Mortal Engines

He’s an Oscar winning visual effects artist who has made his feature film directorial debut with Mortal Engines.  While he was recently in Sydney, I had the chance to talk to Christian Rivers about his blockbuster film…

Matt:  You and Peter Jackson have known each other for a long time.  Can you remember the first time you met?

Christian:  I can remember how we first met.  I was a teenager in Wanganui in New Zealand.  I loved drawing and I wanted to work in the movies and there was only one guy I loved who was making movies in New Zealand and that was Peter Jackson.  I sent him a letter with basically every drawing I’d ever drawn.  We got in contact and then he asked me to storyboard Braindead for him.

Matt:  Wow.  So have you worked with him on most of his films since yet?

Christian:  Yep.  Every one of them.  During Lord of the Rings, we transitioned from traditional drawn storyboarding to using CG pre-vis as our storyboarding tool.

Matt:  It’s such a fascinating world where this film is set but to create it, you are obviously relying on a lot of special effects.  How do you approach that as a director?

Christian:  We knew from the outset that we wanted to evoke the character of the books and we wanted this to be character driven.  Even though it’s set in a world of giant cities that crush the landscape and feed on other cities, that’s not the story.  The story is about a character.  We started there and built out the visual effects sequences we needed to convey how this world works.  Because we don’t have any landscapes that look like the Great Hunting Grounds, we had to create everything with sets or CGI.

Matt:  This is clearly a big film with a big budget.  Is there any limit as to what you can do?  Is there stuff you wanted to do but some accountant comes out and says “yeah, nah, we can’t afford that.”

Christian:  Yeah.  There are always financial limitations.  Actually, our budget was much smaller than you’d expect for a film with this much in the way of special effects.  We had to be smart about it.  A lot of visual effects heavy films creep up to the $200 million mark and we were sitting down around half that.  There’s always a balance with how much you want to spend with how much you’re allowed to spend.

Matt:  You’ve got a young cast here and a lot of names won’t be familiar to wider audience.  What was behind that decision?  Was there any temptation to cast a big Hollywood star?

Christian:  There always is.  In modern economic times, that always gives a certain amount of security to the studio to help get people to come and see the film.  When we were casting it, we wanted to create a completely new cinematic universe.  If you create someone who is too famous or too iconic, you can break that spell a bit.  We ultimately just tried to cast the right person for the right role.  If the right person was someone who is quite famous then we would have done that but we were fortunate to find these wonderful new actors who transform into these characters.

Matt:  I think the character I was most interested in was Shrike who is played by Stephen Lang.  Can you tell me a little about your thoughts in working out how to portray him and bring him to life?

Christian:  Mortal Engines is the first book in a series of four which tells the life story of Tom and Hester.  Shrike is central to that story.  He continues on through the stories in another capacity.  He’s one of my favourite characters and we knew we wanted an amazing actor to be the heart of Shrike and give us that consolidated performance.  We knew we were going to create him with CGI but through the experience that we had on Lord of the Rings and King Kong, we know the value of having a wonderful actor driving the performance of a CGI character.

We love Stephen’s work and we thought he had a wonderful voice.  He’s terrifying in Don’t Breathe – that voice from the shadows.  We met with him and he agreed to do the role but then we had a lengthy design process.  It really came together when we put a mummified version of Stephen’s features on Shrike.

Matt:  The film is set hundreds of years in the future and there are a few unanswered questions about what happened during the Sixty Minute War.  How do you balance up exploring the past in the film versus telling the current day story?

Christian:  Just as it is in the books, we didn’t want to over-explain.  The films I loved growing up included Star Wars.  The characters are dropped into this fantasy world and the audience is given the bare minimum that you need to follow them.  For the rest, you can draw your own conclusions.  Audiences are spoon fed so much that they stop engaging with the story.  We have moments where we need to explain some details but for everything else, we want to leave the threads hanging so audiences can grab onto them and use their imagination and have a greater connection.

Matt:  We hear references to the “ancients” and “old tech” and then there’s also the dialogue and accents of the characters themselves.  How did you approach the language of the film?

Christian:  A lot of that is in the book.  Philip Reeve wrote such a wonderfully rich world.  We love the idea of referring to us as the “ancients” and then you’ve got things like the Minions which are fibreglass statues that would have been in some cinema foyer that they dug up.  It all wanted to be an echo of our past.

It’s like going to ancient Rome and wondering how the world would look thousands of years into the future.  We still have sports stadiums based on things like the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus.  We still have pillars and arches in our buildings.  People visiting today from ancient Rome would see a lot of new stuff but they’d also see things that were familiar.  We treated it that way.

Matt:  It’s a very bold, distinctive music score which fits with the action packed nature of the film.  Can you tell us about your working relationship with Tom Holkenborg and how the score was developed?

Christian:  We were very lucky to work with Tom.  He’s a busy man and he’s highly sought after but just happened to have a window that worked for us.  We got him out early on and he saw a long cut of the film and then he wrote this beautiful music that we could pick and choose from.  He was so collaborative and a dream to work with.  He wanted our feedback on what we liked and what we didn’t.  I’d love to work with him again.

I was fortunate enough to play in the event as a 28-year-old back in 2005 when it was held at Ipswich Golf Club.  I navigated my way through a pre-qualifying round at Redland Bay and thanks to 3 back nine birdies, I shot a round of 70 (2 under par) to make it through by 2 shots.

I shot 79-75-154 for the tournament itself (without a single birdie) and while it would have been nice to play better, it was still great to say that I’d played in a professional golf event.  The low amateur that year was Jason Day and I was one of just 24 amateurs in the field.

I’ll be honest and say that as a 41-year-old who doesn’t practice and plays only on weekends, I didn’t expect to ever play another professional tournament.  That said, I decided to enter this year’s Isuzu Queensland Open at last minute (3:30pm on 11 October 2018) after a friend said he was doing the same in a Facebook chat.

I haven’t been playing particularly well but was excited to be paired with 16-year-old West Australian Josh Greer for the pre-qualifying round at Nudgee Golf Club on Monday, 29 October 2018.  I saw him defeat Min Woo Lee at the 2018 Australian Men’s Amateur back in January and make his debut for Western Australia at the Australian Men’s Interstate Series in May.  He was a great kid and I’d love to see him get better and better over the coming years.

For me, the day started as expected with a bogey on the 10th hole.  I missed the green, hit a bad chip and hit an even worse putt.  I don’t know how… but suddenly everything turned around.  I holed a 30-foot birdie putt across the green on the 12th and then holed two lengthy par putts on the 18th and 2nd holes.  Neither par putt deserved to go in (I pulled them both) but the breaks were going my way.

After holing a 20-foot birdie putt from off the green on the 7th, I was able to make a nervy 5-foot par putt on the 8th and an even nervier 2-foot putt for par on the 9th (my hands were shaking) to finish with an even par score of 71.  There were 91 people in the field (a mix of professionals and amateurs) with the top 15 players advancing into the tournament.  Would my score be good enough?

The answer was “yes” but with an asterisk.  13 players had shot 70 or better and 5 players were sitting on 71.  That meant I was in a 5-man play-off with only the top 2 going through.

On the first play-off hole (the 10th), I drove in the trees and had almost no shot to the green.  If it was a normal round, I would have chipped it sideways back into the fairway and played for a safe bogey.  Given the stakes and the fact that bogey would have most likely meant elimination, I went for the high risk shot through a tiny gap in the trees and managed to get the ball in the front bunker.

It was a great/lucky result but I still faced a lengthy 30m bunker shot out of thick, wet sand.  I splashed it out to 20-feet with a 46-degree wedge.  I have no idea where I found the confidence from (I’d been a nervous wreck 30 minutes earlier) but I somehow made the putt to stay alive.  It would have to be one of the most clutch shots that I’ve ever hit under intense pressure.

On the next play-off hole (the 18th), I was able to split the fairway with my drive (gasp), hit the green and two-putt for par.  When the two remaining players both made bogey, I had secured a spot in the 2018 Isuzu Queensland Open!

Someone on Twitter asked what the best part of the whole experience had been and it was an easy question to answer.  I was touched by the number of friends and fellow golfers who sent me messages of congratulations on social media and/or came up to me in person to shake my hand out at Brisbane Golf Club.  It was a thrill to know that so many people were happy for me.

The rest of the week seemed to fly by in a flash.  I played the Tuesday pro-am with New South Wales professional Troy Moses and 4-time AFL premiership player Luke Hodge.  I teed it up again in the Wednesday pro-am with comedian Fred Lang and Titleist representative Matt Dowling.  Another nice touch of being a player was getting 24 golf balls and a new cap from Titleist!

The tournament began on Thursday and I had a 12:15pm tee time with two professionals – Braden Becker from Western Australian and Sam Lee from Fiji.  Becky Kay was paired two groups ahead and she had some big crowds out following given she was the first woman to ever qualify for the Isuzu Queensland Open.

I’d like to say it was a Cinderella-like story where my great form continued during the tournament… but that wasn’t the case.  I’ll admit to being very nervous!  I parred the opening 2 holes but then had a run of bogies to finish with a score of 81 (10 over par).  At least I had a birdie though!  That was something I was unable to achieve when playing at Ipswich 13 years earlier.

Things went a little better for my Friday morning round but a few late bogies left me with a score of 78 (7 over par) and I missed the cut by a sizeable 14 shots.  Of the 132 players in the field (94 professionals and 38 amateurs), I finished 127th.

It’s not a great result but it’s hard to be disappointed.  I got to compete against some of the best professionals and amateurs from the country in a PGA Tour of Australasia event.  I remember standing on the 18th green on Friday and trying to soak it all in for a final few seconds before the round came to an end.  It was also fun to have two great friends caddy for the week – Zac Sheehan on Thursday and Brady Duncan on Friday.

Congratulations to New South Welshman Jordan Zunic who won the event with a clutch par putt from about 10 feet on the final hole.  He’s a top guy and I had the pleasure of playing a practice round with Jordan before the 2009 Australian Men’s Amateur Championship at Virginia.  Blake Windred took the honours for low amateur and given my role on the Board of Golf Queensland, I thought it was cool that the worst amateur got to present the prize to the best amateur!

It’s now back to normality.  I’ve got a full week of work and plenty of films to catch up on.  I’ve got a hunch this will be my last crack at a professional golf event but as I’ve learned over the past 7 days, anything is possible!

You can check out some highlights from the week (featuring my commentary) on the Golf Queensland YouTube page using the links below.  If you look carefully, you’ll spot my shabby looking swing in the videos for round 1 and 2.  Enjoy!

Round 1 –

Round 2 –

Round 3 –

Round 4 –


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
With West Australian Josh Greer, my playing partner during the pre-qualifying round at Nudgee.


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
How good is free stuff? An unexpected perk of qualifying for the 2018 Isuzu Queensland Open.


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
Not a bad pro-am group! 2014 Keperra Bowl champion Troy Moses, 4-time AFL winning premiership player Luke Hodge, super caddy Brady Duncan, and local hack Matt Toomey.


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
In action during the Tuesday pro-am.  That's my normal look of concern after most tee shots.


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
On the 5th hole during Thursday's opening round of the 2018 Isuzu Queensland Open. Flubbed this chip about 40 feet short. :)


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
A rare good drive off the 6th tee during the opening round of the 2018 Isuzu Queensland Open.


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
Super caddy Brady Duncan ready to roll on the 1st tee of the second round.


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
Presenting the low amateur prize (in my official Golf Queensland capacity) to New South Welshman Blake Windred.


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
Getting a snap with the 2018 Isuzu Queensland Open champion, Jordan Zunic!


2018 Isuzu Queensland Open
A new shelf in my trophy cabinet with a few memories from an unforgettable week at the 2018 Isuzu Queensland Open.



Rami Malek Interview

I get the chance to speak with actors and filmmakers but it usually takes place over the phone as there often isn’t time for talent to come up to Brisbane when visiting Australia. 

He’s touted as a possible Oscar nominee and so I couldn’t give up the chance to speak face-to-face with star Rami Malek when he was in Sydney to promote Bohemian Rhapsody.

Here’s how it went down -

John Curran Interview

I recently had the chance to speak with director John Curran about his latest film, Chappaquiddick.  Here’s what he had to say…

Matt:  I look at American politics at the moment and it feels as partisan and divisive as it’s been for a long time.  Is that a risk in making a political film like this?  Is there a worry that people are going to attack it from both sides?

John:  It’s about a politician but it’s not really a political movie.  We went into this with eyes wide open.  We knew it was going to be controversial and particularly in this climate, we knew the right side would look at it through their own prism and that the left would be seeing a whole different film and having a different reaction to it.  I think the divisiveness will create conversation which is good for any film.   

Matt:  What was the source material here?

John:  The main plot points can be Googled.  There are no secrets there.  There was a degree of cover-up and an irresponsible delay in reporting the accident.  In terms of the specifics, we drew from the inquest where the people involved had provided hours of testimony.  There were also a couple of books that provided a comprehensive overview of the accident and the aftermath.  We drew from the facts as much as possible and then created conversations around that.  We weren’t trying to lean left or right or create a salacious piece or something apologetic.  We wanted to go down the middle and tell the facts according to Ted.

Matt:  The film doesn’t make a definitive statement in a few areas – like how Ted got out of the car, how much alcohol he had consumed and the cause of Mary Jo Kopechne’s death.  I’m guessing that’s a conscious decision on the part of you and the writers?

John:  Oh yeah.  It’s a film about an evolving narrative that still has gaps in it today.  The idea was to leave it to the viewer to form their own opinions by the end.  There’s no “good” telling of this story.  Ted was highly irresponsible and neglectful in the aftermath of the accident.  We didn’t feel the film should embellish it in a way where we try to take claim for certain truths that we couldn’t back up with evidence.

Matt:  In today’s age of 24 hour news and social media, do you think Ted Kennedy could have controlled this story as easily if this had all taken place today?

John:  I don’t think they could.  I think it’s very likely that Ted Kennedy wouldn’t have had a second act and would not have been re-elected.  Then again, look at what’s going on with the current President.  There is a scandal every single day that would sink any other President.  What he’s revealed is that regardless of who is President, half of the country is going to support him no matter what so maybe I’m wrong.  If this happened today, half of the country would still support Teddy Kennedy.

Matt:  It feels like such a fine line.  There are politicians today who have fallen on their sword for what I would argue are much lesser discretions but Kennedy was able to find a way to dodge this scandal.  Was he just lucky with stuff like the timing of the Apollo 11 landing or were he and his team smarter than most?

John:  I think the press had more of a “hands off” approach to politicians and celebrities back then.  It was end of the 60s and the end of an incredible decade where the Kennedys had dominated American life and were like a Royal Family.  More importantly, it had only been a year since the tragedy of Bobby and I think that garnered a lot of sympathy for him.  This accident helped put an end to the myth of Camelot.  After that, the Kennedys were perceived with more honest eyes.

Matt:  An Aussie (Jason Clarke) playing Ted Kennedy.  I have to ask how that came about?

John:  I lived in Australia for a long time.  Like 16 or 17 years.  Jason and I have known each other since my very first film, Praise.  It’s a book that’s set in Brisbane actually.  Jason is in that film for about 8 seconds and I’ve remained in contact with him.  He was attached to the script and through his manager, it came to me.  Whatever concerns I had about how the content of this film would be perceived, I had total faith that Jason could pull it off.  He has this similar look to Ted and he had the acting chops to do it.

Matt:  Did you know a lot about this story before coming on board?  I have to admit that here in Australia, I knew very little about it.  I wonder if that’s the case in America as well.

John:  I did because by chance.  This happened in 1969 when I was 9 years old and I was living in the town in New Jersey next to where the Kopechene’s lived.  I heard a lot about it in school because there were stories going around.  I thought I knew about it but it wasn’t until I picked up the script that I realised there were a lot of things I didn’t know which were amazing like the fact it happened the same week as the moon landing.

Matt:  How did you create the setting?  We see the bridge where the accident occurred which looks very similar to photos from the time but that said, I believe the current bridge now has guard rails in place.

John:  We rebuilt the bridge to the original specifications in a big water tank in Mexico where they filmed Titanic.

Matt:  The real-life interviews with members of the public at the end of the film are a nice touch.  How did you come across those and identify which ones you wanted to include in the film?

John:  That was by accident and it happened very late in the edit.  There was something not right about the ending and we had a researcher pulling together old archival clips from the news.  I didn’t come across those until late.  They’re both funny and tragic.  The day after Ted Kennedy’s speech, this reporter went out on the streets of Boston and was interviewing people to get their varied opinions.  All he was getting was people who supported Ted no matter what.  The reporter was getting increasingly frustrated because he couldn’t find anyone who was saying something negative.  There were only 2-3 people who said something negative and they’re in the film but that’s just to show there were some descending voices but for the most part, the people of Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly to re-elect him a few more times.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

John:  I’m attached to a couple of things but I don’t know what will be next to be honest.  I’m still in that phase of trying to decide.