The Story Behind the Super Mario Bros. Movie
When the story behind the movie is better than the movie
1993's live action Super Mario Bros. movie was the first Hollywood film to be based on a video game. At the time, it must have seemed like a brilliant idea to film executives. After all, from the mid 80s to about the mid 90s, there was nothing bigger with kids than Nintendo. The company and their mascot character, Mario, had dominated just about every form of media, from television cartoons to merchandise of pretty much anything you could imagine. So, doing a big budget movie probably felt like a no-brainer, and a guaranteed slam dunk at the box office.
Siskel and Ebert were not big fans of the movie...
As everyone knows by now, that didn't exactly happen. The movie was widely panned, both by critics, who found the movie to be nearly incoherent in its plotting, emphasizing special effects and noise over character and story, and by fans of the video games, who felt the movie strayed too far from the source material to be a successful adaptation. Siskel and Ebert not only panned it, but would go on to name it one of the worst films of the year on their year-end special episode. When the movie was released on Memorial Day Weekend of 93, the film opened to a dismal $8.5 million debut weekend, being beaten soundly by Sylvester Stallone's Cliffhanger, which was the other big release that weekend. When all was said and done, the film only wound up making just under $21 million on a $48 million budget.
John Leguizamo (Luigi in the film) has been very open in talking about the film's production, and how it went so horribly wrong.
In most cases, that would be that, and the movie would fade into obscurity along with many other overhyped bombs just like it. But, over time, something strange happened. Not only did the movie gain a cult following, but certain people involved with the production became very outspoken in talking about the film, and how it went wrong. Most prominently, John Leguizamo (who played Luigi in the film) has not only been very open in talking about the movie's troubled production, but he has also been open with fans of the movie, and has even attended some fan screenings as a guest, giving interviews after the film is over. As time has gone by, the story behind the Super Mario Bros. movie has come to light, and it ends up being more interesting than anything in the movie itself. From reports of the actors showing up to work drunk due to their misery on the set, to talk of multiple scripts and how the movie was literally being changed on a day-by-day basis, to even reports of the cast constantly feuding with the directors to the point that almost everyone on the set hated the filmmakers, if you look beneath the surface, you can see how, little by little, the movie went out of control.
With this article, I will look at the long and complicated road that Super Mario Bros. took to the big screen, as well as the chaotic production that followed.
The story of bringing Super Mario to the movies begins when Hollywood started to take notice of how crazy kids were for not just Mario, but Nintendo in general. A major bidding war erupted as just about every major studio in Hollywood tried to woo Nintendo into signing over the film rights of Mario to them. Nintendo was flooded with multi-million dollar deals, but in the end, Nintendo was not really impressed by these big deals. They were on top of the corporate world, and it really wasn't about the big money. They were more interested in finding a studio that would respect Mario and his world. In the Fall of 1990, Nintendo shocked Hollywood by not only signing over the Mario film rights for a mere $2 million (the other studios were offering tens of millions for the rights), but by also going with a small independent film studio called Lightmotive, who were best known for making adult dramas (like 1984's Oscar-nominated The Killing Fields, about a mass genocide in Cambodia), and wanted to use Mario to make a big blockbuster that would launch their company to larger mainstream projects.
The idea for the film that the producers at Lightmotive had was to create a prequel film that would tell the origins of how the Mario Bros. became the superheroes of the Mushroom Kingdom. Their vision was to make a slightly gritty, but still family-friendly, film that would appeal to both kids and adults. To sweeten the deal, the producers also offered Nintendo some creative control, as well as complete control of the merchandising rights that would come from the film. It was an offer Nintendo could not refuse, and since none of the major studios at the time were willing to let Nintendo have a hand in the film's creative process, they went with Lightmotive.
Now that the deal was done, it was time to find a creative team and actors who would star in the film. One person who was an early choice to direct the film was the late Harold Ramis, the comedic actor who was best known for playing Egon in the Ghostbusters movies, but had also made a name for himself as a comedy director having helmed such films as Caddyshack and National Lampoon's Vacation. Ramis was interested, due to the fact that he was a fan of the video games, but an agreement was never reached with the producers, and he eventually declined.
"It's a me, Mario!!"
When it came to casting the main role of Mario, one interesting early development was that Dustin Hoffman, who was fresh off an Oscar win for Rain Man at the time, heard about the project and approached the producers, expressing his interest in playing Mario. The people at Lightmotive were thrilled, as they thought an actor of Hoffman's caliber could add a lot of prestige to the project. Nintendo, however, did not agree. They could not picture Hoffman in the role of their mascot, and so they turned him down. As great of an actor as Hoffman is, I kind of have to side with Nintendo on this one.
Another likely candidate was Danny DeVito, who was offered not only to play the lead role, but to also direct the film. However, he would not sign on without reading the script first, and he eventually turned the offer down. After quite a long period of searching, Lightmotive finally thought they found an actor to play Mario, and it was none other than Tom Hanks, who accepted the role and was about to sign on to play the part. But at the last minute, both the producers and Nintendo became nervous. Hanks was asking for a large sum of money to do the film, and at the time, he had appeared in a string of bombs, most notably 1990's The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was a failed film adaptation of the classic Tom Wolfe novel so notorious that a tell-all book (The Devil's Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood) was published about its troubled production. Before Hanks could sign the contract, Lightmotive backed out, and continued their search for the right people to bring Mario to the big screen. As for Hanks, his career would soon see a turnaround with a string of Oscar-winning and nominated performances that exploded at the box office including 1993's Philadelphia, 94's Forrest Gump, and Apollo 13 and Toy Story in 1995. Something tells me not a day goes by where he isn't thankful he was kicked out of the Mario project.
The search for Mario finally came to an end when the producers settled on British actor, the late Bob Hoskins. He was known for being a very diverse actor, famous for doing award-winning dramatic work in films like Mona Lisa that earned him critical raves and award recognition, as well as being able to excel in big budget Hollywood films, such as 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Steven Spielberg's Hook from 1991. Hoskins read the script for the film at the time, liked it, and signed on, even though he didn't even know that Super Mario was a video game, until his son later told him after he had signed on. With the role of Mario cast, it was not long after that John Leguizamo was cast in the role of Mario's brother Luigi. Leguizamo was fairly new to Hollywood at the time, but he had made a name for himself already as both a comedic and dramatic actor. Leguizamo was so thrilled to be cast in the Super Mario movie and was so certain of its success initially that he even turned down a TV network's offer to build a sitcom around him in order to do the film.
With the central leads cast, it was time to look into supporting actors. For the role of the villain King Koopa, both Michael Keaton and Arnold Schwarzenegger were approached to play the role, but they both turned the role down. Not long after, veteran actor Dennis Hopper was approached, and agreed to do the film because he had a young kid at the time. As for the role of the Princess, a young rising actress at the time named Samantha Mathis was chosen. She was fresh off of starring alongside Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume, and had also provided the voice for Crysta the fairy in the animated eco-aware kids movie, Ferngully. With the main cast in place, the production team turned to working on the script and finding a director. And this is where the Super Mario Bros. movie slowly began to become a legendary disaster of a production.
Things went smoothly at first. A relatively new director named Greg Beeman was signed on as director. As for the script, this is where the trouble initially began. Originally, one of the writers of Rain Man, Barry Morrow, was tasked with writing the script. After spending some time familiarizing himself with the video game and the characters, he wrote a story that focused heavily on the relationship between the two brothers. Maybe he still had Rain Man on his mind, as the creative team at Lightmotive found his script too similar to his earlier writing credit. Morrow refused to have his vision tampered with, and walked off the project. After this rejected effort, the script was turned over to Tom S. Parker and Jim Jennewein, two guys originally from the advertising business who had just sold their first screenplay, the comedy Stay Tuned, to Warner Bros. and were somewhat of a big deal at the time.
Their take on the Super Mario movie was much more faithful to the games. It was to be a fantasy-based comedy inspired by The Princess Bride, where Mario and Luigi find themselves in another world where they would have to save a Princess from King Koopa, who wanted to kidnap her in order to get the "Crown of Invincibility". Toad the Mushroom Retainer would serve as the sidekick to the Mario Bros. in the film, and the script managed to keep the whimsical feel of the games, while also including numerous references. With a script that Lightmotive was happy with finalized, they turned to a distributor to back the film and eventually went with the Disney-owned Hollywood Pictures. However, Disney had an issue with the director chosen, as they felt Beeman did not have enough experience to tackle a big budget film. (He only had one credit to his name at the time, the 1988 teen comedy License to Drive.) And so, a search for a new director began.
With Beeman gone, the producers sought out a new director, and eventually a husband and wife team by the name of Annabel Jankel and Ricky Morton got their attention. At the time, they did not have much experience with film, as most of their work had been directing various music videos. They did, however, create the cult TV show and character, Max Headroom, a Sci-Fi franchise set in the future where comic actor Matt Frewer was made up to look like a computer generated TV character. The Max Headroom character caught on, appearing in commercials for Coke products, and even music videos. With its impressive futuristic images and wild MTV-inspired ideas, Jankel and Morton grabbed the attention of the filmmakers.
There was just one problem. Both Jankel and Morton hated the script for the film. However, they did see potential in a Super Mario movie, but they wanted to take it in a different direction. They hired a new team of their own writers to give the film more of a Sci-Fi feel that would be similar to their work on Max Headroom, rather than a fantasy fairy tale that the current script resembled. The new writers kept the basic plot of the original script, only setting it in a futuristic environment. But again, Jankel and Morton were not happy. They started to revise the script on their own, adding more Sci-Fi elements, such as a parallel world where dinosaurs lived and had evolved into human-like forms. Mario and Luigi would be pulled into this alternate Manhattan called Dino-hattan by a portal, and would have to save it from King Koopa's rule.
The writers the directors had hired worked to add in the elements that were requested by Jankel and Morton, but their work did not please the filmmakers or the studio, and so they were fired. Two more writers were brought on to punch up the script and insert more action into the film. The result was a film so heavy in action that it actually featured a cameo appearance by Bruce Willis as his John McClane character from Die Hard who would run into the Mario Bros. at one point in the script. However, both Nintendo and the filmmakers thought the script was too over the top, and so the violence and action was toned down. With this, a script that everyone seemed happy with was seemingly finalized, and the cast had been signed. The key word here is "seemingly", as the troubles and rewrites were just beginning.
Production was starting to begin. Sets were being built, and the cast had signed on. Despite everyone on the project being happy with the current script, the producers behind the scenes were nervous that it was too dark, and strayed too far from the source material. They wanted it softened up even more. And so, even more writers were called on to add more family friendly elements to the script, such as giving Mario a girlfriend, and having it end with a wedding. One of the things that the producers insisted upon was that the directors would have no control over the new script, as they felt their vision was becoming too expensive and straying too much from the original goal. The Super Mario Bros. movie was slowly turning into an out of control project that nobody knew what anybody else was doing. Jankel and Morton were naturally angered when they heard the script was being changed without their participation or consent, and became even more so when they read it. They were so angry, they almost walked off the project right then and there, but decided to stay on since pre-production on the film was already underway. The directing team figured they could fix the film while they were making it. And so, in the Summer of 1992, the Super Mario Bros. movie started filming in an abandoned cement factory with no AC and poor air ventilation in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record at that time. And that would be the smallest gripe that everyone involved in the project would eventually have...
Okay, so imagine this scenario. You're an actor who has signed on to do the live action Super Mario Bros. movie. You show up at the set, only to see sets that you do not recognize, and have nothing to do with the script that you had read and signed up for. Not only that, but the filmmakers hand you an entirely new script when you show up that is completely different from the movie you thought you were going to be making. That's what really happened. The cast had been left completely out of the loop. They thought they were making the fantasy-based Mario movie. When they arrived on the set, and saw a complex Sci-Fi set built around an alternate version of Manhattan run by dinosaurs, they were naturally more than a little confused. They were quickly clued in, and some of the former writers who had worked on the project were brought in on set to make even further changes to the script.
As production went underway, it was obvious that there was little to no communication between the filmmakers, the directors and the actors. The script was being rewritten on a regular basis, sometimes every day. Each day the actors arrived on set, they would be handed new pages for scenes that they would be filming that were not previously in the movie the other day. Dennis Hopper stated in an interview that his role was initially much smaller, but due to the constant rewrites, he was on set a lot more than he wanted to be. He further stated that he eventually just stopped trying to learn the script, since he knew everything would be different when he would show up tomorrow.
It quickly reached the point that the actors started to resent and even hate directors Jankel and Morton. This was not surprising, due to the fact that the pair were often verbally and sometimes physically abusive with some of the cast. (More on that later.) One of the strongest reports of hatred is when Bob Hoskins reportedly told his co-star, John Leguizamo, that "He's a c***, and she's a cow". The directors seldom consulted each other with decisions, so they would frequently give the actors conflicting orders, making them unsure of what they wanted. This alone is bad enough, but really mostly just frustrating. But if what Leguizamo says is true about what happened between Morton and an extra who was playing one of Koopa's Goombas, then the directing team was not only frustrating, but downright vicious.
Here's what happened, according to Leguizamo. Morton was looking at the actors within the Goomba costumes, and was not happy. He wanted the creatures to appear more dirty. And so, he walked up to one of the actors with a cup of hot coffee, and poured it on the costume. Naturally, some of the coffee went through the cracks in the costume, and wound up being poured on the actor inside it. When the actor screamed in pain from the scalding beverage, Ricky Morton reportedly shrugged and said, "Oh well, he's just an extra". Morton combats Leguizamo's account, saying that he had poured coffee on the costume to try to make some mud stick to it, and that he tried to help the actor after he had been burned by the hot coffee. Whatever the case, it probably shouldn't have happened, and it kind of shows how little respect the directors had for the project and the people involved.
With frustrations constantly mounting between the directors and the actors, the cast just kind of showed up to do the work each day, never really being involved, since they had no idea what kind of movie they were making anymore. But they did find different ways to make the experience more bearable. Some of the cast made T-shirts openly mocking the directing team of Jankel and Morton, usually by using actual quotes from them depicted on the surface of the shirt. Hoskins and Leguizamo got through their personal misery usually by drinking a lot on the set. This led to one of the more memorable accidents on the set, when a scene called for Leguizamo to drive the Mario Bros. van in a chase scene. He was drunk at the time, and when he slammed on the brakes, he apparently caused the vehicle to almost tip over. Hoskins grabbed onto the door frame to steady himself, only to have the sliding door on the van slam into his arm very hard. Hoskins was required to have his arm in a cast for the rest of the shoot because of the accident, which was painted over to make it look normal. If you watch the movie, there are many scenes where Hoskins arm is in the painted cast.
Despite the bad spirits and on-set accidents, the movie trudged on. Both Jankel and Morton felt like their hands were tied. They were not allowed to make the movie they wanted to make, because both the studio and Nintendo were afraid that their vision was too dark and weird. The script was constantly being rewritten and toned down. In one instance, a scene called for there to be hookers, but they were changed to dancers in a night club. With the uncomfortable working conditions, not to mention the constant feuding between the studio, the directors and the actors, it's no wonder that the project got out of control. The budget was out of control, and the script was out of control and no longer resembled anything that anyone involved wanted to make. According to Leguizamo, the only positive thing to come out of the whole experience of making the movie is that he fell in love with his co-star, Samantha Mathis, and they started a relationship. After a grueling shoot that lasted almost four months, the movie was finally finished.
Even with the movie completed, Jankel and Morton found themselves still being largely shut out, as they were forbidden from entering the editing room by the filmmakers. They had to appeal to the Director's Guild in order to gain access to the final cut. As the movie came together, the expense grew, as the movie featured a large number of digital and CG effects that had never really been tried at the time, such as a scene where Mario and King Koopa slowly dissolve as they are pulled from Dino-Hattan into the real world. There were face-morphing effects, numerous scenes that called for CG, and even a full-scale robotic dinosaur to represent the character of Yoshi, who also required CG in order to make it appear more real. And even before the movie came out, reports of the troubled production started to leak out thanks to a newspaper article in the L.A. Times that did an on-set visit in August of 1992. The actors were not shy to express their doubts about the project in the article, and the directors refused to speak to the interviewer. In the article itself, Dennis Hopper is quoted as saying that when he learned that Jankel and Morton refused to talk about the film, that it was the "first intelligent thing" they had done during the shoot.
Collect them all!
One year later, when the movie was set to be released in theaters in May of 93, the film was met with an aggressive marketing and ad campaign that hoped to drown out the early negative publicity. I particularly remember the movie being advertised heavily during kid-friendly animation TV blocks during the weeks leading up to its release. There was even a line of action figures of the characters made. However, none of this was enough. There was another movie set around dinosaurs that same summer called Jurassic Park that came out just two weeks later that pretty much crushed what little momentum the Mario Bros. movie may have had. When all was said and done, the film was a bigger financial disaster than Nintendo had ever expected. They did not really like the movie, but were certain it would be a box office success, due to the Mario name. They were wrong. Due to the film's response, Nintendo would not go near Hollywood again until just recently.
Anyone who has watched the Super Mario Bros. movie knows that the ending hints at a sequel that was never made. The film ends with Princess Daisy breathlessly running into the brothers' apartment, saying that she needs their help, and that they will not believe what has happened. Due to the film being a box office bomb, we will never know exactly what was planned for the sequels. I remember reading at one point that one of the people involved with the script stated that plans was to introduce Donkey Kong as a villain, and have the Mario Bros. fighting the giant gorilla, but I can't confirm or deny this, so I will leave it to either speculation or an Internet rumor.
In the aftermath of the film, many of the people involved, including both Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper, called it the worst movie they had ever done. As for the directors Jankel and Morton, they never got to make another movie. This film actually still haunts their career to this day. Not only were they dropped by their agents after the movie came out, but Hollywood has since refused to touch them. According to Morton, whenever they try to get a new project off the ground, they are rejected due to their involvement with the Super Mario Bros. movie. Even though 25 years have passed since then, nobody wants to work with the pair.
And yet, despite all this, the movie has struck a chord with some audiences. There is a website devoted entirely to the film called the Super Mario Bros: The Movie Archive, which has been collecting the history, first-hand reports and anecdotes about the making of the film. It's easily the most comprehensive site to find info on the making of the film, and I highly recommend you visit. The site even offers many of the scripts that were written available to read. You can read the early fantasy-based script, right up to many of the later Sci-Fi based revisions. It's a lot of fun to see the project take shape, and you can see the original intention of what the movie was supposed to be before it became an out of control Hollywood misfire.
Whatever your thoughts on the final project and what ultimately became the Super Mario Bros. movie, there's no denying that it most likely was a victim of far too much meddling behind the scenes, and the overall sense that nobody knew what movie they were making. This would be the last time Nintendo would license their characters to Hollywood, until just last year, when they announced that they were making a deal with Illumination Studios, the animation house behind the Despicable Me and Minions movies, to do an animated Super Mario movie. Next to nothing is known about the project, as it's far too early in development. However, it is hopeful that Nintendo is willing to try again with a movie, and hopefully this one will have much tighter reigns and a unified vision to make it work.
The Super Mario Bros. movie is a cautionary tale, but one that happens far too often in Hollywood. Whenever a movie bombs, it's usually blamed on the script or the director, but there are usually far too many elements behind the failure of a film. When the stories behind the movies come out, it's usually easy to see where a film went wrong. In a case like this, it makes you wonder how any movie ever gets made sometimes. There's a lot of elements that led to the movie going so wrong, you can't pinpoint just one. All you can do is look back and laugh, much like John Leguizamo does whenever the movie is brought up.