Mortal Engines Peter Jackson
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Mortal Engines' very long, eventful road to the big screen ran through Middle-earth

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Dec 14, 2018, 5:34 PM EST (Updated)

Peter Jackson has always been a voracious reader — this is the guy who found a way to put The Lord of the Rings on the big screen — and in the early-to-mid-2000s, a friend recommended that he check out a novel about a wrecked future Earth and the mobile cities that streak across its decimated surface. This was a few years after British author Philip Reeve had finished his four-novel Mortal Engines series, so Jackson was delighted that he was able to binge-read them. 

At first, he was just reading them as a fan, but soon enough, his filmmaking instincts kicked in.

"I made some inquiries and I learned that the film rights hadn't been snapped up and they were still available, so I thought, 'Oh wow, okay, I'm gonna grab these,'" Jackson told SYFY WIRE. "We didn't have time to start making them straight away, I think we were on District 9 and Tintin. I thought, 'It's very lucky that they are available and I'm gonna grab 'em, so no one else can do the films and we'll figure it out as we go along.'"

So in 2006, Jackson optioned the rights to turn the Mortal Engines series of novels into movies, figuring that once his plate was clear, it would be his next effort as a director. Now, 12 years later, the first Mortal Engines movie is finally hitting theaters — and Jackson is not its director. Instead, the blockbuster was directed by Christian Rivers, the 44-year-old New Zealander who began as Jackson’s apprentice in the late ‘80s and has served in just about every filmmaking capacity for Jackson’s productions. 

It’s not that Jackson abandoned the project or thought it beneath him; Jackson is still a co-writer and producer on the film. Other work just kept getting in the way of his directing it. When Guillermo del Toro dropped out of directing The Hobbit, the second Middle-earth trilogy fell to Jackson, which pushed back Mortal Engines indefinitely. That put a pin in the pre-production work being done on the movie at WETA, Jackson’s visual effects studio, which had been turning out pre-viz designs of the story’s future cities.

The delay allowed Rivers to continue to hone his skills. He wound up shooting a lot of the action as the second unit director on The Hobbit trilogy, and once Bilbo finally returned home, Jackson knew that he had to let Rivers take the lead on a cinematic journey.

Mortal Engines was undoubtedly the film that we wanted to make after The Hobbit, because it had been sitting on the shelf for so long and I was very impatient to get it made,” Jackson said. “And if I was busy making Mortal Engines, I didn't want Christian to go off and make a feature film with somebody else. That felt wrong to me. He'd been part of our filmmaking team for so long that I felt like we should be the ones who help him get his first film made.”

Rivers was clearly champing at the bit, as he had gone and made a short film after wrapping on The Hobbit, to further prove himself and refine his own style. That experience came in handy, especially when it came to dealing with the anxiety that can overwhelm any first-time feature filmmaker. He took the job without much hesitation, which kickstarted the revived development process on the movie.

For Philippa Boyens, Jackson’s frequent screenwriting partner, diving back into Mortal Engines meant pulling a book that had been on her shelf for around a decade and going through the various notes she had scrawled in its margins. The story of scarred orphan Hester (Hera Hilmar) and brainy historian Tom Natsworthy’s (Robert Sheehan) efforts to stop a madman from launching all-out war would have to be trimmed and tweaked, and in places reimagined to fit the form.

“Towards the end of the book, I felt that it was going to be too dark and too depressing,” Boyens explained to SYFY WIRE. “Because even though you're emotionally completely gripped with the ending of the book, it's different when things play out on screen and they play out in such a short timeframe and you haven't gone through some of the internal processes with the characters that you can when you're reading a book.”

Rivers, meanwhile, was concerned with adjusting the aesthetic of the story, taking it from full-fledged steampunk to something somewhat different and logically consistent. WETA had done previz work based on the book years ago, but not all of it fit his new vision for the movie — some of the old concepts wound up in smaller cities seen at a distance as well as in montages, but the rest of the film was made from scratch.

“Steampunk is very fun, very craft-based, but it's an alternative reality,” the director told SYFY WIRE. “It's a future as if the Victorian technology took another route. It just didn't feel truthful to a future from where we are now. The studio was asking us when we were shopping it around, 'What is it? What does it look like?' I drew a triangle on a piece of paper, and the three points of the triangle were Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Mad Max.”

None of Jackson’s blockbuster movies are on that aesthetic list, given their fantastical past setting. After all, medieval weapons were a no-go. “In the book, and even in the script, they had things like, so-and-so pulls out a sword. And I'm like, ‘Why the f**k's he got a sword?’ They’ve got guns, so why are these guys walking around with swords?!” 

And yet, Rivers noted that Jackson’s influence is all over Mortal Engines, and his personal intangibles were as helpful as any advice Jackson could give about composing shots or working with actors.

“The main thing I learned from him is your demeanor on set,” Rivers said. “You're under so much pressure. You're under so much stress, trying to do something creative. That can manifest itself in really negative ways. You can kind of become a bit of an asshole and start attacking the people around you. And that just doesn't help. He keeps very calm.”

He's patient, too, which is why Mortal Engines wound up getting made at all.