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Director Paul W.S. Anderson talks techno tunes and UGG boots for Mortal Kombat's 25th anniversary
Mortal Kombat turns 25 this summer and, even after all these years, it’s still seen as a "flawless victory" for avid fans of the extreme fighting game. With its stylish fusion of martial arts action and pulsing techno soundtrack, Mortal Kombat broke the Hollywood curse of failed gaming adaptations and remains an excellent template for how video game properties can be successfully transformed onto the silver screen.
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon, Resident Evil) with a screenplay by Kevin Droney, the action-fantasy was made for a thrifty $21 million and captured the essence of the popular arcade amusement, proving that an engaging theatrical film could be crafted from what many considered to be mindless kids' toys.
Mortal Kombat the movie revolves around a legendary martial arts tournament held on a secret island that pits Earthrealm's finest warriors against Outworld's assassins — who are manipulated by the evil warlock Shang Tsung — for dominion over the planet. This wild adventure was unchained on Aug. 18, 1995, in an undesirable release slot normally reserved for neglected movies with limited potential. But the stylish film thrived in that late summer window, eventually kicking ass to the tune of $122 million in global box office receipts.
Anderson went on to adapt Capcom’s Resident Evil property into a billion-dollar franchise, and his next foray into the realm of video games will be Sony’s big-screen 2021 tentpole, Monster Hunter.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Anderson for Mortal Kombat’s 25th anniversary on using Hong Kong-style wirework, filming in remote Thailand, fluffy UGG boots, and hopes for next year’s Mortal Kombat reboot.
Looking back 25 years on Mortal Kombat, what do you recall most?
Mortal Kombat was such a wonderful experience for me. It was my first American movie and only my second film off Shopping. It was the first time I’d worked with an American studio with a relatively big budget, and there was a movie star in it, Christopher Lambert. Everyone was very pleasant and even to this day I remain very good friends with several of the actors in the movie.
It was a very exciting period. I had an absolute blast making Mortal Kombat and I think everyone else involved in it did. For me, I moved to Los Angeles and there were palm trees everywhere so I felt like I was on vacation because I’m from the north of England where it’s very bleak and cold. The apartment that had been found for me was two blocks from the beach. I had a Miata, those tiny convertibles, and I was way too big for a Mazda. It was hysterical because my head was above where the windshield stopped. It was like driving up in a clown car and my hair would be sticking up after being on the freeway.
Then when we were shooting in Thailand, we shot at a series of beaches, but most of them you could only get to by boat. So I got to work sitting on the front of a speed boat every single day with the wind blowing through my hair. So it was very much a movie of crazy-looking hair, at least for the people behind the camera anyway. [Laughs.]
What elements of the Mortal Kombat game experience were most important for you to preserve and portray?
I was very familiar with the video game and had played it in arcades in London. I grew up in the north of England in a city called Newcastle, where there was no film industry. If you wanted to be a filmmaker you had to come to London.
When I came to L.A. and heard they were making a movie, I was very excited to take a meeting with Mike DeLuca at New Line about it. Everybody was a bit sniffy within the industry about video games as movies and it wasn’t very highly regarded. There had been some notable failures like Super Mario Bros. and Double Dragon, so there was this feeling that video game adaptations don’t work.
The people who said that knew nothing about Mortal Kombat. There were definite characters there like Johnny Cage, Liu Kang, Shang Tsung. And there was a real narrative with the tournament fighting for the fates of these two worlds. There were a lot of fantastic tropes at work in the video game, and I thought this was an opportunity to make a great fantasy movie with kickass martial arts action. I was a big fan of Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts movies and there was a whole fighting style that those films really pioneered and those styles were not being used in American movies.
That’s why I was very keen on working with Robin Shou. He was a fantastic actor and great martial artist who started as a stunt man in Hong Kong. We were one of the first American movies to use Hong Kong-style wirework properly. Then, a couple of years later, The Matrix took it to the next level. But I feel Mortal Kombat fights still hold up today because they were super fresh at the time.
Do you have any favorite Mortal Kombat fight scene or sequence?
Johnny Cage versus Scorpion and Liu Kang and Reptile are two of my favorite scenes because they’re using iconic characters from the game. And especially the Scorpion fight. We were using some really cool wirework and had a Hong Kong team come in and shoot some of that.
You’d be shocked how small that set was. It feels huge and that’s where people started calling me Paul “Wide Shot” Anderson as I fell in love with the 18mm and 13mm lens. It’s amazing how a well-placed, wide lens can make your set look huge, taken back to the edge of the set. If you’d panned the camera a millimeter to the left or right, all you would have seen is unpainted wood and the craft service table.
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s evil sorcerer Shang Tsung is one of the cornerstones of the film. What was it like working with him and directing the cast’s stuntwork?
Cary couldn’t have been nicer. I think a lot of actors who play bad guys are always unfailingly the nicest people you meet. They get all the evil out on screen and then they couldn’t be more pleasant. My fondest memory of him was that he was the first person I ever saw wearing UGG boots. He had this pair of furry UGG boots that he hated taking off. Above the waist, he was all evil, but below the waist, he was furry and friendly. [Laughs.]
The actors across the board were all lovely people, very committed. Many of them did as many of their own stunts as possible and took pride in that and trained very hard. Christopher Lambert was just a doll. To save money, we did a deal with him where we only got him for a certain amount of weeks and that precluded him coming to Thailand. He said it would be better if he came to Thailand and without charging us an extra dime, the guy basically doubled the amount of time he worked on the movie.
And that’s not the easiest location for him because he’s wearing Raiden’s heavy clothing and that wig in the intense heat. We shot very little against a green screen and I think it’s one of the reasons this imagery doesn't date very much. Christopher was really there in front of these ancient temples.
Did you keep any props, costumes, or mementos from the sets?
Well, I wasn’t supposed to but I did steal a statue. I won’t lie. I asked if I could keep something and I was told no. So I just turned up with a pick-up truck and took one of the big warrior statues from the statuary garden, which was in my house for a very long time.
No one can watch Mortal Kombat without being immersed in the techno soundtrack that sold over a million copies. How did you help pick out those tunes?
I have the platinum album on my wall from Mortal Kombat that I’m very proud of since I hand-chose every single track. A lot of the artists involved I already had a relationship with. Utah Saints I’d worked with before. And I went on to work with Orbital to do the soundtrack for Event Horizon. Techno music was big in England when we were making Mortal Kombat, but it wasn’t as big in America. It was seen as underground and something that wouldn’t catch on.
You could sense there was going to be a techno explosion and I thought we could be on the cutting edge of it. When the movie came out, techno was really blowing up and we had a big album that felt very current. The music made the fight scenes really pump.
George Clinton did a great job of kind of papering the cracks in between and blending his soundtrack with all the needle drops that we had. We had a great time making Mortal Kombat so I’m glad that bled into the celluloid.
What are your wishes for the new Mortal Kombat reboot coming out in 2021?
I’m not involved but obviously wish them well. I want nothing but success for Mortal Kombat so I’m excited to see what they do with it.