‘Mortal Engines’ Director Christian Rivers on How His Fan Letter to Peter Jackson Changed His Life

     December 14, 2018

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From director Christian Rivers and with a script written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, the fantasy adventure Mortal Engines is set hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event that has led society to rebuild as moving cities of varying sizes, where the bigger cities hunt down and consume the smaller cities, as part of the natural evolution. When the mysterious and fierce Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) joins forces with outcast Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) to stop the giant predator city of London from destroying everything in its path, their strength and determination will be tested in ways that neither could have ever imagined.

At the film’s press day, held on the Universal Pictures backlot, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with director Christian Rivers to talk about how his working relationship with Peter Jackson began with a fan letter when he was 15, getting offered the job to direct Mortal Engines, his evolution to director, finding his footing on such a big project, paring down the focus of the story, finding the perfect cast, and not wanting to end on a cliffhanger, even though there is more story to tell.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Collider: Is it true that you actually sent a fan letter to Peter Jackson and asked for a job, and here we are?

CHRISTIAN RIVERS: Yeah, I did. I sent him a letter, but it wasn’t so much, “Oh, please give me a job,” because I didn’t really know what that meant. I was 15 and wondering what I was gonna do with my life. I was still in high school, and I sent him a letter because I’d seen Bad Taste and I thought, “Here’s a guy making a movie, which was horror and science fiction, and it had comedy and all of those elements that I loved.” So, I sent him a letter saying, “Look, I’m 15 years old and loved your movie. I love movies. I can draw. Here are a whole lot of pictures. What would your advice be, to get into the industry?” We stayed in contact, and then a couple of years later, he rang me and said, “We’ve got funding for a film, called Braindead. Would you like to storyboard it?” And I said, “Yes.” And then, fast forward 25 years, and he called me up on the telephone, one morning in August 2016, and said, “Hey, remember that film Mortal Engines? Do you want to direct that?” He very generously offered me something that I was not experienced to do.

When he offered you that job, what was your reaction? Did you have to convince yourself to take that leap?

RIVERS: Absolutely! I’d done second unit for him on The Hobbit, after Andy Serkis had wrapped up and left, I worked second unit on Pete’s Dragon, and I went off and did my own short film, which I did completely outside of Weta. I needed to actually step outside of that and go make something, just for my own creative sanity. Then, I was actually in the process of developing something that was a more logical next step, which was lower budget genre feature that we could make for five to six million, and that was gonna be gritty. We were on a second draft of the script and my producing partner was talking to distributors, and we were trying to get that going, and then Mortal Engines came through, like a freight train. I did have a moment of, “Oh, shit, what about this other thing? This is too big for a first feature. Are you mad?!” But, that was just fear trying to make me say no because it was really scary. The prospect of taking it on was terrifying, but I was like, “What the hell are you doing, saying that you want to direct feature films, if you’re gonna turn this thing down? You can turn this down and in five years’ time, either it won’t have been made, or someone else will have made it. If Peter asks someone else, you could go see it and you kick yourself because they made it so amazing that you’d wish you had done it, or it will be terrible and you’ll wonder why you didn’t say yes, so that you could have made it better than that.” So, I just had to say yes and hold on for dear life, for the next two years. I think we survived.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Do you hope to still go back and make that smaller film?

RIVERS: Yeah, I do.

It’s hard to go much bigger from here.

RIVERS: It’s pretty hard to get bigger, but there are many more books [in this series] and they go some pretty wacky places. There are cities bigger than London, so there is actually scope to go bigger. We’ll see.

Had you always had thoughts of directing, or did that desire develop while you were doing other things?

RIVERS: Yeah, absolutely. Even back on Braindead, when I was storyboarding the film with Peter, in a little office at his house, with him and Jamie Selkirk, the editor. They were writing a complete shot list for the film, and I was just sketching the shots. Then, I started working with Richard Taylor, who now is the head of Weta Workshop, and we were doing physical effects, like filming puppets and bloody things that were gonna get sprayed around chopped up. And then, they started shooting and I went down to the set to see. I saw Pete directing, and I went, “That’s what I need to be doing. That’s where I need to be.” But it took me a long, long time to get there, partially because I was always learning. I didn’t just stay a storyboard artist. I got involved in working at Weta Workshop, and there was a lot of learning, all about sculpting and making puppets. In the Hercules and Xena days, we’d go up and shoot those. Then, the digital effects happened on Frighteners, so I started learning about that and about animation.

And then, on The Lord of the Rings, Peter started wanting to do 3D pre-vis, so the storyboards were then evolved into animatics. In some ways, you are directing because you’re exercising all of those creative muscles of shot design and animating shots. You’re not just working with actors because you’re also animating versions of the characters to do stuff. It was after King Kong that I was like, “I wanna direct,” And I started to make some pathways to doing that. Pete offered me a feature film then, but that never got off the ground. We got busy on The Lovely Bones, so he offered me the job of being visual effects supervisor on that, which is something that I hadn’t done, and so I took that on. When The Hobbit films kicked off, I actually had a break from the film industry. I went to work in Seattle at a computer games company, called Valve, for a year, hoping that we’d get to make movies, but that didn’t happen, so I left out and came back to work on The Hobbit.

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Image via Universal Pictures

And then, Pete offered me second unit, once Andy left. That was my first real big trial by fire of actually directing. I’d done a bit on Rings and Return of the King, directing extras and stunt doubles for Sam, Frodo and Pippin, and doing some stuff that was gonna be used for little bits and pieces. And then, directing second unit on The Hobbit, it went from just doing some fight stuff to going on location and shooting the barrel sequence. My first day, I directed Ian McKellen and Sylvester McCoy. I was actually working with the lead cast, and I ended up heading at least several scenes with the lead cast. We got through it and Pete said, “They all loved working with you,” so I knew that I could work and communicate with actors. And then, after that, I was like, “Okay, what am I gonna do?” So, I directed a short film that’s a little genre piece. It was meant to be a piece of entertainment, but it’s also a dark little Faustian supernatural horror story, and Pete really liked it. And then, I was setting up that other thing, and this freight train came in from out of nowhere.

Because you really jumped into the deep end with Mortal Engines, did you feel like you found your confidence, as a director, while you were making it, or are you still looking for that?

RIVERS: I’m still looking for that. It’s tricky. I certainly wasn’t given the keys to the Ferrari and someone said, “Off you go. See you in two years.” This was a collaboration. We cast the film together. Pete, Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens] wrote it. We designed the film together. They let me drive a lot of it, but they had concerns and ideas that they thought were improvements, and they’d come in and those things would happen, which is great. I can’t imagine taking on the full responsibility of something like this, completely by yourself. And also, it’s Peter Jackson presenting a movie, so it needs to have that quality control that people expect when they go see something that has his name on it. When we were shooting, Pete was never sit down and look over my shoulder while I was shooting. Fran was there because she’s one of the writers and producers. Because we started shooting with a script that was kind of in shape, but not quite in shape, things would come up in the screenplay. The script was longer than we knew the film needed to be, so it was great, just in case we reached any logjams with the cast, or with moments in the screenplay, she was there and we’d work it through. She was great at receiving and offering suggestions on things that we could shift.

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Image via Universal Pictures

We also had a second unit director, Glenn Boswell, who was the stunt choreographer on The Hobbit, who did a lot of the fight stuff. Because the script kept changing, but the budget didn’t, there were some drama scenes that needed to be done by second unit. I was shooting main unit and getting feedback on second unit while I was trying to concentrate on my stuff. That’s not usually stuff that a first-time director has to worry about. Usually, you work on something that’s low-budget and you’re only really having to think about what you’re doing. So, when it got too big, Pete very generously came on and said, “Look, I’ll do these things,” and I knew that I didn’t have to worry about that because it was in good hands. That allowed me to focus on what I needed to shoot. It’s a collaborative process. This film is the result of two years, of the four of us all playing around with it and sculpting it. The last six months of it have been me working with the visual effects team, and working with Fran and the editing room. Pete was off making his documentary (They Shall Not Grow Old), so he really let us finish sculpting the film. The result is two years of work between the four of us, and hopefully it finds an audience.

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