily the right one, perhaps there’s often the thought behind it’s great. So, we sit there and talk with them and figure out a way to, you know, to actually do it, you know, to achieve what they’re trying to do with their character. Because, you know, I think it’s great when actors are wanting to do that because it just shows you they’re committed to the film and, you know, that’s a little load of us we can think of and other things.
Well, kind of bridging off that, well, which character would you say has been the greatest challenge in terms of adapting?
PJ: Well, I mean, I don’t have–I mean, Tom is–has always been a challenge because he was–in the book, he’s very young and very young, innocent, and much–you know, he’s not the sort of character I’d want to see in a movie, to be honest, in a sense he’s just so–I don’t know what you call him. You call him a cougar.
So, you know–so, we have wanted to make Tom, you know, a bit more switched on and a little bit more–you know, a bit more mature. And so, we’ve changed his character quite a bit. And again, with Rob Sheehan, too, he’s bringing his [performance]to it, too, and he’s got a particular, you know–a particular voice that–I mean, he’s–it’s just so great that he’s doing the role because he’s an actor that just brings stuff to the role that [is]just not reading the lines and forming it. He’s got his own shtick that he throws in there, which is fantastic.
And you know, Hester has been–Hester’s a joy. I mean, Hera’s fantastic, you know, as an actress. And we always–we wondered who would be cast far and wide for that–for this character. And, you know, ended up giving it to someone I’d never heard of before.
I mean, she has done stuff, but I–not things that I’ve seen before. And that’s always a delight when you suddenly–you know, you–through the auditioning process, you find somebody, you know, that’s completely fresh and she’s fantastic. And– You get to introduce the world to her as this character, too. So, yeah.
PJ: Yeah. No, I think it’s good to have two leads that are not that well known to audiences. I mean, they both have done things, but they’re not what they usually–they don’t come sort of with baggage of other films really– In people’s minds. So, I mean, that’s always an advantage when you’ve got that lead characters.
Well, when you consider where you guys were starting in 2008, I’m curious has your relationship, has your thoughts on the material changed at all considering where we are now politically in the world?
PJ: Yeah. We’re actually fine here. Down here in New Zealand, no problem at all.
PJ: Don’t know what all the fuss is about. We’re very happy down here. Thank you. As far away as we can possibly be.
Well, yeah. I mean, look at–it is–you know, yeah. It has to some degree because, you know, one of the things in the story sort of pushing a bit is–and yeah, suddenly, how things should be settled is a, you know, a sense of consumers gone mad.
You just end up, you know–you end up just feeding–you know, the film is, in some respects, a metaphor for feeding on yourself. You know, you just eat yourself, basically. There’s nothing else … You destroy the–you know, all the wildlife are dead. And so, you end up just turning on each other and the cities eat the cities.
And, you know–and in a sense, that is–that’s something that does feel, you know, that–it does feel more, you know, possible now than in 2008. This is–you know, this is not an unusual–you know, like, I mean, there are themes in this film now feeling all too real to some degree. And you know, I think the–I, you know–I think that there’s a chance now that we–you know, we could be heading down the–heading toward the Sixty Minute War. I hope not. I hope not. Because the Sixty Minute War feels much more real as a possibility now than it did in –2008 as well. Wouldn’t ever thought of, but, you know–so that’s–so, there is–yeah, but anyway. Let’s just hope that wise minds prevail. Are there any wise minds? Oh, no.
Define the wise minds first.
PJ: Yeah. No. Wise minds are in short supply.
Mortal Engines opens in theatres worldwide December 14, 2018.