For Christian Rivers, the director of Mortal Engines and longtime protégé of Peter Jackson, there’s a certain level of anxiety going into New York Comic Con. It’s the day before the film’s big panel in October, and he and Jackson are sitting in a pop-up edit bay in Manhattan previewing the footage they intend to show fans. They wonder, why has it taken this long to get the word out about the film?
There’s already been a string of previews for high-profile December titles like Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman, and Bumblebee — all of which are either sequels or spin-offs of well-known brands. But for Mortal Engines, which doesn’t fall into those categories, “We’re just not mentioned,” Rivers tells EW.
Jackson attributes this to the modern business of franchises. “It certainly struck me how hard it is to market an original film these days,” he says, though the Lord of the Rings director acknowledges Mortal Engines is based on a book series. While popular in the U.K., the work of author Philip Reeves is still relatively obscure in the U.S. By Hollywood standards, it might as well be an original concept.
“It’s kind of crazy because when I was growing up, apart from the Bond movies, just about every film was original,” Jackson muses. “Now in this day and age, everything is franchises and sequels and remakes and superhero movies, Marvel movies. The studio is doing a good job, but they can see that their heads are spinning trying to release a completely original film.”
Apart from Hugo Weaving as the film’s villain and Stephen Lang, hidden behind special effects as the motion-capture character Shrike, Mortal Engines features a cast of predominantly new faces: 29-year-old Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar takes the lead role of Hester Shaw in a vibrant sci-fi world of Traction Cities, mobile metropolises that roam the now-desolate earth and devour smaller towns for parts. With so many Traction Cities on the move, resources are dwindling once again.
As an elevator pitch, that surface-level summary can seem complicated. “It’s like trying to describe Star Wars to someone [for the first time],” Rivers says. “It’s its own thing.”
Star Wars-level success is definitely the goal here, though at this point, it seems unlikely. With a reported production budget of $100 million, Mortal Engines is expected to earn just $10 million to $15 million in the U.S. and Canada over its opening weekend, according to industry projections. Internationally, it may be a different story.
Hollywood studios are always on the hunt for original intellectual property to snare and turn into franchises, but Rivers says once they find an original property, it can be hard to market. He feels this is what happened with Mortal Engines.
“[The film is] kind of what they want,” Rivers says. “They say, ‘We want something new, we want something to kick off a new universe and stories.’ So you make that film, and then it’s like they don’t really know how to market it. And the only way they know how is to show so much of the film that audiences have already seen the film before they’ve seen the film — which you don’t want either because you want them to be pleasantly surprised. So it’s an interesting challenge.”
Jackson and his Lord of the Rings team were gearing up to make the first of a hoped-for series of Mortal Engines films after purchasing the rights to the books in 2009. Jackson was even going to direct, but then The Hobbit happened. “[Warner Bros.] freed up the rights to The Hobbit, which we didn’t even expect them to be able to do,” he says. So he set out to make another trilogy of films around J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, and by the end of it all he was spent.
Rivers, who directed the elaborate barrel sequence in the second Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, and spent years in the space of visual effects, was looking to helm his own feature. Mortal Engines felt like a good fit.
Now it’s Rivers who’s feeling that fatigue that comes from building a visual world big enough to sustain its own franchise. “I’m just still pretty exhausted,” he admits. “You’re just working as hard as you can to make a great film. There’s a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, but then comes the stress of you hope people enjoy the film.”
Ensuring a property’s longevity means making it stand out. For Mortal Engines, it became about shying away from what came before — Reeves mentions he specifically worked against the steampunk tendencies of the visuals described in the books. There lay the biggest challenge.
Some of the heavy lifting began before Rivers took over. Ten years ago, Jackson commissioned a series of concept designs for Mortal Engines — “a smorgasbord of visuals,” as Rivers describes — which were then revised until Rivers found something that felt new.
“People have asked, ‘Is it steampunk? Is it that? Is it this?’ They’ve tried to come up with catch-alls to label Mortal Engines, the look of it, and there isn’t one. It’s Mortal Engines,” he says. “We’ve defined a new look in this film that has aspects of our history and potentially our future as ancient history.” (One such aspect is a line Jackson says they threw in a few weeks prior to our conversation “for obvious reasons”: As the London Traction City devours a small settlement and the people are forced to immigrate, a voice mentions that “children may be separated from their parents.”) Its lead heroine, Hester, is also “unlike anyone you’ve ever seen in a film before,” Jackson says, owing to Hilmar’s portrayal of a feral, scarred woman looking to avenge the death of her mother.
Despite his efforts, Rivers doesn’t consider Mortal Engines to be a “Christian Rivers film.” It’s more of a “collaboration” between Jackson, the Lord of the Rings producers, and himself.
Jackson notes, “The franchise industry is very much a producer-driven industry to some degree. The directors get brought on and they just have be part of the machine that’s churning these things out.” The veteran filmmaker also points to how “younger directors” are typically hired for massive franchise installments — directors like the Joe and Anthony Russo on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, James Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy, and Rian Johnson on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It’s because, Jackson says, “[The studios] don’t have to pay them any gross, so they’re cheaper.”
Rivers, at 44, is another rising director looking to plant his feet in the industry, but he and Jackson have somehow managed to exist in their own separate world. Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, who are also involved with Mortal Engines, are two more of their longtime partners from the days of The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. Together, they’ve all formed their own creative think tank untouched by the systemic effects of franchise-ification.
“Having been a director myself, you really just gotta let the director make his film,” Jackson says. “We helped Christian in the way that the role of producer is really to let the director focus on his work and try to not let the other problems of production land on the director’s head.”
To some degree, Rivers still feels some of these issues. Critics’ reviews for Mortal Engines have been underwhelming, while the NYCC preview footage — consisting of the opening 20 minutes and an additional clip of Lang’s Shrike — seemed to garner a better response from the assembled crowd. “You’re always nervous because you don’t know how people are going to respond,” he says, “so it’s very relieving when they say they enjoyed it.” With any luck, and a strong push from audiences, Mortal Engines will “just be another sequel,” Rivers adds. “Part of the machine, in a way.”
Mortal Engines is in theaters now.