Super Mario Bros.’s Rocky Morton: ‘It was a harrowing experience’

Director Rocky Morton had the worst time making Super Mario Bros

Super Mario Bros

Back in 1993, video games were still seen by many as something of an evil: they were corrupting the minds of children, ruining their educations and turning them into brainless zombies. As a result, there weren’t a lot of video game-inspired films around. So when it was announced that the Super Mario Bros. were making it to the silver screen, it was kind of a big deal. But for directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, it quickly became a big deal for all the wrong reasons. Morton gave us some idea as to why…

SciFiNow: Super Mario Bros. was in development before you and Annabel Jankel came on board, so how did you end up getting involved with the film?

Rocky Morton: We were with CAA, the agency, and our agent set over the script for Super Mario Bros. and I read it and I hated it, but I sort of loved the concept for it. I said to Annabel, I said, ‘This script is terrible but I think this could be our Batman!’ And she asked me how and why, and I came up with this idea of this parallel universe where the dinosaurs didn’t actually disappear, the just got shifted into another dimension and then these two hapless plumbers happened to cross the dimension.

They had a problem because Mario, who’s the elder brother, didn’t have any parents and so Mario raised Luigi as a mother and a father and Luigi always resented that, and never really had the big brother that he always wanted. He just had this beefy mother figure. That was their problem and they had to resolve that while they had this wild adventure saving with world from these dinosaurs that had evolved into these humanoid figures, and deliberately distorting the story, because this is the true story of the Mario Bros. What happened when they made the video game was the Japanese found out about the story but they kind of got it wrong. That’s why the film is different to the game. It was a deliberate choice. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, they got it wrong.’ We didn’t. It was a deliberate thing.

How did Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo end up being casted as Mario and Luigi?  

Well, Danny De Vito turned us down. Mario was the main character in the cast, and Bob was available. It was basically about availability. There are all these stories about the way people are cast but it’s normally about availability… Then we saw lots of different Luigis and John stood out because of his comic timing, his ability to be real but also be funny at the same time. Bob had that ability too. We wanted it to have a reality to it, especially the relationship, and we wanted it to be funny but not just a series of gags. We didn’t want it to be a broad comedy – although some of it clearly is a broad comedy – but the original script wasn’t like the final script. The original script was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, and it was much more of a family film that appealed to adults as well as kids. It was more sophisticated and the story of the two brothers was a lot stronger.

But it was an independent film and the producers needed more money and a studio behind them, and the studios rejected the script because they thought it was too dark. That threw them into complete panic, and instead of sticking with the script that Annabel and I wrote with Dick and Ian, they threw it out and told us to work with a new writer. The new writer wrote it in about a week and a half and then we were presented with the script. That was about a week before the start of principle photography. We were given a script that was completely different, and Annabel and I almost walked off the film at that point. The problem was that they’d build all the sets and created the prosthetics, and the cast was together and they’d found this great place to shoot it… We really thought we’d end up walking, but we decided to try to make the new script work as we were shooting.

Did you get much say in changing the script while you were shooting?

We had to, yeah. One day, we’d be on set and the actor would pick up the crystal but it wouldn’t work with the continuity. Someone would say, ‘You can’t pick that crystal up because we’re shooting out of sequence. If you look on page 24 the crystal is actually here.’ And we’d think, oh god, yeah, it’s a mistake! So someone had to say to all the actors, ‘Okay, we’re going to relight the set but it will take a while. Go back to the trailers while we relight the set.’ It was like that every day.

John Leguizamo and the late Bob Hoskins as Luigi and Mario
John Leguizamo and the late Bob Hoskins as Luigi and Mario

With everything that kept going wrong, was it a tough experience?

Tough? That’s a very mild word. It was a harrowing experience. I mean, we had five units working every day… We had this enormous set that was built with not enough money to light it… I’d ask for a crane to put the camera on, you know, because we’re making a movie, and there wasn’t any money for a crane for a movie that size! [Laughs] Stuff like that was happening all the time. It was hell.

Was it a really stressful set with people panicking all the time?

Yeah, because Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ script was the script that Annabel and I wanted to make. It was a different script, and the actors were all brought onboard for that script, and then it was completely changed. I had to stand by with the new script, obviously, and tell them that it was great when I knew it wasn’t. They were all saying, ‘Where’s the original script? Where’s the one we liked?’ and we’d have to tell them it’s all new, it’s all new and different now. So everybody was angsty and uppity, and the whole thing was thrown into turmoil because of that one decision.

Dennis Hopper is quite notorious for being difficult to work with. Did you find that too?

Again, ‘quite’. The word is ‘extremely’. That was really, really hard. Really hard. I don’t think he had a clue what was going on. There was one particular incident; we had to shoot out of sequence because of the script changes, and we had to shoot on one of the sets that wasn’t ready yet, and we had to shoot on a long lens. I had to position Dennis in a certain way because if I shot off, I would be shooting off the set, so I had to change his position and he said, ‘Rocky, that’s a big change!’ and I said, ‘All I want you to do is instead of walking here I want you to walk there,’ and because of the whole mess he just couldn’t handle it. I said, ‘Yeah, but we’re shooting off the set if you walk that way.’ It was stuff like that. On and on. It was mind-blowing.

Is it nice to see the film still being discuss, especially as it’s now out on Blu-ray?

I’m proud of the achievement in the face of what Annabel and I had to go through to make that film. The thing that I’m most proud of is the originality of it, because that all came from our head. You know, we created all those characters—I mean, obviously the characters were created for the video game, but we brought all those to life and we created that world. So I’m proud of that, and I think it was an achievement, but it’s a messy film. It’s a big mess. You can’t rewrite a script for a film that big and go into production in a week without it being a mess. But we did the best we could with what we had. And then we tried to edit it together at the end to make more sense of the mess, and we were locked out of the edit room. We had to get the Directors’ Guild of America to open the edit room for us. We were only in there for a week and then they locked it again, so there wasn’t enough time really to pull it all together. Annabel and I were the only ones that knew the story inside out and we were trying to edit it a certain way, but it wasn’t possible.

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