Peter Jackson On ‘Mortal Engines,’ His New WWI Documentary, And His Future With ‘Lord Of The Rings’

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Peter Jackson bought the rights to Mortal Engines around ten years ago with the idea he’d direct it himself. (Those duties would fall to Jackson’s longtime second unit director, Christian Rivers.) The book series, authored by Philip Reeve, brings us into a post-apocalyptic world in which cities are now mobile war machines, searching for other cities to devour. When the film opens, we see a roaring, moving, gigantic London swallow a city whole. When those now captured residents are processed, we hear a voice over a public address system say, “Children may be temporarily separated from their parents.” As Peter Jackson tells us, this isn’t a coincidence. Angry while watching the news of parents and their children being separated from each other at the United States and Mexico border, that line was added only six weeks ago.

Jackson has another film being released as well — They Shall Not Grow Old — a documentary, of sorts, that takes old silent World War I footage and modernizes it with colorization and sound effects and voice actors to produce something that’s truly remarkable. And, as Jackson explains, it could revolutionize how old historical footage is used.

Jackson, of course, directed the three The Lord of the Rings films and three The Hobbit films. It was revealed this week that Jackson may not be quite done with Middle-earth as Amazon ramps up their plans to develop a The Lord of the Rings series. But in talking to Jackson, this all sounds very preliminary and he doesn’t even quite know what this will entail yet.

Didn’t you buy the rights to Mortal Engines in 2009?

Yeah. Well, I read these books. There were four of them at the time. Mortal Engines was the first one. I read the first one and then I just enjoyed it so much that I went straight into the second and into the third and the fourth. So, I sort of binge-read these. And I just thought, “wow, these would be fantastic films.” So I inquired about the rights and they were available, so I got the rights. This is really about 2007 or 2008. But, at the time, I wanted to get the rights so that we could make the films in the future, but we were busy on District 9 and Tintin. Then straight after that, we got involved in The Hobbit for most of about six years. So even though I secured the rights, we didn’t have the chance to actually make the film until after The Hobbit, which is exactly what we ended up doing.

Did you ever consider directing this yourself? Or did you want Christian Rivers to direct from the very start?

When I bought the rights back in 2007, I assumed that I would direct it for sure. That was just my natural assumption. But what happened, that I didn’t have any way of anticipating then: as a result of doing The Hobbit, Christian is someone who would put storyboards together and previews and he’s been working as part of our filmmaking family for about 25 years. So he graduated to becoming a second unit director on The Hobbit. And he directed some pretty key scenes like the Dwarves escaping in the barrels. And so, at the end of The Hobbit, I knew Christian was ready to direct his first feature film, whatever that would be.

So how does this work with Universal? Did they want you to direct? Do you just tell them, “I want Christian to direct”?

It wasn’t really quite like that, because we asked Christian to become involved in it before there was any financing. So we got Christian involved in it at a very early stage, while we were still working on the script. And so when we went to the studios, we had a script, we had a budget, and the director, and that was the package. And if they didn’t want to get involved, that was fine. But, fortunately, MRC (Media Rights Capital) came on board first and then they got Universal as the co-financier and so it was actually pretty straightforward. And they’ve certainly been very supportive of Christian, and they’re very, very pleased with the film. And so it’s no problem. It is true, that as a first film, it’s a pretty big, ambitious film. But, in a weird way, it’s less of a problem that it otherwise might be because Christian’s been part of all the films that we’ve made over the last 25 years. He’s been sort of an integral part of it.

Early in the film when London swallows up a city there’s like a voiceover that says, “Children may be temporarily separated from their parents.” Was that added recently?

It was added about six weeks ago, yeah.

It’s very haunting.

We were doing the sound mixing, the very last thing that you do, really, once you’ve shot the film. The visual effects have actually been finished. The very last thing that you do before it’s finished is to mix the soundtrack, which is about a three-week job, and that’s what we were doing. And we were doing that right when there were all the horrible stories on the news about the children being separated at the border, which we couldn’t believe. And so that was just a voiceover that we got someone to record it and we threw it into the soundtrack. Just We were just feeling very, very angry, and we just wanted to make a comment on it.

Your documentary about World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old. Is this the future of presenting historical footage from that era? It’s really remarkable.

Well, it’s not so much about the future of documentaries, although, obviously, I’m sure you could do documentaries about things that you might not have otherwise considered because of their quality. But what is exciting, from my perspective, is the fact that now we’ve sort of cracked the code of how to make 100-year-old footage look as good as we possibly can. What I hope it does is, I hope it inspires a lot of film archives around the world who are sitting on incredibly historic, precious film. Not just First World War stuff, I mean, any historical film.

It could be old baseball footage.

It could be sports, yeah. It could be early baseball footage. It could be a coronation. If you go into the ’30s and ’40s with film that’s not in very good shape anymore and just the usual hazard of time is often not very friendly with some of the footage. Especially the more documentary-type footage, as opposed to Hollywood films. But I just hope that archives now really reassess what they have, because there’s no reason why any piece of old film now couldn’t be restored to a pretty good degree. I mean, the best restoration that we did was when the film was in reasonable quality when we started and you’ve got a better end result. But even so, we did restore some pretty bad looking film and some pretty rough-looking stuff, and it still came out okay. So I hope that, at least, it leads to us seeing archives all over the world start to restore their libraries. Because it could transform so much of the history that we have on film now.

So now that the dust has settled a bit on The Hobbit using 48 frames per second, where do you think it’s at? Does it have a future?

Well, I don’t know. I mean, it’s really up to individual filmmakers. I was pleased by the time we finished. But it took us the three Hobbit movies to figure out how to color correct it and grade it properly so it didn’t look, you know, the first one wasn’t… We made a lot of changes after the first Hobbit movie, and then the second, and then the third.

The first one, I remember, it took me three or four minutes before my eyes could adjust to it.

Yeah. And then in the second one and the third one, I think we took a different approach to the color timing and the grading. And, obviously, still get rid of some of sort of the shiny look that the first one had. And then I think we were getting to feeling pretty good towards the end. It’s up to filmmakers and I know that Ang Lee, I believe, is looking at doing a movie in high speed.

And he already did with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Yeah, and I think he’s doing something else, I’m not quite sure what. But I heard something that I think James Cameron is going to use high frame rates on parts of his Avatar films, if not the whole film, but I’m not really sure. So, it hasn’t gone away. To me, it’s really just a question of if you think forward 50 years from now, or 100 years from now, are we going to go to the cinema and have it looking exactly like it does today? Or is it going to be advancements in the presentation and in the technology? There probably will be, and whether or not it’s high frame rate, or whether or not it’s something that we can’t even imagine, who knows? But the thing is, with cinema, if you go backwards in time, what was it like in the 1920s? Or in the 1930s? It was very, very different to what you experience now. So, to me, as a filmmaker, I feel there’s a certain responsibility that filmmakers should have in trying to figure out how to make their film presentations and that similar experience bigger and better.

You need something to get people out of their houses.

It’s not just for commercial reasons, although you’re quite right. But it’s also for the fact that as a filmmaker, you want your audiences to really be absorbed into the film. You don’t want people looking at the movie, you want people to have a sense of participating in the film. And participating in the story and sort of losing themselves into the screen. I just think any technology that can help do that, and help achieve that immersion for the audience, it’s important, because that’s what you’re striving for when you’re making films. And it’s one thing that technology can be very helpful with. I mean, the world moves on and technologies advance and they change. And you often can’t predict what’s going to come next. So I think everything should be trying to push boundaries in all sorts of ways. I don’t believe in having a static world.

I read that quote that Amazon is going to send Lord of the Rings scripts to you. What does that mean exactly? Or do you even know yet?

Well, I mean, they spoke to me. And they spoke to me quite a few months ago and what they needed is that team to just get involved straight-away and develop scripts. So I just couldn’t even think about doing it, because I was still working on these films. Both of these films were in post-production, and so I just said to them, “Look, I can’t get involved, and particularly right now. But if in the future you want to send me anything, I’m not sure how I can get involved, I’m not sure if it’s a good idea, but let’s just keep at it, talking.” So that was the last conversation that I had. I mean, if I can help them in some way, if it makes sense, I’m certainly happy to.

Is this going to wind up being the Tom Bombadil series?

Oh, I don’t know. That’s one thing I haven’t had any type of conversation about.

I say that jokingly, because anytime someone brings up your Lord of the Rings movies, there’s always one wiseguy saying, “Um, where was Tom Bombadil?”

But I guess it certainly could! If that’s what they choose to do.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.