Flicks visits the colossal sets of Mortal Engines in Wellington

About a year ago, I was fortunate enough to join a set visit to the latest Sir Peter Jackson production Mortal Engines and talk to some of the key talent. Directed by SPJ’s long-time Kiwi cohort Christian Rivers (his feature debut), the film is an adaptation of Philip Reeve’s dystopian sci-fi where the world has gone so far down the toilet that entire cities are forced to move on wheels.

Though the Wellington film studio I visited was not, itself, a city-wide vehicle, it was a mightily impressive beast nonetheless.

We were there on shoot days 50 and 51, passing by an extremely busy construction crew building everything from interior cathedral-like structures to a flurry of wooden platforms suspended in front of a Niagara Falls-sized green screen. It tantalised the mind trying to imagine these sets come alive in the film.

The actual set that did come alive depicted an interior part of London, as seen in the latest trailer from the 40-second mark. At this early stage of the story, the residents of Shan Guo go through processing after being “eaten” by the London vehicle.  It’s how I imagine actual London would look in a parallel universe wedged between the worlds of Children of Men and Mad Max: Fury Road.

This intimidating ironclad section had a ‘London Welcomes You’ sign, worn-n-torn for ironic effect, hanging above a herd of extras playing the part of refugees. Each one of those extras looked uniquely dressed; a testament to the mighty wardrobe department who were more than happy to show us all their hard work that cruelly goes unnoticed most of the time. From the lavish costume varieties of the main characters to the smallest embroidery on a soldier’s button, the level of detail is as immaculate as it is dynamic.

The scene we saw live had Hera Hilmar as elusive badass Hester, who featured heavily in the first teaser. She remained hidden in plain sight amongst the Shan Guo crowd, despite looking way cooler than anyone else in the room. The shots were limited to close-ups of her scarf-covered face and her hand holding a knife with Hugo Weaving’s name on it. As they experimented with a series of different shifting eye twitches, it made me respect the unappreciated art of brow acting.

“The amount of characters you read in the audition folder who are described as beautiful and intelligent… they’re not allowed to be faulty and messy and horrible or something,” Himlar told us when describing the role’s appeal. “That’s what I like about [Hester], to be able to play someone that is way more real than any of the other Hollywood female roles that very often come, other roles that people are writing for women.”

The trailer also shows off Hester’s gnarly facial scar, even though it wasn’t as gnarly as the book described.

“In the book, it’s full on. It goes over the eye and over the mouth and the nose, but we had to fight for how far we could go with this one. It’s really cool. It looks like someone [put] a knife into my face.”

Another scene saw Robert Sheehan as Tom Natsworthy rushing over to a giant rubbish container to save a toaster from becoming junk. Sounds absurd, I know, but when Hugo Weaving picked it up and waxed lyrical about the historical value of that piece of technology, it all made sense.

Then again, Weaving always spellbinds with his Shakespearean command – even when he’s simply describing a kitchen appliance.

Weaving plays the role of Thaddeus Valentine, who he described to us as: “an explorer, adventurer, pirate, pilot, archaeologist, politician… people hero-worship him, so he has to present [himself] in a certain way.” Despite being “a highly intelligent man who can be quite warm, personable and charming,” there’s a colder side to his character. “I think he can form alliances with people, but individuals are not important to him. Even thousands of people are not important.”

As evident in the trailer when he Spartan Kicks Tom into the London exhaust pipe.

Disappointingly, we did not get to see this part live.

Playing Thaddeus’ daughter Katherine, newcomer Leila George complemented the scene with a series of close-up reaction shots of the character looking around and then seeing her father. I lost count of the seemingly thousands of takes they did of these few seconds, but this is everyday life in the world of blockbuster filmmaking.

Fortunately, these elaborate sets made a tedious task easier for George: “Katherine is fascinated by what’s around her. She’s very observant. I don’t have to fake that. The first time they brought me on set, my mouth was open – everything is so incredible.”

I related very strongly to that.

While computer imagery can fake the eye a lot of the time, physical sets will fake the eye all of the time. That’s because – simply put – they’re really real, allowing privileged media scum like myself to witness the meticulous care and rich details of the production on ground level.

It’s a hell of a thing to experience a blockbuster production in a tucked-away corner of Wellington. These gigantic, immersive sets are built almost as quickly as they’re torn down, allowing only a small window to witness moviemaking magic. But while that time is finite, it powers a cinematic experience that may never die.

An immortal engine, if you will.

This story is part of our month-long celebration of 40 years of NZ film. Follow all our daily coverage here.