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Exclusive Interview: Director Simon McQuoid and producer Todd Garner usher in a new era of “MORTAL KOMBAT”

Wednesday, March 17, 2021 | Exclusives

By EVAN MILLAR

The glorious, gory cinematic rebirth of MORTAL KOMBAT is finally happening.

As one of the most popular and controversial fighting games of all time, MORTAL KOMBAT was initially adapted to the big screen in 1995 by RESIDENT EVIL’s Paul W.S. Anderson and returned once more in the form of an abhorrent 1997 sequel, MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION.

Now, director Simon McQuoid along with producers James Wan, Todd Garner, and an impressively diverse cast of able-bodied fighters are poised to resurrect the tournament for an entirely new generation of moviegoers and video game fans.

And boy, if MORTAL KOMBAT’s opening 13 minutes are any indication of its overall quality, it seems that the franchise is in extremely capable, albeit blood-soaked hands. Beginning with the genesis of the long-running quarrel between two of the series’ most arguably well-known combatants, Sub-Zero and Scorpion, we’re thrust into a sanguinary struggle in feudal Japan that’s sure to whet fan’s appetites regardless of what realm they’re ultimately rooting for.

In anticipation of the film’s April 16 release, we sat down with its director and producer to discuss what goes into bringing such an iconic series back to cinema, what it takes to get viewers to believe its over-the-top premise, and just how much of that techno theme will be making an appearance this time around.

Watch our exclusive clip below, then read on for our interview with Simon and Todd.

 

Simon, you’ve previously received positive reception from the gaming community for the LONG LIVE PLAY ad you did for Sony. Did you feel that having done the commercial gave you an edge or provided some comfort directing a video game adaptation such as MORTAL KOMBAT?

SM: That was a great experience shooting that commercial. I had done some ads for HALO and then from those, PlayStation wanted me to do that. As I delve back through my memory banks, what was interesting about doing that is that there were a couple of things that helped this film. One was that it had a lot of characters, very beloved characters who people really cared about. 

Not only did the fans care about those characters but each of the gaming companies really cared about their characters and were really nervous… I’m not sure why they did it, but someone at Sony or PlayStation must have been very convincing and got them to hand over these characters and let them be brought to life, in many instances for the first time, really. 

So that was a major part of that production. Aside from just the sort of filmmaking aspect of the commercial, it was really, “How do we make sure that we revere and care for these characters?” Once we did our final costumes and everything, I sent photos back to each gaming company to signal to them, “Oh, they really are looking after my beloved character!” 

We set up a huge photo shoot, got each of them really beautifully shot and made them look really good, and emailed those photos off so they saw the respect for those characters, even in the way that they were shot and presented. I kept saying to everyone, “This can’t look like a bad Halloween party. This could be terrible!” 

We have to be careful about how we bring these things to life. The ad agency also came up with a fantastic idea, and that really helped. What I learned out of that process that helped with MORTAL KOMBAT wasn’t so much filmmaking, it was understanding and respecting the fans.

I’d sort of had my first experience of that with HALO. As we all know, video games are really important, they matter to the fans and there’s a reason people are passionate. Your brain literally goes there, lives it, breathes it – I know that feeling from playing games a lot. 

Carrying over to MORTAL KOMBAT, it was why I kept saying to everyone, “Respect the material, respect the characters.” These have to be the best versions of these characters that have ever been seen. We can’t change them but we can evolve them, amplify them and make them feel bigger, more cinematic, more powerful… but the DNA has to be right.

In some of the other interviews I’ve seen you mention authenticity and how important that was to your interpretation of MORTAL KOMBAT. Simon, what exactly went into that on your end? Was it just overseeing all the finer details, ensuring they’re lining up with what you think they should be? 

SM: There’s a few different types of authenticity going on within the film so, ultimately, I talk about this authenticity simply because I want people to believe. I want people’s cinematic experience to be powerful. So, how do you make it powerful? You make a world that you believe… that’s the ultimate theory behind it.

With Scorpion’s costume, I wanted it to come from ancient Japan and Samurai. We did a lot of work looking through historical Japanese armour, weapons and all sorts of stuff. I wanted that to be from that period when we first see it in the opening of the film … I wanted it to be born out of that to keep a purity to these characters.

There’s a real level of detail, respect and reverence given to the armour from that time, and I wanted to bring that historical idea across to the way these characters were brought about.

Every single facet of this film had a conversation about it, which was born out of that idea. “Do you believe it?” Even when we got to the post-effects, down to me saying, “No, no, I want this in-camera. Work out a way to make an entire room look like it’s been sprayed with ice. I’m not doing that in VFX, there’s enough VFX going on!”

My job as a director is to employ people … You employ the right people with the right taste and ones that align with you. I don’t care what their credits are so much as how they answered those creative questions that were presented – that’s fundamental.

When we did the first Jax and Sub-Zero fight, there was stuff in there that we had to learn, like how to build in-camera ice … We had the whole corner of a warehouse just devoted to building ice. They built machines, gigantic room-sized machines, just to dip chain link fences into ice-looking rubber. It was extraordinary!

Fight choreography seems to be really important to this version of MORTAL KOMBAT. Todd, how was it assembling a cast who were talented in that area? Was that something in your mind right from the beginning – having such a culturally diverse cast to bring these characters to life and do the series justice?

TG: Yeah, and I still can’t believe Warner Brothers went along with it! To tell you the truth, thank god CRAZY RICH ASIANS and BLACK PANTHER were made because, look, I’ve been in the movie business for 30 years. I can remember being in meetings where someone would say, “This movie’s not going to travel because it has somebody who is not white.” 

The fact that we got to make a movie that was true to the canon of the games and we didn’t need big stars … Nobody stopped and said, “Where’s Tom Cruise?” Nobody did. Everybody just went, “Make it a good, real, and grounded movie.” So thank god for those movies that came before us, because the timing was perfect and we were able to do just that. 

Secondarily, I’ve made a lot of action movies where they cut away and put a stunt person in … You can’t do that in MORTAL KOMBAT, man! There’s one shot [in the movie], I’m going to get the number wrong but I think it’s 28 moves of fight choreography just within that one shot. It’s not close ups, hiding the actors … It’s them.

It was very important for me to hire real fighters, and then that’s the extent of my contribution. Simon put together the most amazing group of fight choreographers … All those things just came together so beautifully, and I’m so grateful to Warner Brothers because it’s such a huge risk to just make a movie with great actors that are right for the part, it really is. It’s very unusual.

The Immortals’ “Techno Syndrome” almost transcends 1995’s MORTAL KOMBAT. Todd, was there ever a moment when the song was not going to be used in this version, and could you speak about Benjamin Wallfisch’s score?

TG: There was never a moment. It’s like having the STAR WARS theme and going, “Yeah, I like it, but I’m gonna say no.” Come on, you’re gonna use the MORTAL KOMBAT theme! But the fact that it’s so steeped in the ‘90s and techno, you have to be mindful of that. 

With that being said, you can also improve on it and make it part of your score when you have a composer that’s so fucking talented. [Benjamin Wallfisch] took that and created this beautiful rendition of it that is so operatic and big that Simon walked on the set one day and goes, “You want to hear something crazy?” I was in tears, it’s incredible. 

So the classic theme is there, but it’s not exactly it. We do have the techno in a place in the movie, but Simon just cut all of the casts’ costume fittings to this score send it to the studio and they were like, “We should just put this out as the trailer!” It was just so cool.

But yeah, it’s [like] the STAR WARS theme. There’s never a moment we weren’t gonna use it, it was just, in a movie that’s releasing in 2021, not just throw the ‘95 thing on there … It’s great and nostalgic but a little bit goes a long way.

Evan Millar
Evan Millar is a freelance journalist based out of Toronto, Canada. A graduate of Humber's journalism program, Evan joined Rue Morgue as an intern in 2015 and became a frequent contributor of game, film and event reviews. He took over as games editor in early 2018 and has had a passion for video games since booting up the shareware version of DOOM on a dusty MS-DOS computer. Follow him on Twitter (@evanjmillar).