ComingSoon.net visits the set of Mortal Engines!
Mortal Engines, based on the novel of the same name by Philip Reeve, will hit theaters on December 14, and last year we got a chance to visit the New Zealand set of the film. Directed by Christian Rivers and written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, the film stars Hugo Weaving (The Lord of Rings and The Hobbit trilogies), Hera Hilmar (Da Vinci’s Demons), Robbie Sheehan (Fortitude, Geostorm), South Korean singer and actress Jihae (Mars), Ronan Raftery (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Leila George (Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?), Patrick Malahide (Game of Thrones) and Stephen Lang (Avatar). We chatted with the cast and crew, and learned all about what’s coming. You can also check out some brand new images from the film, and behind-the-scenes in our gallery below!
First off, here’s some info on the film: 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.”
We visited the set (and by the way, there were a whopping 63 of them for this film) on day 39 and watched a scene where one of the smaller roving cities, Saltzhaken, had been swallowed up by the much larger London. The citizens were being processed, and the city’s infrastructure was being taken apart in the “Gut.” While there, Hester spots Valentine (though we saw Hilmar’s double being filmed). The citizens being processed weren’t exactly being treated well. Mortal Engines was described to us as “hopeful,” and the characters have been aged up from the book.
Director Christian Rivers told us, “They’re more in the Star Wars protagonist age group. You know, they’re not teenagers. They’re sort of on that young–that cusp into, ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ I think that’s been probably the biggest thing that we’ve done to sort of shift it out of what I’d sort of characterized as YA. When we were looking for partners to make the film, I drew a triangle between Mad Max, Harry Potter,and Star Wars, and I said, this film needs to land in the middle of those three. It won’t be any one of those, but–that’s a target there.”
Rivers spoke about getting involved with the project as well, telling us: “Well, what drew me to the project is Peter asked me if I wanted to do it.” Rivers has been working with Peter Jackson since he was 18, and was involved in the original discussion about doing the film back in 2008.
“So, you know, my services to Peter have always been to help him achieve his vision. And now, on this one, you know, it’s sort of the other way around. But then, I’m absorbing as much as I can in the collaborative way from everyone who is around me, including Peter, Fran, Philippa, the studio, all our HODs.”
The director also told us that the hardest part of the production was going to be the digital effects.
“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 shoot a lot of it in a quite a sort of a visceral way. Mainly because it is set in our world. Obviously, it’s a big future of our world, but we’re not in a mythical realm. We’re not in a fantasy, science fiction universe, we’re in our world somewhere. And because it’s so fantastical, like the elements of it, I wanted to at least have something that the audience could grab onto and to how we’re looking through the lens.”
The design was a big deal, even down to what would have been destroyed, like glass and metal, during the event that set the cities on the move. Bronze and stone are still there, and it changes the look of London. Another set we got a chance to see was the museum, where the main character Tom is an apprentice historian. Set amongst the bits from the past were things from our current world and even earlier, like Walkmans, skateboards, computers and more. The entire museum set was built up so perfectly that we could wander around the entire thing, including different levels, looking at the exhibits as though we were really on a museum tour. Every little detail was perfect, and we were told that, even if you don’t see every bit of work in the film, the set designers wanted to make sure that it was real for the actors. There is even a special nod to a certain animated film in there. You might want to keep your eyes peeled when you get to that scene.
Jackson, who is shooting “odd bits and pieces” of the film, spoke about the story. “This is one movie where I hope it’s 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. You know, and it’s cool. It’s a love story. It’s an unlikely love story. It’s about a young woman who doesn’t really 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 each other.”
Jackson said that it was fun to get to do some of the on set work, like operating a camera, that he hasn’t gotten to do in years. “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.”
Though there was talk of miniatures for some of the sets, Jackson told us that building them was really important.
“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 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.”
Jackson also said that finding a cast, like Hera Hilmar, that people might not recognize yet was important to everyone on the film. We spoke to Hilmar about her experience on the film. She talked to us about the scar on her face, which is a really important part of the character. In the book, it’s pretty extensive, but Hilmar actually had to be able to have expressions. You can see the scar in the picture above. She told us, “It’s two pieces. It’s one piece that goes over my face here [indicates cheek] and then one that goes here [indicates chin]. And I mean–in the book, it goes over her eye and the nose and everything and that was an idea at one point. But, it ended up being that we found this kind of middle way so I could express myself in the same way, eyes and nose and stuff like that. So, it’s now a scar that kind of comes over the face and here and ends up here and it took a while to find the right thing because it needs to be enough for you to understand why this is a big deal.”
Fans of the book know about the city of Airhaven, which is, as you’d expect, where pilots hang out. It’s also the lair of Anna Fang, played by Jihae. We saw video of some of her fight scenes and they were pretty complex. The singer joked about getting to use her skills on the set. “It’s really fun. You know, my mom is really happy that all those years of martial arts growing up has been put to good use. It’s fun. It’s grueling and my coach is an eight-time world champion of tae kwon do, so I’ve got some serious stunt people here.”
Jihae trained for a month before shooting started and for almost four weeks once she got here. She spoke about the weaponry. “I’m working with that one staff that the longsword, but has, like, click a button and stuff comes out. And then there’s a twin butterfly knife, but we’re not sure yet how much of that is going to be used at the end. And a few guns; really big, ornate guns. Very big and heavy.”
She said she loves her character, and though we can’t reveal everything she said about Anna Fang, book fans know that there is more to her than meets the eye. Jihae told us, “My initial reaction to Anna Fang was, you know, a really pleasant, happy surprise. I don’t think there’s ever been an Asian female superhero character ever in a blockbuster film who really takes charge and is a leader and is a warrior leader.”
Her ship, the Jenny, is a big part of her character. Jihae told us about the set. (We’d seen the concept art.) “It’s kind of mind blowing. They’re so intricate in their designs and what they put their minds into with not just the character in the film, but me as a human being. They added some Korean elements to the artwork, some Korean writing and they also knew what my favorite animal was, or spirit animal was and they added that in. The prop department actually added a Korean national bird on one of the guns, which was very nice. Very thoughtful. But the Jenny is incredible. I mean, it’s built, really, actually like a ship. And the console, everything is pretty realistic.”
We also spoke with Ronan Raftery who plays Bevis Pod. (In the film, he’s not bald, something that we were surprised to see.) He told us about how the character of Bevis has changed. “I think one of the most exciting things about working with these guys is how they’re not afraid to change things and they allow things to evolve as they go on. But initially I loved how Bevis felt like an outsider desperate to be involved in some way in helping his city without a clear path, without a clear understanding of how they could do that. So not like your kind of main hero who generally has a clear idea about that. I was kind of enjoying his confusion on what to do, and it’s only until he meets Katherine and understand more about the world that he can formulate a plan, an idea and an impulse for what to do.”
Speaking of Katherine, we also talked to Leila George, who laughed to hear American accents that reminded her of home. She spoke about her character, Katherine, saying: “I read the book way before the script because I read the book for my second audition, and her arc and her journey is what interests me most. All of the stuff with her father and how she kind of goes from being a little bit naïve and a little bit living in a bubble to really having to…she was already strong, but she never had to use her strengths, if that makes sense. She really gets to see for herself how strong she can be…I feel like she’s just discovering that moment in your life and you she’s discovering it way higher level than most people in not the Mortal Engines world, but it’s that moment in your life where you realize that your parent is a human being they’re not this perfect thing that doesn’t do anything wrong and that you follow.”
Hugo Weaving, who plays Katherine’s father Thaddeus Valentine, told us that the character of Dog probably won’t appear in the film. He also gave a rundown of his character and his place in the story, saying:
“Valentine is someone who really can see that tractionism (cities on wheels)–the era of tractionism is dead. That they are in dire trouble. That they’ve got starvation problems. That there is let’s pray that this world is going to come to an end. And that this whole paradigm of tractionism and anti-tractionism has to be smashed because on the other side of the world, there’s a completely different view of how to live.”
We then spoke to Colin Salmon who plays Chudleigh Pomeroy. He spoke about his character. “I think was really clear with this world is the history guild, the engineers roles are really clearly defined. You do not cross worlds. The levels are really defined. It’s quite brutal work, so therefore crossing the lines can be quite extreme. So he really does tend to live in his world. You know, I think that thing of being a guardian of history, it’s really part. I feel like I’m a guardian of art, but not producing it; protecting it. Because I just think in a world where are really a premium, so that library is really, really important. I’ve found the Yate’s poetry in there and was just reading it between the scenes and you just realize, well, where there are no books, those things become so precious. And we had the kids in the other day and they were looking at all the mobile phones and I was explaining how there was a point in history where everybody was looking at their mobile phones and they were no longer communicating and all the information was stored on them and no books were read and there was audio. I just thought, ‘I think I need to read more.’ But he really doesn’t cross his line. Katherine’s character, obviously is the daughter of Valentine and he is history guild, so Valentine’s daughter was spending a lot of time with me, so I’m like a surrogate father to her. So it actually makes it even more poignant because I’m putting her in potentially harm’s way, but she’s also got her friendly scenario with her dad. It’s a major signage, which dawned on me about the tenth take.”
We spoke to Stephen Lang who plays Shrike, though his character is a bit of a spoiler, so we can’t tell you much right now. We can tell you what he said about his inspiration for the character’s movement, and book fans will understand.
“I did look at some insects, certainly. But, I’d say the real inspiration for the character came from predatory birds and that starts really with the name, Shrike. As it happens in this particular edition of resurrected man, that year, that model, they were all given bird names. So, doesn’t necessarily mean, but there is–it just struck me as there was a predatory bird quality to him. But, I’ll tell you this, a very, very happy accident I had was as I began looking at birds and listening to birds, I always recalled–and I was looking at all kinds of hawks and falcons and vultures and mostly kind of predatory birds. But once, I looked at swans because I know swans can be very, very aggressive birds. So, I was looking at swans and what came up on YouTube was Swan Lake, right? It was Rudolph Nureyev dancing Swan Lake and as I began to watch him, I began to see Shrike, because what he did was the way he moved–the way a ballet dancer moves is he doesn’t move his arms. He doesn’t do the counterweight that we do when we walk, right foot, left arm. Left foot, right arm. He doesn’t do it. He keeps his arms back and because he was doing a swan.”
We also saw his mysterious abode, but again, more on that as the film gets closer.
We got a chance to chat with Boyens as well. She talked about adapting the book to a script and the decision not to destroy London. She told us, “There’s some tricky stuff that you have to face when you turn something into a reality. In the book, London’s destroyed right from the go, I just went, I’m not having nothing to do with that. I love London. The great thing is we talked to Philip Reeve, who’s wonderful…So, he understood that value at stake being the city.”
She also spoke about not making this a dystopian story. ” 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. Because the world could come back. The world is coming back. If these f****** 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.”
Mortal Engines debuts in theaters on December 14.