We infiltrated the top secret set of Peter Jackson’s big new film

Alex Casey witnessed a whole new dystopia on the set of Mortal Engines. Here she shares her key findings on matters including the giant sets, the catering, and Peter Jackson’s feet

Hugo Weaving is holding the soundstage door open for me. This is not a drill, this is not a test run, this is, quite simply, The Matrix. Except it’s not. It’s the set of the latest Peter Jackson-produced monster Mortal Engines, and I am too starstruck to deliver the appropriate response. I’d just snuck out for a quick wee, now this! “Athangyou,” I whisper with a gracious nod of the head, not unlike Austin Powers meekly punctuating a crude joke.

The man they call Elrond – villainous Valentine in Mortal Engines – looks down at me, puzzled, pitying and residually sooty from shooting. Before I can curtsy at his feet, he’s whisked towards the monstrous set by a lacky. I return to the drab black tent with a fruit bowl garnish, where a small cluster of journalists are penned up to watch the movie magic happen. It’s Day 50 on the Mortal Engines shoot, a colossal dystopian vision first imagined in Philip Reeves’ 2001 novel, now being produced by Peter Jackson and directed by his longtime collaborator Christian Rivers.

Set in a grim future following a 60-second nuclear war – one which wiped out lush green Earth as we know it – Mortal Engines imagines a dystopia where gargantuan cities travel on wheels, roaming the barren Earth to devour smaller, more vulnerable cities in order to survive. It’s like Pacman, but Mad Max. Like eating a turducken, then being eaten by a lion. In the future. But steampunk. You know? Here’s the trailer in case you don’t know.

For two whole days last year, I was lucky enough to mooch around the Mortal Engines set and humiliate myself in front of some mega uber superstars. Here are my key findings from this intricate field work.

Peter Jackson really doesn’t wear shoes IRL

Ah, to cast mine civilian eyes uponeth the hairy toes of a knight. We were lucky enough to get 20 minutes with Sir PJ himself, who cheerily plodded into the room with what was either a very milky coffee or a very strong cup of tea, feet proudly bare despite the icy Wellywood chill. His belly peeped through the buttons of his white shirt, his hair was wild and his pants were the cousins of cargos. He was bloody chilled out and he didn’t care who knew it. 

In his sweet Bilbo-esque croak, he told us about the struggle to get the studio onboard with the film (“they’d much rather make another superhero feature”), the state of dystopia in pop culture (“we’re very familiar and equally bored”), and why there’s no dog in the film (“that’s a lot of CG work for just a pet”).

Which leads me to my next point…

It’s all true

Peter Jackson really is buzzy as hell IRL

“I like reading physics books,” PJ told us when asked if he is able to enjoy a novel on holiday without turning it into work. “I like reading about space and I’m just starting to learn more about dark matter, Neil deGrasse Tyson and all of that sort of stuff.” He also offered the perfect dessert recipe, inspired by his infamously nauseating dining table scene in Braindead: custard, with a little touch of jam. Delicious and disgusting.

I like movies that serve up something you are never going to see in your normal life,” PJ explained. “Hitchcock’s quote that I always liked was ‘some people make movies that are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.’ I’ve always approached movies in that regard. It’s escapism and it’s entertainment, we want to see things that we’ve never seen before.” 

Won’t see that in Hobbiton

The Mortal Engines world is closer to home than we think

“Our real world seems so ridiculous and insane that this all feels quite normal to me,” said my good friend and confidante, Hugo Weaving. Director Christian Rivers, who partly got onboard because his son loves the original books, agreed there were a few current parallels whether intentional or not. “There’s definitely metaphors for consumerism and consumption, to refugee situations and cultural gobbling up of those who are less powerful. That’s all there. He [Reeves] may not have meant for that to happen, but it’s there.”

The Minions will survive the apocalypse (maybe)

In the Mortal Engines universe, historians like Tom and the evil Valentine work to preserve relics of the old world – computers, toasters, statues of David and the like. Perusing the art department, I peeped some concept art for a museum within one of the machines, and there was 100%, hand on heart, a minion behind glass. Whether it makes it into the film or not, it’s just something we should all think very hard about.

The future is bright

Two prop guys carving up a giant polystyrene Renaissance statue while listening to Fat Freddy’s Drop and talking about lamb chops is the most Kiwi shit of all time

I don’t really have anything else to say here, it’s just something I saw and something I felt.

Hester’s scar is not as intense as it is in the book

“We had some fights about how far we could go,” explained Hera Hilmasardo, who plays the leading role of Hester in the film. She tried to push harder for the scar to be bigger, uglier and gnarlier. “That’s the whole point, that she feels that she’s different and people treat her differently because of it.” The prosthetic scar comes in two parts, and took about half an hour every morning to apply. Hera described to us the feeling of wearing facial prosthetics every day like having eaten a lot of pasta and it all going straight to the face. Relatable content.

Scars remind us, that the past is real

The scar is far from Hester’s only imperfection, a fact which Hera loves. “The amount of characters that you read and audition for that always described as beautiful and intelligent and blah. They’re not allowed to be faulty and messy and horrible… That’s what I liked about her, to play someone who is more real than any of the other Hollywood roles that people are writing for women.” Sir PJ explained that Hester is “like a feral person who has been raised by wolves, who suddenly has to cope with connecting with society and other people.” Aka: queen.

I kissed* Robert Sheehan

And when I say kissed I mean that I ate the same tasty chicken lunch as him in the same large catering tent as him at the same time as him, which means our mouths probably touched the same thing at the same time which means we definitely kissed. I don’t make the rules here, take your lofty questions to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Can’t argue with science

Robert, who you might remember as the charming Irish lad from Misfits, plays Tom Natsworthy, the love interest of protagonist Hera (and/or me) and a keen historian with a penchant for technology from the old world. I also watched him fetch an old Breville toaster from a skip over 10 times for a scene, and he delivered an Oscar-worthy performance every single time.

A PJ production is a total monster machine in itself

It’s hard to overstate just how huge the production is on a film like this. Walking from soundstage to soundstage, all neatly tucked away in a Miramar cul de sac, I saw everything from a repurposed London tube station (now a processing plant for captured machine-dwellers) to half of St Paul’s cathedral made entirely out of wood. Bigger still were the green screens, towering over the hundreds of extras milling about in various kinds of rags.

We were allowed to wander around the house of robotic killing machine Shrike, which was basically free Spookers. Doll heads, metal exo-skeletons, cast iron torsos. Kate Rodger was scared, so I was also scared.

If you sit near a sooty train dystopian station set all day, you will leave a black ring around the bath

I’m just a mere mortal speaking the truth.


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