When Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael recently roasted 1995’s Mortal Kombat on their podcast How Did This Get Made?, I cringed a little. I spent countless hours of my youth playing Mortal Kombat in arcades and on my Super Nintendo. I was there to see the movie opening weekend, and as soon as it came out on VHS I had to have it. Budding little Rogert Ebert that I aspired to be, I deemed the Mortal Kombat movie to be the best video game of all time, a dubious accomplishment considering the competition (i.e., Street Fighter, Double Dragon and Super Mario Bros.).
Director Paul W.S. Anderson had taken a fighting game with a flimsy, supernatural spin on the plot of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon – three martial artists compete in tournament on a mysterious island – and delivered something which at least managed to hang together without drowning in its sea of easter eggs for the video game fans. Bravo!
I haven’t seen Mortal Kombat, though, since maybe 1997. According to How Did This Get Made?, I might want to keep it that way. The movie has not aged well, apparently, and seems especially ludicrous now to anyone who knows nothing about the games. However, there must be some elements of the film worth remembering and celebrating. In fact, Mortal Kombat just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and The Hollywood Reporter ran an oral history full of behind the scenes facts I’d never heard before:
1) It all started with the Terminator 2 arcade game
Producer Larry Kasanof visited the Midway Games offices in June 1993 to visit some friends he’d made from his time working with the company on the Terminator 2: Judgement Day arcade game, which had set a sales record. Now, Midway boasted they had a new game which was going to beat his T2 record. They showed him Mortal Kombat, and he was convinced they not only had a hit game but also a potential merchandising extravaganza on their hands, including the potential for a TV series, stage show, albums, and movies.
2) Midway had to be talked into the idea of turning the game into a movie
Larry Kasanoff, producer: I played the Mortal Kombat arcade game in their office for half an hour. I turned to [former Midway Games chief] Neil D. Nicastro and I said, “This is Star Wars meets Enter the Dragon. This is not just an arcade game. This is a whole phenomenon.” I said, “If you give me the rights to this, I promise you I will produce this, not just in movies, but in every medium in the world.” He looked at me and said, “You’re full of crap! It’s just an arcade game!” That began a three-month process of me trying to convince them that it was more than just an arcade game. They didn’t believe it. Because video game movies had recently failed, like Mario Bros., no one believed it. I finally just wore them down and they optioned the rights to me for an insanely short amount of time, which now I would never do, but it was my first deal at my company.
Ed Boon, Mortal Kombat co-creator: When the movie was being discussed, I remember not taking it seriously at first. I thought, “This is probably going to be talked about but not happen.” Then all of a sudden we were getting phone calls about casting and they were saying, “What about this guy for this character? What about this guy for that character?” I remember them saying, “What do you think of Danny Glover as Raiden?”
3) Paul W.S. Anderson was genuinely a big fan of the video game prior to the movie
Lauri Apelian, associate producer: We were getting submissions for top, top directors. Directors with whole lists of important, wonderful films. I really wanted to find someone who would have an innovative, fresh approach. I went to the CAA screening room to see Shopping. Paul [W.S.] Anderson was an unknown director with this little film. I didn’t know anything about it. I was totally blown away with the talent he had in it. Jude Law, Sean Bean. They shot it on something like $100K in the streets of London. Afterward, I said, “We’ve got to get this guy.” There was no question.
Paul W.S. Anderson, director: I grew up in a northern industrial town called Newcastle Upon Tyne, where there was no film industry. I would come to London for meetings when I was trying to get my career off the ground. Quite often, I’d have a meeting at 10 o’clock in the morning and 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I didn’t know anybody in London, so all I would do is play video games for three or four hours at the arcade. One of my favorites was Mortal Kombat. So when I heard they were making a movie of Mortal Kombat, most filmmakers were being a bit snooty about it. I was super-enthusiastic.
4) Anderson bluffed his way through a lot of the production
Anderson: I had no experience with visual effects, so I went to Samuel French’s book store and I bought every single book I could find on visual effects, on matte paintings, on CGI. I had the jargon down. It sounded like I knew more about CG than anyone else in Hollywood, even though I’d never been into a visual effects house. I kind of bluffed my way in, but I think they could see the enthusiasm.
Anderson: The first fight scene I shot with Robin Shou [Liu Kang] — here’s a man who has done Hong Kong movies; I haven’t done any of them — we started doing the master shot, and it’s this big, long fight, and we do it all in one take as a wide master. But there are a couple of mistakes, so I do it again. Then there are a couple more, so I do it again. And of course these guys are getting exhausted, because they are going for it. Robin comes up to me and says “Paul, you do know what coverage is, don’t you?” And I said “Oh yeah! Sorry about that.” In fight scenes, you use the wide shot for maybe like two seconds, and that’s it. You’re always in for the tight coverage for the impacts. It was a movie I learned a lot on, and I was very fortunate to be working with people who were supportive and didn’t bite my head off when I made them repeatedly do fights in wide shots.
5) The video game creators didn’t have much influence
Boon: [Fellow Mortal Kombat co-creator] John [Tobias] and I had comments about the script because I remember at first, from our perspective, it was way too comical. Raiden was cracking jokes like a prankster, and I remember saying, “He’s not a clown, he’s a very serious character.” We didn’t write the script, but we read the script and we sent back comments.
6) The screenwriter thought the actors ruined his movie with all of their ad-libbing
Linden Ashby [Johnny Cage]: There was just a lot to improve. And we sat down and we reworked the script to the point that I think the writer was not really thrilled with us. I remember seeing [screenwriter] Kevin Droney at a Christmas party after the movie had come out. And he introduced me to his date and goes, “This is the guy I told you about. This is the asshole that ruined my script.” (Laughs.) I was like, “Oh, hi.” It wasn’t a script to write home about, and we worked hard on it. We didn’t write Hamlet or anything, but we had a lot of fun with it.
7) They couldn’t kill any humans on screen and still get a PG-13
Apelian [Associate Producer]: We needed to make the movie PG-13. That was a tough one, being a very violent video game. We got in real close with the ratings board to find out how many curse words you could have, how much blood you can have. What we learned was if you killed a human onscreen, you got an R rating. What we needed to do was, any deaths that happened onscreen needed to be something other than a human. If you look at our movie, you had Goro killed onscreen, but you could get away with that and still get a PG-13 rating.
8) Cameron Diaz was their original Sonya Blade
Apelian [Associate Producer]: We originally had Cameron Diaz cast as Sonya Blade. We were at New Line when The Mask was in postproduction, and Cameron Diaz was not a household name. No one knew her. New Line said, “Why don’t you look some of the dailies that are coming in from this film and see what you think of this young, unknown actress.” As soon as we saw the dailies from The Mask, there was no question that she was a star. We put her into training, because she had not really done this kind of martial arts work before. She broke her wrist right before shooting to the point where she couldn’t do the martial arts stunts we needed. We were very happy with Bridgette [Wilson-Sampras]. It was great she was available.
9) They wanted Sean Connery to play Raiden
Apelian: We also inquired about Sean Connery for the Raiden role. But we understood at that time that he really wanted to golf. He wasn’t interested at that time in doing a physical role.
Christopher Lambert, Raiden: I had lunch with Paul Anderson and Larry Kasanoff, and they offered me the part. They gave me the script, and it was a fun script. Before I said yes, I watched Paul’s first movie, which was great. Then with the hat, the robe, the white hair — all this was obviously building the character. In the movie, because of his powers, he doesn’t need to train to practice. That was also good. It was the one and only action movie you didn’t have to train for.
Boon: Christopher Lambert did a great job. He brought a lot of his own personal performance to it. We were thinking so literally at the time. We were thinking Raiden is from Asian mythology. We never showed his face that clearly in the game, so we never really defined a race, but we didn’t think “the Highlander guy.” That wasn’t in our heads.
10) Christopher Lambert paid for the wrap party
Anderson: With Christopher, we did a creative deal so he only worked for like four or five weeks, for x amount of dollars. He was expensive, and he wasn’t going to be able to come to Thailand because he would be going way over what we’d paid him. So I developed this plan where we were going to do close-ups of Chris in L.A. and then wide shots of a double in Thailand, and then edit it together creatively. Christopher, when he found out, said, “Forget about that. I’m coming to Thailand.” He sensed this was going to make it a better movie if he could be there in those landscapes. And it is. I’m sure his agents and manager and lawyer were furious with him, because he basically came to Thailand for free. When he was there, he paid for the wrap party as well.
11) Goro was the $1 million puppet
Jonathan A. Carlson, production designer: [Goro] had 13 to 16 puppeteers. The cables were going all over the place. One guy would be doing the eyeballs. The other guy would be doing the eyebrows. The other guy would be manipulating something else. They spent $1 million on that puppet. When we designed the statuary gardens on the sound stage, it was meant to have beautiful koi ponds and oversized lilies and water and reflection pools and at the last minute they were afraid Goro might fall over and fall into one of my ponds and short circuit and ruin the electronics. Instead it was, “Let’s ruin Jonathan’s design and not put water in it,” so we took that part out.
Wilson-Sampras: I did all of my own stunts and all my own fighting, which was awesome. I didn’t have as long to prepare as everyone else did because they were able to work with the trainers for a few weeks prior to the filming. In the very beginning, I dislocated my shoulder. I did a partial dislocation, but it was weird because I was totally fine. They were worried. They popped it back in and we kept going. It was all good.
Anderson: Robin [Shou, Liu Kang] would rate the fights. They would be a one, a two or a three. That would refer to how many ribs he bruised when he did the fight. The Reptile fight was a three-rib fight, so he really felt like he’d delivered for me. I remember Linden Ashby as well. He was eating Advil like they were M&M’S. We just kicked the hell out of him during that fight. I remember him coming off set going, “I’ve never been in so much pain in my life.” And I’m like “How many ribs have you broken? Robin’s broken three!”
Ashby: I was fighting with Chris Casamassa [Scorpion], who funnily enough was my teacher. Chris did an ax kick to my kidneys in that fight. I had a pad on but his heel just came right between the pads and got me in the kidney, hard. I was peeing blood. It hurt a lot.
Shou: For my fight with Reptile, it needed to be a little bit more kinetic. I did everything in that scene. In one of the stunts, Reptile threw me and I hit this pillar and I actually fractured two ribs on that, because I didn’t expect I’d hit the edge of the pillar. That was also my 10th take, so I was a little tired. But I didn’t tell anyone. What’s the point? If I told them I fractured the ribs, they’re going to stop production and then there goes my Hollywood dream. I was hurting. I was taking a lot of Advil and then I continued the rest of the fight with two fractured ribs. I told Keith Cooke, who plays Reptile, “I’m hurt on the right side of my ribs so don’t kick me there.” I muscled through the fight and then went to the hospital.
13) Test-screening audiences forced them to go back and add in more signature video game moments
Kasanoff: When we tested the first cut of the movie, the audience response was 100 percent uniform. “We love everything we see. There are not enough fights in this movie.” We went back and spent a lot more money and we shot more fights.
Anderson: We added my favorite fights, which were the Scorpion fight with Johnny Cage and the Reptile fight with Liu Kang. We had a very good stunt coordinator, but as the movie went on, I wanted to embrace more of a Hong Kong, wirework martial arts feel. Robin was great for that, and he choreographed the extra fights. He was an actor, but he started as a stuntman in Hong Kong. He worked with Jackie Chan. He had a lot of knowledge.
14) The record companies hated the idea of releasing a soundtrack mostly full of electronic dance music
Kasanoff: The soundtrack was the first platinum EDM record ever in history. We insisted on using electronic dance music, which at the time was insane. We got kicked out of two record companies. We had a deal at Sony for a lot of money. In those days you could get a lot of money for a soundtrack — no longer. We walk in and say, here’s our idea. Electronic dance music. And they go, “No, here’s our idea. Buckethead!” He was a guy who played music with a bucket on his head. We were like, “Well, he’s a good guitar player …” they wanted Buckethead to duel Eddie Van Halen or something. And we said, “electronic dance music,” and they kicked us out. Then we go to Virgin Records. We walk in and say, “Great idea: electronic dance music.” And they say, “Yeah, how about Janet Jackson?” By the way, I love Janet Jackson, but we were like, “What? For Mortal Kombat? We get kicked out. Finally we get no record deal. The studio was great by backing us and letting us do that. We made the MK soundtrack and gave it to this little record company no one had ever heard of and we came out with the first EDM platinum soundtrack.
15) Anderson’s never-ending tenure with the Resident Evil movies is a direct result of his decision to pass on doing what became 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation
Anderson: After Mortal Kombat, I wanted to try something different. [New Line President] Mike [De Luca] asked me whether I’d be interested in coming back [for 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation]. I ended up doing something very different. I did Event Horizon next, which was super dark and couldn’t be more different from Mortal Kombat. I stretched my wings afterward. Looking back on it, I went, “Ah, maybe I should have done it.” It’s one of the reasons why on a go-forward basis, when I became involved with Resident Evil, I felt if I’m going to do another one of these adaptations, this time I’m going to stay with it. I’m going to really stay with the franchise and shepherd it. Ironically, me not doing Mortal Kombat II is kind of the reason I’ve ended up doing Resident Evil one, two, three, four, five, six …