Posted on Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014 by Germain Lussier
The original script for Super Mario Bros. was supposed to be written by Barry Morrow, who had recently won an Academy Award for his Rain Man screenplay, but his initial treatment outlined a darker movie that Nintendo had anticipated. Like Rain Man, Morrow’s vision centered around the complexity of brotherly relationships and even mimicked the relationship between Tom Cruise’s and Dustin Hoffman’s characters, with Mario serving as something of a heroic guardian to his lower-functioning younger brother, Luigi. Nintendo wanted serious, but this was too serious and, besides, wasn’t The Wizard already kind of a Nintendo-inspired reboot of Rain Man? Instead of revising his vision, Morrow was displeased by its reception, not to mention Dustin Hoffman’s being passed over for Mario, and stepped aside to allow someone else to give it a go. As a result, while the press kept printing stories about how an Oscar winner was bringing Mario to the big screen, the first script was actually penned by Jim Jennewein and Tom S. Parker in early 1991.
Jennewein and Parker were an unusual choice given that they had no previous screenwriting credits, but although they lacked experience, they possessed something that Hollywood valued even more: heat. A few months earlier, the unknown pair had sold a spec script called Stay Tuned to Morgan Creek for $750,000, and in the period that followed, they became the industry’s newest next great writers and got the gig to write Super Mario Bros. Jennewein and Parker, who went on to script child-friendly adaptations of The Flintstones and Richie Rich, wrote a lighthearted modern-day fairy tale that upped the ante for an adult audience with complex characters and tongue-in-cheek humor. The script was praised by Nintendo and the producers, but because it had been written specifically for Beeman to direct, it was tossed aside when Morton and Jankel took over.
The new directors wanted something less fantastical and more steeped in the mythos of science fiction. To give life to this concept, they hired Parker Bennett and Terry Runte, who were best known for writing the outlandish movie Mystery Date, about a teenage boy whose dream date with the girl next door turns into a nightmare when he finds a dead body in the trunk and other horrors ensue. Again, White and Nintendo were skeptical of where this was headed, but they felt that Morton and Jankel deserved the chance to follow their instincts; besides, they had the safety of creative approval. To Nintendo’s surprise, the sci-fi script was actually not so bad. It had the futuristic flair of a space opera but still contained many enjoyable fantasy tropes, like Mario and Luigi being at the center of an age-old prophecy, and a magical talking book that aids the plumbers on their quest through a mushroom-infested reality. By mid-1991 the project now seemed to be moving in a direction that satisfied Nintendo, the producers, and the directors. Despite a few false starts to the process, the many parties involved with the movie couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief and give in to the notion that this just might work out after all. But little did they know that all this was soon to be sabotaged by the directors.
Morton and Jankel eventually deemed this latest script to be too blah, and had the writers amp it up to be more like Ghostbusters—larger than life, comedic, and centered around a snarky Bill Murray–type. With this in mind, Bennett and Runte introduced the concept of Dinohattan, a parallel urban universe where dinosaurs had never gone extinct and where King Koopa and his evil cronies ruled with an iron fist. As the writers were rushing to finish the draft, Bob Hoskins (and not a Bill Murray–esque actor like Tom Hanks) was now the top target to play Mario, and major revisions were needed. With the financiers pressing the filmmakers to get this movie into production, the directors fired the writers and replaced them with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who delivered something more in the action-packed vein of Die Hard (and whose script even included a scene where Bruce Willis made a cameo, tunneling through the air ducts of King Koopa’s castle). Nintendo and the producers saw the script and wanted something more grounded, which led Clement and La Frenais to write another draft that had the realism that Nintendo wanted, the grit that the producers desired, and the off-kilter dystopian feel that the directors craved. By appeasing all parties, this March 1992 draft was sent out to potential actors and proved sturdy enough to entice Bob Hoskins (Mario), John Leguizamo (Luigi), and Dennis Hopper (King Koopa) to sign on to the movie.
Production was slated for two months later in North Carolina, and things appeared to be back on track, but producers Jake Ebert and Roland Joffe began to worry that the script’s current iteration was too far removed from the videogame’s sensibilities and needed to be made lighter and more fun. Nintendo agreed that the tone was more mature, but with Sega beginning to attract older gamers, maybe more mature was a good thing. Ebert and Joffe understood where Nintendo was coming from, and they themselves did not want to make a syrupy children’s movie, but they wanted something that was more accessible and less bizarre. This bizarre tone, of course, was the handiwork of Morton and Jankel, who had been hired to bring this exact sensibility. By this point, however, the producers realized that they had made a huge mistake with their choice of director, and with Nintendo’s permission, they hoped to salvage any chance at a blockbuster by bringing in some script doctors. Nintendo consented, leading Eberts and Joffe to hire Ed Solomon (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and Ryan Rowe (Tapeheads) to punch things up before filming began in May. Because Eberts and Joffe believed that Morton and Jankel were the ones responsible for all of the problems, the producers forbade the directors from even speaking with the writers, which created a rift that lasted throughout production.
When the actors arrived on the set and received shooting scripts, they were shocked by how much the story had been changed, and they considered quitting the film. The producers then tried to rehire Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais to undoctor their already doctored script, but they were not available for the job. Instead, Parker Bennett and Terry Runte, who had written the draft that Clement and La Frenais had once upon a time redrafted, were hired and flown down to North Carolina. Upon arrival, Bennett and Runte worked closely with the producers, directors, and cast members to make script changes on the fly and play the unenviable role of creative peacemakers. Their already difficult job was made even more frustrating by the fact that the actors weren’t talking to the directors, the directors weren’t talking to the producers, and nobody was talking to Nintendo.
Over the next several weeks, things went from hell to the inferno’s seventh circle. The directors lost any remaining allies when Morton poured hot coffee on an extra he didn’t think looked dirty enough, but amazingly this obscene incident was soon trumped by another. Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo disliked working on the film so much that they began drinking on the set, which may or may not have been the reason behind Leguizamo crashing a car and injuring his fictional brother during production, which resulted in Hoskins having to wear a cast that could be seen in various scenes throughout the film. With all the chaos, the production schedule ballooned from ten weeks to fifteen, forcing the producers to scrap the original climactic finale that would have featured Mario scaling the Brooklyn Bridge and saving the day by dropping an explosive Bob-omb down King Koopa’s throat. Instead, they opted for the much cheaper alternative of Mario simply shooting King Koopa with a gun.
The entire production was an unmitigated disaster. Bill White knew that—he had seen it firsthand—but still, a part of him couldn’t help but wonder if things might turn out okay after all. Drama and insubordination aside, they had at least shot enough footage to piece together a coherent ninety-minute film. And however bad it turned out to be, nothing could take away the fact that the movie would have stars, special effects, and the iconic Mario name. By this point, White was willing to admit that it would not be nominated for any Academy Awards, but there was still a good chance that it would make a ton of money. Take the game Super Mario Bros. 2, for instance, which was Nintendo of America’s last-minute attempt to put a Band-Aid on Japan’s sequel. That game was weird and kind of creepy, but still managed to sell ten million copies. So despite whatever it was that Kalinske thought he knew about the movie, White knew the truth, and he also knew the greater truths about hype-driven consumer culture.
“I don’t know what you’ve heard,” White said to Kalinske, “but I’m more than happy to bet you that it will wind up being the highest-grossing film of the year.”
“Well, then,” Kalinske replied, “I guess I need to get myself some better sources. I just figured that if the movie turned out to be as bad as a few folks have been saying, Nintendo is going to be looking for a fall guy.”
“And you think I’ll be the fall guy?”
“What happened to speaking in theoreticals?”
“Good point,” White said. “I don’t think we should be speaking at all. I appreciate the call, and honestly, I’m flattered by your insults, but it’s time for me to go.”
“Wait,” Kalinske said with a dash of urgency. “I have just one more question.” “Ask fast,” White said, “before I hang up.” “Fine, fine,” Kalinske said. “I was just wondering if you might be able to tell me: what the hell is this Mode 7 thing?”
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.