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.