Interview: Rocky Morton, ‘Super Mario Bros.’

The name Rocky Morton may not be instantly familiar with many of today’s film fans, but in the late 1980s he was the co-creator (along with Annabel Jankel) of the cutting edge and hugely popular transatlantic satirical television series, Max Headroom (1987-1988). Martin and Jankel went on to co-direct Denis Quaid and Meg Ryan in D.O.A. (1998) before being offered the chance of a lifetime directing the video game adaptation of Super Mario Bros. (1993). Unfortunately the film failed to impress critics, bombed at the box office and became renowned for its tumultuous behind-the-scenes exploits. Now re-released on DVD and Blu-ray (you can read our review here), we recently spoke with Morton about his experiences on the film.

Adam Lowes: We’ve heard various accounts from the actors on the film about their experiences, but nothing really from the filmmakers. Are you able to give us your side about the kind of issues you faced?

Rocky Morton: It was the first film made of a video game. Back then the gaming world was a fairly new phenomenon and I think parents were just starting to witness their kids playing video games and now suddenly Hollywood were turning them into movies and it just felt wrong at the time. There was a backlash against it.

AL: Super Mario Bros. was a big leap for you both in terms of budget and scope. At the time did you feel much pressure taking on such a monumental production?

RM: When the original script came to us it was tailored towards a very young audience. I read it and wasn’t a fan but I thought the idea of using the game’s characters in a movie was interesting. My concept was to tell the story of how Mario and Luigi came to be in the video game, and I wanted to create two real-world characters who lived in Brooklyn and what happens to them and the wild adventure they go on.

AL: It must have been tricky trying to ground the characters in that fantasy world?

RM: After I read the early script and didn’t like it, I went away and completely rewrote the idea. I came up with the dinosaur world and the idea that when the meteorite hits the earth, and basically wipes out all the dinosaurs, a dual reality is created which runs alongside ours. Millions of years later, the Mario Bros. are able to step into this parallel universe and experience the evolution of the dinosaurs. I pitched this to the producers and they loved it and thought it was great. I also told them I wanted to create a story which focused on the relationship between two brothers. The older brother, Mario, was basically the parent of the Luigi.

We got two writers to help both Annabel and me build on this idea and they were Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. These two guys were exactly what we required to help make a film which would appeal to adults but was also a family film. Kids would enjoy the duo’s adventures but the parents would respond to the brother’s relationship and the love story between Luigi and the character of Daisy. Clement and La Frenais wrote an incredible script, we got the finance together and started making the film. Then, all of a sudden there was a crisis of confidence because it was an independent film and they needed a big studio behind them for the extra capital to finish it. The studio they found immediately rejected the script because they said it was ‘too dark’. It had been deliberately planned that way because you have to go to that place in order to tell an adult story about the relationships. It couldn’t be soft and your typically Disney-esque movie. By this point we were in production and busy building the sets and creating the character design. Everything from the dinosaur world came from mine and Annabel’s imagination. It was a huge effort to out together and then all of a sudden the script was rejected and it was now ten days before principal photography was to begin.

AL: It sounds like a real nightmare for you both. You guys had a vision in your heads you had been working on for months and then suddenly, at the eleventh hour, without any prior knowledge you had to scramble to put something else together?

RM: It was really hard for the actors to get their heads around and was incredibly tough for us to direct. We’d be on the set and all of a sudden the continuity person would come up to us and explain why we couldn’t have an actor refer to a certain prop as it didn’t correlate to the new script which was filled with mistakes after having been written so quickly. I would then have go into my trailer and hurriedly rewrite the scene to try and make sense of everything.

AL: Were there any happy accidents which came out of that process?

RM: The Goomba lift stuff worked out really well and I think the film is still very imaginative and there isn’t really anything like it out there. If the script hadn’t been rewritten and we hadn’t got into such a mess, I think it would have worked much better, but it still kinda hangs together. Many of the adults I’ve spoken to who watched the film as a kid really loved it.

AL: Marvel are known for the tight control they exert over their properties. Were you ever reined in by Nintendo?

RM: No, not at all. I met the creator [of the game] very briefly but he didn’t speak English very well so that didn’t go too far. The only thing Nintendo insisted on was that it had to be finished by Christmas of that year [1993] otherwise the producers would have to pay an enormous penalty, so that was an additional pressure for us to get it completed in post. There was a point when we were locked out of the editing room and we had to get the D.G.A. in to fight for us to go back in because it was only us who really knew how to piece the film together. We managed to get in there, but it was pretty useless. Our instructions weren’t carried through. The producers basically edited the film and were in charge of the music choices too.

AL: The video game adaptation has still proved a hard nut to crack over the years. What are your thoughts on that?

RM: When you play a video game you’re having a kind of cinematic experience anyway, and then [with the film adaptation] you have to exchange that experience for another. I think that both mediums might be a little too similar.

Adam Lowes