Nobody had ever made a movie based on a video game until 1993’s Super Mario Bros. The idea in itself was a strange enough at the time, but things would only get stranger once production on the film was underway – and although it bombed horribly with critics and audiences on release, today Super Mario Bros: The Movie is a cult curiosity like no other.
Here are 20 fascinating facts you might not have known about this bizarre would-be blockbuster.
20. It was produced by the Oscar-nominated director of The Killing Fields and The Mission
By the late 1980s, Roland Joffé was probably one of the most respected British filmmakers of his generation. After learning his craft in television, Joffé broke through into film in a big way with 1984’s The Killing Fields and 1986’s The Mission. These prestigious, worthy films won huge critical acclaim, and Joffé received Best Director Oscar nominations for both. After this, Joffé joined forces with seasoned producer Jake Eberts (whose credits included Chariots of Fire, The Name of the Rose and Driving Miss Daisy), and the duo co-produced 1992’s City of Joy, which Joffé also directed.
After the modest success of this film, Joffé and Eberts decided to try their hands at producing something a bit more mainstream. Few could have predicted that two filmmakers who made their names on such upmarket, adult-oriented material would go on to produce the first ever feature film based on a video game.
19. It was an independent production without studio backing
Hitting on the idea of a Super Mario Bros movie, producers Roland Joffé and Jake Eberts flew to Japan to present their pitch to Nintendo. The massive popularity of the video games meant there was already interest in the movie rights from the major Hollywood studios. As independent producers with a more art house pedigree, Joffé and Eberts seemed unlikely candidates to land the Super Mario movie rights.
As well as being unattached to a studio, the duo had only raised $500,000 to pay for the rights to the property. However, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi was impressed by Joffé’s story ideas and can-do spirit, and sold him the rights on the strength of that. Joffé and Eberts’ initial offer was haggled up to $2 million, and they also gave Nintendo the merchandising rights.
18. Nintendo gave the filmmakers free rein to make the movie however they wanted
The first thing anyone familiar with the Super Mario Bros games tends to notice when looking at the film is the obvious fact that, well, it barely resembles the games at all. Where the games take place in a fairy tale land of castles, clouds and mushrooms, the movie is set in a bleak, industrial metropolis. One might suspect that it would be a major stipulation for Nintendo, when selling the film rights to the game, that the final film should capture the look and feel of the games to some extent.
However, after selling the rights, Nintendo essentially had no further involvement in the Super Mario Bros movie, and gave the filmmakers the freedom to do as they pleased with the material. According to Joffé, “they basically said, ‘we’re not really interested in the film; we have our game players, this is an addendum, and you should do what you want.'” Still, what Joffé and Eberts wanted, what their eventual directors wanted, and what their financial backers wanted were all very different things.
17. Danny DeVito declined an offer to both direct and star as Mario
As a diminutive Italian-American comedy star with everyman charm, Danny DeVito was the most obvious choice to play the heroic plumber Mario Mario. After making his name in the TV sitcom Taxi, DeVito ascended to movie stardom through such films as Romancing the Stone, Throw Momma From The Train and Twins. Throw Momma From The Train and The War of the Roses also proved that DeVito was a solid director.
This being the case, it was only logical for the Super Mario Bros producers to offer DeVito the key roles on both sides of the camera. However, DeVito declined, either as he wasn’t interested or because he was too busy: 1992 saw him star in Batman Returns, as well as directing Hoffa. This cleared the way for Bob Hoskins to take the lead role of Mario – although whether he would thank DeVito for that in the long run is another matter.
16. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Keaton both turned down the role of Koopa
Still aiming high, the Super Mario Bros producers wanted a big name to play their antagonist, King Koopa – or, as he would become known in their version, President Koopa. Arnold Schwarzenegger, pretty much the biggest movie star in the world at the time, was the first person offered the role of Koopa. This, of course, would have made it a Twins reunion had DeVito said yes – but alas, like DeVito, Schwarzenegger said no.
Next on the Koopa wish list was Michael Keaton, newly elevated to the upper echelons of Hollywood thanks to Batman – but he passed as well. Keaton would go on to Batman Returns (a good move on his part), whilst Schwarzenegger would make Last Action Hero (not such a good move there). Eventually, Dennis Hopper signed to play the role of the villain, who in this version of events is a member of a humanoid race which evolved from dinosaurs in a parallel universe.
15. Tom Hanks could have been Luigi, but he was fired over concerns he wasn’t a big enough star
One star name who was briefly attached to Super Mario Bros was Tom Hanks, at one point poised to appear as Luigi Mario, the role which eventually went to John Leguizamo. After breaking through in the early 80s with Splash, Hanks had become something of a comedy star throughout the decade, even earning an Oscar nomination for 1988’s Big. However, when Super Mario Bros was in development, Hanks’ latest films – including The Burbs, Turner & Hooch and Joe Versus The Volcano – had recently underperformed at the box office, so there were concerns he wouldn’t be good for business.
Subsequently, Hanks was let go from Super Mario Bros – and would instead go on to make 1993’s Philadelphia. Famously, this film landed Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar, and he would win his second the following year for Forrest Gump. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20 – and the Super Mario Bros directors weren’t to know that Hanks could have brought their film some much-needed publicity.
14. It was directed by the creators of Max Headroom
After directing duties were declined by DeVito, the job was offered to Harold Ramis, who also said no. At this point, producers Joffé and Eberts decided to think a bit further afield in their candidates. To this end, the producers approached British directorial duo (and, at the time, married couple) Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, directors of 1988 thriller DOA. Prior to DOA, Jankel and Morton had also written and directed the 1985 TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future.
Off the back of that film, Max Headroom became one of the most memorable small-screen icons of the 80s. As such, hopes were high that Jankel and Morton could bring that same unique vision and smart, satirical edge to Super Mario Bros.
13. The first draft of the script was nicknamed ‘Drain Man’ because it so closely resembled Rain Man
When giving his pitch to Nintendo, Roland Joffé had made it clear he wanted to make something bigger than the simple kids’ movie it could easily have been. The first screenwriter hired to take a crack at Super Mario Bros was Barry Morrow, who had won an Oscar for his work on 1988’s Rain Man. Morrow wrote a subtle, introspective yarn which centred on the two plumber brothers Mario and Luigi taking an ‘existential road trip.’
In other words, it was so close in tone and content to Morrow’s earlier script that it earned the nickname ‘Drain Man.’ Subsequent writers took it in a brighter, more kid-friendly direction, but when Jankel and Morton came on board they threw all this out. Morton explains they wanted to make something “sophisticated,” which would “open it up and get parents interested in video games” – and this was what Joffé and Eberts were also hoping for.
12. The directors wanted to make a film akin to Tim Burton’s Batman
1989’s Batman – and to a lesser degree, 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – had proven that properties traditionally regarded as kids’ stuff could be treated in a darker, more adult-oriented fashion. The Super Mario Bros filmmakers wanted to do much the same, so Jankel and Morton set about work on a new script with this in mind. They enlisted writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (TV’s The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) to script what they envisaged as a prequel to the games.
It was reportedly on the strength of this script that the bulk of the cast signed on to the movie. However, this take on the material proved too dark for the liking of the film’s financial backers. Subsequently, American writers Parker Bennett and Terry Runte came on board to provide a draft that was a bit more light-hearted.
11. The production was running out of money before the cameras were even rolling
As the ball got rolling, producers Joffé and Eberts had managed to raise a budget of $48 million for Super Mario Bros. In the early 90s, this was still a fairly sizeable budget. Blockbusters like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Basic Instinct were made for about the same amount of money. Unfortunately for Super Mario Bros, a fair chunk of that $48 million had already been spent during in the development process. After going through so many different drafts with different writer teams, around $5-6 million had already been spent on the screenplay alone, before Parker Bennett and Terry Runte’s screenplay was even complete.
As such, the filmmakers were already looking at ways of saving money before they’d even got to the set. Bennett and Runte were subsequently asked to set as much of the action as possible in the real world, before moving into the parallel dimension ruled by Dennis Hopper’s Koopa.
10. The cast and crew took to wearing protective masks because the film was shot in a disused cement factory
The filmmakers’ futuristic, industrial vision for ‘Dinohattan’ was nothing like the colourful fairyland of the games – but nonetheless, this was the world that they needed to sell the movie. The directors wanted their parallel New York City to be a full-size practical set, but none of the Hollywood sound stages were big enough to build what they wanted. Because of this, the directors decided to shoot the scenes in an abandoned cement factory in North Carolina.
At five stories high, the building was big enough to realise this ambitious vision, with sets built around the existing pipes and columns. The location had also been utilised on some other recent hits including Terminator 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. However, there were concerns about possible toxicity from the leftover cement dust, and cast and crew reportedly took to wearing masks on-set.
9. The producers had the script rewritten 10 days before shooting – without telling the directors
All the way through the development process on Super Mario Bros, producers Joffé and Eberts had been facing concerns from their financial backers that their vision simply wasn’t family-friendly enough. In hopes of alleviating this anxiety, the producers hired Ed Solomon (co-writer of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) for yet another re-write of the script, mere weeks before shooting was due to begin. Jankel and Morton were then presented with this script only 10 days before they were due to commence production, and were told in no uncertain terms that this was the film they had to make.
Unsurprisingly, the directors were furious, as they had prepared storyboards for the entire film based on Bennett and Runte’s script. On learning they suddenly had to start from scratch, Rocky Morton proceeded to take these storyboards outside and “ritualistically” burned them. Super Mario Bros started shooting under these conditions, so tensions were rife behind the scenes even before they’d first called out “action.”
8. The directors still wanted to make the film for adults
As anyone who’s seen Super Mario Bros can confirm, the film has a very strange and inconsistent tone. The dialogue seems squarely aimed at the kids in the audience, but the industrial-chic sets and somewhat fetishistic costumes most definitely aren’t. This is in part because the designs had been built in accordance with the earlier script – but it’s also because directors Jankel and Morton refused to take their new orders lying down.
According to Luigi actor John Leguizamo, the directors were still determined to shoot as much adult-oriented material as they could get away with, despite their orders to produce a family-friendly film. The actor has since said: “It’s eight-year-olds who play the game and that’s where the movie needed to be aimed… but (Jankel and Morton) kept trying to insert new material.” Leguizamo says this included “scenes with strippers and with other sexually explicit content, which all got edited out anyway.”
7. Scenes were regularly rewritten on the fly
As Ed Solomon’s re-write had been such a last-minute rush job, and so at odds with what Jankel and Morton wanted, the Super Mario production struggled with major tone and continuity problems on a daily basis. Very often, the actors turned up to set with little or no idea what they were actually shooting that day. As a result of this, many scenes which wound up part of the movie were hastily re-written and/or ad-libbed on the spot.
Richard Edson and Fisher Stevens, who portray Koopa’s henchmen Spike and Iggy, improvised a whole new scene on their first day of filming, and were allowed to keep doing so from then on. Another notable ad-lib is the elevator sequence, in which Luigi (John Leguizamo) lulls the Goombas into a hypnotic trance by making them sway along to the elevator music. Edson says, “The writers couldn’t [have cared] less; if we could improve the script, they were more than happy.”
6. The cast coped with all the chaos by getting wasted
As the work environment grew ever more stressful, the actors had to do their best to relax. For Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, this meant having a few drinks – even whilst they were shooting. Leguizamo admits that both he and Hoskins spent a fair amount of the shoot drunk, and would often drink whiskey between takes. Richard Edson, meanwhile, says a lot of cannabis was being smoked by the cast and crew after hours.
Hoskins had been given a private mansion to live in throughout production, and according to Edson, he was unhappy on learning the younger cast members had been partying without him. “Bob was like, ‘You guys have pot? You’ve been smoking reefer?’ And we were like, ‘Yeah’, and he yelled, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?! I’ve been sitting alone in my mansion!’”
5. John Leguizamo drove drunk on camera
Unfortunately, the on-set inebriation of the Super Mario Bros cast wound up having some very real consequences. John Leguizamo admits that he and Bob Hoskins had been drinking before shooting a New York scene. This is made all the more alarming by the fact that this scene required Leguizamo to drive the Mario Bros van for real. The intoxicated actor misjudged a manoeuvre, had to brake suddenly, and Hoskins wound up catching his hand in the van door, breaking a finger.
As a result, if you look closely Hoskins can be seen wearing a flesh-tone cast over his hand in some scenes that were shot afterwards. Nor was this the only time Hoskins got hurt during Super Mario Bros, as the actor was reportedly also electrocuted, stabbed and almost drowned at different times.
4. Dennis Hopper had the mother of all meltdowns on set
Naturally, the Super Mario Bros cast were frequently unhappy about the frantic, unpredictable working conditions. None of the actors were more vocal with their displeasure than Koopa actor Dennis Hopper. One day midway through production, on being presented with a whole new scene to learn mere minutes before shooting, Hopper went on the rampage. Richard Edson recounts the late actor roaring: “You rewrote my lines! You call this writing? This is s**t! It’s s**t! And the fact you’d do it without asking me?”
Reportedly Hopper continued screaming the set down and blasting the directors as the most unprofessional people he’d ever met, for three and a half hours. Then, after they took an extended lunch break and managed to settle Hopper down, the actor finally agreed to perform the re-written scene.
3. The directors were locked out of the editing room
Evidently Dennis Hopper wasn’t the only one who blamed Jankel and Morton for the mess that Super Mario Bros became. As soon as the initially scheduled period of principal photography was complete, the directors were effectively fired, with Roland Joffé taking over. According to actress Samantha Mathis, the cast and crew were then kept on to shoot for a further three weeks after Jankel and Morton had been sent home, with Joffé now calling the shots. Joffé then oversaw the editing process, struggling to put together something coherent from the footage they had, and making yet further deviations from the script in the process.
For instance, Joffé decided to add the animated prologue, spelling out the film’s key concept of the dinosaurs being sent to a parallel dimension by the meteor strike thought to have caused their extinction. Fun fact: the voiceover on this animated sequence is provided by none other than Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson.
2. It was one of the biggest critical and commercial flops of the 90s
Super Mario Bros opened on May 28 1993 – just under two weeks before the release of a certain other movie involving dinosaurs, called Jurassic Park. Still, even if it hadn’t opened almost back-to-back with probably the most beloved blockbuster of the 1990s, Super Mario Bros surely would have been in for a rough ride. The film was almost universally panned by critics, and would be named one of the worst films of 1993 in numerous end-of-year lists.
Nor did it win over audiences, taking only $20.9 million at the US box office; a significant loss on its budget and marketing costs. Roland Joffé steered clear of producing any more populist blockbusters afterwards, whilst Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel never directed another Hollywood movie. Subsequent poorly received video game adaptations Double Dragon, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat left some critics suggesting there was a curse on video game-based movies.
1. Bob Hoskins called it the biggest regret of his career
In his later years, the sadly missed Bob Hoskins did not hold back his feelings regarding Super Mario Bros. In 2007, the late actor told The Guardian that Super Mario Bros was “the worst thing I ever did… the whole experience was a nightmare.” Hoskins blasted directors Jankel and Morton as “f***ing idiots… whose arrogance had been mistaken for talent.”
In another interview in 2011, Hoskins was asked about his biggest regret, his biggest disappointment, and the one thing from his career he would change. In answer to all three of these questions, Hoskins gave the very same answer: yes, you guessed it, Super Mario Bros.