Mortal Engines, the new fantasy epic from New Zealand's blockbuster-factory trio of Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, takes place hundreds of years in the future when humanity lives under a system known as Municipal Darwinism: gargantuan mobile cities traverse a depleted earth, literally devouring other cities in order to consume their resources.

Giant mobile cities on wheels. When TimeOut sits down with Jackson and Boyens to discuss the film, one very important question must first be answered: Is Hamilton one of these cities?

"That would be too scary," chortles Jackson. "I'd get on my bike and ride in the other direction as fast as I could."

He is, of course, joking.


"I don't want to be rude to the people of Hamilton. I mean, Hamilton's a wonderful city, but you don't really want to see it on wheels."

"I reckon Hamilton would be quite lethal," says Boyens. "It'd be a survivor."

"It'd be a tough little scrapper," says Jackson.

Hera Hilmar stars in Mortal Engines.
Hera Hilmar stars in Mortal Engines.

Mortal Engines is the first major undertaking from Jackson, Walsh and Boyens since the Hobbit trilogy. Like those movies, the trio co-wrote the screenplay (based on Philip Reeve's book) and co-produced, but unlike those movies and all their previous collaborations, Jackson did not direct, handing the megaphone over to long-time collaborator Christian Rivers.

Jackson tells TimeOut he originally planned to direct Mortal Engines, even going through a year or so of pre-production in 2008, but Warner Bros. suddenly gaining the rights to The Hobbit derailed that notion. When the time came to revisit the project, he decided to pass the directorial baton to Rivers.

"It wasn't really a hard decision," says Jackson. "Because he'd done such a fantastic job doing second unit on The Hobbit. This was going to be our next movie and I just said 'Christian, it's time for you to do a feature film'. Having seen Christian develop so well, I thought he would do a fantastic job."

Rivers has been working with Jackson since the 1992 splatter classic Braindead.

"I got his details through Richard Taylor," Rivers tells TimeOut of first meeting Jackson. "I sent down all these drawings and a fan letter and Richard took them to Peter and Peter really liked my drawings and wanted to meet me so my mum drove me down from Whanganui and I went around to Peter's."


It was immediately clear that the pair were kindred spirits.

"His house was a hoarder's nest of geeky fun stuff. There were World War I model aeroplanes, books on movies, a half-finished sculpture of a weird goblin character. I don't want to call Peter nerdy but, you know, he's King of the Nerds..."

Rivers went on to draw storyboards for all of Jackson's films, eventually moving into pre-visualisation (i.e. digitally-animated storyboards), and second unit directing. He even won an Oscar for visual effects on 2005's King Kong.

"I've been fortunate in that I got a job working for the force of nature that is Peter Jackson when I was 18," says Rivers. "My career's grown as his career's grown. I've sort of followed in his shadow, in his wake, if you like. It's a bit of a valley-sized wake."

Speaking of valley-sized wakes, if you thought the scale of the Tolkien adaptations was something to behold, just wait until you see Municipal Darwinism in action on the big screen – there are moving structures in this film that are simply unprecedented in cinema.

"They are bloody huge," says Jackson. "And that was one of the hard things to wrap our heads around from a design point of view. You can't actually think of anything on Earth today that remotely resembles the size of these places. I mean, I'm a fairly imaginative sort of guy, but it was surprisingly difficult to imagine the sheer size of these cities."

As dazzling as the visuals are, Boyens stresses they are secondary.

"Visual effects now are extraordinary, and what you can do with them is extraordinary," says Boyens. "That sense of wonder, that wonderment, it's only earned by the characters and storytelling."

"Scale, everything, is a backdrop to this story, and there is no story without people," adds Jackson. "When I read the books, the thing I loved the most was the characters. It's the story of Hester and Tom, and it goes places that you would never ever imagine."

Mortal Engines saw the team visualise a world bigger than anything they had previously imagined.
Mortal Engines saw the team visualise a world bigger than anything they had previously imagined.

Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy are played by Iceland's Hera Hilmar and Ireland's Robert Sheehan. Tom is a historian in the mobile city of London and Hester is a vengeance-seeker trying to exact revenge on Tom's boss, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), the man who killed her mother. When that plan goes awry, Hester and Tom are thrust together and cast out into the vast wasteland.

Hilmar tells TimeOut that she appreciates the metaphorical power of fantasy storytelling.

"Sometimes it's easier to look at things in the world that are hard to face through a fantasy world," says Hilmar. "If you go: 'It's only fantasy', maybe you can look at the difficult things if reality is too overbearing."

Although Mortal Engines is far from a message movie, the planet experiences a nuclear apocalypse in the opening seconds, so it's not difficult to draw some contemporary parallels...

"If we were to lay it on heavy, which we're not," says Sheehan. "We could say that this film is a precautionary satire of where we're going to end up fairly soon if we don't get those two despotic lunatics' fingers off the button. This film is not morally instructive in any way, but I think those difficult elements are easier digested in the fantasy/sci-fi world than they are in the news/current affairs world."

Hugo Weaving stars in Mortal Engines.
Hugo Weaving stars in Mortal Engines.

When Kiwis watched the Tolkien adaptations, we were able to discern something unmistakably New Zealand-y about the films beyond just the landscapes. A certain tone, if you will. TimeOut asks Jackson and Boyens what New Zealand-ness shines through in Mortal Engines.

"I think our sense of humour," says Jackson. "Because we understand irony. There's a sort of twinkle in the eye that New Zealanders have that's not that common."

"It's an irreverence where you just lighten it up and give the audience space to breathe," adds Boyens. "We've got some great Kiwi actors in this. Mark Hadlow keeps his accent. We put in a Kiwi character, Toa Heke, played by Kahn West [Terry Teo], who's a fabulous New Zealand actor. You'll be interested to see his weapon."

Considering the ambition of Mortal Engines, there will inevitably be Lord of the Rings comparisons.

"I will probably never make a movie that successful in my life again, and I'm okay with that," says Jackson. "The continual pressure is always just to simply to make a good movie. But I'm not ever thinking I've got to top Lord Of the Rings. It was a bit of a one-off, I suspect. A three-off."

Boyens believes the fan base will cross over.

"They're completely different stories, but they're for the same audience," says Boyens. "The same audience that loved Lord of the Rings is gong to love Mortal Engines. I really believe that."

Who: Film-makers Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh
What: Mortal Engines
When: In cinemas from December 6