Hugo Weaving on Mortal Engines, Science Fiction, and Upcoming Projects
I am often very fortunate enough to sit down and talk with a lot of famous people each and every year. This year, in particular, I feel like I got to talk with a lot of actors, directors, producers, and writers, who are very iconic in the industry for a multitude of reasons. This past week, I had the chance to sit down with the legendary Hugo Weaving to discuss his career and his role in the new film, Mortal Engines which is based on a book of the same name.
Scott Menzel: Hey Hugo! How are you today?
Hugo Weaving: Good, good. Mostly being doing interviews with Stephen Lang and that is always a pleasure.
Scott Menzel: Oh, great. Gosh, there’s so many things but I got to talk a little bit about Mortal Engines but I could talk so much about your career. Just out of pure curiosity, how many times do you still get the whole “Mr. Anderson” bit?
Hugo Weaving: *laughs* A lot.
Scott Menzel: *laughs* somehow I knew that you were going to say that. So, you’ve always taken on roles that I feel are so different than one another, and you’re a very unique actor. You always take on these roles that stand out, and typically, you elevate a movie.
Hugo Weaving: Oh, thank you.
Scott Menzel: No problem. It’s really fantastic. But the thing that I’ve noticed is that you’ve been in a lot of fantasy and sci-fi flicks.
Hugo Weaving: Yeah. Well, yeah. I don’t feel like that, but…
Scott Menzel: so you don’t feel like that?
Hugo Weaving: No, not at all.
Scott Menzel: Interesting. So, what is your favorite genre then to be part of?
Hugo Weaving: It certainly wouldn’t be fantasy. No way. Actually sci-fi is definitely one of my favorite genres, but it’s also one of the hardest genres to get right. But I think sci-fi gives us the ability to shine a light on the world in which we live now, almost better than any other genre, in a way, because you remove us from the now, and usually into the future. By doing that, you’re actually asking questions of where we’re heading and therefore where we are, and who are. They’re internal questions, they’re questions about the nature of existence. So actually I think sci-fi can be a incredibly profound genre.
Most of the work I do actually has to do with human psychology, I think. I’m more interested in what makes people tick, and illuminating the human mind, and why we do what we do, and what we do that we don’t understand. What we do even though we’re not fully cognizant of it. All the underlying forces in us that propel us to do things that we’re not fully aware of. Various complexities and contradictions inside human nature. Those are the things that interest me. I don’t gravitate towards a particular genre, really. If I did, I guess I would be just in a contemporary psychological drama, really, that’s just very loose definition of the stuff that interests me.
But no, I have obviously been involved in all of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, so that’s over a 20 year period. But in a way, that’s one role. It’s actually one role, it just kept on going. That was one role of many but it just is a bigger role because there are more films, and it’s been seen by so many people. I guess it over-weights your sense of perhaps what I do. But then there’s things like Cloud Atlas…
Scott Menzel: Which I loved.
Hugo Weaving: Yeah. That one defies genre anyway, because you’re working in many different timezones. But that was just an out there film in every respect I think. And I guess V for Vendetta as well, it’s a futuristic, but also has a retro sensibility, but it’s really talking about now, even thought it feels like you’re 40s England, but actually you’re in the future. And I guess in a way, Mortal Engines has more in common with, well, not stylistically but in the sense that this is a retro piece that’s actually a future piece. But again, it’s shining a light on who we are and repurposing the past to create the present, but moving into the future. I’m interested in that idea, but I’m not drawn to projects that are fantastical worlds necessarily.
Although, the next film I do is a sci-fi, so there you go. But I’m interested in it because it’s a love story, and it’s actually dripping with melancholy, it’s a really exquisitely beautiful script written by Ivan Sen, who is an Australian director that I worked with before on a film called Mystery Road. He normally writes and directs pieces that are about indigenous characters in Australia caught between white and black culture, but this one’s a departure for him. So yeah, I will be doing a sci-fi, but actually that’s probably one of the first pure sci-fis I will have ever done, I think. I wouldn’t call Mortal Engines fantasy or sci-fi, I’m not quite sure…
Scott Menzel: Yea, I don’t know which genre it fits into either.
Hugo Weaving: No, I don’t think it’s either of those things. To me, it’s more like an adventure film, and to me it’s more like a pirate movie actually. You know what I mean?
Scott Menzel: Yeah it does feel like a pirate movie.
Hugo Weaving: It has other elements in it that it’s more akin to. But it’s probably good that you can’t define something quite as easily as you might think. I think that’s probably a good thing.
Scott Menzel: As an actor, when you’re part of a movie like Cloud Atlas or even going back to The Matrix, a film that truly defined the era of cinema at that point, and then Lord of the Rings, most of these films over the last 20 years were very defining moments in cinema history. When you’re a part of something like this, and you see these large scale images come to life on the big screen, what is that like to film, and then seeing become a reality?
Hugo Weaving: The Matrix actually was storyboarded, it was so storyboarded. And also we were working on sets, pretty much entirely, completely fully realized sets. There were green screen elements, there was one green screen volume that Keanu and I were in briefly for one shot really. But other than that, there was very little green screen on the Matrix. The sets were very much there.
Hugo Weaving: For Mortal Engines, that initial chase sequence is phenomenal. It’s really phenomenal. Obviously, I had a sense of what that might be, but Valentine’s there in the wheel house with the thing, but we are absolutely looking out on a green screen, or actually, we were looking out on a set, and partly a green screen. You have to realize that, so when going back to the art department, you see the height of London and we’re looking way down there, we’re looking down here, and this is how fast we’re moving. Then we have to ask, what is the effect in the wheel house of that on the body?
I always get a pretty good sense of the visual world from going into the art department, seeing their models and drawings, and talking to Christian, and talking to Dan Hennah, who’s the production designer, and seeing those images. You do get a pretty good sense of it. But, of course, when you finally see that chase sequence, it’s pretty phenomenal. It’s a testament to all those CG people who work on it. It was thrilling to see that.
Scott Menzel: Mortal Engines, I know that this was a passion project for PeterJackson for quite some time, it’s interesting he’s the producer, he’s not the director of this. Were you familiar with these Mortal Engines before signing on?
Hugo Weaving: I hadn’t read the books, no. I’d heard of them, and I knew they were very popular in England with young adult readers. I’d heard of Philip Reeve, but I hadn’t read any of them at all. I had a sense that there was steam punk theme, there was some moving city theme, but beyond that, no, nothing at all.
Philip sent me an email saying, “We’re developing this. This is what’s happening. We’re really interested in you to play this character who was presents as a romantic hero. That’s how we’re introduced to him. But there are all these other complexities in there”. I read it and then started talking to them about it. That was my first introduction to it. I then went back and read the book.
Scott Menzel: You’ve worked with so many iconic directors at this point as well as newcomers. Christian is relatively new to the game. As someone who’s a seasoned actor like yourself, did you feel like you had to help Christian or did he teach you something that you maybe never realized as someone who was new to this world?
Hugo Weaving: No, no, I didn’t ever feel like I had to help Christian at all. I actually work with first time directors a lot like you said. A lot of them. First time directors who are far less experienced than Christian. Christian’s experience may not be as a director on set, directing camera and actors, but his comprehension and understanding of filmmaking, and post-production filmmaking, and realizing visual worlds is really extraordinary, which is why he’s directing the film. He’s been working with Peter for such a long time that it’s actually a natural fit for him to extend into this world. He definitely was ready to direct, and wanted to direct, just didn’t think the first film would be such a big one. But it’s natural that Pete should say, “I think you should step up and do this,” because he obviously had faith in him, and indeed all the skills he has were really valuable to us as actors.
His understanding of, “Well, okay, we are shooting here, and this is the green screen, but what you’ll be seeing is this, and there’s these big engines moving, and there’s a big noise. This scene needs to be pitched up here, because …” Those sorts of things. He’s a lovely man. He’s a very lovely man, who is very thoughtful, and collaborative. It was a real pleasure to work with him. He and Pete have very different energies, they actually sound alike, and when I first met him, I thought, “Ah”. With the glasses and the beard, they both had this stuttery, stammery thing going on. There’s a lot of similarities, but they’re very different energies on set. Pete’s much more … he’s agitating, and he’s building up this, he’s talking about this world that he’s creating, he’s actually creating an energy in the room. But Christians definitely, he’s quieter and looking for suggestions, and is more thoughtful. There’s a very different sensibility, and a very different way of operating between the two. But at no time did I feel he needed help from me at all.
Scott Menzel: This is going to be the last question, but as an actor, with the industr changing so rapidly, and there’s so many things going on with Netflix and Amazon, and this conversation about big screen versus small screen, and all this stuff. How do you feel that has affected you? Has it changed your perspective at all?
Hugo Weaving: The main thing I feel affected by is that we as viewers no longer seem to go and see films together. The communal side of it, the sharing side of the watching experience isn’t something that we do very much anymore. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why, film festivals, like the Sydney Film Festival is actually a big film festival, it’s been going on for a long, long time, and I was seeing that at the wfestival, the people were getting older and older and older. But now there’s just a lot of young people there, and I think there’s a craving for films at the cinema. They’ve really reinvigorated the festival as a place where you can go and sit with a lot of other people and watch great films. I miss that.
Hugo Weaving: Netflix has Roma and it seem that this is a great film that they’re making, but it’s going to be a limited release. I’ll be seeing it next week in Sydney. They’re making these great films, but then maybe most people will watch it on Netflix at home. Look, it’s being made, and I think that’s fantastic, they have the ability to do that now. And there’s a lot of stuff being made, there’s a lot of television being made, there’s a lot of film being made. Maybe the other problem is that there’s just too much stuff…
Scott Menzel: Too much. Way too much.
Hugo Weaving: How the hell can we all watch it? Why are we making it all? Is there too much? Is everything becoming throwaway? Are all films like make and dispose of them, make and dispose of them? Is this a disease that we have? Yes, it probably is. We chew up the world and spit it out again. But it doesn’t mean I don’t think there are great films being made. There absolutely are. There are some of the greatest filmmakers ever, living now, and making them now. I think we’re living in a fantastic environment in one way, but an environment where the way in which we watch films has changed so dramatically, and therefore the way in which people make them and market them, promote them, has changed as well. Because no one really knows where that landscape’s heading, unless you go, “It’s going to head here. We’ve got this money. Come with us. You will come with us and watch Netflix”. You’ve got to change the game in order to make your profits, and to win the next round of the cultural war. But at least films are still being made.
Hugo Weaving: My thing is always a cultural thing too, in Australia I go, “Well, I wanna make films in Australia. I wanna primarily express who I am living in that country, and work with Australian filmmakers”. And then those little films, because they’re generally small budgets, they’re very good. There’s some fantastic stuff, which is why I keep working there. I would rather work there on those films, that’s what I wanna do. But the ability for those films to be seen is so small, it always has been, but it feels like it’s shrinking even more. That’s, for me, the distressing thing, and I would say that’s true of almost every nation’s film industry, that the weight of all the other films being made are squeezing the ability of us to see ourselves. Anyway, who knows where it will go, but at least there’s some great films being made.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you. An absolute pleasure.
Hugo Weaving: Good to talk to you.Have a wonderful day.
Scott Menzel: Thank you. Good talking to you.