Mortal Engines

He’s an Oscar winning visual effects artist who has made his feature film directorial debut with Mortal Engines.  While he was recently in Sydney, I had the chance to talk to Christian Rivers about his blockbuster film…

Matt:  You and Peter Jackson have known each other for a long time.  Can you remember the first time you met?

Christian:  I can remember how we first met.  I was a teenager in Wanganui in New Zealand.  I loved drawing and I wanted to work in the movies and there was only one guy I loved who was making movies in New Zealand and that was Peter Jackson.  I sent him a letter with basically every drawing I’d ever drawn.  We got in contact and then he asked me to storyboard Braindead for him.

Matt:  Wow.  So have you worked with him on most of his films since yet?

Christian:  Yep.  Every one of them.  During Lord of the Rings, we transitioned from traditional drawn storyboarding to using CG pre-vis as our storyboarding tool.

Matt:  It’s such a fascinating world where this film is set but to create it, you are obviously relying on a lot of special effects.  How do you approach that as a director?

Christian:  We knew from the outset that we wanted to evoke the character of the books and we wanted this to be character driven.  Even though it’s set in a world of giant cities that crush the landscape and feed on other cities, that’s not the story.  The story is about a character.  We started there and built out the visual effects sequences we needed to convey how this world works.  Because we don’t have any landscapes that look like the Great Hunting Grounds, we had to create everything with sets or CGI.

Matt:  This is clearly a big film with a big budget.  Is there any limit as to what you can do?  Is there stuff you wanted to do but some accountant comes out and says “yeah, nah, we can’t afford that.”

Christian:  Yeah.  There are always financial limitations.  Actually, our budget was much smaller than you’d expect for a film with this much in the way of special effects.  We had to be smart about it.  A lot of visual effects heavy films creep up to the $200 million mark and we were sitting down around half that.  There’s always a balance with how much you want to spend with how much you’re allowed to spend.

Matt:  You’ve got a young cast here and a lot of names won’t be familiar to wider audience.  What was behind that decision?  Was there any temptation to cast a big Hollywood star?

Christian:  There always is.  In modern economic times, that always gives a certain amount of security to the studio to help get people to come and see the film.  When we were casting it, we wanted to create a completely new cinematic universe.  If you create someone who is too famous or too iconic, you can break that spell a bit.  We ultimately just tried to cast the right person for the right role.  If the right person was someone who is quite famous then we would have done that but we were fortunate to find these wonderful new actors who transform into these characters.

Matt:  I think the character I was most interested in was Shrike who is played by Stephen Lang.  Can you tell me a little about your thoughts in working out how to portray him and bring him to life?

Christian:  Mortal Engines is the first book in a series of four which tells the life story of Tom and Hester.  Shrike is central to that story.  He continues on through the stories in another capacity.  He’s one of my favourite characters and we knew we wanted an amazing actor to be the heart of Shrike and give us that consolidated performance.  We knew we were going to create him with CGI but through the experience that we had on Lord of the Rings and King Kong, we know the value of having a wonderful actor driving the performance of a CGI character.

We love Stephen’s work and we thought he had a wonderful voice.  He’s terrifying in Don’t Breathe – that voice from the shadows.  We met with him and he agreed to do the role but then we had a lengthy design process.  It really came together when we put a mummified version of Stephen’s features on Shrike.

Matt:  The film is set hundreds of years in the future and there are a few unanswered questions about what happened during the Sixty Minute War.  How do you balance up exploring the past in the film versus telling the current day story?

Christian:  Just as it is in the books, we didn’t want to over-explain.  The films I loved growing up included Star Wars.  The characters are dropped into this fantasy world and the audience is given the bare minimum that you need to follow them.  For the rest, you can draw your own conclusions.  Audiences are spoon fed so much that they stop engaging with the story.  We have moments where we need to explain some details but for everything else, we want to leave the threads hanging so audiences can grab onto them and use their imagination and have a greater connection.

Matt:  We hear references to the “ancients” and “old tech” and then there’s also the dialogue and accents of the characters themselves.  How did you approach the language of the film?

Christian:  A lot of that is in the book.  Philip Reeve wrote such a wonderfully rich world.  We love the idea of referring to us as the “ancients” and then you’ve got things like the Minions which are fibreglass statues that would have been in some cinema foyer that they dug up.  It all wanted to be an echo of our past.

It’s like going to ancient Rome and wondering how the world would look thousands of years into the future.  We still have sports stadiums based on things like the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus.  We still have pillars and arches in our buildings.  People visiting today from ancient Rome would see a lot of new stuff but they’d also see things that were familiar.  We treated it that way.

Matt:  It’s a very bold, distinctive music score which fits with the action packed nature of the film.  Can you tell us about your working relationship with Tom Holkenborg and how the score was developed?

Christian:  We were very lucky to work with Tom.  He’s a busy man and he’s highly sought after but just happened to have a window that worked for us.  We got him out early on and he saw a long cut of the film and then he wrote this beautiful music that we could pick and choose from.  He was so collaborative and a dream to work with.  He wanted our feedback on what we liked and what we didn’t.  I’d love to work with him again.