Exclusive Interview: Writer Greg Russo Talks Mortal Kombat Reboot

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Over a quarter of a century after Paul W.S. Anderson’s original became an instant cult classic, and 24 years after Annihilation disappointed fans, critics and audiences alike, Mortal Kombat is finally back on the big screen. Director Simon McQuoid makes his feature debut on the video game adaptation, which has been riding a solid wave of buzz and momentum ever since the first trailer debuted in February.

Everything we’ve seen and heard from the R-rated martial arts actioner has been incredibly promising to say the least, and the benefit of a hybrid HBO Max and theatrical release will open Mortal Kombat up to a bigger potential audience than ever before. If the first outing lives up to expectations, then you can guarantee we’ll have a franchise on our hands.

To mark the impending debut of the reboot, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to Mortal Kombat writer Greg Russo. In our exclusive chat, we dive into the movie’s fight sequences and potential for sequels, not to mention Russo’s multiple upcoming projects including fellow video game blockbusters Space Invaders and Saints Row, as well as Netflix’s supernatural follow-up Death Note 2, and you can check it out below.

How does it feel to know that Mortal Kombat is nearly here, five years after first being announced and with everything that’s happened over the last year?

Greg Russo: Yeah, it’s been a long journey. For me, it’s been about five years, so that’s been my road on all of this. And the pandemic and all of that certainly threw a bit of a loop there. Actually, we got into production right before it happened, so we got to make the movie without having all of the chaos and it really just affected the post-production. I shouldn’t say ‘just’ the post-production, a lot of people worked in a lot of different areas remotely in post-production to make the movie work, so thankfully they figured it out.

Is it encouraging to see Godzilla vs. Kong doing big numbers at the box office and on HBO Max, especially when you’re the next Warner Bros. film out of the gate and there’s going to be a lot of crossover in terms of demographic and audience?

Greg Russo: It is. I was looking at that movie closely, because that is something I was rooting for, and I’m a big fan of the people that made the movie and I hope that they did well. And to see that there’s actually… people want to go back, you know? It’s just a matter of opening up safely and doing it in the right way, but I think the pent up demand is there. That was something that was encouraging to see, and our movie is trailering off of that as well, so the more people that go and see that the better! But I hope the trend continues, it seems like certain parts of the world are opening up faster than others, but I hope everyone who wants to go and see it can see it however they can.

People are definitely crying out to get back to the movies in big numbers, and something like Godzilla vs. Kong or Mortal Kombat – big, broad action-packed genre films – are definitely the best thing to come along and do it.

Greg Russo: Yeah, it’s nice to be a part of that. I grew up in the movies. I grew up going to the movies, that’s the experience that I love, that’s the experience I think is the best way to view a film, so it’s nice to be one of those films that’s helping bring people back to the theater even though not everything’s going to be open, but to be part of that change is cool.

Mortal Kombat

When you were writing the script, was it a struggle to try and strike the balance between fan service and catering to a new audience who might not be too familiar with Mortal Kombat?

Greg Russo: Yeah, so that’s the biggest challenge really when you’re adapting something like Mortal Kombat, is that when you write a film it’s different from if you were writing a game. If I were to write Mortal Kombat 12 it would just be fan service, because that’s all it is. I know the fans are going to play it, and I would just load it up with all that great fan service. When you’re in a film, you have to be a realist, and to understand that half of your audience is going to come to this without knowing what Mortal Kombat is, and you have to make sure that they also enjoy the film and that they can also understand the story, and the dense mythology and very crazy characters that we’re going to throw at you consistently through this movie.

So yeah, it’s about finding that balance. It’s about making it… the fans will love it, they’ll see all this stuff that they know and love about the games is in there, but also someone that their aunt Margaret, who doesn’t know what Mortal Kombat is, can go: ‘Hey, that was a pretty cool movie. I get it. I get what it is’.

It’s a complex mythology to put it lightly. Is that why Cole Young is the protagonist, to make him the audience surrogate to bring in people that might not be too familiar with Mortal Kombat?

Greg Russo: Well, I think there are a couple of different reasons, but that was definitely one of the reasons. You know, when you have a lot of mythology and you have characters that are preset with their own personalities and their own backstories and their own point of views, it gets a little tricky to have that character be the guiding voice. So what we wanted to do is make sure that we had a point of view character where we could funnel some of the intense mythology through in an organic way, so the audience can process it without getting lost, and that’s just one of the reasons. The other reason is that we wanted to try and bring an original component to the story that hadn’t been done much before, you know?

The question was, ‘how do we tell a different side of the Mortal Kombat story and how do we dig into stuff that people haven’t seen?’ And it really didn’t start with Cole, it actually started with Scorpion and Sub-Zero. It started with telling that story which I felt like, as much as I love the 1995 film, they come into that movie and they don’t say a word. They’re basically just silent jobbers that, you know, one of them shoots a snake out of his hand! And I just felt, as a fan, that I never got that great Sub-Zero/Scorpion backstory and rivalry. So it actually started there, and I knew that we were going to start there and we were going to hopefully end there, and throughout there I kind of wanted to find some connective tissue to make that story work, and that’s kind of where Cole came into it.

You mentioned the 1995 version. Fans love it, but from a technical perspective it’s not great, apart from the theme tune obviously. Was it a deliberate decision to move in the completely opposite direction from the original movie in terms of tone and aesthetic, even if the trailer does have an orchestral remix of the classic techno?

Greg Russo: Oh, I would just say see the movie! I will just say that Benjamin Wallfisch, who did the music for this, is really talented. He worked on the new Blade Runner and stuff, and he’s done an amazing thing with that techno theme. You’ve seen in the trailer an orchestral version, which is absolutely beautiful when you hear it, but there may be something else for you. So maybe go see the movie and see what happens.

What was your reaction to the trailer becoming the most-watched red band promo ever?

Greg Russo: It was extremely rewarding. We put so much fan love into this, we just put so much fan service, and we hoped, we thought people would enjoy what they saw. But, to see the YouTube reactions even more than the numbers, just to see their reactions of people all over the world filming themselves watching it, it was so cool. It was so cool just to see the love, and they got excited about the stuff that I got excited about when I put it in there, and that’s probably the most rewarding thing, it was a blast. I think The Suicide Squad might have passed us but oh well, we had it for a month!

[Producer] Todd Garner wants it to be the most badass martial arts movie ever, and [director] Simon McQuoid said he planned the best fights ever put to film. How much of that did you put into your script in terms of specifics and do you think the fight scenes lives up to those lofty expectations?

Greg Russo: I mean, yeah, that’s a good question. So, when you’re writing the fight scenes, I’m trying to kind of balance everything. I’m trying to balance what’s happening, what’s in the story. I’m trying to make sure the fight scenes have a rhythm to them, that they have a pacing, that you’re consistently seeing newer and cooler things. And so when you see the fight scenes in the film you’ll see the characters using all their powers, you’ll recognize moves straight out of the games, we literally brought them right over to real life, we tried really to make all of the fight scenes unique so it’s not just hitting you over the head over and over again with they same type of fight scene. That they all have an identity to them, which is what I think he was talking about. And we brought in martial artists. That’s the thing, if you want good fight scenes you have to start with the people throwing the punches, and from the very beginning we said we want the real deal. We want people who know what they’re doing.

So we’ve got, one of my favorite films from the past… I would say ten years, is The Raid. And I think The Raid has probably the best fight scenes that I have ever seen. So that was a movie that we looked at a lot, and we thought, ‘this is awesome. How do we capture some of this?’ Well, let’s go get Joe Taslim! Let’s go get one of the people that’s throwing the punches in that movie. And he also happens to be a fantastic actor. If you see The Night Comes For Us, another great film, you’ll see what a talented emotional actor he is, too, in addition to being a guy who can kick ass. So it was about getting those ingredients together, and bringing them in, and trying to put them together in a way that felt great. Do we live up to it? I don’t know, that’ll be up to the audience to decide, but I feel like we definitely gave it our best.

Are there any characters you really wanted to include but couldn’t find a way to make it work, or is there any in-game storylines or content you want to bring to life in possible sequels?

Greg Russo: It’s funny, it’s not so much about making it work, it’s just a matter of making sure you do it right. It all started with the story, wherever our story was going kind of dictated who was going to be there and the role they were going to play. I knew that, for example, I love Kitana, I love Edenia, I love that whole realm and that whole storyline, and if you’re a fan you probably know it very well. But again, when you’re on movie one and you’re trying to tell people what Outworld is and what Earthrealm is, and you’re trying to introduce already a dozen characters, so it gets to a point where you just can’t fit everything in. And if I tried to jam stuff in it would actually be doing the characters a disservice, and I would rather save a character for hopefully a future installment and to do them the right way rather than try and jam them into a movie where they wouldn’t fit. So that’s something I really love about mythology that I felt, ‘okay, there’s a lot to explore there.’ Let’s just wait, and save it.

Are there any tentative plans in place for sequels? There’s obviously franchise potential, and Joe Taslim said he’d love his own spinoff.

Greg Russo: Yeah, I hope so. Again, I think everyone’s really focused on getting the first one right, because you don’t get sequels without movie one. I think everyone knows that, and ultimately that’ll be up to the audience to show up and be like, ‘hey, we like Mortal Kombat.’ Powers that be, look, there’s an audience. And that’s when they listen. The audience has the power to influence that. There’s a lot of places we could explore. I mean, I would love to dig deeper into the Shaolin Monks, I would love to dig deeper into Special Forces, you know? There are characters that we set up in this, that we tease in this without getting into spoilers, that we have plans for. It’s just a matter of putting your ducks in a row, and by that I mean stories, right? I know where we can go, and then try and get that first one right. And if we can get that first one right then we get to have fun and bring in those other things that we just couldn’t fit in.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is arriving later this year, so it could be a banner year for the video game genre and you’d be responsible for playing a huge part in it (Russo shares a writing credit on the reboot with director Johannes Roberts), which must be exciting.

Greg Russo: Well yeah, I don’t know about that, but thank you. Yeah, Resident Evil is something I worked on a while back with James Wan. It was really cool working on it him, he’s a great visionary director. Somebody really smart said something to me, and he said: The reason people think that video game movies are getting better is they feel like the people who grew up with the games are now old enough to be in creative positions to do them justice. When we grew up, when I grew up, I speak for myself, as a kid in the 80s and 90s, the people making those video game adaptations were like in their 40s, so they didn’t grow up with us.

It definitely wasn’t fans that made Super Mario Bros. anyway.

Greg Russo: Yeah, exactly! So now, it’s like the people who grew up loving this stuff like me, we’re getting to make these movies, and so that’s why they’re starting to get a little better, because people are looking and saying, ‘wow. This looks like it was made by a fan.’ Because it actually was made by a fan.

You’re also attached to Space Invaders and Saints Row. How are those two projects coming along?

Greg Russo: They’re both in development, working on both of them. Space Invaders is over at Warner Bros., and it’s at New Line, too, the same kind of crew that put together Mortal Kombat, and that’s one I’m really excited about. That’s a movie when I approached it I was like, ‘I don’t want to do Independence Day.’  That was basically, I think that was the one thing I said, ‘I don’t want to do the invasion movie I’ve seen 100 times.’ And so for me, it was about finding a new way into that title, which I think is going to really blow people away expectations-wise and they’re going to see something that hopefully they weren’t expecting, so I’m excited for it. We’ll see. And Saints Row is with F. Gary Gray, an amazing director.

How is Death Note 2 coming together at Netflix? That’ll be a big shift genre-wise after all the video game adaptations.

Greg Russo: It’s funny, because it sounds like a shift in genre but really, it comes down to the same things. It’s about adapting IP. It’s about bringing over an amazing piece of fan property and trying to do it right. And Death Note, I’m a huge fan of the manga, I’m a huge fan of the original source material and I think it’s one of the greatest mangas ever written. And so for me, I didn’t play any role in Death Note, the first film that Netflix did, but I came in with kind of a point of view with what I wanted to do in a sequel. And part of that is I wanted to go back to the source material. I wanted to go back to what made the original stuff so great, and so we’re doing something really neat with it. Hopefully there will be more info on it soon, but it’s going to be… it’s not going to be exactly what you’re expecting. And I mean that in a very enticing way.

You’re obviously a huge gamer, if you could choose any property without restrictions and turn it into a movie, what would you choose and what kind of movie would you make out of it?

Greg Russo: Okay, so there’s a lot of them, and there are a number of titles out there. A couple of unicorns out there, as they say. I would love to work on, I’ve probably made this known, but one of my favorite games is BioShock. So I would love to do BioShock. I’m glad you asked the second part of that question because that’s important, right? How would you do it? And for me, it’s about going back to the contained, scary, almost horror roots of the first game, and if you’re a fan of the first game you remember just being trapped in hallways. You remember the Splicers hunting you in the dark and having to stay on your toes. So it’s about capturing the fear and the weirdness and the wildness of that world. That’s what I would love to do. But we’ll see, man, we’ll see.

It’s been stuck in development hell for a while, so…

Greg Russo: Maybe if Mortal Kombat makes a lot money people will say ‘hey! Let’s give that guy a shot at it.’ We’ll see.

That concludes our interview with Greg Russo. Mortal Kombat is coming to theaters and HBO Max Friday, April 23rd.