How Mortal Engines author Philip Reeve went from Haytor to Hollywood

PUBLISHED: 16:22 04 March 2019

Author Philip Reeve

Author Philip Reeve


Books Editor Annette Shaw talks to Devon writer Philip Reeve about how he went from here to Hollywood

It’s become an annual event, meeting Philip at a café on Dartmoor to discuss his latest book. Apart from the pleasure of catching up with one of the nicest and most talented authors in Devon, our recent get¬together was extra special.

Devon Life is delighted to report the ultimate achievement – the release of a Universal Pictures film based on Philip’s book Mortal Engines. So, how does it feel for a writer working in the shadows of Haytor to make it to Hollywood?

Overnight success invariably takes decades and Philip goes back to his life as a boy age 10: “We lived in Sussex, near Brighton. Family holidays were sometimes in Cornwall and I loved it when we broke the journey in Devon.

“I always wanted to write and draw, and my dream, or possibly fantasy, was to be an illustrator living on Dartmoor. The sense of ambition crystallised and yes, it took a while to come to fruition!”

Art college, the world of theatre, cartoons and illustrating followed and in 1997 it all came true with a move to the West Country.

Philip is remarkably relaxed about the release of the film.

From the film of Mortal EnginesFrom the film of Mortal Engines

“The book was first published in 2001 by Scholastic,” he says. “I met Peter Jackson in London some 12 years ago.” Jackson is of course best known as the director and producer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–03) and the Hobbit trilogy (2012–14), both of which are adapted from the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

“And then there was silence until 2016! Generally, people don’t realise how long these things can take and in fact the writer is quite removed from the process and any adaptations that are made.”

For instance, in the book the main protagonists are teenagers. In the film they are cast as slightly older, giving the movie a broader age appeal. Philip was invited to New Zealand to watch some of the filming.

Christian Rivers directs this post¬apocalyptic adventure film that stars Robert Sheean as museum apprentice Tom Natsworthy and Hera Hilmarsdóttir as Hester Shaw.

Together they embark on an action¬packed fight for survival in a world where great predator cities hunt each other down.

One of the strengths of the book is Philip’s talent for description and attention to detail. He must be a film maker’s dream because everything is so specific and well¬thought out with St. Paul’s towering over the tiers of London on the rampage.

A promotional poster for the film of Mortal EnginesA promotional poster for the film of Mortal Engines

It’s very believable, from the concept of municipal Darwinism ¬ survival of the fastest ¬ which gives credence to the need to keep moving, to the great traction engines that power these mobile settlements. The characters are sometimes complex and not always what they seem.

“Ah..ha ,” says Philip. “think David Copperfield. People come in many shades of grey. Those we think are bad turn out to be good and vice versa.”

There are also amusing if not surreal moments such as the social climbing pirates led by Chrysler Peavey, the mayor of Tunbridge Wheels. With high tech CGI, this promises to be one to watch.

With the superb Railhead trilogy complete, our conversation turned to the future which once again highlights the importance of the past. Philip is also working on more books about Kevin, the flying Dartmoor pony.

Some books take a long time to come together as Philip explains. “Back in 1988, when I’d just moved back to Brighton after art college, I was mooching along the beach when I found a little tiny bit of driftwood.

“It was a sort of rectangle with rounded¬off corners. I took it home and painted a little white Pegasus on it.”

From the film of Mortal EnginesFrom the film of Mortal Engines

The picture was hung above the kitchen door and that’s where Philip’s co¬writer on the younger children’s books spotted it.

“Sarah McIntyre and her husband Stuart were staying with us for Christmas a few years ago. She immediately started making her own drawings of fat winged ponies, and I wrote a story to go with them.”

On his web page Philip says: “I wrote my first story – about a spaceman called Spike and his dog Spook – at the tender age of five.”

This is a vocation of patience. A never¬ending work in progress and may Philip long continue.

Latest from the Devon Life