With the adaptation of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines releasing this December, producer and co-writer Peter Jackson reveals how the movie was almost made in 2008. This year's movie is directed by Christian Rivers (who won an Oscar for King Kong's visual effects) and is based on a script by Fran Walsh and Phillips Boyens, both of whom co-wrote The Lord of the Rings, a well as Jackson, with Hugo Weaving, Leila George D'Onofrio, and Stephen Lang co-starring.
Published in 2001, Mortal Engines was the first in Reeve's Mortal Engines Quartet book series. Set in a post-dystopian landscape in which civilization has moved from life on land to life atop massive machine cities, a fugitive named Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) aligns herself with a Londoner named Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) to overthrow the ruthless, power-hungry cities that abuse their powers. While the movie is finally releasing 17 years after the novel was published, it turns out that an adaptation could have actually happened 10 years ago.
While visiting the set of Mortal Engines in Wellington, New Zealand, Screen Rant spoke with producer Peter Jackson about the history of the movie's production, discovering what sort of changes went into effect since the project first started development. A fan of the books, Jackson had attempted to adapt Mortal Engines all the way back in 2008, but he couldn't make it work. That said, the delay has turned out to be a blessing in disguise with regards to current VFX capabilities.
Jackson explained that the biggest change between his 2008 attempt and the current movie (aside from shifting from director to producer) was "digital CG people and digital doubles," which he's become more than familiar with over the past decade with The Hobbit trilogy. Considering the massive scale of Mortal Engines, Jackson stated that it wasn't the sort of movie for which practical effects were always possible. He insists that audiences will not be able to tell the CGI characters apart from the real-life actors given current technology. He said:
"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 the 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 a city that's like a mile long on wheels and these massive... you just can't build anything [like] that this size."
Jackson added that the Mortal Engines project in 2008 originally incorporated more miniature sets than the 2018 movie will. He explained that not only would miniatures have been more expensive, but they also didn't offer him as much creative flexibility. Given that miniatures would have restricted the director of photography in terms of creating the perfect shot, "a visual camera is a great tool" in that it allowed them to maneuver the action sequences more fluidly. He said:
"With miniatures, it's really... it's almost to the point where miniatures are more expensive than doing things on a computer. Plus, 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. 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."
When it comes to delays in Hollywood, the long wait tends to suggest issues with the project, but with Mortal Engines, the opposite is true. The movie's production designer, Dan Hennah, explained that the delay added "another whole influence" when Rivers was brought aboard as director. Aside from giving everyone more creative energy, which they could devote to the movie, it has encouraged the movie to essentially "go in any direction."
Despite obvious concerns, various delayed productions in the past have proven to subvert weary expectations. For example, there was a time when The Cabin in the Woods, which has since become a fan-favorite horror movie among audiences, nearly never made it to theaters at all. The same goes for Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, The Bourne Identity, and Titanic, among others. Naturally, the final product will ultimately speak for itself, but delays aren't always synonymous with issues by default - and it looks like all the changes Peter Jackson and the creative team made for Mortal Engines over the past 10 years has been for the better.
- Mortal Engines (2018) release date: Dec 14, 2018