The film — which broke the video game curse 20 years ago this week — survived broken ribs, bruised kidneys and ridicule from Hollywood: "Everyone was telling me this wouldn't work and my career would be over," recalls producer Larry Kasanoff.
Super Mario Bros. (1993) and Double Dragon (1994) were total bombs — despised by critics and fans alike. The campy Street Fighter (1994) fared better financially but was still years away from earning a cult following on home video.
So it was against all odds when Mortal Kombat hit No. 1 in theaters 20 years ago on Aug. 18, 1995. The film grossed $122 million worldwide and broke the video game curse as the first adaptation embraced by fans.
Mortal Kombat endured expensive reshoots, broken ribs and screaming executives during its journey from arcade to screen. That journey began when producer Larry Kasanoff was visiting some friends at Midway Games in June 1993. He'd previously worked with James Cameron, turning Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) into a merchandising phenomenon worth millions. Among its crowning achievements was the T2 arcade game, a slick rail shooter that broke records for Midway.
The guys at Midway showed Kasanoff Mortal Kombat, a new game they said would beat his T2 record. It was bloody, hyper-realistic and already a sensation at the arcade. But Kasanoff believed it was destined to be more than just a video game. He envisioned it as a phenomenon on the order of T2. He saw a TV series, stage shows, albums and movies all in its future.
Midway wasn't so sure.
"YOU'RE FULL OF CRAP! IT'S JUST AN ARCADE GAME!"
In June 1993, Larry Kasanoff is catching up with friends at Midway Games' offices, who are high on their new arcade sensation, 'Mortal Kombat.' Their follow-up, 'Mortal Kombat II,' was in the testing phase, and Kasanoff is stunned by his first look at the series, which had yet to hit home video game consoles.
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?"
Kasanoff: Everyone was telling me this wouldn't work and my career would be over. Including New Line. They'd already greenlighted the movie, and the studio head walked in with the script, threw it down on the table and said, "I hate the script. I hate this movie." And he yelled at us for an hour and then said, "Go ahead and make it."
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.
Apelian: Paul would come in every single day with these amazing, creative ideas with how to shoot something or how to create some fantastical scene. Because of our monetary restraints, we weren't able to do exactly what he was coming up with, but it would lead to something else.
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.
THE KOMBATANTS ASSEMBLE
Anderson enters preproduction in early 1994, with the script from screenwriter Kevin Droney still in progress. Hong Kong martial arts veteran Robin Shou is a top choice for Liu Kang — but landing the part proves to be a grueling process.
Robin Shou, Liu Kang: It was the toughest casting process. I was working in Hong Kong back then, but I was visiting the U.S. because I'm from here originally. A friend of mine from an agency says, "They're casting for this movie Mortal Kombat." At first I laughed because Mortal Kombat is the dumbest name. Mortal Kombat? A video game turned into a movie? A good friend of mine kept hounding me, saying, "You should really go for this. Meet for them." I read seven times. My agent friend had never heard of anyone who had to read seven times. I had to read for the producers, the director, the casting director, the line producer and then my final reading was with New Line. They were really hands-on as far as picking this Asian Liu Kang, because he's an Asian lead and they're investing millions. It was grueling.
Anderson: The script was kind of being written while we were in preproduction, which is a challenging thing, but it was a good thing, because it gave me the opportunity to help steer the direction. When it came to actually shooting the movie, I really encouraged the actors to ad lib quite a lot. It was a lot of the humor in the movie. There's a lot of good humor, especially coming form Linden Ashby [Johnny Cage] and Christopher Lambert [Raiden].
Linden Ashby, Johnny Cage: We came up with, "Those were $500 sunglasses, asshole," and the silly moment in the movie, the opening when I walk in and I go, "Let's dance."
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.
Ashby: 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.
Apelian: 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.
Kasanoff: I never thought we were making a movie based on the video game. I always thought what we had to do was imply that the video game is the first incarnation of some story that exists sort of one up the pyramid. I always thought there's a story that exists, and the first incarnation of that story was the video game. Now let's go back to that story well and see how we can craft a movie from that. It doesn't contradict the video game, it adds to it.
Apelian: 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.
Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, Sonya Blade: The casting process was really long. I went back and auditioned and met with them so many times. Probably seven. I kept going back and going back and meeting with Paul and Larry and the producers. Then I got Billy Madison. So I went and filmed Billy Madison and thought, "Oh my gosh, I'm going to lose the part" because they couldn't make a decision. Then on my last day of filming on Billy Madison, they called me up asked, "Will you do it if we fly you out the next morning?" and I said "Yeah!" I was so happy both worked out.
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. For Johnny Cage, we needed to have an actor who could come across with the cockiness that the character required but still showed the humanity. Linden came in and had just the right combination of being that sort of cocky actor while still bringing humanity to the character and a warmth. With Talisa [Soto, Kitana] and Bridgette, we had two characters that were well rounded. I didn't want the women to be cardboard characters. They needed to have a strength and an independence and an intellect that went well beyond their beauty and being sexy. They really were intelligent, strong women.
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.
Anderson: When you make your first Hollywood movie, there's a great danger as a young filmmaker that you will be overwhelmed by the scale of them. Having the big guy on set, the person who is being paid the most money, who is the biggest name, be someone like Christopher really helps you. He was laid-back, he was chill, and nothing was too much trouble for him. And that person sets the tone on the set. Because if it's not any trouble for him, it can't be trouble for anybody else.
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.
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.
IT HAS BEGUN
The crew assembles for the first part of the shoot in Los Angeles before heading over to Thailand for the last month, where many of the signature scenes were filmed.
Ashby: We started out in Santa Monica Airport, where we shot a lot. We had big sets. There's a bar down there on the south side of the field, and we used to go there Friday when we'd wrap. Oh my God. Just crazy stuff. There was a medic who was a funny guy, quirky. He was very into security on the set. He should have been a security guy instead of a medic. Tom Cruise had a hangar nearby and came over and was like, "Hey what are you guys shooting? Can I check it out?" And the medic goes, "You're not in this movie. Go away!" And Tom Cruise goes, "I just want to see," and he goes, "I don't care who you are, get out of here!" He turned away Tom Cruise!
Larry Kasanoff (right) with the expensive Goro animatronic. (Courtesy: Larry Kasanoff)
Anderson: Goro was created by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis from Amalgamated Dynamics. Tom was the guy in the Alien costume for Alien 3. Goro was a big creation, with a lot of computers and a lot of guys working around him. He broke down a lot, and we would have to wait for him. Goro became the diva of the set. Everyone would joke about it and say, "Goro won't come out of his trailer." We blocked him and I tried to shoot him as creatively as possible to kind of shoot around the limitations of working with a big animatronic like that. We did little bits of CG enhancement to help with his lip sync and stuff. There was a production meeting where we discussed taking Goro to Thailand, and I said, "that's never going to happen. He's barely behaving himself in a studio in Burbank. I don't know what he'd do in Thailand."
Jonathan A. Carlson, production designer: That guy 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.
Anderson: The first fight scene I shot with Robin Shou — 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.
Shou: When Pat [E. Johnson] choreographed the fights, he had to make it as comfortable as possible for me. I had a lot of ideas from Hong Kong cinema. It's a little bit stylized, but it's an action, martial arts, kung fu movie, so it's OK to be stylized. So he gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted, basically. He would give me a scenario and he'll start off the first few moves, and then I would either finish it or just go to the next few moves the way I feel the flow should be. Then he would give suggestions. "Maybe we shouldn't do this because at this point, storywise, we need to go to this story point." In a fight scene, there is still a story point. He would give me that kind of direction, and I would just change the fight according to his direction. Choreography is like dance. The whole point is how to get from point A to point B and point B to point C, and at point C you finish the fight. You design moves that get you from one point to another and then you wrap it up at the end. I had a lot of input on the fights.
Anderson: Going to Thailand was an important decision because I wanted to get big, real landscapes. When we went on a location scout, the beaches I really liked were the ones you couldn't get to. We had to bring in all of the equipment on a boat every morning. It was wonderful because I went to work on a speedboat every day. It didn't matter how tired you were from the night before. By the time you got to work with the wind blowing in your hair, going at 60 miles per hour across this bay, it was fantastic. You were ready to rock.
Carlson: Being in Thailand, they had a different mentality about set-building and creating things. I'd say, "Guys, all these boulders, we've got to move them over here." They'd get about 100 guys and they'd have a cigarette and they'd get around the boulder and they'd argue about which way to roll it and then they'd roll it one roll. Then they'd stop and they'd get another cigarette out and yell and scream more about which way to roll it. Finally you'd come back at the end of of the day and the boulder would be on the other side. They didn't just take a backhoe and lift it up and take it over there in five minutes. "No, no, no. That's not how we do it in Thailand." Then we found this local guy who owned a lot of heavy equipment. We hired him, and he came down and smacked everybody around and screamed and yelled at everybody. After that day it was chop, chop. The first month without him — it was hell. Nothing was getting done. Pressure was mounting. He smacked a couple of guys and after that, boy, stuff started getting built quickly.
Ashby: In Thailand, there were some guys that went upriver in a big way. It was so hot. You're shooting in the tropics and the amount of alcohol that was consumed — you'd stand there and people would be sweating and it'd smell like a distillery. You'd be standing next to somebody and they'd just drop down in the dirt. They were out. Everyone is hurting so badly at this point. You just look at the guy laying there and you'd be like, "Oh. Cut." Nobody even got worked up about it.
Wilson-Sampras: I was the totally straitlaced one who finished work and went to my room. That was always my MO — so sad. I do remember they had quite a good time there. I had a blast, just differently. My mom came with me. Was I even 21 at that point or was I still 20? We toured around and had a blast. It was the most beautiful place you've ever seen.
Carlson: We took A-B foam to new heights in theater or film. It's yellow foam that expands 28 or 30 times over its own weight. It's amazing stuff. It's a derivative of white Styrofoam that can become hard as a rock or soft as a marshmallow, or it can be easily carvable in a certain mixture. Before you knew it, we were creating our own world with this A-B foam. We'd take hemp rope and we'd spray it and it'd foam up and it'd become big vines. Or we'd spray it on plastic and peal it off and crack it and it would become giant leaves. We had teams of people going through Bangkok, because back then it was hard to find Styrofoam in Thailand. I had guys searching alleys and stereo shops all over, grabbing Styrofoam where they could.
Bridgette Wilson-Sampras on set. (Photo courtesy Larry Kasanoff).
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. Luckily, they pushed my big fight scene with Kano (Trevor Goddard) to the end when we were in Thailand filming, so I had the duration of filming to train during lunch or off times. 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 made me undergo these tests. They said, "You must have a shoulder issue and you're not telling us because you're handling this really well. You must have a trick shoulder." I said, "I swear I don't. I don't know what happened." They popped it back in and we kept going. It was all good.
Kasanoff: Some of those fights took two weeks to shoot. There is no fake fighting in there. If you see a guy run and jump on someone's head and flip them over, he did it. We scoured the world looking for these unique martial artists and brought them in and wrote fights around their skills. So one guy has skill x, we'd write the fight around skill x to showcase it.
Boon: At the time for me, craft services was a novelty. Seeing people in the costume and hearing them say, "Tomorrow the guy who plays Shang Tsung is going to be here. Next week we're shooting the Sub Zero/Liu Kang fight." You could see things were planned out. This was a very real thing with a budget. It was very cool for guys in their 20s just seeing what happened with this game turned into a movie.
Producer Larry Kasanoff and Robin Shou on set. (Courtesy Larry Kasanoff)
"I WAS PEEING BLOOD"
After wrapping in Thailand, test audiences tell the team that the film is great — but there's one major problem.
Ashby: We wrapped production and we put together a cut of the film, and they realized it didn't have the big signature fights.
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