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‘Mortal Kombat’ screenwriter Greg Russo on too much violence & how to make a good video game movie

Mortal Kombat is one of the most anticipated movies of the year. The long running video game franchise is one of the most popular and infamous. It is a trailblazer that fans have long to see return to the silver screen. Not only is it back, it is coming to the screens in all its rated R glory. Screenwriter Greg Russo talks about the pressures of working on a Mortal Kombat movie, his inspiration aside from the source material, and what he wants fans to get from the film.

AIPT: Were you a fan of the Mortal Kombat video games?

Greg Russo: Oh yeah. I mean, pretty much a lifelong, diehard fan. I mean, when the first game came out on the Sega Genesis, I talked my mom into going to Target with me to buy it. Because I was a little too young. And if you remember, that was one of the games that first started the rating system for video games. So I had to do some clever manipulating of the truth to get my mom to go by what she thought was probably a Super Mario Brothers game. And since then, I’ve pretty much played every game that’s come out. Pretty much all the spin-offs. Pretty much one of the biggest fans you’ll probably meet.

AIPT: There’s a lot of lore to Mortal Kombat. There’s also a rabid fan base. Do you feel any pressure writing a Mortal Kombat movie?

Russo: I feel a lot of pressure. It’s funny, there’s a lot of fans and I tried to talk to as many of them as I could while I was writing it just to get insight. And obviously, I want to try to capture what they loved about the games growing up, just like I did. So, while I feel the pressure to carry the torch, so to speak and make a great movie, it was somewhat less than by the fact that I was really writing it for myself.

And so the pressure, I just kind of put it on my own shoulders and said, “Okay, what’s the movie that I would want to see as a fan?” And then trying to write that as much as possible. So it was one way that I just kind of dealt with the pressure. The external pressure was just kind of making it more internal, like an internal commitment to myself.

AIPT: You talked about the video game rating board. No one cares about ratings until all of a sudden, they really care about ratings. Mortal Kombat is one of those where it “has to be done rated R to do be done right”. Did the rating make a difference to you?

'Mortal Kombat' screenwriter Greg Russo on too much violence & how to make a good video game movie

Russo: Yeah, it did. It made a difference to everyone involved in this movie. And from the very beginning, from the very early stages of development, the creatives kind of came forth and said, we think this needs to be rated R to fully capture what the source material is. And there was never any pushback.

It’s really to the credit of New Line and ultimately Warner Brothers to understand and to realize that that is the movie that the fans want. And it was so freeing as a writer on a movie, because that let me just go wild. I could finally do and I could finally bring to the screen all of those things all of those things about Mortal Kombat that you loved but they never got in the 90s because they were inhibited by the rating at the time. So it was hugely important to us.

AIPT: Along those lines, did you ever worry about going too far?

Russo: That’s a good question. You know, one of the cool things is I got to pick the fatalities that are in the movie. So I basically went through and I picked out my favorites, the things I really loved. There’s some old school ones, there’s more newer, new school stuff. And I just put them in there in all their violent glory. And I just waited to see what would happen.

And to be fair, like nobody really objected to them. They ended up being the ones that were shot for the film. When you actually put it on screen, all these deaths and everything, you start to realize like, wow, these things are pretty brutal.

And, I remember Simon saying that they had to push it right to the edge, basically, and they kind of got away with it. So yeah, we definitely pushed the R rating. There was not really a moment where we had to say, “Well, let’s scale back. I think we’re going too far.”

I think with the fatalities, we just wanted to make sure that they had a purpose in the story and that they weren’t just there to be gratuitous flashy things. We wanted them to actually have some substance behind them. So, that was where we really tried to scale them in a way, was just make sure that if they’re going to be there, that they have a purpose to the story.

AIPT: Mortal Kombat obviously is the source material. Where else did you draw inspiration from?

Russo: One of the main characters in the movie, Cole Young was somewhat designed off of what I was going through at the time, in my own life, because I was getting ready to be a father. And so I was terrified and anxious about being a dad. And I kind of channeled a lot of my own thoughts about my anxieties that I would feel fail as a father and I would be terrible and I channeled them into that character.

So, definitely some of the molding of that character, I think I was just drawing from my own life. And then for other parts of the story, I was in film at Vassar College and in some history and theory. And so I put a lot from many of the things I loved about iconic Japanese cinema and pulled those things from those great movies. And anyway, I could kind of sprinkle in things that I really loved and learned or appreciated from Japanese cinema, I tried to put it in there as well.

AIPT: How important was it for you to create a new story?

'Mortal Kombat' screenwriter Greg Russo on too much violence & how to make a good video game movie

Russo: I think that is one of the most important things. I think there’s two things that are important to adapting. One is being faithful to the lore and staying true to the mythology as much as we can. I always kind of came at it with a mantra that said, “Look, I don’t want to change anything. I don’t want to try to alter or change what’s existing there.”

But at the same time you want to be able to bring something new to the table too, from a story perspective. Because the last thing I wanted to do is just rehash what the audience has already seen a dozen times now. And I didn’t want those storylines to start growing stale.

And so it was important for us to bring something original to the table to have a new perspective, to enhance the mythology. Because I always felt like it would be doing the mythology, or really the property, a disservice if we didn’t at least try to do something new. So that was really important to us.

AIPT: There’s been a lot of video game adaptations to movies and varying degrees of success. So what do you think is most important about capturing the essence of a video game movie?

Russo: The most important thing, I think, in adapting a video game is making sure that you’re appealing to the fans first and foremost. I think you want to make sure that you’re being true to the mythology as much as you can. You’re being true to the characters, you’re being true to the lore. And while you’re doing that, because you’re because you’re writing a film, you’re writing something for any audience to go see. It’d be different if I was writing Mortal Kombat 12, the video game. That storyline would probably be a little different. So when I’m writing for a mass audience, I also have to make sure that people that don’t know what Mortal Kombat is, can go to the movies and understand, and have a good time. Now that they don’t need to sit there with a Mortal Kombat encyclopedia in their lab to understand what’s going on.

And so, the real tricky thing about adapting any video game is that once you to get the fans involved in what they remember and appreciate about the source material, that you also want to make sure that you’re telling a story that anybody can go and see and understand and have a good time.

Mortal Kombat premieres in theaters and on HBO Max April 23.

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