The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey this is John. And Merry Christmas to those folks who celebrate Christmas.
So today’s episode is a short one. It wasn’t really even meant to be an episode originally. What happened was I got invited to do a Q&A with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens for Mortal Engines, the movie they were promoting. And it was a great conversation. So I asked for the audio and this is the audio from that conversation because it’s Peter Jackson.
So, the movie you may have seen, you may have not seen. There’s no huge spoilers in it that’s going to ruin the experience for you. But I thought their conversation about the writing process, especially the writing process with the three of them, was actually kind of fascinating. So I hope you enjoy this episode. I hope you have a great end of 2018 and we will see you again in 2019.
My name is John August and it is my great pleasure to welcome you to this screening and our three writers are here with us and I want to talk to them about their movie. So if we can please welcome Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, and Philippa Boyens. Come on down.
So, welcome to the WGA Theater. Welcome to the United States. You guys just got here recently right?
Fran Walsh: Yep. Yesterday.
John: Can you talk to me about the origins of this movie? Because I wasn’t familiar with the books, but you read these books years ago. How did these books come into your universe? Whoever wants to take it – Fran, do you want to start? What was the start for you guys?
Peter Jackson: Well Pam Silverstein, who works for our manager, Ken Kamins, she mentioned that these books were pretty great. And I hadn’t heard of the books, but by the time we read them there were four in the series. So we were able to sort of like binge read, like sort of a Netflix show. Read the first book, and then the second, third, and fourth.
So, I mean, I got really excited because I could just imagine, you know, great films. And you’ve just seen the first of potentially four. But the books are really the life story of Hester Shaw and Tom. And I just thought, you know, wow, this would be pretty cool. Because they’re fantastic characters, you know, complex in a way that you don’t normally see in these types of stories. And a world that was completely new. So, yeah.
John: But when was this? How long ago were you reading these books?
Female Voice: No, it was earlier, because I remember 2007 we met with Philip Reeve in London.
Peter: That’s your – OK, so about 2006 or 2007 then, yeah.
John: And so you were just waiting around. You weren’t doing anything else in the meantime? You were just killing time?
Peter: At that time we were finishing up Tintin and District 9. So couldn’t jump into it straight away. And then by the time we began to do work on it we began to do sort of some previs and some visualization, starting to think about the script. And then The Hobbit came along. And that was six years of working on that. So Mortal Engines got shelved basically for six years because I’m not really one of those people that can work on two things at once. I’d like to, but I just–
John: You were making three giant movies.
Peter: Yes. Yeah.
John: But let’s talk about the work that you guys together because you are the only double ampersand team that I can think of. And you’ve made two trilogies. You’ve made other movies. What is it about the three of you working together that works? Because I’m curious what is even your process? Are you in the room together? Are you at a giant whiteboard breaking stuff? Are you dividing up scenes? What is your process for figuring out story?
Peter: That’s the right term. I haven’t actually heard that before, the double ampersand. It’s like an Orson Welles, The Magnificent Double Ampersands.
John: They’re going to find another lost Orson Welles, The Double Ampersand.
Fran: We don’t really, I mean, we don’t think of it as a process particularly. Usually we just write and rewrite and rewrite, and we’re in that mode all the way through production. And our general motto is just write the bad version, so that’s what we do. Just write just such a terrible draft. The first draft is always embarrassing. And then you kind of get to the point where you think we’re going to shoot that. We’ve got to revise it. And then it becomes about saving the scene before it gets shot.
Often there’s pages under the door at midnight to the cast, some of them are good about it, others complain.
Peter: Others have no choice but to be good about it.
Fran: But they complain to the producers which is us.
Philippa: So, anyway, we blame you.
Peter: But we also start though with a white board and just working out the basic plot, you know, the structure and the plot. And that can go on for a few months before we actually go out and write anything.
Fran: Yeah. I just think, with the writing, nothing is ever good when you start. It’s just not. You’re finding your way through and you don’t even really know what it’s about particularly. You have to – you kind of have a better sense by the time you’ve got one draft done and then you think there’s so much to fix. And then it becomes – we all have different strengths in that area.
John: Philippa, talk to me about this. What was on the whiteboard originally? Because there’s so many characters clearly in this story. Was it figuring out whose stories you were going to follow? What elements of the book? And I haven’t read the book, so how faithful is this to the actual details of that first book, or how much is it in the spirit? What were the priorities for you as you were figuring this out?
Philippa Boyens: Are there any Mortal Engines fans in here of the book? They can probably answer that. No, it is different to the book. It had to be. We always start with the premise that you have to at some stage set the book aside. The book is the book. The film has to work as a film. And the whiteboard is interesting because Fran is very visual. And you love staring at it. And sometimes you’ll just keep staring at these things. And I think what’s she doing? And then you’ll get up and you’ll rub something off and put something back in and then we’ll look at it and then we’ll go, yeah, that’s looking, yeah, that’s starting to get a balance to it.
And so my thought process of structure has taken on that visual imagery, almost a visual imagery like if we’re looking at it as a three-act structure or something like that. That’s how I’ve started to see that process, if you want to call it process, in my mind. But we do try to nail the structure.
Peter: What we sometimes do is we take each character’s story and create its own little three-act structure for each character story, separate to each other, and then sort of blend. So there might be three or four of those, you know, each character or relationship has its own little three-act structure. And they get sort of simpler and simpler as the characters get sort of more into the minor characters. And then we just take those and collapse them and blend them into one – don’t we? Sort of one general shape.
Philippa: What do we do?
Peter: I can’t remember. I have no memory.
John: Well, I mean, Fran in this one it felt like certain themes sort of surfaced up and how early did you know that? There are terrible fathers making terrible choices throughout the course of this movie. At one point did you recognize – did you always feel, like Shrike to me felt like some lost universal monster who was just remarkable. At one point did those elements surface? Or are you only looking at the individual stories originally? When did you feel like you had something that was a movie?
Fran: I think whenever you really connect with the story it’s because of the ideas underneath it. And you think that’s an interesting idea. It’s something that engages you in an exciting way. So that even if you don’t write it very well, the ideas are still exciting and still – you still want to express them in some way. And you feel that they’re worth perservering with.
And that was one of the ideas underneath the script was this notion of the corrupt father and the one with the pure heart. So one was human who was really at his soul corrupt. The other one had most of his humanity stripped away, but he still had that lift, a connection to Hester, and a love for her.
So, I thought that was an interesting dynamic in the story. And I mean it’s a texture if you like. It’s not really the driving force of it. Although the other kind of father element is Katherine having to kind of come to terms with the fact that her dad is not who she thought he was. So the things underneath the story are the things that engage me.
And it was about the world. The idea of this world and what we could become, or where we’re going. The idea that we could end up eating ourselves literally, hunting each other around this sort of barren globe. And so in some ways it’s very fanciful but in other ways you feel that we’re in some place at a tipping point where we are going to go blindly into that place, you know.
So I think that’s an interesting thing to have in your story.
John: We often think of world-building in a sort of visual sense. And this movie has beautiful visuals, but underneath there there has to be some story logic. And how did you guys first think about how you were going to introduce like this is what happened to the world, this is the way the world is now? Was there ever a feeling of like, OK, we’re going to have to have an extended voiceover. We’re going to have to start the whole thing back, you know, a thousand years ago and bring us forward. At what point did you end up with this way of telling the story?
Peter: You always have the conversation at some point of do we have a roller at the front, I guess it’s the hangover from Star Wars, really. And that conversation always happens – it happened on the Tolkien films, on these films. But ideally we try to avoid doing that because it just seems to us a bit – we try to have the story itself organically tell the history. And there’s a limited amount of history you really need to know. Because that’s the other thing is you have a story to tell and it’s the story of Hester Shaw and what happens to her during the course of the movie. And you really want to try to just limit the amount of history if you like or backstory to what you absolutely need to tell that story. And you’ve also got to make sure that people aren’t frustrated by the fact that they’re asking questions about how did the world get to this place and we’re not giving any answers. So we try to just sprinkle in a few clues.
But certainly the books, I mean Philip Reeve’s books have a lot of the detail. If anyone is frustrated or interested in learning how the world gets to this place, in his books they certainly fill in all the gaps. I think the idea is to do as minimum amount as you can in the most sort of elegant way that you can. Try to sort of hide it and bury it in the ongoing narrative and action of the film if you possibly can.
John: Your film asks us to make one sort of giant premise conceit that there are these moving cities, but everything else sort of extends through that. There’s not a second ask, there’s not a third ask. There’s not an extra magic thing that happens. Once you sort of buy the central premise of it, these cities are on the move, everything else sort of follows from that.
Peter: Yeah. And you’re trying to – at that point you’re just trying to make it feel real. Because that’s the other thing is that it’s incredibly fantastical, but you want to somehow believe that it’s real. And that’s important because your characters have to believe that it’s real. And ultimately the story is obviously the story of the characters. If you don’t fundamentally believe in the world, or the audience doesn’t believe in the world, then you’re leaving your characters high and dry really. Because they believe in the world. They live this world. It’s a daily life. And all the decisions that they make in the film is based on the world that they’re in which is obviously very, very different from ours.
So, we try to make it feel as believable as we can so we don’t leave them high and dry up there.
John: Philippa, can you talk to us about sort of the terrible things that happen to characters in this movie because one of the things I love about these films and also the Tolkien films is that terrible things happen to our characters. And we relate to them because we see them persevering through the terrible things. As you’re looking at that whiteboard and as you’re going through those early drafts is that something that’s in your head in terms of are we making this difficult enough for your characters?
Philippa: Yeah. That’s interesting. Tone is always important, of course, but some of those things, you know, we made a decision early on that we were going to show the moment that young girl gets that scar. These are some of the things that you think do we just gloss over it, but no, we wanted to show that. We thought it was important. Because it informs her so much that moment. And also to see the mother that she lost was going to be really important. Instead of just talking about this person, Pandora Shaw. All of that was a story choice that we made really early on.
But you have to trust your audience, I think. You know, talking to – this connects to what Pete was saying with world-building. Often we get notes back, sometimes, and I understand why, because the studio if they’re reading it can get a bit nervous about the terminology that’s in there because things like – we reference something obscure like the Nomad Wars or the Lazarus Brigade, or things like this. And you just have to trust your audience. They know that it’s part of the world. So not being afraid to do that is really important.
We had two of the characters speaking in this language that Philip created called Esperanza. That’s enough. It was great. It was a perfect moment to make that choice because it made it feel real. Made the characters feel real. So often I think what happens is, you know, just going back to that question about the darkness, it’s like what is the engine that’s driving the story. And we don’t put anything in there that’s not relevant to that process to engaging with the audience and driving that story forward. And every moment has to be earned. It can’t just be – I mean there’s lots of stuff in the book I would have loved to have just shoved in there. But you have to stay focused.
Peter: Yeah, I mean, as we were saying earlier, I think establishing a history for a new world is important, even though you don’t explain what the history is. You just refer to it. Because any period of time, and this is supposed to be 3,000 years in the future, any period of time – people always refer in conversation to something that’s gone on in the past. I mean, if it was us we could refer to the Bay of Pigs or the Depression or the First World War. And you don’t stop and explain what that is. But the characters are, it’s a reference, and it just makes it seem real. And so there’s no reason why in a world that’s set into the future that they shouldn’t be referring to a history that we don’t understand. But it just makes it feel – those little things that make it feel slightly more authentic.
John: Before we move on I just want to acknowledge a thing that happened here is that you said when the studio gives you notes, and all the writers in the audience they’re like, ooh, the studio gives them notes, too.
Philippa: Oh yeah.
John: Even you get the notes. When do you first show stuff to people you trust? When does it leave this circle of the three of you and you start showing things to other people? And what are you looking for? How are you getting feedback on the thing you’ve written or the vision you have for this thing? What is the first step for you guys? Who do you show this to first?
Philippa: It usually goes to the studio first after we – because we’re usually right on that deadline.
John: They have deadlines, too! It’s all so exciting. So, the first people outside of this group is the studio who are theoretically going to make this?
Philippa: Occasionally that changes. You know, like if there’s somebody very specific that we’re working with like a designer for example or something like that that you know is going to be part of creating that world. But generally you want to get it to the studio because you want to know where it’s sitting. We actually wrote this first, the script, and then it went to the studio.
Peter: I was just going to say because the first people to come on board were MRC who were fantastic to work with. And I thought we did the deal with MRC before we finished the draft.
Philippa: Yes you did. Yeah.
Peter: But MRC have to partner with a studio, so we did the deal with MRC based on the book and then we wrote a script, showed it to MRC, and then we went out and pitched it to every studio in town, just like you were doing. Just walked in and pitched the film. Had done artwork to show them. And ultimately Universal were the studio that came onboard at that point.
And so they had the script, too. They had the script to read as well as some artwork to do.
Philippa: But it has to get past the three of us first. I mean, that’s one of the good things about working as double ampersand is that extra ampersand makes all the difference. And so it has to – we kind of know I think now where it’s sitting and like Fran says it’s always like a place where we – it’s great to get feedback and it’s good, but we kind of know what that feedback is going to be. We’re pretty familiar with how it should be working.
John: You’ve done this a few times.
Philippa: We have.
John: You’ve made some giant movies together. So you get a sense of when this working and when this is not working. What it is that you set out to do.
Philippa: Fran is very good, because you have got quite an acute instinctive of how something is working. I like to paper over the cracks like nobody is going to notice, don’t worry about it. And you’re like, no, no, no.
John: You’re the spackler
Peter: You’ve also got to be – when you do get notes from the studio you have to filter them. Because a lot of the notes are based on fear. And so you have to kind of – somehow we have to create a filtration system where we’re able to – because it’s also important to respect the notes. Because you want your partnership with the studio to be a good one. Absolutely nobody wins if it’s a bad – it’s just a miserable, miserable experience. And yet, you know, so you have to somehow have a filtration system in your minds, the three of us, where the notes are coming in and we filter out the notes that are based purely on fear. And so the ones that are left are often good. And they’re often worth serious consideration. But you just can’t accept all the notes because some of them are driven by the wrong things.
John: The movie that opened last week and those kind of things.
John: Fran, you had mentioned slipping the new pages under the door for your actors. Why does that happen? What comes up? Is it something that you’re seeing as stuff is coming in and you’re like, oh, or this is a new opportunity? It’s tomorrow’s work. What is it that generates those pages?
Fran: Well sometimes it’s the actors themselves because you don’t really know their strengths until they’re in front of the camera. So you have to kind of figure out what are their strengths. What do they play to? And how to get the best out of that person, you know, that actor. And so that required, we were revising for cast and story. And that did mean, and plus we were dealing with scripts that needed more work. It was a lot.
Peter: There’s one Lord of the Rings story, if you remember in the first Lord of the Rings film there’s a Council of Elrond–
Fran: Oh god.
Peter: Which is about a 10-minute scene of them sitting around in chairs in a circle talking about what they were going to do. Now we suddenly the night before, because we shot it over about five or six days, but right in the middle of it we decided that Boromir, as Sean Bean, had to deliver a long big speech about going into Mordor. He says you cannot just walk into Mordor. Because we hadn’t had that in the original script and we just suddenly thought, well, this is opportunity to paint a picture of something that we’re not going to actually see ourselves until the third film. This is the first movie. But nonetheless we thought it was worth doing.
So on the day we’re going to shoot it we arrive with this long speech, sort of page long.
Fran: Poor Sean.
Peter: For Sean. And so if you remember, you may or may not remember, but if you watch it Sean Bean has got his head down. He says, “You cannot just walk into Mordor.” And this is because the lines–
Fran: The lines are right here.
Peter: The lines are on his knee. And due to his incredible skill he was able to sell the idea that he was reading his lines – “You cannot just walk into Mordor” – as if he’s tormented enough he’s got to stare at his knee the whole time.
Fran: Oh my god. He was a really good sport about that.
Peter: He was. But he was great. Some actors are really good, because at the end of the day I always take the view that an actor might get a bit annoyed about getting the lines at the last minute. But however if they’re good enough lines and the actor can usually see that it’s worthwhile and it’s going to improve the movie and so they ultimately become pretty good sports about it. They don’t have a lot of choice anyway, but.
Philippa: And also, no they don’t, this is not a democracy. No, I’m kidding. Also, in this film, cast, when Hugo got cast it actually changed the story, because we had had this conceit and in the end we realized it was just a conceit that we could fool you guys into thinking he was a super good nice guy. And then it became a sudden shock.
Fran: I wondered what movie you were in.
Philippa: Right, sorry, this one. Oh yeah, because he’s in both. That’s right. He is nice. But, you know, that we could hold on to that moment and then when he pushes him off that would be this shocking revelation. And Hugo was the one who questioned that. He said I can do that, I can do that, but why. Because he wanted to know what it was buying his character? And the fact that he thought it was going to be more interesting, especially given some of those lines that we’d written such as “they’re playing with fire,” which we thought would be a throwaway, teasy kind of light thing. But Hugo just like gave it so much more.
And then we went, oh yeah, it’s just a conceit. And it’s not necessarily adding to the storytelling. So that went out the door. And that meant a bit of restructuring had to happen.
John: Let’s talk about, so Hugo Weaving is one of the only actors I recognized in the movie, and almost everybody else is brand new faces to me. Was that a conscious choice early on or is it just how the cast developed? What was the thinking going into this with sort of all new faces, so we’re not applying our expectations to them?
Peter: Yeah. I mean, I think generally with these types of movies we sort of favor – if you’re trying to build a new world or a futuristic world and have an audience believe in what they’re seeing and then to be distracted by someone that you saw in a movie last week just pulls you out slightly. So it’s a bit of a balance, because it’s also good to have some really solid sort of veteran actors if you like to sort of anchor a new cast. And so having a new cast is great, but also having those veteran kind of old hands if you like just to give it the weight in the right places is a balance.
But, you know, but of course you’re buying yourself a big casting job if you want to find newer faces. Because they are there, but you just have to audition hundreds and hundreds of people to find them.
John: You guys, as a writing team who has done so many things, I’d be remiss if I did not ask you sort of are you writing a new thing? Is there another thing we can look forward to? Is there a genre you haven’t tackled yet?
Fran: Oh, the religious epic.
John: A religious epic. Sure.
Fran: I’m kidding. I’m kidding.
Peter: Very unlikely.
Philippa: I think I could write a religious epic. No.
Fran: We’re all working on different things actually.
John: Oh fantastic. And when there are projects that it’s all of you together though, you all have to sort of fall in love with it. Sometimes it’s hard for me to really – something comes into my orbit but it’s like, yeah, but I don’t really love that. Or I have to sort of remind myself. With the three of you is it ever hard to sort of find that thing that you can all three connect to? Or has it just been lucky that’s it’s always worked?
Peter: It’s a good question. I mean, it hasn’t been a problem so far, I guess. I can imagine how it would be a problem, but it hasn’t. In practical terms it hasn’t really been something that’s been an issue, has it?
Philippa: No, we all loved this. This was such a cool project. We always hoped it was going to happen.
John: We have time for maybe two questions from the audience. So if you want to raise a hand, I see a hand over here.
Philippa: That’s such a good question.
John: That’s such a good question. So I’m going to repeat the question, but this is also why you come to the Writers Guild because they ask really good questions. So his question is with the rise of these amazing television shows what makes an idea one of these big television ideas versus a movie idea? And where do you think the boundaries are between those two?
Philippa: I mean, one of the obvious things I guess is spectacle. And it’s not just visual effects. It’s actually, I don’t know if you felt it or heard that incredible score from Tom, but also when that city starts rolling, it’s just one of the best sound mixes I think our guys have ever done underneath this. And to feel it, it gives it that extra weight and, I don’t know, that sort of visceral sensation that you get as you watch a movie in a big space that I don’t know that the technology is there yet that you’re going to have it in your own home, in your own theater. Maybe it will be in some way. Maybe it will be delivered right into our brain. God knows, I’m terrified.
But what I do know is that you’re always going to need story for sure. And storytellers. So I guess we’re the people who are going to end up answering that question as to how long this genre is going to last. And is it eventually going to fade out and become stuff shot for streaming.
Peter: It’s an interesting question but it goes to the heart of this mixed up time that we’re in now. Because the film industry, whatever you want to call it, is in a very strange state. I mean, to answer it personally, the things that I like watching at the moment and enjoy watching are the long streaming shows, the 10-episdoe shows, or the six-episode shows we have all the time. That’s what I really enjoy watching.
But in terms of making, I guess I’ve just got films in my blood and my DNA. So I’ve never really thought about doing anything other than films, although films are not what I enjoy seeing so much now as it is a really good 10-part show. So it’s a little bit screwed up right now.
John: One more question, right here. Let me repeat the question. In your process are you guys just doing it yourself or are you bringing folks in to do a read aloud of your script?
Philippa: Fran and I do all the characters.
John: All right, you’ve got to do this. That’s great. You’re printing it out and you’re going through the whole thing and just hearing it.
Philippa: Sometimes we have to sell each other, don’t we?
Philippa: We really do, on the lines.
Fran: But we do do round tables.
Philippa: Yeah, we do. We do. We do readings.
Peter: Yeah. But you do the round table once the film is cast, of course. So, yeah–
Philippa: Do you mean when we’re writing?
Audience Member: I mean when you’re writing it.
Peter: Mainly Philippa and Fran do most of the dialogue together.
Philippa: But we do speak it aloud. I think you have to get it off the page. Because certain things have a certain rhythm to them. And that’s what I mean.
Peter: Once the film is cast you do a round table with the – because once the film is cast, in order for the film to be cast it has to be green lit. As far as we’re concerned the script writing is still a fluid thing. I mean, just because you get a green light doesn’t mean that the writing stops. It just carries on all the way through the shoot and into post at times. You never stop writing. Never.
Philippa: When we cast Robbie Sheehan who plays Tom, he has an extraordinary sense of comic timing that’s just all of his own that can lift a line and make something funnier. And the line, “Anna Fang, you’re an idiot,” was because we’d cast Robbie and of what he was bringing to the role. So sometimes those lines are just completely organic and on the day and those sort of things.
John: Thank the three of you so much for coming all the way here just for this one screening. And thank you very much to the Writers Guild. And have a great night. Thank you.
- Thanks to Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens!
- Mortal Engines is in theaters now.
- Mortal Engines is based on the book series by Philip Reeve.
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