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Christian Rivers & Philippa Boyens Interview: Mortal Engines

Mortal Engines is the screen adaptation of the Philip Reeve’s novel of the same name. In a post-apocalyptic world, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) must join with outlaw Anna Fang (Jihae) and outcast Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) to stop the predatory City of London from destroying everything in its path. It's directed by Christian Rivers, with a screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boynes and Peter Jackson.

Rivers makes his feature-film directorial debut with Mortal Engines after having been a splinter-unit director for two of the Hobbit films and storyboard artist for both the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. Philippa Boyens is a writer and producer best known for her screenplay work on the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, The Lovely Bones, and King Kong.

Screen Rant: Guys! Mortal Engines had a huge panel earlier today here at New York Comic Con and you debuted 24 minutes of the film along with the new trailer, which I haven't seen yet and it's killing me. But the film looks gorgeous from what I have seen, and I know that you worked closely with Peter. Talk to me about what you learned from it and what you wanted to bring to kind of make this your own.

Christian Rivers: Well, what I've learned from Peter is that, you know, audiences, they want to go to the cinema to see something new. I'm sure you know, they want to go and have a new experience. And you know, you want them to come out with a lasting memory of a great film with a great story. And everything else is just, you know, working as hard as you can to make the audience fall in love with what you've done and also make a film that you'd enjoy yourself. You know, that's what it comes down to.

Screen Rant: Now, I just want to talk about this, because I'm really excited to see these predator cities on screen. Obviously sci-fi and adventure films are cautionary tales of the kind of the world we live in today. What do you think Mortal Engines is saying to the world today, as a story, or as a film?

Philippa Boyens: It looks on a lot of different levels. And so, it is an adventure film, but it's also a survival film. It's about survival and it's about how you can get entrenched in the cycle of which exists in this world, whereby the largest cities hunt down the smaller towns, hunt down the little villages, and you have the cycle of life. But the big, huge, predator cities can form, and then [those] scavenged upon and fed on, the little cities, this cycle of life. And there's one character, played by Hugo Weaving, and he’s going to change all of that. But to do it, he's incredibly ambitious. And our producer and writer friend put it this way which I thought was really interesting. Early on she said, ‘you know, part of the story is about don't ever give a man who has rampant ambition the codes to the bomb, because he will use them.’

And it's kind of got this really edgy danger. It's dangerous, and unexpected. So you never quite know what's going to happen next. And then again, on another level, at the heart of it's a survival story in a unique way because the lead character, this young woman who’s scarred and believe it or not, there's not that many leads that you see in film that carry a massive jagged scar down their the face. So scarred outside and inside. And, you know, it's a story not just for boys because, even though it is big, giant, huge, massive, amazing cities, you know, that literally consume other things, and then these very cool battle sequence towards the end where the, you know…..  So anyway, the end is phenomenal and beautifully shot so beautifully. But it's also about this something that is way more fragile and it's, is this girl has her existence become so small and so dark, she's on this journey for revenge and then after that she doesn't know what else is going to happen. You know, really whether she lives or dies, she doesn't care.

And, and is she ever going to be pulled back from the brink of it. And so, you know, it's quiet desperation about here, but also this fierceness as well and she's a very female character. She's quite contrary. So what was cool about it and attracted Fran and I, especially as writers, to it was [that] we got to write this female character who wasn't based on the male hero mode. She's completely her own.

Screen Rant: It wasn't like an archetype that we had seen before.

Philippa Boyens: No, and she's completely without self-pity too, which I love. So we never got too much. You wouldn't let us get too mushy anyway, which is good.

Christian Rivers: Back to your question of the parallels. Sure, it is a futuristic society and it is fictional, but it is our world, you know, it's not an alternate reality. Given even how fantastical it looks, you know, there are are references back to our past. A d you know, that's the setting, the municipal Darwinism world of traction cities. But it does show that there is this cyclic, human nature that we always repeat the same mistakes and it sort of, you know, sometimes it takes the people who come from different backgrounds, very broken backgrounds, so, you know, they're the ones who can make change for the better.

Screen Rant: Now I have to ask this: from the novelization and the story and the world building, what part did you think was going to be the most difficult to adapt to an onscreen, audience, and even, I guess, write?

Christian Rivers: Well I'll talk about the visual stuff. I mean the visual stuff - literally from the book, was the scale of the cities, the look of the world. Also, the books are described very “steampunk”. So, you know, and we didn't want steampunk. Steampunk’s like an alternative reality. It's a future from that sits off from the Victorian era. Sure. You wouldn't make it believable a universe, I don't think, if you were saying ‘oh well our world’s kind of reverted back to that technology and turned into this thing.’ So we had to, you know, design wise, we had to create our own look for everything. I mean there was also [in] the books, the Hester and Tom are quite young. This sort of 14, 15, 16, and it was very important you know, that the story is bigger than just a teenage coming of age.

So we aged up the protagonists, so they're in their twenties. I guess the closest parallel to say is they’re sort of similar age to the Star Wars protagonists. And then visually, I'm going to say it, is Hester’s scar.  That's something that, you know, in the book it's very clear the description of how her face is shredded. Yeah, we just had to walk a fine line sort of not going so far that it will be distracting to audiences and that that’s all they would think about, but still keep it present and vicious enough that it there. That‘s a character trait, and she thinks that she's scarred and damaged and ugly because you know, there is this beauty in her character.

Philippa Boyens: And also, we wanted to show the moment she gets that scar. She's a little girl right when it happens. And the way it's described in the book where she's missing half a nose and her mouth’s being distorted and her eye… you're just not going to do that. I think for Phillip Reeves also, who's got the most brilliant imagination, he was really great to work with. He was so generous and so open to it. And so he understood why when you write the whole idea of someone being scarred, he needed to go further because we needed to put that in your brain as a visual memory, because it's on the page. But Christian got to show it, you know. Then, more importantly, just to reassure the fans out there who are huge fans of Hester Shaw as a heroine, the most important thing we did was cast Hera Hilmar as Hera because she's playing the scar inside the girl as much as the scar that’s on the outside.

Screen Rant: Guys, I can't wait to see this on the big screen. Now, m literally after this, I'm going to go and watch the next trailer and try to somehow get them to send me the next 24 minutes. Thank you so much for joining us.

More: Mortal Engines Interview With Stephen Lang, Leila George, and Robert Sheehan

Key Release Dates
  • Mortal Engines (2018) release date: Dec 14, 2018
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