Siskel and Ebert called it
one of the worst films of 1993.
It cost $48 million to make and
grossed just under $21 million.
It was over budget and behind schedule.
The Super Mario Bros. movie
was the first major motion picture
based on a video game.
The game franchise was a huge success.
It made sense to bring that magic to the big screen.
But by most accounts, it was a disaster.
From start to finish.
In recent years, several actors who worked on the film
called the experience a “nightmare”.
There was on-set drinking,
constant script rewrites,
and a pair of directors who were openly disliked.
Sometimes the story behind a movie
is better than the movie itself.
And that’s definitely the case
with the Super Mario Bros. movie.
Let’s take a look.
The Super Mario Bros. movie seemed like a safe bet.
After three successful games on the
Nintendo Entertainment System,
as well as a highly anticipated release
on the Super Nintendo,
the franchise was a critical and commercial hit.
Mario was one of the most recognisable
video game characters of all time.
The success carried over to merchandise,
and a cartoon series.
There was even a movie,
but it wasn’t live action.
“Super Mario Bros.: The Great
Mission to Rescue Princess Peach”
was a Japanese animated film released in 1986.
It was one of the first movies based on a video game,
but it never saw release outside of Japan.
A major motion picture seemed
like the next logical step.
Hollywood’s biggest producer saw an opportunity
in Super Mario Bros. and were willing to pay up.
Offers poured in to Nintendo
in the $5 to $10 million range.
But for Nintendo, it wasn’t about the money.
They didn’t need it.
Critics panned Nintendo’s first foray into movies,
the 1989 film “The Wizard,”
for being a “96-minute Nintendo commercial”.
This time around, they wanted to find the best fit,
hoping to not repeat past mistakes.
In the fall of 1990,
Nintendo shocked just about
everyone when they gave away
the movie rights for just $2 million.
And who they sold it to was even more surprising.
A small production company, known as Lightmotive,
led by independent film makers Jake Eberts
and Roland Joffé.
Although the pair wasn’t exactly
known for making family-friendly films,
their resume was impressive.
They were best known for the
1984 film “The Killing Fields”
about the genocide of 2 million people in Cambodia.
The film won 3 Oscars, and was nominated for 7.
Eberts and Joffé saw potential in Super Mario Bros.,
not as a way to show off their creativity and
bring their vision of the Mushroom Kingdom to life,
but as a way to bring in cash to their small studio,
and become full-time producers.
During the pitch to Nintendo
president Hiroshi Yamauchi,
Joffé imagined a prequel story with an edge,
one that would appeal to adults as well as kids.
He sweetened the deal by offering something
the bigger movie studios wouldn’t:
some creative control
and ALL the merchandising rights.
Nintendo saw the whole idea as
little more than an experiment.
In their eyes, the Mario franchise was too big to fail.
Yamauchi also liked Joffé’s vision of a gritty film.
It seemed like a win-win.
Nintendo could be in the loop,
and Eberts and Joffé would get
the movie rights at a huge discount.
What could go wrong?
With input from Nintendo,
Eberts and Joffé got to work assembling a team.
The most important question being:
who would play Mario?
It seemed as though fortune was on their side
when Dustin Hoffman
expressed interest in the lead role.
He just won his second Academy Award,
and had a great reputation for his roles in
“The Graduate,” “Rain Man”
and “All the President’s Men.”
Joffé was ecstatic when he heard the news.
But Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa
He didn’t think Hoffman was the right man for the job.
So they turned him down.
Their next choice was Danny DeVito,
whose star was rising after successful
roles in “Twins” and “War of the Roses.”
He was also the actor who
most-closely resembled Mario.
However, DeVito wanted to read
the script before signing on,
and he eventually turned it down.
Following that rejection,
Lightmotive reached out to Tom Hanks,
and he actually agreed to play Mario.
He was set to take the role for $5 million,
but before he signed the contract,
Nintendo and the producers got cold feet.
At the time, Tom Hanks was in a bit of a slump.
“The Burbs” in 1989 and “Joe Versus the Volcano”
in 1990 received mixed reviews.
And “The Bonfire of the Vanities,”
which also came out in 1990,
was just bad.
Entertainment Weekly called it “one of the
most indecently bad movies of the year.”
So for a very short time,
Tom Hanks’ stock was down.
Nintendo and the producers worried
that Tom Hanks wasn’t worth $5 million,
and didn’t have the “it” factor
to carry a dramatic movie.
Tom Hanks had already starred
in huge movies like “Splash,” “Big,”
and “Turner and Hooch.”
He even received an Academy Award
nomination for his starring role in “Big.”
But until that point, he was really
only known for his comedic roles.
They wanted the Super Mario Bros.
movie to be dark and gritty.
They worried that Tom Hanks couldn’t handle it.
So, before Hanks could sign anything,
Nintendo and the producers pulled the offer.
They discovered their error pretty quickly.
In 1993, the same year that the Super
Mario Bros. movie debuted at the box office,
Tom Hanks starred in the
groundbreaking film “Philadelphia.”
He received an Oscar for his performance
as a closeted gay man
who eventually dies of AIDS.
After rejecting Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks,
and getting rejected by Danny DeVito,
Lightmotive finally found the man for the job:
British actor Bob Hoskins.
They were impressed by his range.
He’d received an Oscar nomination for his
dramatic role in the 1986 film “Mona Lisa,”
and was fresh off a successful leading
role in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
Bob Hoskins accepted the
role primarily for the money,
but he also thought the initial script was good.
He didn’t even know the Super Mario
Bros. movie was based on a video game
until after he accepted the role.
His son filled him in.
Soon after Bob Hoskins signed on,
John Leguizamo took the role of Luigi.
At the time, Leguizamo was so sure the
Super Mario Bros. movie would be a success,
that when a major TV network offered
to develop a sitcom about his life,
he turned them down.
He thought he was too good for TV.
For the role of Koopa,
the producers needed a steely villain.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael
Keaton were both offered the part,
but they declined.
Ultimately, Dennis Hopper,
whose lengthy acting career included
parts in “Apocalypse Now” and “Hoosiers,”
landed the role.
Samantha Mathis, who went on to appear in
“American Psycho” and “The Punisher,”
played Princess Daisy.
But if there’s one thing more
important than getting the right actors,
it’s getting the right directors and writers.
And that’s where the Super Mario Bros.
movie went spiraling out of control.
After Nintendo and Lightmotive
struck their movie deal,
Roland Joffé hired Greg Beeman as director.
Beeman was still a relatively new director.
He had just one film under his belt,
the 1988 comedy “License to Drive,”
starring Corey Haim and Corey Feldman.
Meanwhile, Barry Morrow,
who had just won an Oscar
for the screenplay to “Rain Man,”
worked on the script.
Morrow played Super Mario Bros. for a day,
and afterward crafted a mythical story
that revolved around a complex
relationship between two brothers.
But the story was too dark,
and too similar to “Rain Man.”
Morrow didn’t appreciate the feedback.
He dropped out and passed
writing duties off to two newcomers,
Jim Jennewein and Tom S. Parker.
The pair were up-and-coming
in the world of Hollywood writing.
They had just sold a script that would
become the 1992 movie “Stay Tuned”
and were looking for more work.
In their script, the lizard king Koopa
kidnaps Luigi’s love interest, Hildy,
so he can gain access to the Crown of Invincibility.
Mario, Luigi, and their sidekick,
Toad, set off to rescue her.
It was a simple fantasy plot
and it closely resembled the actual games.
The script contained references to Goombas,
Thwomps, Bob-ombs, Chain Chomps,
and even the Hammer Brothers.
Meanwhile, Lightmotive Studios
sought funding for the film.
However, distributors were hesitant to pay
up with newbie Greg Beeman as director.
Roland Joffé let him go, saying Beeman, quote:
“didn’t have the stretch for it.”
Joffé sought out a new director,
and he eventually settled
on a husband-and-wife duo:
Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton.
Jankel and Morton didn’t have
a ton of big-screen experience.
They’d only directed one movie,
a 1988 thriller called “D.O.A.”
It starred Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan
and received mixed reviews.
But the couple had a fresh, innovative style,
and their work was impressive.
They directed music videos for Elvis Costello,
Miles Davis, and the Talking Heads.
And they’d done some major commercials.
But what really set them apart was
“Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future,”
a TV movie that ran on Channel 4 in the UK.
The futuristic show featured an actor made
to look like a computer-generated TV host.
“Max Headroom” was weird and edgy.
It had a very defiant, early-MTV vibe.
They created Max Headroom along
with screenwriter George Stone,
and directed the TV movie together.
The idea eventually became a TV
show in the UK and the United States.
Their style seemed like a good
match for the producers’ vision
of a darker, more adult-skewed Mario movie.
When Jankel and Morton read
Jennewein and Parker’s fairy tale script,
they hated it.
But they saw potential in a Super Mario Bros. movie.
Morton turned to Jankel and said:
“This script is terrible.
But I think *this* could be our ‘Batman’.”
To bring their vision to life,
Jankel and Morton hired Chicago-based
writers Parker Bennett and Terry Runté,
whose only claim to fame was the
odd dark comedy “Mystery Date”
starring Ethan Hawke.
Bennett and Runté kept the same
basic plot from the fairy tale script,
but gave it a sci-fi twist.
Nintendo was somewhat concerned
about the direction the movie was heading,
but to their surprise, they
actually enjoyed the new script.
It looked as if all the puzzle pieces had been found.
That is, until directors Annabel Jankel
and Rocky Morton stepped in.
Even with the sci-fi element,
the directors felt the new script was too boring.
They thought it needed pumping up.
The pair wanted to create a parallel universe
where dinosaurs survived and evolved.
The dinosaur land, called Dinohattan,
would be ruled by the evil King Koopa.
Mario and Luigi would access the universe
via a portal in the New York sewer system.
With that direction,
Bennett and Runté took another crack at the script.
Their second version included the Dinohattan element,
plus a Mario character that closely
resembled the mix of humor and sleaze
that Bill Murray brought to
his role in “Ghostbusters.”
But once Bob Hoskins signed on,
the character was reworked
to be older and more appealing.
Bennett and Runté worked quickly to revise the script.
But they didn’t work fast enough for those in charge.
Bennett and Runté were fired.
The directors replaced them with
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.
Together, they created a more action-heavy script.
It was so action-packed that the initial
script even called for a Bruce Willis cameo.
But Nintendo and the producers thought
that version was a little over-the-top,
so the writers toned it down.
Everyone was happy.
For about a minute.
Distributors though the script was too dark.
Then the producers got cold feet.
They worried that the script,
which at this point all the actors had
signed on for and directors approved of,
strayed too far from the video games.
To solve this, the producers hired new
writers to revise the script even further,
but with one condition:
the directors were forbidden to work with the writers.
To the producers, it seemed like the only way
to save the script from overbearing directors.
But to the directors, it was a slap in the face.
Writers Ed Solomon–known for
his work on the “Bill & Ted” movies–
and Ryan Rowe were called in
to doctor the existing script.
They added more Disney-friendly elements,
like a wedding for Mario and his girlfriend Daniella.
They also lightened up some
of the more serious scenes
and toned down some budget-busting ideas.
When Jankel and Morton saw the revised script,
they almost walked out.
But they had already come so far.
The set was complete,
designed by David Snyder,
who is known for his work on “Blade Runner.”
All of the actors were on board.
The project even had solid financing.
Disney’s Hollywood Pictures agreed to back the film.
The directors felt they had no choice.
Jankel and Morton stuck around,
hoping to steer the movie while filming
to match their vision.
In the summer of 1992,
production started in an abandoned
cement factory in Castle Hayne, North Carolina,
just outside of Wilmington.
It was time to film the Super Mario Bros. movie.
When the actors arrived on set the
following week and received their new scripts,
they were stunned.
It was completely different than
the script they were pitched.
They expressed their displeasure to the producers,
who, incredibly, brought
Parker Bennett and Terry Runté
back out to help revise the script yet again,
as well as consult on set.
It was a frustrating process,
made even worse by a lack of
communication between directors,
producers and actors.
The sweltering heat didn’t help either,
as temperatures shot above 90 degrees
in the humid North Carolina summer.
But the cast and crew DID
have one thing uniting them:
a common enemy.
Directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel.
In early August of 1992,
with production under way,
freelance journalist Richard Stayton
captured the on-set turmoil
in an article for the Los Angeles Times.
He wrote that the cast and crew
were so unhappy with the directors
that they’d begun mocking the couple.
They gave them nicknames.
a combination of their first names,
was the most flattering.
They also called them “Rocky and Annabel:
The Flying Squirrel Show,”
British actor Bob Hoskins summed
them up in perhaps the least-flattering way,
when he told John Leguizamo,
“Not all English people are like them.
He’s a c**t and she’s a cow.”
He would later say that
Rocky and Annabel’s arrogance
has been mistaken for talent.
Bob Hoskins wasn’t the only
one who was frustrated.
And he definitely wasn’t the
only one to talk openly about it.
Dennis Hopper said that Rocky Morton
and Annabel Jankel were, quote,
and wouldn’t talk to each other
before they made decisions.
The directors contradicted
one another on a regular basis,
which made it harder for
people to perform their jobs.
But no behind-the-scenes anecdote
illustrates the on-set atmosphere
quite as well as a now-infamous story
about Rocky Morton, an extra,
and a cup of hot coffee.
According to John Leguizamo,
Morton was looking at the extras on set
and was not happy with what he saw.
He thought the costumes looked to pristine.
Grabbed a coffee and poured
it all over one of the extras.
The actor was wearing a rubber mask,
but it wasn’t sealed at the neck.
So the hot coffee seeped
through the suit and burned him.
The man screamed.
“Oh, well. He’s just an extra,”
Morton has since argued against
Leguizamo’s version of this story.
He says that Leguizamo was too
far away to see what really happened.
According to Morton,
he thought the costumes needed to be more dirty.
So he picked up some mud from the set
and chucked it onto an extra’s costume.
But it didn’t stick.
He thought some coffee would
help make mud stick the costume.
So he picked up a cup that had
been sitting around for a while
and said to the extra,
“I’m going to pour this on you to
stick the mud on. Is that okay?”
When he poured it on, the man screamed.
Morton said he apologized and
got cool water for the man’s shoulder.
At some point, maybe after this incident,
the crew made t-shirts with all of the rude or
dismissive comments that the directors made.
And they didn’t keep them tucked away in a closet.
They actually wore them on set.
The constant script rewrites
made matters even worse.
The script changed so much
every day that the actors
didn’t see the point in reading the new copies.
Dennis Hopper said:
Bob Hoskins had pretty much the same approach.
He said, “All these rewrites get frustrating.
So I don’t do too much research.”
One scene originally called for strippers
which the crew hired locally
in Wilmington, North Carolina.
But when the producers got wind of this,
they quickly changed the scene
to dancing at a nightclub.
The actors and the rest of the crew
learned to take it one day at a time,
and to accept that the newest script would be
a lot different than the one they signed up for.
But it was a bitter pill to swallow.
Fiona Shaw, how played Lena,
was increasingly disenchanted.
When she heard rumors of a scene
where she and Dennis Hopper
would sit in a mud bath filled
with $3,000 worth of worms,
she was disgusted.
But, as Leguizamo would later say,
“The worse the movie,
the better the partying.”
The crew partied through their misery.
Leguizamo and Hoskins actually
did shots of scotch between shoots.
One day, Leguizamo and
Hoskins were drinking scotch
when they were called in to shoot a stunt scene.
The scene called for Luigi
to drive the Mario Bros. van.
Hoskins didn’t show any
signs that he’d been drinking.
But Leguizamo definitely did.
In the scene, Leguizamo accelerated
just as Hoskins shouted his line:
“Come on, Luigi! Koopa’s getting away!”
So Leguizamo slammed on the gas,
then quickly slammed on the brake.
The van almost tipped over.
When Hoskins grabbed the door frame,
the sliding door shut on his hand.
Hoskins unleashed a long line of profanities.
Leguizamo remembered it as, quote,
“a kind of cockney Tourette’s.”
For the rest of production, Hoskins wore a cast,
which they painted a pale
pink color to match his skin.
But it wasn’t all bad.
Leguizamo and Samantha Mathis
started dating while they filmed the movie.
In his book, Leguizamo
says that meeting Samantha
was just about the only good
thing to come of the movie.
The making of the Super Mario Bros. movie
was a dramatic mess.
But it would be unfair to pin
all the blame on the directors.
Jankel and Morton were pioneering something
that hadn’t been done on a large scale,
and it was a pretty challenging task.
Their music videos and TV show were good.
But it was a big leap to go from that
to directing a $48 million, first-of-its-kind,
big-budget video game movie.
On top of that, they weren’t really
allowed to do what they did best.
The producers hired Jankel and Morton
because the pair had a gritty, futuristic style.
They were edgy and different.
But when it came time to actually make the movie,
the producers, the studio, and Nintendo
They pulled back.
They wanted to make the movie
more comedic, family-friendly,
and a little less weird.
And what they got was something in between.
Morton called the project
“a harrowing experience.”
The script that he and Jankel wanted was
more sophisticated than the final product.
And that in the version they fought for,
the bond between the two brothers was a much bigger,
more emotional part of the story.
But when the studio wanted something different,
Jankel and Morton felt they
had little choice but to go along.
It was tough.
He said, “I had to stand by
with the new script, obviously,
and tell them that it was great
when I knew it wasn’t.”
It was tough from a technical standpoint, too.
They had a huge set,
but not enough money to properly light it.
And with the script constantly changing,
continuity was nearly impossible.
After a grueling 15 weeks in production,
it was time to edit the film.
But to Morton’s surprise,
the directors were locked out of the editing room,
forbidden to intervene.
They had to get help from the Directors
Guild of America just to get in the room.
Through all the drama, somehow,
a movie was filmed and edited.
Nintendo knew the final
product wouldn’t be good.
But they were still confident
it would make a lot of money,
thanks to the Mario brand.
They were in for a rude awakening.
The Super Mario Bros. movie
hit the box office in May of 1993.
Fans of the franchise were…
They thought they’d be watching
a movie that was bright and fun.
An acton packed family-friendly adventure.
But the movie strayed pretty far from
the beloved video games that inspired it.
They got an entirely different plot.
When a meteorite hit Earth 65 million years ago,
it created a drab parallel dimension
where dinosaurs survived.
Over time, the dinosaurs evolved into humanoids.
King Koopa rules the humanoids,
but he wants to merge the two
dimensions so that he can rule humans
But the only way to do that is
by using a meteorite fragment,
which Princess Daisy wears around her neck.
When Koopa’s henchmen
Iggy and Spike kidnap Daisy,
Mario and Luigi set out to save her.
The two plumbers enter an underground portal
where they’re transported
from Manhattan to Dinohattan,
where they aim to save the
princess and defeat King Koopa.
Along the way, there are some…
weirdly adult scenes,
some unsuccessful attempts at humor,
and most of the time it feels like
the constant action sequences
are just meant to distract from the fact
that there isn’t much of a plot.
There are, however, some nods to the games.
There are Bob-ombs,
and Bullet Bills.
The woman in the nightclub is named Big Bertha,
a reference to the fish enemy from Mario 3.
There’s even a character named Toad.
Mario and Luigi are plumbers,
though they may have hit that
reference home a little too hard.
And they do eventually wear their
iconic red and green overalls.
But none of that was enough
to satisfy fans of the franchise.
And the story wasn’t strong enough to draw in people
who weren’t hooked on the games.
In trying to appeal to everyone,
the movie appealed to no one.
And the critics took notice.
…of a popular video game. It’s called
“Super Mario Bros.” and it doesn’t work at all.
This movie isn’t either high or low tech enough.
It’s not as dazzling or as involving
as the cutting-edge video games
it would like to mirror.
And it doesn’t have traditional movie elements
like compelling characters or a fresh story.
I also can’t figure out exactly what
age group this movie was made for.
You look at the movie and you see millions
of dollars on the screen of special effects,
and all of those customized cars
and that other world that
they’ve created and everything else,
and it doesn’t add up to anything.
It’s just a lot of people
running around all talking at once ,
in a plot that nobody cares anything about
and just every once in a while,
a little moment that kind of sparkles.
Dennis Hopper is kind of good
in a couple of his speeches,
but it’s a complete waste of time and money.
But the reviews weren’t all bad.
Quite a few praised the talented cast
and the fact that the movie is visually stunning.
But such compliments were usually
brought back down to Earth pretty quickly.
In a mostly positive review,
Janet Maslin of the New York Times noted that
the plot turns barely
comprehensible in its last half-hour.
The movie grossed just under $21 million
on a $48 million budget.
Just a few weeks after
“Super Mario Bros.” hit the box office,
another dinosaur-filled movie made its debut.
To much greater success.
Over time, the Super Mario Bros.
movie developed a reputation
as being notoriously bad.
Even decades after it debuted,
the key cast and crew couldn’t shake it.
Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton
haven’t directed a movie since.
After the in-depth L.A. Times
article about the on-set turmoil,
Jankel and Morton were dropped by their agent.
The scripts stopped coming.
They couldn’t get meetings.
And the phones stopped ringing.
But the directors weren’t the only
ones that were haunted by this movie.
In a Q&A with The Guardian,
Bob Hoskins was characteristically blunt.
Dennis Hopper felt the same way.
By the end of his life, he’d spent
five decades in the business
and appeared in more than 100 movies.
When Conan O’Brien asked him if
he regretted being in any of them,
Hopper didn’t hesitate.
It may seem like everybody hates this movie.
And to be fair, most people do.
But a funny thing has happened
over the past few years.
The Super Mario Bros. movie
has developed a cult following.
In 2014, it was released on
Blu-Ray in the United Kingdom.
Websites like the Super
Mario Bros. Movie Archive,
which Ryan Hoss started in 2007,
deserve part of the credit
for this shift in public opinion.
The site is home to cast interviews, photos,
and even contains some of the early draft scripts.
Over time, Hoss says he has seen the
conversation about the movie evolve.
People are more willing to reevaluate
their initial thoughts on the movie.
Through his interviews with the cast and crew,
he sees that nowadays
a lot of people look back on the film
and appreciate that what they
were doing was unprecedented.
For a while, it seemed like
the Super Mario Bros. movie
would be the first–and last–
big-budget video game movie.
But over time, we’ve seen a
few video game adaptations
hit the big screen.
But most have been panned by critics
and their financial success varies significantly.
Some say that the Super Mario Bros.
movie had a chilling effect
on video game movie adaptations.
But, things are starting to change.
In May of 2016,
23 years after the Super
Mario Bros. movie flopped,
Nintendo announced that
it was finally breaking back
into the movie business.
So what does this mean for the future?
it’s hard to tell.
If they can make a major hit,
then Nintendo could pave the way for a slew
of video game movie adaptations.
But, if the project bombs,
then nothing will have changed.
That’s all for this episode of Gaming Historian.
Thanks for watching.
Funding for Gaming Historian is provided in part
by supporters on Patreon.
[“Walk the Dinosaur” by George Clinton
and the Goombas plays]