For those of us with a soft spot for arcade games, punching, and special effects that don’t age well, New Line’s Mortal Kombat film from 1995 is a holy grail of sorts. It proved that movies based on video game franchises could actually be successful (sorry, Super Mario Bros.) and surprised everyone by staying the #1 movie in America for 3 straight weeks when it was released. Over 20 years later, Mortal Kombat has settled into it’s legacy as a movie can almost always be found randomly playing on some channel or another.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t fascinating new tidbits to be discovered, as this oral history from The Hollywood Reporter proves. It’s a fascinating read, proving there was a lot more going on behind the scenes than you might expect: some inspired near-miss castings, an inexperienced director, an abundance of Advil, a groundbreaking EDM soundtrack (no seriously), and the lengths they went to to ensure the film would be rated PG-13. Below I’ve cherry picked some of my favorite insights, straight from the lips of the people who made the film.
Cameron Diaz was THIIIIIS close to playing Sonya
Lauri Apelian, associate producer: We originally had Cameron Diaz cast as Sonya Blade. We were at New Line when The Mask was in postproduction, and Cameron Diaz was not a household name. No one knew her. New Line said, “Why don’t you look some of the dailies that are coming in from this film and see what you think of this young, unknown actress.” As soon as we saw the dailies from The Mask, there was no question that she was a star. We put her into training, because she had not really done this kind of martial arts work before. She broke her wrist right before shooting to the point where she couldn’t do the martial arts stunts we needed. We were very happy with Bridgette [Wilson-Sampras]. It was great she was available.
Also, Danny Glover could have played Rayden?!
Ed Boon, Mortal Kombat co-creator: When the movie was being discussed, I remember not taking it seriously at first. I thought, “This is probably going to be talked about but not happen.” Then all of a sudden we were getting phone calls about casting and they were saying, “What about this guy for this character? What about this guy for that character?” I remember them saying, “What do you think of Danny Glover as Raiden?”
(I should note that I fell down a serious web-hole looking up the hows and whys of the Rayden/Raiden spelling. I think it had something to do with arcade vs console editions of the game, but I’m going with both being right)
How Mortal Kombat influenced director Paul W.S. Anderson’s career
Anderson: After Mortal Kombat, I wanted to try something different. [New Line President] Mike [De Luca] asked me whether I’d be interested in coming back [for 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation]. I ended up doing something very different. I did Event Horizon next, which was super dark and couldn’t be more different from Mortal Kombat. I stretched my wings afterward. Looking back on it, I went, “Ah, maybe I should have done it.” It’s one of the reasons why on a go-forward basis, when I became involved with Resident Evil, I felt if I’m going to do another one of these adaptations, this time I’m going to stay with it. I’m going to really stay with the franchise and shepherd it. Ironically, me not doing Mortal Kombat II is kind of the reason I’ve ended up doing Resident Evil one, two, three, four, five, six …
Turns out, Christopher Lambert is a supremely chill guy (duh)
Anderson: With Christopher, we did a creative deal so he only worked for like four or five weeks, for x amount of dollars. He was expensive, and he wasn’t going to be able to come to Thailand because he would be going way over what we’d paid him. So I developed this plan where we were going to do close-ups of Chris in L.A. and then wide shots of a double in Thailand, and then edit it together creatively. Christopher, when he found out, said, “Forget about that. I’m coming to Thailand.” He sensed this was going to make it a better movie if he could be there in those landscapes. And it is. I’m sure his agents and manager and lawyer were furious with him, because he basically came to Thailand for free. When he was there, he paid for the wrap party as well.
The struggle to land the Asian lead part
Robin Shou (Liu Kang): It was the toughest casting process. I was working in Hong Kong back then, but I was visiting the U.S. because I’m from here originally. A friend of mine from an agency says, “They’re casting for this movie Mortal Kombat.” At first I laughed because Mortal Kombat is the dumbest name. Mortal Kombat? A video game turned into a movie? A good friend of mine kept hounding me, saying, “You should really go for this. Meet for them.” I read seven times. My agent friend had never heard of anyone who had to read seven times. I had to read for the producers, the director, the casting director, the line producer and then my final reading was with New Line. They were really hands-on as far as picking this Asian Liu Kang, because he’s an Asian lead and they’re investing millions. It was grueling.
Those fights were BRUTAL
Anderson: Robin would rate the fights. They would be a one, a two or a three. That would refer to how many ribs he bruised when he did the fight. The Reptile fight was a three-rib fight, so he really felt like he’d delivered for me. I remember Linden Ashby as well. He was eating Advil like they were M&M’S. We just kicked the hell out of him during that fight. I remember him coming off set going, “I’ve never been in so much pain in my life.” And I’m like “How many ribs have you broken? Robin’s broken three!”
Nobody wants to hang with Tom Cruise, not even mid-90s Tom Cruise
Linden Ashby (Johnny Cage): We started out in Santa Monica Airport, where we shot a lot. We had big sets. There’s a bar down there on the south side of the field, and we used to go there Friday when we’d wrap. Oh my God. Just crazy stuff. There was a medic who was a funny guy, quirky. He was very into security on the set. He should have been a security guy instead of a medic. Tom Cruise had a hangar nearby and came over and was like, “Hey what are you guys shooting? Can I check it out?” And the medic goes, “You’re not in this movie. Go away!” And Tom Cruise goes, “I just want to see,” and he goes, “I don’t care who you are, get out of here!” He turned away Tom Cruise!
I wonder if Cruise is reading the oral history now, and thinking…