Alex Kurtzman On 'The Mummy': The Tone, Tom Cruise, The PG-13 Rating & More

Last week I got an opportunity to talk to filmmaker Alex Kurtzman about his upcoming film The Mummy. During our roundtable chat, Kurtzman explained the reason for remaking The Mummy today, what the tone of the movie will be, how to get Tom Cruise to scream in terror, why we see Tom Cruise in a body bag in the trailer, the evolution of The Mummy's appearance, if this film will feature a romance like the original and how the film's PG-13 rating affects the story. All this and more, after the jump.

Alex Kurtzman The Mummy Interview

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Why Remake The Mummy Today?

Alex Kurtzman: I felt strongly that when I would talk to people and get feedback, there was this sense of like, "Okay, we understand The Mummy as a title, we understand a studio wanting to make The Mummy, but why now? Why is it important? What's going to be different about it than what came before?" And there are a bunch of things. First of all, no one has made a monster movie writ large. Meaning, no one has made a good monster movie – a proper, Universal Monsters monster movie – with the size and scope that I think we're going to deliver in this movie.

Actually, I would say that the Brendan Fraser Mummy movie was sort of the first to kind of do that, in a real way, from a studio point of view, where they put real big dollars into a movie, but it's different than making The Purge, you know, or something like that. So it's just a different experience, for a very different price point.

When Universal came to me and said "We want to make a monster movie" my thought was incredible excitement and exhilaration at the idea of being able to do that thing, to make something experience what I felt, what I experienced when I first saw Frankenstein or when I first saw The Mummy come alive as a kid, in the [Boris] Karloff movie. But I felt an obligation to make sure that what I understood a monster movie to be was carried out, and I didn't know if they were going to say, "Well, the monster's just going to have to be the straight-up villain." Of course the monster has to be the villain! That's part of what makes these movies these movies. But they actually gave us the tremendous latitude to stay true to what I believe [monster movies] are about.

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What Is The Tone?

Alex Kurtzman:  I think that our goal is to make a movie that's full of suspense, full of adventure, that has moments of horror but that isn't defined as "a horror movie," and that will ultimately scare the shit out of you. This goes back to the requirement, I think, of having an unpredictable Tom Cruise in the movie. Because if you remove from the audience's mind, "Oh I know he's going to save the day," and in fact go, "He really might not, he has no idea what to do here," now I'm in a situation where I'm kind of scared FOR him because I don't know what he's going to do and I don't know what's coming. It's kind of all of the above in terms of tone. When you're making a movie of this size you have to sort of take into account suspense and adventure and that's a huge part of it, but I think also in terms of tone there's a level of... when I say "grounded in reality," I would say that maybe that's a distinction between this and the other movies. There's more of a fantasy world presented in those movies, so that's it.

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How To Get Tom Cruise To Scream In Terror

Alex Kurtzman: I said, "Scream in terror." He was like, "Really?" and I said, "Yeah!" That part of it, there are – as I said – we shot in two different locations, and that part was actually on the rotisserie but you should have seen the crew when we were shooting on the vomit comet. Do you know how it works, the vomit comet? So you go up, basically with the G's of a rocket going into space. Then you even out and everything starts to go weightless, and then you free-fall for 22 seconds and everybody goes up in the air. We had grips holding lights and puking while the shot was going on. I mean, it was the craziest experience ever and ultimately worth it because I think, again, our whole thing was "Let's do this without cuts. Let's really do this so that you can actually stay in this shot and watch these guys float around and go, 'How the hell did they do it?'" Here's the thing, you have to take a bag with you and you have to hold it right here, and the hope is that when you do vomit you manage to grab all of it in the bag before the chunks float off into space.

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Is Tom Cruise Dead? He Wakes Up In The Morgue In A Body Bag?

Alex Kurtzman: I'm not going to answer your question directly, I'm going to answer it indirectly. When we were developing the script and I knew that Tom was going to do the movie, the first thing that we talked about was, I said, "Listen..." I'd worked with Tom on Mission [Impossible] III, and I said, "I have 30-plus years of embedded 'Tom Cruise is going to save the day' in my experience and my relationship to you, as an actor. And the problem is in a monster movie, the scariest monster movies are the ones where the protagonist starts to feel very out of control. So how am I going to believe that you're really out of control, because I know you're going to save the day, you know?" And what we came to is the idea that if you present him as somebody who thinks he knows what's going on and then you throw the craziest thing at him in the world, which is "Oh shit, he dies and then comes back up in that morgue," now I go, "Okay, he doesn't know what he's into, I don't know what he's into, I don't know that he's going to save the day." And everything became very unpredictable at that point. So in terms of what I want the conversation to be about there, it's interesting you said "Oh my god, I've never heard Tom scream in fear before." That's exactly it. That's exactly it. He's never been in that position before.

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If Tom Cruise is coming back from the dead, does that make him "The Mummy?"

Alex Kurtzman: Great question.

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On The Evolution Of The Look Of The Mummy

Alex Kurtzman: Here's a weird thing about watching the Boris Karloff Mummy, which is really one of my favorites. Everyone remembers the mummy in the bandages. That's all you remember. He's out of the bandages in two minutes, and the rest of the movie he's in his robes. And it's amazing that that image has endured as the memory of The Mummy. It's weirdly the same thing with

It's weirdly the same thing with Bride of Frankenstein. If you watch Bride of Frankenstein – which is one of the strangest, most wonderful movies ever made – she doesn't show up until the last ten minutes of the movie, she really doesn't say anything, and then she dies. And yet we remember that hair, the outfit. It is burned into our collective consciousness, and I think it's because there's something about the look of those monsters that is so specific and has endured for so long.

One of the things that we have gone through is sort of the development of saying, as we design these monsters, how far are we going to deviate from the original designs? What is the spirit of the designs? What is right about them? What do people remember about them? How far can we go? And what we found, with unbelievable consistency, is that the further you go from those designs the more they don't feel like the Universal Monsters, and that you have to stay true to what those are. You have to.

In fact, everybody thinks of Frankenstein, they go "Bolts in the head, green skin, flat top." Universal has proprietary... they own that, that look. So any time you see another Frankenstein movie it's always not that, and it doesn't quite feel like Frankenstein because if you ask any four-year-old child what Frankenstein looks like, they're going to draw you a picture of that version of Frankenstein. And if there's something that so many people, for so many generations remember, you can't mess with that. You have to stay true to it. You're only going to be accused of coming up with the lesser version of what I remember loving as a kid or you remember loving as a kid.

So the bandages were like, that's what The Mummy is to me. We went through a lot of conversations about how does she get the bandages? Where do the bandages come from? What happened to her that she was buried that way? And then, does she lose them over the course of the movie? And I just kept coming back to, the more she feels like a person, as a monster, the less I feel like I'm relating to her as the mummy. Something starts to go away for me in that experience. So my goal was, how do we keep her in those bandages over the course of the movie and really... that's her costume. That's it, you know? I just felt like the bandages were what it needed to be. And then again, it's about coming up with a story that makes you understand how she ended up that way.

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Will The Mummy Be A Romance Like The Original?

Alex Kurtzman: You hit the nail on the head, actually. Mummy movies are about romance. They are. And they started that way, and if you look at the evolution of them it's always about that. Imhotep, the original Karloff mummy, that was a love story. In fact they borrowed from them and paid homage to it in the '99 movie. It was about, "I'm in love with the pharaoh's wife, we're having a secret affair, I get found out, they take me away, they bury me alive, and now I'm the mummy." And the thing that's beautiful, I think, about a lot of these monsters is that there are these very central, basic, human emotions that you can talk about when you talk about these monsters. You can talk about Dracula's longing for love, you can talk about the Mummy's longing for love. So as messed up as they may be in terms of their behavior, and they are monsters, there always has to be a rooting and an understandable idea behind why they are who they are. And absolutely there will be a lot of romance in this movie but hopefully in a way that's unexpected.

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On The PG-13 Rating OF The Horror Movie

Alex Kurtzman: I think psychological fear is way worse than slasher. I mean, slasher is a different kind of fear, you know? But my favorite filmmakers, people like [Steven] Spielberg, always walked right... when I was a kid, the line that he walked right up to – between where PG-13 and R start, where PG-13 ends and R starts – was so tantalizing for me, because it always felt like anything was possible in a movie. And when a certain thing happened, like someone's face melts off or Chrissie gets eaten at the beginning of Jaws, the violence was so much more shocking because it was so much less regular. And I think that that's important, I think that's very, very important. All of those movies are very suspense-based movies and they hold you in a state of fear from the beginning to the end, because the situation itself is such a pressure cooker that you don't know what's going to happen from moment to moment. To me, just in terms of my personal taste, I love living in that kind of a world. I also love horror movies but that is a different thing, you know? And I do think that monster movies, as I said, I think they have elements of horror but I don't think they're horror movies. I think they are very different genres.

I think that the truth is that these movies have always existed, The Mummy particularly has always kind of existed in [the PG-13] space. You know? There was never really a reason to go R with it because the story was never... I guess if you wanted to make a smaller version of it we would have gone R. I don't know that that would have served The Mummy in the best way, because the goal is to bring it into the world. These are big global movies.