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Mortal Kombat writer Greg Russo on fan service, fatalities, and making good video game movies
Today, after years of development, the much-anticipated adaptation of Mortal Kombat hits theaters and HBO Max in the U.S., fulfilling the dreams of everyone from the longtime arcade faithful to newcomers who are interested in the legendary fighting game getting a modern big-screen update. It's taken a while, but now it's here in all its bloody glory, which means it's time to talk about how it all took shape.
Greg Russo first penned the script that director Simon McQuoid read when he boarded the project in 2016, and Russo stayed onboard through the rest of the lengthy production. He is, no question, one of the key architects of Mortal Kombat as we now get to see it. Alongside McQuoid, the film's producers, and its massive ensemble cast, Russo helped shape everything, including the new additions to the lore, the creation of a new protagonist in Lewis Tan's Cole Young, and who would get to drop a fatality on who — and he did it all with the glee of a longtime video game devotee.
Ahead of Mortal Kombat's release, SYFY WIRE talked to Russo about how the film became what it is now, from character selections to writing a good fatality to what it really takes to make a good video game movie.
**SPOILER WARNING: This story contains mild spoilers for Mortal Kombat.**
How do you even begin to break down decades of Mortal Kombat lore into a story? What was your starting point?
Yeah, so that's a challenge. These games have been going on for 25 years, at least. And it's dense mythology. There's 70 to 80 characters. There's six realms. Keep going down the list of all the lore and mythology. So when you approach something like that from a story perspective, actually one of the first things I look at is I try to say, "All right, where can I pull emotion from?" And I know it sounds like a crazy place to start, but when you're dealing with something like Mortal Kombat, which isn't necessarily ripe with a ton of emotion and heart, I wanted to tell a moving story.
And if you look at the mythology, one of the most well-known places you find it is in Scorpion's backstory. So that was something that I was like, "Wow, I loved that in the games. I loved it in the lore. I love the story of revenge and heartbreak and loss and tragedy." So I wanted to dig into that and I wanted that to be a big part of the movie. Of course, the movie can't live there by itself, so it also became a challenge of, "All right, how do I take part of a story that exists 400 years ago, and then bridge that into modern day and tell a story in modern day that links back to it but also, has a narrative throughline?"
So it started with Scorpion, and then I built it out from there. And then we had our new protagonist that I knew I wanted to be part of this movie, and I knew that if I was going to do that, I wanted to make sure that he tied into Scorpion's backstory in a really unique way.
Then I found my bridge. I found a way to tell the Scorpion/Sub-Zero story, but also tie it into a modern-day story. And that was a real challenge. It was just finding ways to extract what the hard emotion was that I could pull out of Mortal Kombat, and then tell a story in modern day that honored it, but also had its own drive.
In terms of that new protagonist, how did you go about creating Cole?
When it came to me to figure out what the best version of Cole was, again, the first thing that I wanted to try to figure out was how does he tie into the world of Mortal Kombat naturally? I wanted him to be the audience's way in, and then I also knew that I could pull some emotion out of his storyline too. Again, it's all about trying to find any emotion I can in Mortal Kombat. So for his family and for his backstory, I was kind of pulling from my own life. At the time I wrote it, I was about to be a dad. I was nervous, just like I think a lot of guys are when they're about to be a father. I didn't want to screw it up. I didn't want to be a bad dad.
So I put a lot of those fears and insecurities into Cole and this idea that he was a champion, but now he's down on his luck and he's barely making ends meet and he's worried that he's not providing for his wife and daughter. So I knew I could put some of that emotion in there as well. And then, as I kind of mentioned before, it was just finding ways to tie him into the overall narrative as best I could.
You've also introduced the idea of the dragon mark designating champions. How did that come about?
It's all about taking what's in Mortal Kombat, this idea that there are normal people with super powers, and finding ways to tell that in a narrative where it makes sense for an audience, and especially for an audience that doesn't know what Mortal Kombat is. You're writing for the biggest audience you can. You're writing for the fans, of course. There's so much fan service we put into this. But you're also writing for audiences that don't know as much about Mortal Kombat and what it is. So we needed to explain that. If you just walk into a movie and all of a sudden people are just running around throwing fireballs, you're going to be like, "Wait, what? How do all these people have superpowers?"
And so that's where the idea of both the dragon marking, and [the activation of powers came from]. It just became a way of telling a story about how do you unlock your power or the power within you? I always liked that idea, just something that's obviously very native to superhero movies. It's all about how do they unlock their abilities, how they train with their abilities, how they master their abilities. And since we were dealing in that space with superpowers, we felt that we wanted to find a unique way to add that to our narrative.
Beyond Cole, how did filling out the rest of the cast evolve for you? Was there ever a point when the cast was going to be bigger?
You're talking about a property that has 70 or 80 characters, so this is a huge roster. You're also talking about a story structure where we are basically going right into Avengers mode, which if you think about that, certain universes like the Marvel universe, Justice League, they take their time, they have individual stories that set up all these characters. We didn't have that luxury either.
So it's a matter of, "We've got a certain amount of time. We've got a certain amount of characters we need to get to. And we also can't overload the narrative." I always felt like it would've been wrong to overload the narrative too early with too many characters. So that's why when you watch the film, there's a process of what I call unlocking them as you go. What it allows me to do from a storytelling perspective is it allows me to make sure that each character gets his own or her own spotlight as you go through the narrative. And we're slowly building to an ensemble by the end. So at the end of the movie, we have become the Avengers. The group has become the Avengers.
So it was kind of tricky to build that out and make sure that each character gets their screen time, and then it was really just a matter of looking at the amount of time we had for this story and saying, "How many characters can we really fit in here?" It was longer [at one point]. I think there were certain characters that were cut throughout the development. It didn't make sense. It wasn't pushing the narrative forward. And ultimately it also became a question of there's some great characters that people love and I love that I wanted to put in there, but it would've been overloaded if I'd done that. So it was also a matter of who can we save? Who could we use later or down the road, hopefully?
You promised fans fatalities and you absolutely delivered. How do you go about writing a fatality in the first place?
Like any part of the filmmaking process, it's a result of collaboration. It starts with the script, and one of the joys I had working on this was I got to pick the fatalities in the movie. I got to decide what they were, but not just what they were. The real challenge with adding something like that is trying to figure out where they go and how they make sense and how they land, where they don't just feel like they're just there to be there. I wanted them to have a role in the story. I wanted them to matter to the characters.
That's the hard work. Then the fun part of the work is like, "All right, what do they get to do?" And I knew that I wanted some of the classics in there. I was an arcade kid. I grew up in the arcades playing this game. So I wanted some of the MK1 and MK2 stuff that you just remember and the most iconic ones that even people who aren't fans or people that have moved on from the games from the '90s, even they remember. And then I wanted to put a couple of the newer ones in there that just I loved. So I would say of the fatalities, they lean heavier towards the old, kind of classics, the iconic ones. But yeah, there's quite a few. I think there were like seven in the movie. We weren't messing around.
What's the secret to a good video game movie?
I'll give you two answers... And the personal answer is you genuinely have to love this stuff. You cannot fake this. When you adapt a video game, you can't just go on Wikipedia. You can't play for like an hour and then write your script. And I think, what has happened in the past is that studios, they don't think about that, so then they're just bringing the writer that they're going to bring in and the writer may not even be a fan in a lot of cases. I heard somebody say something really interesting to me, which was that the reason that I think the quality of video game adaptations is getting better is that the people that grew up on the games are actually now in creative positions to adapt them. And so it took 15 years or 20 years where we were all in the arcades playing it, but we weren't writing the movies. They were being written by whoever. So now that group of '90s kids has now ascended into these positions where they can actually adapt this stuff. And you're seeing the love.
That's what you're seeking. There's no secret sauce. You're just seeing actual passion from people that grew up on this stuff and that really do love what they're working on.
And then the real quick screenwriter answer is that the secret really to writing an adaptation is that you need to be faithful to the fans first. You got to make sure that you're doing them justice. But then you also need to open your film up enough so that people that don't know the property can come in. So it's not exclusive to either side. And you got to be careful there, because if you go too far one way or the other, the adaptation can either become so faithful it turns people off, or so unfaithful that the fans will give you no mercy. And once you lose the fans, you're done. You can't tell a big adaptation if you isolate the fans. That's just never going to happen.
If a sequel happens, will you be back for it?
I hope so! My hand's raised. I'm here. I know what to do. I loved working with this crew and it was like a big family. So it was definitely one of my favorite experiences.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Mortal Kombat is now out in theaters and available on HBO Max for the next 31 days. Check back Monday for more from our chat with Greg Russo, as we veer into spoiler territory!