For all their absurdity, the Super Mario Bros. games follow a straightforward template. An Italian plumber adventures in a magicalIm having so many mails
land, fights evil monsters and rescues a princess. It’s simple, but Nintendo’s vibrant fairy tale could have been fertile ground for a Hollywood fantasy epic. Instead, when Super Mario Bros. released in
1993, it portrayed a version of Mario that was worlds away from
Nintendo’s vision. The Mushroom Kingdom had been turned into a neon-lit cyberpunk city where dinosaurs had evolved into humans. Bowser was a leather-suited politician fascinated by mud baths. The iconic goombas
had become eight-foot tall lizard warriors with shrunken heads. Super
Mario Bros. stands as one of Hollywood’s worst adaptations, but the
story behind the film is infinitely more bizarre than the one the movie tells.
Fire Flower Sale
By 1990, Super Mario Bros. was one of the biggest intellectual
properties on the planet. Super Mario World had just released in Japan,
and the face of Nintendo’s chubby plumber had been slapped on
everything from T-shirts and comic books to cereal boxes. Mario’s name alone was worth millions. It didn’t take long for the motion picture industry to come knocking on Nintendo’s door.
As always, Nintendo was cautious with its property. The publisher knew
Super Mario Bros. didn’t have a deep narrative. How would a movie
studio translate the simple formula into a 90-minute film? Producer
Roland Joffé thought he could figure it out. Joffé’s Lightmotive production company was inexperienced, but Joffé had directed the Oscar-nominated films The Killing Fields and The Mission, which gave
the studio some clout. Nintendo was intrigued by Joffé’s ideas, but it was more interested in the fact that Joffé had agreed to let Nintendo retain merchandising rights from the film. Joffé walked away with a $2 million contract. In a rare moment for the character, Mario’s future
was now partially out of Nintendo’s control.
After securing the rights to the film, Lightmotive immediately set to
work trying to sign high-level talent. The studio approached Danny
DeVito to both direct the film and play Mario. Both Arnold
Schwarzenegger and Michael Keaton were approached for the role of King Koopa. All three passed on the project.
According to Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan,
Tom Hanks briefly signed on to play Mario, but some executives thought
that Hanks was asking for too much money, so they fired Hanks in favor
of English thespian Bob Hoskins. Hoskins was hot off the success of
films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Hook, and the producers felt
that he would be a more bankable star. Within a matter of years, Tom
Hanks would win Oscars for both Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, becoming
one of Hollywood’s most respected actors. Hoskins is now best known for his television work.
While Lightmotive continued its search for actors and directors, it commissioned the first of many scripts. Barry Morrow, one of the
Academy Award-winning writers of Rain Man, took first crack at the
plot, but his treatment was deemed too dramatic and the project was
passed over to the writing team that had worked on The Flintstones and Richie Rich.
This version of the script was more in line with Mario’s roots. Mario
and Luigi traveled to a magical land reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz
and Alice in Wonderland. In this world, the evil King Koopa – an actual green lizard king – had kidnapped a Princess named Hildy and made her
his bride, so that he could access the magical Crown of Invincibility.
The Mario brothers and their sidekick Toad set off on a quest to rescue
the princess and prevent Koopa from getting his hands on the artifact.
This script was likely the closest the film would ever get to emulating
the playful world imagined in Nintendo’s games. However, Lightmotive
had already signed a directorial team to the project, and these
visionaries would take the film down some wild rabbit holes.
Directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel didn’t have many movie
credits to their names. In fact, the husband and wife team had only
directed one other film, a critical and commercial bomb called D.O.A..
The duo cut their teeth directing commercials for Coca-Cola and
Hardee’s restaurants, eventually finding small success after creating
the television series Max Headroom. Lightmotive loved Max Headroom’s
zany vibe and felt that Morton and Jankel had the right imagination for
a film like Super Mario Bros.
Morton and Jankel’s vision for the film was much darker than the
Nintendo game series. They wanted their film to take place in an
alternate reality version of New York, a place called Dinohatten. After
an asteroid struck Earth 65 million years ago, all of the planet’s dinosaurs had been banished to a dystopian version of our world, but
the two realities were still connected by a portal under New York. As
the eons passed, the dinosaurs slowly evolved into humanoids and grew
to hate the mammals that blissfully walked around Earth prime.
Nintendo’s hands were off the project by this point. “I met with the game’s designer [Shigeru Miyamoto] very briefly, like for a half an
hour meeting or something, but that was about it really,” director
Rocky Morton told us. “Nintendo let us do whatever we wanted. They just put a crushing deadline on the project. The movie had to be made by a certain date, otherwise there were all these financial penalties, which added a lot of extra stress to the project.”
As the production rushed toward principal photography, the directors
and producers struggled to agree on a script to match the movie’s new direction. More rewrites were issued. One action-packed treatment
seemed inspired by Die Hard. The script itself contained a scene in
which Bruce Willis could make a cameo, scurrying through the air ducts
above King Koopa’s office. Another script featured Mad Max-style death races. It seemed that the Super Mario Bros. film was pulling
inspiration from everything except the game series that shared its
By mid-1992, production was well under way. Holding to the director’s inspiration for a darker film, Lightmotive agreed to hire the art
director who worked on Blade Runner to transform an abandoned cement
plant in North Carolina into a cyberpunk wonderland. Campaign posters portrayed Dennis Hopper’s version of King Koopa kissing babies. Street vendors served kabobs of flame-broiled lizard. A club called the Boom
Boom Bar advertised hot blood cocktails. Electric cars trailed sparks
as they buzzed through the city’s main artery.
“I wanted the film to be more sophisticated,” Morton said. “I wanted parents to really get into it. At that time, there was a very hardcore movement against video games, and a lot of anti-video games sentiment.
I wanted to make a film that would open it up and get parents
interested in video games. It’s completely different now, but back then
it was taboo to make a movie based on a video game.”
Not everyone shared Morton and Jankel’s vision for the film. The studio was expecting a lighthearted kids film, and most of the cast and crew
had signed on with similar expectations. The tensions between these two visions began to tear apart the production. The studio felt that the
movie was too dark, pressuring Morton and Jankel to lighten the tone. Lightmotive brought in the writer from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
to write yet another version of the script.
“We were forbidden to work with that writer,” Morton recalled. “And that was only a couple of weeks before we went into principle
photography. I’d already had the set built and a lot of characters with prosthetics had already been made, so that script came in and a lot of
it didn’t match what we’d already started working on.”
By this point, at least nine writers had worked on the film, and
rewrites would continue long after the cameras started rolling. The
script ballooned into a rainbow of confusion as the production crew was continually handed new color-coded daily edits.
“The script had probably been rewritten five or six times by the time I arrived here,” Dennis Hopper told the Chicago Tribune back in 1992. “I don’t really bother with it anymore. I just go in and do it scene by scene. I figure it’s not going to hurt my character.”
The Flying Squirrel Show
Despite Morton and Jankel’s vision for a movie that sounded nothing
like Nintendo’s series, the duo attentively worked in several video
game references. Yoshi appeared as King Koopa’s pet, and spray-painted SNES Super Scopes functioned as portable devolution guns during the
film’s climax. One key reference almost didn’t make the cut; Morton and Jankel didn’t want the Mario brothers to appear in their classic red
and green overalls. They fought with the producers about the costumes
for weeks but finally consented, allowing Mario and Luigi to don their familiar outfits about three fourths of the way through the film.
From the crew’s point of view, Morton and Jankel were micromanaging
every facet of the production. At one point, Morton allegedly poured
coffee on an extra because he didn’t think the actor looked dirty
enough for the scene. According to a 1992 Chicago Tribune article, the
crew began calling the directors derogatory names behind their back.
One of their favorites was “Rocky and Annabel, the Flying Squirrel Show.”
Filming was scheduled to last 10 weeks, but it slowly stretched into
15. Everyone had different ways of dealing with the frustrating
production schedule. John Leguizamo, who had been cast as Luigi,
started drinking. In his biography, Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All
the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life, Leguizamo describes how he started doing shots of scotch with Hoskins between scenes. During a
scene in which Leguizamo was driving a van, the actor was reportedly
drunk and braked too hard, causing the sliding door to smash shut on Hoskins’ hand. During certain sequences of the film, Hoskins can
briefly be seen wearing a pink cast.
Other members of the crew saw the chaotic production as an opportunity. According to SMB Movie Archive, Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson, who
played Koopa’s henchmen Spike and Iggy, started writing their own dialogue, and even convinced the studio to film a rap scene starring
them that was ultimately cut from the theatrical release. At one point
in the original script, Koopa had their characters devolved into
goombas, but the actors sold the directors on the idea that their
characters should be further evolved to become super smart instead.
Plot changes like this weren’t just common – they were happening on a daily basis.
“They were like a double act,” Morton said of Stevens and Edson. “They were young and enthusiastic and inventive, and they definitely came up
with stuff for their characters. You know, there were flaws in the
script that had to be plugged and worked on while we were shooting, so
there was a lot of rewriting and ad-libbing to try and make sense of everything.”
Over budget, behind schedule, and managing a cast and crew that was
either drunk, working off-script, or completely belligerent, Super
Mario Bros. had run completely off rails. But this train hadn’t wrecked yet.
Dropping the Bob-Omb
The end of Super Mario Bros. was a hack job. Morton and Jankel had
hoped to film an epic battle sequence on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Storyboards were drawn up in which the two realities would start to
merge as Mario faced off against Bowser on the iconic structure. Mario eventually won after dropping a Bob-Omb down Koopa’s throat then
kicking him into the river before he exploded. The scene would never be filmed. The film’s producers were tired of spending money on the production. Instead, Koopa was blasted with the Super Scope guns and
reduced to a primordial sludge.
“You have to remember that CGI technology was a lot cruder back then,” Morton explained. “It was very expensive and hard to do, and we were running out of money, so we couldn’t do a lot of the elaborate effects
and stuff that I wanted to do.”
After principle photography ended, the film’s producers tried to cut Morton and Jankel out of the picture. Lightmotive had gotten two other production companies to buy into the film, and now there were three
sets of producers that had money at stake if the movie bombed. Many producers felt that the film needed more action, so a second unit set
out to film a couple extra action sequences. Morton and Jankel weren’t invited to those shoots, but that wasn’t the only thing the directing
duo was shut out from.
“I was locked out of the editing room,” Morton said. “I had to get the DGA [Director’s Guild of America union] to come and help me get back
into the editing room. I tried to get the editor to cut it digitally,
but they refused. They wanted to edit on Moviola and Steenbeck
machines, so the process was laboriously slow, which didn’t help us get the special effect cut in on time.”
Super Mario Bros. released to theaters on May 28, 1993. The film cost
$48 million to make and grossed less than $21 million. Going up against
hit summer films like Mrs. Doubtfire, The Fugitive, and Jurassic Park,
the movie probably never had a chance to make back its money. Even Tom Hanks’ new film, Sleepless in Seattle, out-grossed Mario by $200
million. No one was happy.
The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Bros.,” Hoskins told The
Guardian in an interview back in 2007. “It was a f---in’ nightmare. The whole experience was a nightmare. It had a husband-and-wife team
directing, whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent. After so many
weeks their own agent told them to get off the set! F---in’ nightmare. F---in’ idiots.”
“From everyone’s point of view, the film was a mess,” Morton admitted. “It just got rushed into production with a script that had been written two weeks before principle photography, and which had no input from
either Annabel or myself. Most of the actors had signed up on the old script, not the new script, so it was very hard to coax them into this
new one. I don’t think anyone was really happy with the end result.”
A lot of excuses can be made for Super Mario Bros. It was made during a different era. No one had tried to make a big-budget video game movie before. Video game companies didn’t know how much input they should
have on the production. And special effects technology limited
directors’ abilities to portray some of the more fantastical elements often found in a game. However, it’s hard to escape the fact that Super Mario Bros. was a bad film – a byproduct of a hundred bad choices and unfortunate mishaps. Super Mario Bros. should stand as a testament for
the wrong way to make a video game movie. Maybe the industry will
figure out how to do it right some day.
Dems & the media want Trump to be more like Obama, but then he'd
have to audit liberals & wire tap reporters' phones.
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