The Making Of The 'Super Mario Bros.' Movie, From The Book 'Console Wars'

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.

Console Wars book

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.

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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.