Mortal Engines – A 24-Year Journey From Page To Big Screen

A startling, epic adventure

It took seven years for author and illustrator Philip Reeve to pen his first young-adult novel, Mortal Engines which was first published by Scholastic in 2001 – and 17 years for the startling, epic adventure to be realised on the Big Screen.

“The biggest idea I could think of was a city on wheels but then I had to ask, ‘Why would you want a city on wheels?’” Reeve says. “It seemed arcane, but then I realized, you would want a city on wheels to chase a smaller city on wheels…and when I worked that out everything fell into place.”

It is directed by Oscar-winning visual-effects artist Christian Rivers (King Kong), from a screenplay by the three-time Academy Award-winning filmmakers of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson, based on the award-winning book series by Philip Reeve.

Hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, a mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop London—now a giant, predator city on wheels—from devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang (Jihae), a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Hugo Weaving, who starred in Jackson’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, takes on the role of Thaddeus Valentine, a powerful Londoner with a questionable vision for the future. Also joining the global cast are Dubliner Ronan Raftery as lowly Engineer Bevis Pod; Australian Leila George as Katherine, Valentine’s daughter; veteran performer Patrick Malahide as Magnus Crome, the Lord Mayor of London; and Stephen Lang as Shrike.

The Mortal Engines Quartet

Philip Reeve was born in Brighton in 1966. He trained as an illustrator, and worked for many years providing cartoons and illustrations for the Horrible Histories and Murderous Maths books. His first novel, the epic Mortal Engines” was published in 2001. It went on to win the Smarties and Blue Peter prizes. It was followed by three sequels—Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain— and three prequels: Fever Crumb, A Web of Air and Scrivener’s Moon. A collection of related short stories, Night Flights, with illustrations by Ian McQue, has just been published, along with The Illustrated World of Mortal Engines, co-written with Jeremy Levett and featuring artwork by an array of illustrators.

The acclaimed novel, which earned the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Smarties Gold Award and Blue Peter Book of the Year distinctions and was shortlisted for the prestigious Whitbread Award, would evolve into a series of four books known as The Mortal Engines Quartet: Mortal Engines, Predator’s Gold, Infernal Devices and A Darkling Plain.

Reeve’s story takes place centuries after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event known as the Sixty Minute War. Humankind has adapted and a new way of living has evolved. Gigantic moving cities now roam the Earth, ruthlessly preying upon smaller traction towns. Tom Natsworthy—who hails from a Lower Tier of the great traction city of London—finds himself fighting for his own survival after he encounters the dangerous fugitive Hester Shaw. Two opposites, whose paths should never have crossed, forge an unlikely alliance that is destined to change the course of the future.

During his time at art college, Reeve had experimented with a Super 8 camera but decided it would be easier to illustrate and write novels than make movies. (“You don’t have to give people lunch or dress them in costume,” Reeve says, dryly.) Still, he had a clear vision of his story’s cinematic future. “Mortal Engines always wanted to be a big action movie when it grew up,” Reeve says. “It has a three-act structure and big set pieces. It was just itching to be filmed.”

Scholastic Media president and Mortal Engines’ producer Deborah Forte agreed. “There is a little bit of an actor in Philip, and a little bit of a director, so when he writes it’s in a very cinematic way,” Forte says. “You know what the world is, how it looks and sounds and what it feels like to be there.” And Forte, who had helped bring The Golden Compass to the big screen, immediately thought of the one filmmaker with the extraordinary vision and peerless sensibility to adapt Mortal Engines into a blockbuster movie experience: Peter Jackson.

Jackson Action: From Page to Screen

Peter Jackson and his fellow filmmakers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens weren’t exactly looking to make another world-building fantasy film when Forte first sent them the property around 2005.

“There were a lot of projects coming at us after the Lord of the Rings films, and a lot of them were fantasy projects,” Boyens says. “I got an email from Pete, asking me to take a read of this book. He didn’t tell me too much about it, because he wanted my honest opinion. And from the very first sentence of the book I was hooked. I kept reading, hoping it was going to make me fall in love with the characters, hoping it would have an amazing ending, and it did, all along the way. So I wrote Pete back and said, ‘Hell, yeah. This is an extraordinary story.”

From the start, Jackson was excited by the ideas and the imagery of Mortal Engines. “Society has rebuilt a semblance of what it used to be, except the cities are now actually moving,” Jackson says. “They are huge traction cities. London is over a mile long, and they chase and hunt smaller cities across this landscape called the Great Hunting Ground, which is essentially Europe.”

Embedded in Reeve’s depiction of the future is the concept of Municipal Darwinism. “In its simplest form, the bigger cities eat the smaller ones,” Jackson says. “The smaller cities eat the smaller towns, and the smaller towns eat the tiny little towns. They see that as a very natural evolution. When we join this story this has been going on for over 1,000 years so it is very established.” He pauses. “The trouble with Municipal Darwinism is that there is a limit to it. Eventually the big cities eat so many of the smaller cities that there are none left, so they have to either turn on each other or find something else to hunt.”

He loved the concept of cities on wheels devouring each other, and the tale’s narrative and emotional elements of love, compassion, vengeance, and liberation. “You are always looking for stories with humanity,” Jackson says. “Mortal Engines has that.”

Jackson’s Wingnut Films optioned the property and then began pre-production on Mortal Engines in New Zealand in 2008, but the project needed to be placed on the back burner for several years while Jackson and his fellow filmmakers created The Hobbit trilogy.

After the release of the final Hobbit film, Battle of the Five Armies, in 2014, Jackson decided to write and produce Mortal Engines, and he and Fran Walsh asked their longtime collaborator Christian Rivers to direct it. “I always wanted to produce something for Christian, and this was the perfect moment in time,” Jackson says. Besides, he adds, laughing, “If Christian can direct Mortal Engines, at least I get to see the film!”

Twenty five years earlier, Rivers had sent Jackson a fan letter and had enclosed drawings of dragons and a request for a job. Jackson was impressed and hired him. Rivers’ first assignment was storyboarding Jackson’s first feature, Bad Taste. They continued to work together, as both of their careers expanded. Rivers eventually won an Academy Award® for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for his work on 2005’s King Kong, and Jackson knew Rivers had a gift for storytelling and was passionate about conveying complex emotion on screen.

Christian Rivers

Rivers, though, was not expecting an opportunity to direct Mortal Engines.

The offer from Jackson, Rivers says, “came along like a freight train.” Fortunately, he was well prepared. Rivers had designed the pre-visual planning for the film years earlier and knew the project well. Still, the enormity of the project was not lost on him. “How the hell do you turn this into a movie?” Rivers thought at first. “How do you sell these giant cities moving? How do you make that process believable? In a book there is a lot of metaphor, but film has to be fully literal.”

Luckily, he and his fellow filmmakers had experience of translating fantastical literary worlds to film. “It’s something we have had a lot of experience in,” says producer Amanda Walker, who served as associate producer on The Hobbit trilogy. “We’ve taken material in the past that is very cinematic, something we have never seen before. Our artists thrive on responding to that material and rising to the challenge of delivering a world that no one has ever experienced.”

Even better, the Academy Award-winning team of Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson had signed on to write the adaptation. “We know each other, trust each other,” Boyens says. “And our collaboration is built on respect.”

From the beginning, Walsh, Boyens and Jackson understood that the script needed to explain the world of Mortal Engines to the audience without sacrificing the speed and agility of the narrative. “The secret is telling people how this world works without bogging down the whole story,” Boyens says. They also knew that this massive new world needed to be anchored by a real, emotionally authentic, human story. “This world of Mortal Engines felt like a very fresh idea,” Boyens says. “At the same time, the story itself pulled together all the surviving threads of humanity.”

That humanity is at the core of all the stories they tell on film. “There’s no point in making a movie unless you’ve got characters that you can relate to,” Jackson says. “I mean, why bother? We may be projecting ahead about 1,700 years in Mortal Engines, but human beings are still human beings. If we went back two or three thousand years, we could sit down and have dinner with a person in Ancient Egypt or Rome, and we would probably still find a lot to laugh about and connect with, even though that person comes from a totally different world. The environment may change, the society may change, but humanity is always there. No matter how crazy or fantastical the world we create around them may be, we make sure that world is inhabited with characters that you can connect with.”

Having directed a splinter unit on The Hobbit and second unit on Pete’s Dragon—as well as his own short film Feeder—Rivers wasn’t new to directing; still, his experience had mainly been in service to other directors. “The hardest thing about directing is to remember to trust your gut,” Rivers says. “You can overthink things.” However, he had a powerful ally in Jackson, who was never far away. “Peter is a wonderful brain to guide me, but he let me shape things myself,” Rivers says. “He is an amazing filmmaker to have in your corner.”

New Zealanders are renowned for creating magical and awe-inspiring worlds.

Director Rivers also knew that Kiwis were exceptional world builders who would convincingly bring to life the new unseen world of Mortal Engines. “It’s a testament to the skill, talent and imagination of New Zealand crews that they are able to completely fabricate these other worlds that have never been seen before,” Rivers says. “Our crews are extraordinary. They are all professional, they are all innovative. You get a feeling when a New Zealand crew comes together around a film that it is a special journey and they are going to give it their all.”

Home to award-winning creatives and crew, experienced cast, a variety of infrastructure, stunning scenery and a competitive incentives scheme, New Zealand is a desirable choice for filmmakers and studios.

New Zealand filmmakers—including Mortal Engines writer/producers Jackson, Walsh and Boyens—built a strong film industry in the country. “Some of the biggest movies we have seen in the last 15-20 years have come from New Zealand, so you know you are in good hands because these guys have done it so much before,” says cinematographer Raby.

The entire production of Mortal Engines took place in New Zealand.

For more information about filming in NZ go to: