Get ready to laugh in celebration or groan in pain: the Super Mario Bros. movie is on Blu-ray today in the UK. The 1993 film left a sour taste in many viewers' mouths due to a bizarrely altered story and some truly goofy action scenes, but has since become a cult favorite among Nintendo fans and bad movie lovers alike. Whether or not you enjoy it, there's no denying its influence — Super Mario Bros. was the first-ever Hollywood production based on a video game.
In celebration of the brothers' big box-office bomb, we sat down with co-director Rocky Morton to talk a little bit about issues that plagued the production, the controversial changes to the story, and how multiple scripts became the biggest nightmare for everyone involved.
First of all, can you introduce yourself and your role in the production of the Super Mario Bros. movie?
My name is Rocky Morton, and I co-directed Super Mario Bros. with [my partner] Annabel Jankel.
Were you a fan of the Super Mario Bros. video games prior to directing, or was this a project that you approached from a distance? Were any of the actors familiar with the source material at the time?
I was a fan. Yeah, I think everybody was familiar with it, you know, because it was quite popular. Most people knew the game and played the game.
While film adaptations of video games are relatively common now, yours was actually the first to start this trend. What are your views on the current state of the video game movie and how heavily it has been explored?
Well, for the most part, the games are better than the movies, I think. The great thing about games is that you’re part of it, whereas a movie experience is passive. So in a way, the game is a more whole experience.
"The idea being that we were going to tell the real story, and that the game itself was a perversion of the original story, which the movie is"
Are there any other video game or toy properties that you’d like to see brought to life on the big screen?
Well they’re doing them all now, aren’t they, one by one?
This film makes the bold decision to portray the Mario Bros. as down on their luck American plumbers rather than the heroes fans know them as. Was it always the intention to provide a more grounded backstory for the characters than what is presented in the video games?
Well, the concept that I came up with for the movie — because it wasn’t an original script, which I didn’t like, and I went away and thought about it and then pitched to the producers my new idea — was to create a backstory that only tentatively related to the final game. The idea being that we were going to tell the real story, and that the game itself was a perversion of the original story, which the movie is.
That’s why it’s different, you know; the characters are slightly different and everything because [the story] was discovered by the Japanese and they reinterpreted it, but got a few things wrong in the actual video game. Of course, [that] backfired, because people thought "They got it wrong!"
What went into choosing a gritty dystopian sci-fi setting for this film rather than the brightly coloured palettes from the game series?
Well the original script was like that, was like more of a direct lift from the game. And I thought well, we all know the game, wouldn’t it be interesting to create a game that was kind of darker and was the "true" story. And, you know, in history, myths get distorted — this would be the same thing, the origin of the myth, and then it got reinterpreted by the Japanese — like, you see, at the end the two executives from Nintendo come at the end to to talk to Mario and Luigi, and they tell the story of their adventure verbally and then [Nintendo] kind of writes it down and gets it all wrong, and that’s why the game is different from the film.
Was this change in style a specifically desired effort, or was it simply the aesthetic that you’re comfortable working in, as evidenced by some of your work prior to this, including some music videos and more notably Max Headroom?
"The technology was so primitive that when they disintegrated into particles, we had to get programmers in to write the program for that effect"
Well, I’ve always been interested in technology in film. In fact, Annabel and I published [one of the first] books on computer graphics. We had collected over the years all these images — there was no reference for computer graphics at the time and we had the biggest collection of images from around the world. And I thought we should publish this, you know, and everybody should see this. So we did, we published this book on it.
And we've always used technology in our music videos. We did the world’s first entirely CGI TV commercial for Pirelli Tires. We were always at the forefront of it all, and Mario Bros. seemed to be a good way of extending that. In fact, the technology was so primitive when we did Mario Bros. that, for instance, when they disintegrated into particles, we had to get programmers in to write the [program for that effect]. Later on, it became stock software that you could buy off the shelf, but there was nothing at the time — you had to write it yourself. It was ahead of its time in a lot of its ways.
Why were so many of the characters, namely King Koopa, Iggy, Spike, and Toad, so drastically different from their video game counterparts?
I wanted to find a reason to free myself from the game, and the reason I came up with was this was the original story, and everything else was a distortion from this being the truth. And once with that concept, it freed me from being shackled to any portrayal of the video game. Of course, that p*****d a lot of people off — but that was what we decided to do!
There are plenty of rumours and stories about the difficulties plaguing production. Could you share your perspective of what went right and what went wrong? Are there any unheard stories that you’d like to share about the production of this film?
What caused the biggest problem was the fact that we went into production with a script that Annabel and I liked and was originated by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, who wrote The Commitments. And they were really sensitive to this story of the two brothers, and the love story between the two brothers, and the fact that they had lost their parents; Mario had to bring up Luigi on his own. And he became this mother figure to Luigi, and what Luigi really wanted from Mario was an elder brother figure — you know, a male model — and it frustrated him, and he disrespected Mario because of that. Throughout [that initial version], it was about how they reconciled that problem and how Luigi fell in love with Daisy along the way. So it was very much a personal, emotional story between the two of them.
"The reaction from the studios was that the script that was written was too dark and too adult and it should be rewritten to a lower level"
And then we went into production, started casting, I started building these huge sets and all the prosthetic creatures and everything. And we were spending so much money; they needed more money and it was an independent production at the time — I think it was financed by a French bank or something — so they decided to try and pre-sell it to a studio to raise the money to finish it. The reaction from the studios was that the script that was written was too dark and too adult, and it should be rewritten — or dewritten, as I called it — to a lower level, adding stupid gags and making it more childlike, which is what happened. It got rewritten about two or three weeks before principal production, so by the time the script came in we were ready to shoot.
The new script was so different that it didn’t apply to a lot of the sets and the characters. Also, it was kind of flawed, it didn’t work because it was rushed so fast. And all the actors had read and signed up for the original script, and this new script came in which was much more full of gags and sort of childlike, and they didn’t like it very much. So I had to sort of defend the script — and I didn’t like it either — and encourage them to carry on. And it was very awkward, and uneasy, and difficult.
It also threw everything out of order; we had an order that we were gonna shoot everything in and we were building the sets accordingly, and because we had to shoot it in a different order because of the way the script was, I can remember [one of the sets] not being ready — [it was] half built and the paint was still wet, and the only way I could shoot the scene was on a long lens looking in one direction. If I pointed the camera off you could see that the set wasn’t completed, so there were things like that. And I can remember asking Dennis Hopper “Please walk this way, because if I pan the camera this way you’re gonna be off the set,” and then we had this argument about it. Things like that, it would just go on and on and on, there were just so many problems. It threw the film into chaos, basically.
The Super Mario Bros. film seems to alternate between family-friendly and adult themes. Was this a conscious decision made to widen the potential audience, or down to production circumstances?
You’re right, there are two films, basically. There’s the original film that was my intention, and that had the original script with Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, and it was this story of a proper relationship between two brothers and their problem, and the younger brother falling in love, it was those themes. And it was them falling into this other universe that involved dinosaurs — you know, when the meteor hit, instead of the dinosaurs being wiped out as we think, they actually disappeared into another dimension because the force was so great. It shocked the dimensional shift, but they continued to evolve and become intelligent, and the plumbers managed to enter into this world and have their adventure. And it was dark, it was a darker thing, and they had to battle against these evolved dinosaur creatures; it was really interesting from that sci-fi perspective.
But all of that was lost, because [in the new script] what some of those scenes got substituted for was stuff like Iggy walking into the plate glass window. Like, you know, two guys are carrying a sheet of glass, Iggy’s running down the street and runs into it. That was the new bit. And you can see the problem that that would have caused, trying to merge these two universes together.
It’s said that Danny DeVito was approached to play Mario before the role eventually went to Bob Hoskins. How was the decision made to cast Hoskins?
It was just based on availability and agents.
Can you speak a little about shared production duties while working on Super Mario Bros., particularly in terms of working with your partner?
We were a couple, we had two kids together; they were 6 or 7 I think when we made the movie. We did everything together; we shared one car, we shared our lives. We were joined at the hip, so that’s the way we directed as well. We shared everything together. We sometimes split up when we had to; for instance, I remember just before we went into production Annabel was doing the casting in LA — it was all the periphery characters - while I was building the sets in North Carolina, but mostly we would do everything together.
"It’s very hard to remake a movie as you’re filming, and that’s what caused a lot of the problems too"
I remember when the new script came in, we had a phone call — she was casting in LA, I was in NC building the sets, and we’d both just read the new script, we called each other up and said "This is terrible, we've gotta get away from this movie, it’s not the movie we wanted to make." And then we discussed it and discussed it for hours on the phone, and in the end we thought, "Well, we can’t let everybody down. We’re building the sets, we’re the only people that really understand what’s going on." You know, another director coming onto this project would be completely lost, but at least we knew all the characters and could piece the new puzzle together. We decided to soldier on and rectify the film as we carried on. But we were a bit naive in that what’s in the script is what’s on the screen — it’s very hard to remake a movie as you’re filming, and that’s what caused a lot of the problems too.
Can you outline the process of transferring an early ‘90s movie into HD for the Blu-Ray format?
I’ve got nothing to do with it. Nobody approached me. I’d have loved to have been involved, because there’s a lot of things I could have done to make it look fantastic. I’ve spent my whole [career] making TV commercials and photographing them and finishing them to make them look beautiful. I could have done a great job, but that’s the way the way these things go.
Overall, what’s your abiding memory from working on this movie?
We'd like to thank Rocky for doing this interview. Thanks also to our very own Ron DelVillano for contributing the interview questions.
The Super Mario Bros Movie Blu-ray is out today in the UK — you might want to buy it.