Posted on Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014 by Germain Lussier
The 1993 Super Mario Bros movie is infamous for many reasons. Mostly, we know it because the film is based on a hugely popular video game property, and the resulting movie is so, so bad. It’s also significant because the film was such a miserable experience for everyone involved — most of all the people at Nintendo — that we’ve since been denied films based on some of Nintendo’s other fantastic properties.
So, what exactly went wrong? I found out recently by reading the book Console Wars by Blake J. Harris. The book, which tells the story of the war between Sega and Nintendo in the 1990s, has a chapter dedicated to the film and it’s absolutely fascinating. Names like Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks are mentioned. Dozens of screenwriters are discussed. Terrible on-set feuds led to abysmal behavior. It’s all there.
After reading the chapter I thought you, the /Film reader, would find it just as fascinating as I did. So I contacted the publisher HarperCollins and got permission to reprint the chapter on the Super Mario Bros movie just for you. Read it below.
The below excerpt is from Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris. The film is currently being turned into a documentary and then is aiming to be turned into a feature film produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Read more about that stuff here.
Below though you have a good chunk of Chapter 34 called “Cops and Robbers.” I’ve cut some of the set up, getting right to the Super Mario Bros movie talk. Enjoy.
From the book CONSOLE WARS: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris. Copyright (c) 2014 by Blake J. Harris. It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
“What about the movie?” [Tom] Kalinske cut in. [Head of Sega of America]
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I know a few journalists, and they seem pretty convinced that what’s happening in North Carolina is a complete disaster.”
“That’s a lie,” [Bill] White [Nintendo's director of advertising and public relations] said, knowing full well that what Kalinske had said was, in fact, the truth. Or at least it had been when Los Angeles Times writer Richard Stayton visited the North Carolina film set earlier that summer.
The movie in question was Super Mario Bros., the same one that Peter Main had excitedly announced at the Consumer Electronics Show back in January 1991. “Hey, Tom, why don’t you do yourself a favor and heed your own advice? Don’t believe everything you hear from the press. Especially the lies.”
Like every movie ever made, Super Mario Bros. started off with the best of intentions. In early 1990, just weeks after The Wizard hit the box office, White decided to get serious about making a movie based on Nintendo’s incredibly popular plumber. With The Wizard, which starred Fred Savage and centered around an autistic videogame prodigy, Nintendo had agreed to license their logos, trademarks, and game footage to Universal Pictures, who produced and distributed the movie. Nintendo was paid $100,000 for the intellectual property, but notably, and contrary to public opinion, they had no creative approval over the final film beyond the initial script and the implementation of game footage. On one hand, this deal could be viewed as a major coup for Nintendo, who was actually being paid to have a ninety-minute commercial produced about its games. But on the other hand, in this case the dominant hand, a company who considered their best quality to be control had effectively parted with that right for a modest sum. This is not to say that Universal kept Nintendo in the dark, because they didn’t—White even had an open invitation to visit the set in Reno—but it cautioned Nintendo against getting involved in a similar situation, especially after the resulting film turned out to be exceptionally mediocre, fun and watchable but not much more than a ninety-minute Nintendo commercial. Perhaps Nintendo’s commercials were guilty of being “just good enough,” but everything else the company produced was great, so when White pushed the idea of a Mario movie, Arakawa had been open to the idea as long as the movie could achieve greatness.
Throughout 1990, several movie studios made pitches to Nintendo, with story ideas, production budgets, and potential talent for the feature film. Competition for the film rights was intense, particularly at a time when four of the year’s highest-grossest films turned out to be action-adventure family movies (Home Alone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dick Tracy, and Kindergarten Cop). The suitors each made multimillion-dollar offers, but as Nintendo had learned with The Wizard, the money came with strings attached. And this time Nintendo cared less about the money and more about controlling those strings, which led them to bypass the movie studios in favor of a pair of independent filmmakers: Jake Eberts and Roland Joffe.
When Eberts and Joffe presented their creative vision, they were less concerned with their production company’s stature and more concerned about their personal track record. Both had made great films, but those films tended to involve death, rape, and the fragility of human life, like The Killing Fields, a 1984 Joffe-directed film about Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s state-sponsored genocide of two million innocent civilians. Although this was several shades darker than King Koopa’s death-by-Goomba strategy, Arakawa was impressed with the adult-skewed pitch and thought that perhaps a more serious film could attract an even larger audience. Feeling like Eberts and Joffe offered the best chance of something more than mediocrity, Arakawa and Yamauchi sold them the film rights to Super Mario Bros. at a reduced rate in October 1990. And from there, everything that could go wrong did.
Murphy’s Law first reared its head when Bill White, Nintendo’s point guy for the film, received a call from Joffe letting him know that Dustin Hoffman was extremely interested in playing the role of Mario. White was thrilled by this news, believing that the Oscar-winning actor had the perfect skill set to achieve Nintendo’s lofty goals: the dramatic chops to skew older (Rain Main), the cartoonish eccentricities to skew younger (Hook), and the ability to be taken seriously while acting silly (Tootsie). White asked Joffe to set up a meeting and then excitedly brought this news to Arakawa, who didn’t share the same enthusiasm. Instead, he just kind of scratched his head and said that Hoffman wouldn’t be right for the part. In traditional Arakawa fashion, when he was asked if there was any particular reason why not, NOA’s president thought for a moment, squinted ever so slightly, and then quietly said no before moving on to the next thing. By the time this response was relayed back to Joffe, a meeting had already been set up with the actor.
As a result, White was sent to New York for a two-hour meeting with Hoffman, where he was forced to reluctantly rain on Rain Man’s parade. With Hoffman out of the picture, White and the producers set their sights on Danny DeVito, who resembled a pudgy, charismatic plumber as much as anyone in Hollywood. Arakawa approved of this new choice, but the feeling turned out not to be mutual when DeVito turned down the role in order to focus on his directing career. Next on the list was a young actor named Tom Hanks who agreed to take the role for $5 million. But before signing the deal, the producers and Nintendo started to have second thoughts. Hanks’s recent credits included The ’Burbs, Turner & Hooch, and Joe Versus the Volcano, spurring serious doubts that he could handle a dramatic role. There were also concerns that although Hanks was tremendously likable, he lacked that “it” factor to carry a big-budget movie. And with Super Mario Bros. now budgeted at a hefty $40 million, the offer to Hanks was pulled. Hanks wasn’t thrilled but quickly got over the loss when his next two films (A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle) made him the most popular actor in Hollywood, and the next two (Philadelphia and Forrest Gump) won him Academy Awards for Best Actor.
When attaching actors to a film, this game of musical chairs is pretty common. But when it happens with writers and directors, that usually signifies it’s time to put your tray table in the upright position and brace for a crash landing in development hell. Although Joffe had directed many movies, he saw Super Mario Bros. as the perfect vehicle to launch his producing career; wanting to focus only on that aspect, he hired Greg Beeman to direct the movie. Beeman had a powerful, whimsical style, but because he had directed only one film to date (and because that film was an $8 million teen adventure romp starring Corey Feldman and Corey Haim), no distributor would finance production with Beeman at the helm. Without financing there would be no movie, so Beeman was jettisoned in favor of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, a husband-and-wife directing team based in London. Morton and Jankel were a pair of former music video directors famous for creating The Max Headroom Show, a cutting-edge British TV program featuring the world’s first computer-generated talk-show host. In keeping with Max Headroom’s subversive spirit, Morton and Jankel wanted the movie not only to skew older but also to slant much darker, dingier, and a bit demented.
Although this direction frightened White and Nintendo more than a little, they had approved the hiring of Morton and Jankel, so it stood to reason that they ought to let their new directors do what they did best. In order to pull that off, however, the new directors needed a script that reflected their hyperkinetic vision.