Behind the scenes disaster for Super Mario Bros.

In the early 1990s, several production companies flocked to Nintendo in hopes of acquiring the movie rights to Super Mario Bros. Among the big hitters who met with Nintendo – 20th Century Fox, Columbia, and TriStar Pictures – was a director and producer named Roland Joffé.


Joffé and Jake Eberts were in charge of Lightmotive, a much smaller production company whose film The Killing Fields won three Oscars. The company that acquired the rights to Mario after agreeing to pay her only $2 million. Money for the rights wasn’t much money, but what tempted Nintendo to accept Joffé’s offer was that Lightmotive would give the video game and console maker full ownership of the merchandising rights and some creative control over the film’s production, something the big studios wouldn’t do.

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With the rights in hand, Eberts and Joffé proceeded to fill the roles of the three main characters Mario, Luigi, and Bowser – better known as King Koopa in the film. For the role of Mario, producers honed Dustin Hoffman as their first choice, but Nintendo did not sign the Oscar-winning actor. According to the book CONSOLE WARS by Blake Harris (via Slash Film), Nintendo President Minoru Arakawa didn’t think he was right on the part, and when asked why, “he stared a little, then said softly ‘no’ before moving on to the next thing.”

Danny DeVito was then pursued but turned down the role after reading the script. The most surprising offer for this role went to Tom Hanks, who agreed to do the film for $5 million, but there was a bit of a problem. Producers were concerned about the mixed reactions to his latest films at the time, Joe Versus the Volcano and The ‘Burbs. Nintendo wanted a darker, bolder Mario movie and felt that hiring Hanks, who was famous for his comics at the time, didn’t fit the style. Before Hanks could put pen to paper, the film’s producers decided to pull the show. Hanks went on to win an Oscar for his role in the drama Philadelphia, which was released the same year as Super Mario Bros.

Bob Hoskins got the role of Nintendo’s mascot, with John Leguizamo as Luigi soon after. With their heroes, it’s time to see who will play the main villain of the movie, King Cuba. Dennis Hopper accepted the role after Michael Keaton and Arnold Schwarzenegger turned it down. While the cast was solid, it was the hiring behind the camera that started causing the disruption.

Greg Beeman—who directed Driver’s License in 1988—was initially hired to direct the film, but investors didn’t feel comfortable investing in a major movie with Beeman since he only directed one. It was replaced by the husband-and-wife cast of Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, although they directed one movie released in the theater themselves, DOA

Even Super Mario Bros. Morton and Jankel spent most of their career directing commercials and music videos, but what caught their eye was their directing work on the TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future, which then got a TV adaptation. Prior to their appointment, Barry Morrow, who wrote the script for Rain Man, was hired to write the script but left the project due to creative differences. Jim Genwin and Tom S. Parker took on the script, and wrote something very much in keeping with the Mario legends. It contained more of the fantasy elements of Mario games and featured Mario, Luigi, and Toad after Hildi hijacked Luigi’s love interest in order to reach the crown of indomitable.

Jankel and Morton who were brought in after Jeenewein and Parker took over the writing duties. They hated the script, shot them, and hired Parker Bennett and Terry Ronty to rewrite it. Their version carried the fantasy element created by Jeenewein and Parker, but they also leaned more into science fiction. Nintendo agreed to the script, but Morton and Gunkel found it boring and were too practical in the writing process, introducing the idea for the film’s plot to include a parallel world where dinosaurs actually survived and evolved into humans and mushrooms that covered its territories and streets.

They later released Ronty and Bennett in the middle of the rewriting process and hire Dick Clement and Ian La Frenet to rewrite the script. The producers deemed their script too heavy and too far from the games, which caused the producers to be replaced this time with Ed Solomon and Ryan Rowe.

They made the movie more fun. Two scenes included a show and a wedding scene with Mario and his girlfriend Daniela. Gunkel and Morton hated the script, and almost ditched the project due to the creative constraints imposed on them by the producers. They stayed, but before “one job!” Screamed on set, the film’s script was rewritten by nine different writers.

Despite these early turmoil, Hollywood Pictures – the production arm of Walt Disney Studios – decided to finance the film. When the actors arrived on set in North Carolina, they were dumbfounded and upset when they were handed the new scripts. To understand their dissatisfaction, producers Parker Bennett and Terry Ronte rewrite it for the tenth time, serving as advisors on the set.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in August 1992, John Leguizamo said “Every day is a new page. It’s like waiting for news. What happened yesterday? And there’s everything new, everything is live. 24 hours ding ding dingPiece writer Richard Staeton wrote that the cast and crew deeply hated Morton and Gunkel, often mocking them, giving them various nicknames including The Hydra—people also wore nicknamed T-shirts on set.

Hoskins also expressed his frustration with what happened behind the scenes, “All this rewriting is frustrating, so I don’t do a lot of research.” When the cameras weren’t rolling, John Leguizamo and Hoskins were drinking whiskey in between Leguizamo’s autobiography. This put Hoskins’ hand in a mold after the sliding door of a Mario Brothers truck slipped on it during a stunt after Leguizamo hit the gas and brakes too quickly.

His most memorable speech on the set went to Dennis Hopper who, according to co-star Richard Edson in a 2018 interview with The Guardian, walked onto the set and shouted “I’ve rewrote my lines.” [to the directors]! Do you call this writing? This is nonsense! This shit! And the fact that you would do it without asking me? I have continued. He couldn’t control himself. Hopper then went to do the scene as written three and a half hours after lying on the directors’ floor; Edson said the original blast was 45 minutes, but lunch was called, resulting in a long delay in which Hopper kept screaming.

Director Rocky Morton declined to discuss the cast’s frustrations, saying, “It was a tough schedule. It was a big project. It was very difficult,” and he was right. The pair are set to direct a darker, more serious adaptation of Super Mario Bros., which was part of the pitch that Joffé gave to Nintendo before securing the film rights. They had to agree on a scenario that they felt was not in line with their vision and what they were set to do. This was also the first live video game mod, so there was no blueprint or guide on how to make one.

In the end, the film’s production became the blueprint for what Not to do.

When production ended, the tension spilled over into post-production. Jankel and Morton were locked out of the editing room and were only allowed in after seeking help from the Directors Guild of America. After all the hostility and all the name-calling, it’s finally time for the movie to be released. It was released in 1993 – the year of another particular dino movie, Jurassic Park – and it bombed hard.

After 31 weeks in theaters, the film made just $20.9 million from its $48 million budget. It was a mess, and for co-directors Yankel and Morton they celebrated the last Hollywood movie they made. The couple has since returned to their TV and music videos roots.

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