Mortal Engines: Why Peter Jackson gave the wheel to his protégé Christian Rivers

by Russell Baillie / 06 December, 2018
Peter Jackson and Christian Rivers. Photo/Getty Images

Peter Jackson and Christian Rivers. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Mortal Engines Peter Jackson Christian Rivers

Sir Peter Jackson’s long-time protégé, Christian Rivers, has stepped up to direct his first feature film and it’s the $120 million fantasy epic Mortal Engines. So, no pressure then … 

One morning a few years ago, having finally seen those hobbits off the premises, Peter Jackson picked up his phone.

Taking the call was Christian Rivers. He had worked for Jackson since he was a teenager in the early 90s after sending him a fan letter with some of his artwork, asking for a job.

On the phone his boss asked: would he like to direct Mortal Engines? It was one of the many projects on Jackson’s to-do list before The Hobbit trilogy forced a hasty return to Middle-earth.

Rivers had been here before. Back in 2008, he was named as director of the Jackson-produced, Stephen Fry-scripted The Dam Busters, a remake of the classic World War II movie about the daring bombing raids. But that film also got bumped from the schedule.

Mortal Engines is an adaptation of the first of four post-apocalyptic steampunk young-adult novels by British author Philip Reeve. Post-The Lord of the Rings, Jackson had acquired the rights. The story is set in a future world of mobile “traction cities”, with London roving the Earth on giant caterpillar tracks, hunting and consuming smaller towns.

Rivers had served a long apprenticeship, working his way from storyboard artist into design and digital departments. As a visual-effects supervisor, he won an Oscar for King Kong. He was a second unit director on The Hobbit – his was the rollicking dwarves-in-barrels-on-river sequence. His ambition to direct went back to his early days with Jackson.

“When I was 18, I was just happy to get a job in the film industry utilising a skill that I had at the time, which was drawing … it wasn’t until I saw him directing on-set on Braindead that I thought, ‘That’s the job. That’s what I need to do.’”

Still, he was taken aback by the offer.

“First of all I was, ‘Hold on, am I actually getting this phone call?’ Then it was also the instantaneous assault of fear and doubt and knowing how hard it would be.

“I almost started to think about it too rationally – ‘It’ll probably be too big for a first feature, I should probably just go off and try something easier.’ But I had to say yes. If I said no I probably shouldn’t be directing films.”

There were various reasons for Jackson deputising the directing job on a $120 million Universal Pictures-backed epic that he had scripted with partner Fran Walsh and regular co-writer Philippa Boyens. The Hobbit-enforced delay meant his Mortal Engines rights were getting near the expiry date. Plus, Jackson was suffering fantasy fatigue.

“But I didn’t just hand it over to Christian because I was tired of big films,” Jackson tells the Listener.

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw.

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw.

“This was a project that we had sitting there that we had to get – excuse the pun – rolling along. It just felt like the perfect opportunity for him to do it as his first film.

“I don’t want to be a guy who directs films until I retire. If I can help somebody else get a career going, then that’s also a very satisfying thing to do.”

While he stayed as a producer and occasional second-unit director on Mortal Engines, Jackson soon had another, smaller movie to direct – They Shall Not Grow Old.

It meant he was in the editing suite next door to Rivers during the films’ post-production.

“I was always there if he ever wanted any help or advice. It gave him the freedom that he needed to make the film that any director should have.”

Boyens admired her co-writer’s decision to delegate.

“Pete wanted to see it made and knew this wasn’t the time for him to make it. Knowing how much he loved the story, it was a really brave decision for him to hand it over to Christian.”

She thinks the younger director’s sensibilities were well matched to the material.

“Christian has this kind of cool, slightly anarchic punk sensibility, which fitted in very much with the way Philip Reeve conceived his world.”

Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine.

Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine.

Rivers might have been made the guy in charge but he accepted that didn’t mean artistic carte blanche.

“There was no way this was going to be a $120 million auteur vision and that they would just give me the money and say, ‘Right, see you in six months,’” he says.

“There are a lot of vested interests and it was an overwhelming first feature.”

Rivers had his work cut out. The movie would have to obey a few more laws of physics than the book. It was accepted the Victorian steampunk aesthetic, not as fresh as it was a decade or more ago, should be dialled back. The writers had also decided the main characters of Hester and Tom, in their mid-teens in the book, needed to be older.

Jackson: “The books are written with these younger characters but the content is quite adult. So we wanted to pull the young characters in line with what the content was.”

Boyens: “Also, if there was to be a sequel, if you had 14-year-olds in this film, you would have to recast for the next film. By the time you meet them in the next film, they are in their twenties.”

According to Boyens, Reeve had no problem with the changes. She says he was thrilled when he saw early rushes of Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar as Hester. Some fans of the book, though, have grumbled that the character, described as having a hideous facial scar in the book, sports something milder and more photogenic on-screen.

Aboard Anna Fang’s airship.

Aboard Anna Fang’s airship.

The film-makers defended the make-up decision as not wanting the scar to become a distraction. Boyens is just happy to have a movie with female heroines – as well as Hester, there’s the Han Solo-ish airship-flying Anna Fang – after six male-dominated Middle-earth movies.

Mortal Engines was shot over 12 weeks last year, mostly at Jackson’s Stone St Studios, where they built 67 sets, one 16m high, another 70m long. Many were mounted on hydraulics to replicate the city’s constant movement. Wellington might seem a good place to make a film about places with a shaky attachment to terra firma.

“Wellington as a traction city probably wouldn’t look too different because we are constantly having earthquakes and getting hit by gale-force winds,” says Rivers.

The movie comes with one pointed Trump immigration reference, a Brexit joke  – “That was one of Fran’s,” says Boyens – and familiar-to-New Zealand faces in supporting roles (Sarah Peirse, Mark Hadlow, Peter Rowley and Joel Tobeck among them). Hugo Weaving is the biggest name among the imports, who also include Irish actor Robert Sheehan, of British television’s Misfits, as Tom.

The film arrives at a time when Hollywood is filling multiplexes with sequels or films relying on established properties. The Mortal Engines books don’t have the fan base of a JK Rowling or a JRR Tolkien.

“We’ve got none of the safety fallbacks of a franchise, or a remake of something that a whole lot of audiences loved once upon a time,” says Rivers. “So, there’s a lot of nervousness.”

Jackson sounds more confident. “The film is really good, which certainly takes some of the nerves away.” So is Boyens. “One of the most powerful things about this film is that it is utterly original and it’s a unique and fresh piece of storytelling that is coming out at a time when there are a lot of sequels out there. And I have nothing against that at all. I mean, we remade King Kong, for God’s sake.”

For Rivers, completing his feature directorial debut left him feeling, well, like he’d been run over by a mid-sized traction city, possibly hometown Whanganui. But he survived. He’s officially completed his apprenticeship.

“When I finished, Pete sort of chuckled and asked, ‘How are you feeling?’ I said, ‘I can’t put it into words. I’m a different person from who I was six months ago. It grew me in many ways. It also broke me and regrew me in other ways.’”

Mortal Engines is in cinemas from December 6.

Video: Universal Pictures

This article was first published in the December 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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