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7 Things We Learned from the MORTAL ENGINES Set

Imagine the distant future Earth, some 1,700 years from now, where cities don’t remain in a static location, but instead roll across the surface of the planet. They run on hulking engines and expand upward in dizzying levels, with larger cities like London dwarfing smaller towns. To gain precious materials and resources, big cities can open their jaws and consume any smaller hamlet that crosses their paths. This is the world of Mortal Engines.

Directed by Christian Rivers and produced by Peter Jackson, the upcoming film is based on the novel of the same name by Philip Reeves. The story follows Hester Shaw, passionate and revenge-seeking, and Tom Natsworthy, studious and kind; they form an unlikely partnership and go on an adventure that ends up being a fight for survival. And if you think you know how the story will end because you’ve read the books, think again.

Nerdist joined a small group of reporters on the New Zealand set for Mortal Engines. We wandered the London Museum—admiring antiquities like the minions from Despicable Me—explored the mildly disturbing home of the cyborg killer Stalker, and talked with Rivers, Jackson, and the cast about pouring fuel into the adaptation.

Hester is scarred in more ways than one.

Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw

Badly disfigured as a girl (and yes, the scar in the movie is more minimal than the one described in the book), Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar) sets out to seek revenge upon the person who cut her face and did other terrible things I don’t want to spoil, Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). Hilmar told us they tried a few different options for the look of Hester’s scar—she was even encouraged to submit her ideas and sketches—but they opted for a scar that allowed her to communicate. “It ended up being that we found this kind of middle way so I could, I guess, express myself in the same way [with my] eyes, nose, and mouth,” she explained. “And it took a while to find the right thing, because there needed to be a balance. It needs to be enough for you to go, ‘Okay, [I] understand why this is a big deal.'”

Hester’s visible scar and internal ones left by Valentine have affected her life. She’s cynical and focused and used to being on her own. “Hester is completely feral,” Hilmar said. “She does not communicate in the same way as I would or we would. I kept cutting out lines because I didn’t want her to speak a lot. I think that comes from living with someone like [Shrike]. And she’s been on her own for a long time; when we meet her, she’s been completely on her own for, like, six months in the wilderness. She’s become quite tough and sort of not social in any way.”

This movie’s been in the works since 2008.

Hugo Weaving as Thaddeus Valentine

Mortal Engines has been in the works since 2008; concept art developed almost a decade ago was put into action for sets and costumes, updated to match the capabilities of current technology. Back in 2008, Peter Jackson was set to direct the movie. But now, his longtime collaborator Christian Rivers is helming the adaptation. “It was probably one of the movies I would’ve done during the time that The Hobbit was being shot, but I ended up directing that and sort of took me out of commission for five years,” Jackson explained. “And really, coming out of it, we were faced with a situation where the rights to the books, which we’ve had these rights for probably nearly a decade or so, they were due to expire and we had to move fast.”

You’ll be impressed by the scale.

The world of Mortal Engines sprawls. Cities reach into the skies and Shan Guo, home of the Anti-Traction League (a group that wants humans to abandon the rolling cities and establish permanent homes), spreads outward. They went big for production to bring as much of the world as possible to life. They’ve worked with 3,900 extras to populate the different locations. They built 67 sets (it’s more practical sets than The Hobbit). Some of those sets were built on gimbals or rocking bases to simulate the right movement for a city lumbering across the surface on wheels.

The biggest challenge is digital effects.

Though they’ve worked practically as much as possible, director Christian Rivers was straightforward about the hardest part of the project: “The biggest challenge is still to come, which is all the stuff that we have to do with digital effects.”

Rivers continued, “We’ve tried to shoot a lot of it in a quite a visceral way. Mainly because it is set in our world. Obviously, it’s the future of our world, but we’re not in a mythical realm. We’re not in a fantasy, science fiction universe, we’re actually in our world somewhere. Because it’s so fantastical, like the elements of it, I wanted to at least have something that the audience could grab onto. So, I think post is going to be really challenging, just with the complexity of everything and the scale of everything. And also making it believable.”

It’s not Mad Max.

Jihae as Anna Fang

Mortal Engines takes place in a world where the catastrophic Sixty Minute War happened. The story takes place long after the war, when human life is continuing—which is something they took into account when designing the look of the film, set about 1,700 years in the future from our present.

“We had a whole lot of design criteria for the look of the film,” Rivers said. “We didn’t want it to be post-apocalyptic dystopia. We didn’t want it to be Mad Max. As much as…I love those films, this is its own universe.We just made a point [to] make everything—anything—that we see from our world archaeological. ”

Mad Max wasn’t the only vibe the team tried to avert. “And we didn’t want to make it overtly steampunk, but there is obviously in the books is a very clear—I mean, the books are very steampunk,” Rivers said. “We wanted to not have that aesthetic. I just caught onto [the idea of]: What would happen if there was a nuclear-esque kind of war or a new weapon that devastated our planet and what would happen to London? And what would be left?”

Keep your eyes peeled in the London Museum.

Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy and Hera Hilmar as Hester Shaw

The Sixty Minute War. Traction cities. Stalkers. Mortal Engines comes with a lot of lingo. If you’re not familiar with the books, don’t worry, the movie will make sure you’re caught up. Rivers joked, “There is some sort of shameless exposition we need to get out of the way, which is why we have scene set in the museum.”

Writer and co-producer Philippa Boyens told us they have a school tour through the museum, an expansive, fully built set with an elegant staircase and display cases. The audience learns alongside the students in the tour, and you’ll start to notice the “ancient” artifacts are from our time: smart phones, video game consoles, CDs, and even minions. Production designer Dan Hennah joked they see minions as ancient deities. Everything on display is a piece of salvaged history from the world before the Sixty Minute War.

Expect fascinating things from Shrike.

Shrike, a Stalker that’s part human, part robot, adopted Hester when he found the scarred young girl alone. His home on Strole is unnerving, full of dolls and toys in various stages of dissection or reconstruction. Shrike’s fascinated with the human form and how all the parts work in harmony. As a tall killing machine who’s protective of Hester, Shrike is…intense.

Stephen Lang performed the role through motion capture and told us looked to predatory birds for inspiration for the character’s physicality and found a happy accident. “I know swans can be very, very aggressive birds,” Lang said. “I was looking at swans and what came up on YouTube was Swan Lake. It was Rudolf Nureyev dancing Swan Lake. And I began to watch him, and I began to see Shrike [and] the way he moved…When a ballet dancer moves, he doesn’t move his arms…he looked like this folded bird. When you think about it, it’s incredibly graceful and at the same time, there’s something slightly robotic about it as well, which is kind of right in the wheelhouse of this character. And so, that’s the kind of thing that is useful to me.”

Mortal Engines rolls into theaters on December 14, 2018.

Images: Universal

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