Interview: Mortal Engines Producer Phillipa Boyens on bringing the book to the big screen

There’s a lot of hullaballoo surrounding the new film Mortal Engines, most of which can be attributed to those behind the camera rather than in front of it. The film directed by Christian Rivers is his debut, however the production team behind it also consists of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens – the team who brought us The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. So with this fantasy pedigree on board to adapt the Philip Reeve book (which is part of a series), we sat down for a chat with co-producer and screenplay writer Phillipa Boyens to discuss this epic new film.

So what attracted you all to the story? Was there a particular aspect to the book and to the story that drew you all in to want to make the film?

“Absolutely, yeah. It’s utterly original, it’s completely unique. It’s not like something that you’ve going to have seen before anywhere and so right out of the gate, from the very first sentence that you read in that book, I went “Damn, I want to see this. I want to see this. I have no idea how you could possibly do it” and I know it looks effortless on the screen because it feels real but that took a lot of ingenuity and a lot of work from Weta Digital to get to that state.”

“So, that, the uniqueness of it, the originality that informs the story and then, after that, the characters that inhabit that world. Especially Hester Shaw, for me and for Fran, I know for Fran as well. Telling her story, which by the way, only gets better as the books go on. This is where she starts and it’s just amazing. It’s an amazing world fueled by this vast range of strange characters. The diversity in this story is utterly authentic, which is what I also loved about it. You don’t have to come up with strong female characters quote unquote, you don’t have to try and find roles for this diverse range of peoples. It’s in the story, it’s authentic to the story. Because I think when you try to do that, to pander to female audiences or to get a sense of diversity in there in terms of the cast, people smell it a mile off. So it’s one of the great things about the actual story of the world of “Mortal Engines”.”

There would be lesser producers and directors though who would, especially not these days, but there would have been a time when they would have made them less strong characters or changed the diversity of the film. Or tried to make Hester be more of a female version of a male hero.

“You know? And it’s nice now because she doesn’t have to be kickarse. She’s not kickarse. She’s feral. She’s grumpy and she’s dirty because she’s been living wild, living in the wild, she’s feral. Her radar’s up all the time. She’s always looking for where danger’s going to come from, but she’s also deep. We’ve got this deep well inside of her. This sort of knowledge that life can be better and the hope that it will be better. She almost doesn’t dare to hope, you can feel she’s one of those characters when you first meet her. She’s just going to get through the day, get through the day, do what she set out to do, she’s fueled by this sense of revenge.”

“But what I loved about the story is that it’s got a lot of dark moments in it but it always ends towards the light. And that’s what we were aiming for, moving towards that sense of, you can come overcome, you can overcome. And what she needs is entirely female-based storytelling. The choices she makes, her failings, her successes, who and what this character is is entirely female. It’s not some female version of a male hero, so, yeah, I love that we can do that.”

How does someone like a Junkie XL come into a project like this? What’s that sort of process like?

“That often is to do with Fran Walsh, who, all three of us, between Fran, Peter Jackson and myself, is the most musical. In fact, I’d say probably the only one who’s musical amongst the three of us. But she has such a great affinity for music. Pete does too, I have to say. But Christian as well, he loves music. And there’s something and I know people use the term ‘steam punk’ because they’re trying to reach for what this world might be but, to me, just drop the ‘steam’ and go with ‘punk’. And you get the sense of energy, slightly anarchic but dirty, pulled in from everywhere kind of flavour, like that’s what, I think, Tom started doing with the music, which I really loved. Where he’s literally using pipes and playing on pipes, like the plumbing is rattling, literally. And rhythm, and making extraordinary noises.”

“So it had that feel to it, which I think they knew they were looking for and once they understood they wanted that but then they also needed those other moments. Those great cinematic sweeping moments. It becomes a very, very small number of people who can actually do that, actually, and Tom, they came across his score, and I’m going to get it wrong so I won’t even reach for it, but I know that this was this moment where certain names had been thrown out. At the beginning, names get thrown out and his was the one where they both sat up. I know Christian and Fran especially both sat up. She sent me some stuff to listen to and I was like “Hell yeah, this sounds awesome.”. And then when we started working with him, he was just a joy to work with. He just wants, I think he’s so secure in his own talent that he doesn’t … he can hear every idea and he’s so up for trying lots of different things. So that was a gift.”

And you mentioned Christian, it’s his feature directorial debut with this piece. But he’s pretty much worked on every Peter Jackson project over the years in different capacities. You look at his history and it’s like “This is someone who’s worked his way up to get to this point.”. It feels like a really natural progression for him to get into the director’s chair.

“Yeah. Well, I think so. But, ironically, it’s something he could have done a lot earlier. But the thing with Christian is, he is an artist and he’s already at the top of his game in terms of visual arts, special effects in film-making. I saw a little film of his that he did called “Feeder“. A little short film. And he was just doing it for the hell of it. Just to, he loved the idea. It was a very complex idea and he told it so visually and it was just this great little short film. And I was just like “Christian, what are you doing, dude? You should be directing.” And he was like “Ah, I don’t know.”. I think it just needed to be the right story and the right time and that’s what happened. Sometimes you just got to believe in fate.”

You mentioned how real everything looks on screen and a lot of that’s because it’s real. These are physical set pieces, That have been designed by your incredible team. How important was it to have a lot of that in the tangible and real? You’re talking about how good it looks on screen, even probably five, six years ago you probably couldn’t have made this film from a technological point of view.

“Yeah, yeah. You know what? I suspect you’re right. One of the hardest things to do with visual effects, I think, and if you look at really, even wonderful, brilliant early 90s films where special effects have been really effective, is get a sense of weight so that the effects aren’t just floating in place but you get real weight into that. So the sense and a lot of that is to do with our great sound department is well. So when that city starts chasing down the smaller towns. You really feel, the whole cinema will hopefully get that low rumble and sense. But it’s not a cacophony, it’s just a sense of power. I always feel that you want that sense of awe. If you’re going to go world building, if you’re going to go “Let’s take the audience somewhere where they’ve never been before,” you better pay attention to every detail. I think it’s really important. And it’s something that Pete taught me.”

“And it helps inform the performances. I know that because that’s what the actors say. Hugo always says that about working at Stone Street with those craftsmen. You step into that world and it’s real, down to the last detail. Down to the weight of the paper that you’re holding in your hand. They’ve literally figured out how they would have manufactured paper on a city where there were no trees. All that sort of stuff, it’s great.” There are no zips on the costumes. No, Pete was insistent. Can’t have zips. There were no zip factories on London. Which made for some interesting work for our costume designers.”

The balance of the storytelling of the film in terms of the individual story of Hester and the other characters to the bigger worldly themes, immigration, assimilation and all the things that come along with that. How hard was it to balance that in such a limited screen time?

“That was really hard. Look you could go round the block endlessly wishing “Oh man, we should have put this moment in or we should have put that moment in.” In the end, you’ve got to trust that the film’s going to find its own level. I know exactly what’s going to happen. For some people who see it, we didn’t give them enough information and then for some people there’ll be too much exposition, and so in the end you just have to trust that people are going with it, that they’re going with the story and they’re going with the characters. And if you can do that then I think the rest of it falls away, really, in the end. And we knew where we were driving to. Literally. This city is on the move. We literally knew where this story, what the driving force of the story was going to be and making sure we delivered on that was pretty important, I thought.”

Well congratulations on the film. You’ve got the premiere I know in London and all that.

“Thank you. London, that’s going to be hilarious. I wonder how, what do you think the London … it’s so funny, I never know whether I always feel a little bit bad whether people in London are going to feel like they’re the baddies now. But hopefully when they see the film they’ll realise no they’re not.”

Hugo Weaving’s Australian, they’ll just blame the convicts. Who do you reckon would win in a predator city battle: Sydney or London?

“London. It’s got, all the infrastructure, it’s just miles ahead!”


Mortal Engines is screening in Australian cinemas now through Universal Pictures Australia.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.