Hollywood couldn’t help but be interested in Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. It was 1991 and Nintendo’s NES console was king and Mario a superstar. Yet although several studios had already begun to make overtures to the Japanese company about the possibility of a movie based on Mario, they faced unlikely competition. A pair of independent filmmakers — Roland Joffé, the British director of heavy-hitting dramas like The Killing Fields and The Mission, and Jake Eberts, producer of the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves — were way ahead of them.
Joffé first visited Nintendo of America in 1991 after the idea of a Super Mario movie was mooted during a script meeting at his production company. He met NOA’s then-president Minoru Arakawa, Nintendo boss Hiroshi Yamauchi’s son-in-law. The filmmaker presented a pitch for the Super Mario Bros. movie with illustrations and a rough storyline. “Arakawa was getting lots of suitors,” recalls Joffé. “But something tickled him about the personal presentation I made. We weren’t a studio and, at one point, he said to me: ‘You know we’ve had people offering us $5, $10 million to buy the rights’. With a gulp I said, ‘We could probably run to $500,000’. He just smiled a rather monkish sort of smile: amused and rather touched.”
By all accounts, Nintendo should have kicked him out of the office for offering such a laughable sum. But they didn’t. A month later, Joffé flew out to Nintendo’s corporate headquarters in Kyoto. The producer spent 10 lonely days in Japan, sleeping on tatami mats and waiting for an audience, never knowing when the phone would ring.
Finally Joffé received a phone call summoning him to Yamauchi’s office. He pitched Nintendo’s boss a storyline involving Mario, Luigi and a host of dinosaurs. Yamauchi listened quietly to the presentation. The producer, who describes the Super Mario Bros. game as “a food chain game — it tells us we’re all just somebody else’s dinner”, was determined not to do a simple kid’s fantasy. “One of the things I said [to Yamauchi] was, ‘Look we’re not going to do a sweet little lovey-dovey sort of story. It’s got to have an edge to it’.”
Nintendo’s president was intrigued. “I think he just kind of really liked it,” recalls Joffé. “I think he really liked the tea too.” When Yamauchi quizzed him why Nintendo would want to sell the rights to a boutique producer instead of a major studio, Joffé argued that Nintendo would have more control over the finished product — although it turned out that the company actually had little interest in a creative partnership. For Nintendo the whole thing was an experiment and they believed the Mario brand was strong enough not to be derailed by a movie. “I think they looked at the movie as some sort of strange creature that was kind of rather intriguing to see if we could walk or not.”
After Nintendo sold Joffé and Eberts the rights for a song — around $2 million — Hollywood was uproar. No one could quite believe that these two filmmakers had bagged the most sought after brand name of the new decade. Little did the studios realise that they had had a narrow escape.
Some movies can be hell to make but heaven to watch. Super Mario Bros. wasn’t one of those. Indeed the production could be taken as a blueprint of how not to adapt a videogame. Budgeted at around $40 million, the project had a torturous pre-production process. Director Greg Beeman was initially hired to handle the shoot, but no studio would buy the project and Joffé decided Beeman “didn’t have the stretch for it”. Meanwhile, there were multiple screenplay drafts by Barry Morrow, co-screenwriter of Rain Man, and Parker Bennett and Terry Runte. Beginning with just a concept and a name, it was hard to hammer out a story for the videogames’ paper-thin characters.
After Beeman’s departure, Joffé turned to British directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. The husband and wife team were the co-creators of The Max Headroom Show, which ran in the mid-1980s on Channel 4 in the U.K. An MTV-style selection of music videos strung together, its main draw was Max, a fake artificial intelligence with a distinctive, looping stutter, who served as the programme’s presenter.
Although both directors knew Super Mario Bros. — as everyone did in 1992 — neither were particularly immersed in videogame culture. “We weren’t wildly enthusiastic gamers,” says Jankel. “I don’t think either of us had ever fully involved ourselves in the game at all, which might have had something to do with the end result. We played it for research. It’s a bit like if you’re doing an adaptation of something, you do your due diligence. But it’s not like we were up all through the night playing it.” What they did have, though, was a vision. Morton was determined not to make a kids movie. Like Joffé, he thought Super Mario Bros. should be dark and edgy. “That’s where the conflict happened,” the co-director says. “I knew Super Mario Bros. looked visually like a kids’ videogame but I also knew it was played by people of all ages, including adults.”
Morton and Jankel took the screenplay through several revisions in early 1992. It was weirdly adult, full of street walkers and drug references and Mad Max-style desert death races. Unlike Shigeru Miyamoto’s colourful games, it was set in a drab, parallel universe New York that was ruled by dinosaurs who’d evolved into humanoids. It was strong enough to attract a cast: Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo signed on as the Brooklyn plumbers who stumble into this other world; Samantha Mathis was Daisy, the cute palaeontologist who’re they trying to save. Dennis Hopper played the villainous King Koopa, changed from the fire-breathing turtle of the games into a dinosaur man with an eight-inch tongue. Despite nodding to some of the Super Mario Bros. franchise’s most memorable features and characters — including the sewer pipes, Mario’s dinosaur helper Yoshi, and baddies Iggy and Spike — the screenplay had little to do with the games it was based on.
Depending on who you listen to, what happened next was possibly the moment that everything started to go wrong. Late in pre-production, just before shooting began, several big-hitting executives from the major studios flew down to visit the sprawling sets that were being built in the abandoned cement factory. What they saw surprised them. Production designer David L. Snyder’s sets looked post-apocalyptic, full of battered New York taxis, flashing neon and a sprawling mass of metal walkways that looked as if they were leftover from his work on Blade Runner. They had little to do with the primary-coloured backdrops familiar from the games. Clearly, this wasn’t going to be the kids’ movie everyone was expecting.
Joffé was adamant that Super Mario Bros. wouldn’t be for kids. His production company’s research suggested that Mario’s appeal stretched beyond just the under-12s. It included teenagers and adults too. The screenplay called for scenes with strippers, hookers and much raunchiness. “This wasn’t Snow White and the Seven Dinosaurs,” says the producer. “The dinosaur world was dark and we didn’t want to hold back.”
Morton believes that the movie studios executives who visited the cement factory weren’t happy with the tone set by the screenplay. Audiences would expect Mario to be a cute, family movie. The problem was that it was too late in the day to repurpose the whole project. Instead, the production became caught between its original vision and a lot of last-minute tinkering. “The producers decided to take onboard the comments of the studio and change the material to accommodate the comments that were coming back from the studios: which was, this was supposed to be a kids’ movie,” says the co-director. “They panicked”. A week before principal photography, with the cast about to arrive and the sets built, a new screenplay was commissioned from Ed Solomon, who co-wrote Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. When Morton called the writer to discuss the new draft he was reprimanded. “The producers found out I’d made this call and they forbade me to speak to the writer — the writer who was going to write the script I had to direct.”
When shooting started, Morton and Jankel tried to salvage what they could of the story. Pages were rewritten on a daily basis. It got to the point where the actors didn’t bother reading the new pages, knowing full well that more would likely follow before the clapperboard clapped. The general atmosphere on set was totally anarchic.
It didn’t help that the whole production was diverging so drastically from the source material. Nintendo were nowhere to be seen. The creature design teams abandoned the game’s Goomba villains — walking shiitake mushrooms — and replaced them with an army of surreal dino-humanoids with oversized bodies and pinheads. They looked like something out of Tod Browning’s horror film Freaks. Meanwhile the costume department threw together rubber, PVC and leather outfits like something out of a Skin Two catalogue. If you’d never played the games, the production made no sense. If you had played the games, it still made no sense.
According to many accounts, Jankel and Morton were out of their depth, pulled between the demands of the producers, their attempts to rewrite on-the-hoof and the logistical enormity of the production. Used to shooting commercials and TV, the scale of the film was a shock. They became obsessed with minutiae. Joffé recalls finding the directors and cast locked in a script meeting in the middle of shooting over a scene that was just 11 lines long. “I had to jolly everyone back on set. It was like being a schoolmaster,” he says. Morton remembers himself and Jankel being hauled into the producers’ trailer on a nightly basis. “We were told we were going to be fired, we were doing a terrible job. Every night we were told this. We were [told we were] behind, spending too much money, the budget was haemorrhaging, and the whole thing was a disaster.”
There were enormous tensions on set. Hoskins — gruff, cockney and never one to suffer fools gladly — was particularly aggrieved by the directors’ behaviour. “The worst thing I ever did? Super Mario Bros.,” he claimed years later. “It was a fuckin’ 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! Fuckin’ nightmare. Fuckin’ idiots.”
After principal photography wrapped, the directors returned to LA to discover that various cast members had spoken to the LA Times. The story ran on the front page of the paper’s Calendar section and contained a lurid catalogue of complaints about the directors and accusations that the movie was a total car wreck. When Morton arrived at the editing suite he found he’d been locked out, but there was worse to come.
dumped us immediately,” he remembers. “We couldn’t get an agent. No scripts would come. We couldn’t get meetings. Literally, the phones stopped ringing. It all was because of that front page article. Everyone reads Calendar in LA. Nobody wanted to touch us. We were like lepers in Hollywood. Still to this day I have projects and I call up the managers and agents to try and represent it and they say ‘You did Super Mario Bros.? Oh God…’ It was like 20 years ago, but it’s still there. What can you do?”
When the film had its red carpet premiere, it was apparent to everyone that it captured none of the magic of the games. Miyamoto and various Nintendo employees flew in from Japan to see how their bestselling franchise looked the big screen. Polite to a fault, Miyamoto has yet to comment candidly on Hollywood’s bastardisation of his most iconic creation.
Despite its box office failure and troubled production, Joffé remains proud of Super Mario Bros. “It’s not that I defend the movie, it’s just that, in its own extraordinary way, it was an interesting and rich artefact and has earned its place. It has strange cult status.” The producer never heard what Yamauchi thought of the finished movie that he pitched to him in Japan in ‘91. “They never phoned up to complain,” he says. “They were very polite, Nintendo.”