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With ‘Mortal Engines,’ Peter Jackson Passes the Baton to His Protege

Thirty years after sending New Zealand's most successful filmmaker Peter Jackson a fan letter, Christian Rivers takes the reins on the $120 million action fantasy 'Mortal Engines,' which hits theaters Dec. 14.

In 1988, Sir Peter Jackson, then simply known as “Pete,” received his first-ever piece of fan mail. It was a letter from a high school kid in Whanganui, New Zealand, named Christian Rivers, who had seen Jackson’s self-produced directorial debut, Bad Taste, and sensed a kindred spirit.

“An envelope shows up addressed to me, and it’s stuffed with pages and pages of sketches of dragons and all this fantasy stuff,” recalls Jackson, seated on a plush sofa in the wood-paneled inner sanctum of his sprawling Park Road Post Production facility, on a typically windy recent afternoon in Wellington. “He had written to say that he enjoyed the film, and here’s some drawings he did when he should have been doing his schoolwork.”

Two years later, Jackson was prepping his third feature (the cult zombie classic Braindead) when he decided he wanted to fully storyboard his movie for the first time. “I can’t draw, but because New Zealand is a pretty small place and we didn’t have anything like a storyboarding community, I remembered this kid and his sketches — they were actually really good,” Jackson says.

So the director contacted Rivers, by then 17, and asked him whether he’d like to try storyboarding a movie. “Then he left home, came down here to work with us, and he’s basically never left,” says Jackson, reaching for his piping-hot cup of tea, which is never not within arm’s reach.

Jump-cut 30 years later, and Rivers and Jackson have collaborated on every film released under the Sir Peter Jackson banner, with Rivers climbing the ranks from storyboard artist to VFX supervisor and second-unit director.

Now, he’s taken the reins from Jackson and is set to release a visually audacious (and commercially risky) directorial debut of his own: Mortal Engines, an action-fantasy feature produced by Universal Pictures, MRC and Jackson’s WingNut Films for $120 million. (MRC and THR are both owned by Valence Media.)

The film, opening Dec. 14 during a crowded holiday release corridor, is based on the first book in a series of best-selling YA novels by Philip Reeve, and adapted by Jackson, his wife, Fran Walsh, and their usual writing partner Philippa Boyens (the trio have seven Oscars together).

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Jackson first fell in love with the book in 2006 and then quickly optioned it with the plan to direct the first one himself. Then The Hobbit intervened, and Mortal Engines was shelved as Jackson plunged into another megabudget Middle Earth trilogy.

Mortal Engines is technically ambitious even by the standards of Jackson and Richard Taylor’s Wellington-based Weta Digital, the VFX powerhouse behind all of the Tolkien movies. Starring Hugo Weaving and newcomers Hera Hilmar and Robert Sheehan, the film is set in a post-apocalyptic steampunk world where entire cities, mounted on enormous tracks and wheels, roam across the land devouring one another. The film follows the story of Tom, an innocent young Londoner, and a jaded girl in a mysterious mask as their fates are plunged together when they face off against a powerful London archaeologist, fighting for the future of their damaged world.

When Jackson eventually emerged from the Hobbit franchise, he says he was both physically and creatively exhausted, so he rang up Rivers to offer him the Mortal Engines directing job. “Equal parts excitement and pure fear,” is how Rivers remembers Jackson’s call. “I had been working with an independent producer in Wellington and was looking to make the natural step to directing, but I thought it would be something like a $3 million movie,” he says later that day, leaning forward on the plush sofa in his own office at Park Road Post, one no less kingly than Jackson’s designated meeting space.

Rivers adds that he and Jackson often don’t need to actually say much to communicate creative cues. “We have such a history together that we have such a shorthand — we can sort of finish each other’s sentences,” he says.

As producers and writers, Jackson and Walsh regularly weighed in on story decisions during production, but they otherwise tried their best to stay out of Rivers’ way. “I was very much aware that the last thing any director wants is me hanging around on their set,” says Jackson.

The occasional overt advice Jackson did give was equal parts practical and philosophical: “I told him to be aware that three weeks into this, you’re going to be absolutely exhausted,” he says. “The other thing I told him that I do, very consciously — when I’m driving to set early in the morning and I’m tired and would really like to stay in bed — I say to myself: ‘This is exactly what you wanted to do when you were 8 years old. You’re making a film. How can you not be having fun?'”

On some occasions, the mentor-mentee hierarchy was even reversed.

“As the script started growing and the schedule didn’t, more and more stuff had to get picked up by second unit, so Pete actually came in and shot some second unit stuff for me,” Rivers says. “That was really helpful, having someone I could turn to and completely trust — I think he had a bit of fun with it, too.”

Asked what his 16-year-old self would have thought if he were told that 30 years after sending that fan letter he’d be directing a $120 million film produced by his hero, Rivers momentarily goes blank then laughs.

“I was an innocent nerd who just lapped up anything to do with fantasy,” he says. “So even if you just told me that I’d get to do a little work on the Lord of the Rings movies, I would have thought, ‘That’s an impossible dream — I better get a real job.'”

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This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.