Interview: the director and cast of Mortal Engines discuss building a visually ravishing future world

The highly anticipated blockbuster Mortal Engines has finally arrived in cinemas. Travis Johnson sat down with director Christian Rivers, and stars Jihae and Leila George to discuss the dizzying task of building a spectacular future world. 

Art department and special effects expert Christian Rivers finally takes his feature-length directing bow with Mortal Engines, the epic sci-fi adventure based on Philip Reeve’s cult classic novel. Based in a dystopian future where giant mobile metropolises wage endless war on each other, the film is filled with gutsy female characters who move heaven and earth to build a better world.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Rivers, as well as two of the actors playing these warrior women: South Korean multimedia artist Jihae, who plays the swashbuckling pilot Anna Fang; and Leila George, who plays Katherine Valentine, a child of privilege who discovers both the society she lives in and her own father aren’t what they seem.

FLICKS: Christian, Mortal Engines marks your feature directing debut. But it’s not the first tentpole film you’ve worked on – notably, you were splinter unit director on two of the Hobbit movies, and second unit director on Pete’s Dragon. How did you find transitioning from those roles to this?

CHRISTIAN RIVERS: Nothing can really prepare you for when you’re suddenly there and the buck’s gonna stop with you. The scale of working with the crew wasn’t that daunting because I’ve worked with big crews and lots of extras and actors, but when the final decision rests with you, that’s where the fear comes in, because you ultimately are the one who’s going to be responsible for what’s seen on screen.

FLICKS: How did you come on board the project? What interested you about it?

CHRISTIAN RIVERS: I’ve been working in various capacities as a second unit director and I’d done a short film, and I was actually in the process of setting up and co-writing a lower budget film – the next logical step you take before you do something like this. I was driving into work one day and Peter called me on the phone and said, “Look, we’re running out of time on Mortal Engines. I don’t feel like I’ve got the energy to take it on after finishing the three Hobbit films – would you like to do it?” Every part of me logically was thinking “No, no, no – you should do something smaller and then something bigger.” But I also had to say yes.

FLICKS: What kind of shape was the project in when you came to it, and what did you bring to the table?

CHRISTIAN RIVERS: It was in a slightly muddled state. Peter [Jackson, producer and co-writer] had bought the rights to it back in 2008 and he had kicked it off with a lot of pre-viz that had been done – pre-visualisation, 3D animation tests, and a lot of artwork. But then it had been put on the shelf pretty much for the whole production of the Hobbit films.

And so when I came on board there had been a lot of pre-viz that had been based on the book. There was a lot of artwork, but none of it had really found a focus – it was all very steampunk, it was all very based on the books or trying so hard not to be steampunk that it was complete fantasy/science fiction. So I came on board to try to shepherd it into an area that we knew wasn’t going to be steampunk but was going to honour the character of the books, and just sort of start driving a design process which we really didn’t know where it was going to end up – but it ended up here.

FLICKS: Jihae and Leila, what appealed to you about the project? What drew you into the world of Mortal Engines?

JIHAE: It’s such a unique story. My character is such an empowered character, so it was exciting to me to embody such a powerful woman. And of course, Peter Jackson and his team of master crafters – it was really easy to say yes to this because it’s very exciting to work with such amazing creators.

LEILA GEORGE: The same for me. It’s just the idea of playing a part in such an interesting journey. It’s something that felt really relatable.

FLICKS: Well, let’s expand on that, because your character goes on a political awakening, in terms of seeing how she fits into the world outside of her little bubble. Tell us about that.

LEILA GEORGE: That is what it is, and I think it’s really relatable for young people today. I think that’s happening more and more, especially in the last year. We’ve seen young people using their voice a lot more. It’s really exciting to see –

JIHAE: Absolutely.

LEILA GEORGE: So I think that’s really nice, that there are those parallels that we shot almost a year and a half ago now. I think that this year has really been an upward awakening for young people. It’s totally that time you go through in your life where you have to come out of the safety of childhood into reality, and sometimes it can be more shocking for some than others, and for Katherine it’s a big awakening, because it’s about what’s going on around her in the city that she lives in, but it’s also about who her father is. So those two things were really interesting journeys that I wanted to take.

FLICKS: Whereas Anna Fang comes into the movie not only already woke, she’s effectively “Lefty Han Solo”, which must have been a really fun character to play.

JIHAE: Yeah, Anna Fang, her whole backstory is also really exciting. I didn’t realise that there was an unpublished graphic novel about her childhood, and the actual book on Anna Fang [Night Flights by Mortal Engines author Philip Reeve] just came out recently, a couple months ago. Initially I didn’t know about this so I started writing some backstory for her myself, just to add some meat to the character, you know the history of the character? And what I learned was, from the graphic novel, was that she was such a resilient, strong, young child who lost her parents when the city they were on – they were aviator parents – got eaten, and she was a slave who went and found parts in a scrapyard and built her own airship, which is the Jenny Haniver. She escaped and became this warrior leader. It was very exciting to play her not just because she’s so empowered and such a badass, but because she was someone who has such compassion for the oppressed because she was oppressed herself.

FLICKS: Finally, Christian, what are you hoping people get out of Mortal Engines? What are you hoping they leave the cinema with?

CHRISTIAN RIVERS: I just hope they leave the cinema having been taken on a wonderful journey, an emotional and exciting journey in a new world with new characters. That’s why we make films: to take people to other worlds. I know I’m getting tired of the repeated worlds and the repeated stories now, so I just hope they come out and have really enjoyed the two hours they just spent in the theatre. More importantly, I hope they want to see it again!