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“We Know What People Want”: The ‘Mortal Kombat’ Writer Discusses His Gory New Video Game Adaptation

Greg Russo breaks down this week’s no. 1 box office film, including the Cole Young and Kano characters, plus the thrills and challenges of making the movie

New Line Cinema/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Greg Russo’s Twitter bio says “Be kind to each other.” Fortunately, his characters can be brutal, which—along with his history as a gamer and affection for Mortal Kombat—made him New Line’s pick to revive the live-action movie franchise based on the famous fighting-game series, which had lain dormant since the slapdash 1997 sequel to the ’95 original. Russo, who hadn’t had a script produced prior to working on the new Mortal Kombat, cowrote the story and screenplay for the adaptation, which was directed by fellow first-timer Simon McQuoid.

Although critics were predictably unimpressed by the gore- (and Goro)-filled film, the R-rated reboot, which was released last Friday, took the top spot at the box office in its opening weekend despite also streaming on HBO Max. Shortly before the movie tested its might at the multiplex, The Ringer asked Russo to get over here and answer some questions about honoring the legacy of the original movie and video game series, the appeal of Mortal Kombat as a film franchise, picking characters and fatalities, and getting in on Hollywood’s video-game gold rush.


Why do you think it took almost 25 years to make a third Mortal Kombat movie?

The first film in 1995 was a huge hit. It was no. 1 at the box office three weeks in a row. It opened to what would be about [$40 million] today. All of a sudden, this huge franchise is born, and then what I think happened—and I didn’t have any role in this, I was 15 years old—was they rushed out another one. They wanted to get that sequel out. I don’t blame them. They wanted to capitalize on it.

But that second film just sucked the air out of everything. It was panned by everybody who saw it. And then the franchise went dormant for a good part of 15 years. And then New Line decided they were going to reboot it. I think it was around 2010 when they said maybe there’s something worth going back into here. And then that took a while too, just developing it. I came in around 2016. I’ve actually been on this for about five years.

What were the holdups during the time that you were involved?

Five years of development sounds like a long time, but actually that’s fairly normal. It takes a lot of time to figure things out, to find the right direction for the movie, and we wanted to do it right. We really did use almost all of [that time]. There were no periods where I would just disappear from the project. We were just working on different drafts and different versions and trying to find the right tone of it. And then the director [Simon McQuoid] comes in, and Simon brought a whole lot of new ideas and thoughts to it that we then incorporated. And then you get into the actual pre-production of it, and more problems spring up. That’s just movie-making. It’s always problem-solving, and it can sometimes take a while to get that right rhythm going.

Just as it took a while to get a Mortal Kombat movie made, it took a while to get a Greg Russo movie made. How has it felt to finally break through with something you care about as much as Mortal Kombat?

It’s wonderful. Being a screenwriter, it’s a strange job, because I would go home on holiday back to my family, and people would ask me “What do you do again?” Because they didn’t see a film produced yet. I would be like, “No, it’s great, trust me. I’m working with all these studios and all these great people and all these great directors. I’m very fulfilled in all facets of my job.” But ultimately, it’s that product that most people see. And if they don’t see a produced film, it’s hard for them to really say, “Oh, you’re a screenwriter, right? What have I seen?” It’s nice to finally have that thing to say, “Look, here’s this giant movie.” And now everybody that had asked me those questions is taking pictures of themselves in front of the billboard. I guess they finally get it. It’s been a decade of me out here and me doing this, but finally they understand what it is that I do. It’s wonderful that it’s a property like this and something that I loved.


What’s the appeal of Mortal Kombat as a movie franchise, separate from the interactive gaming experience?

I think it’s two things. First, there’s this wonderful nostalgic appeal to Mortal Kombat. It was this thing that was born in the ’90s that a lot of ’90s kids latched onto at the time, because it felt big, it was daring, and it felt almost like you were playing something that you shouldn’t be allowed to play. It’s one of those things that transcended being a game and [became] more of a pop cultural property, and you can’t say that for many things. The soundtrack, for example, went [platinum]. It found its way into other pieces of media. Everyone was using it and talking about it.

What I love about the franchise is it pulls from all different parts of Mortal Kombat—all of the pop cultural things that made that property so great to begin with. It doesn’t just focus on the games. In addition to that, it lends itself to this very big, fun, unique, action-adventure movie that never wants to take itself too seriously. You can go in and just turn your mind off for a little bit and just have a good time, and know that we know just as much as you do that Mortal Kombat has always been very self-aware. And we want to have fun with that idea.

In 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the story—to the extent that there was one—was an excuse to string together fight scenes. Do you think the story, the lore, the mythology of Mortal Kombat is more than a contrivance to bring cool characters together to rip each other’s hearts out?

Yes, absolutely. Look, there’s an intense amount of lore. There’s hours and hours, and it gets very confusing, and they switch timelines, and they’ve rebooted their own mythology in the game. It’s very dense. And when you write a film, you want to make sure that you’re not submerging the audience in too much of that. You want to be faithful to those parts of the story, but you also want to make sure that it’s simple enough that somebody who doesn’t know what Mortal Kombat is can come in and be like, “OK, I get what’s happening here. I’m not getting lost.”

If you really pare Mortal Kombat down, it’s champions from Outworld, it’s champions from Earth, and they fight and they beat the crap out of each other. Everybody making this movie knew the box we were in, and nobody came in trying to create Citizen Kane. We know what people want. We know what people expect. Movies, they’re fun. They’re supposed to entertain you. We wanted a story that was simple enough but interesting enough to keep your attention. But ultimately we wanted it to be a showcase for what people really love about this property and not shy away from that either.

Given the way Mortal Kombat has rewritten its own mythology over the years, did you feel free to take liberties with the lore? Or were there things that you considered set in stone?

For the most part, we really tried not to alter or change the core mythology that Mortal Kombat is based around, and we didn’t. The core rules of the tournament and why this is happening, and now we’re on the 10th tournament, and what happens if we lose—that’s all straight from the very first beginnings of what Mortal Kombat was. We tried to be as faithful as we could to that core mythology. The stories are always shifting and changing as we’re working on them, but we always tried to bring them back to the source material. That was our guiding light.

Raiden aside, you sort of skipped over the Elder Gods, which I appreciated because I was always confused about what purpose they served in the story. They’re like WWE refs. The rules are broken constantly, and they don’t do anything about it. Plus, the promoters are leaving a lot of money on the table. This tournament is supposed to decide the fate of Earth, and almost nobody knows it exists.

Yeah, the pay-per-view would have been huge. The Elder Gods are not very good judges. But that’s how they are in the mythology, too. They’re always very much like, “Eh, don’t really care about what’s going on down there. We’ll get involved if it really matters.” This is the natural part of editing. I’d say there’s probably 25 percent more mythology, more deep fan-service stuff that I put in the script that they ended up just not making, because it’s just too much. You just can’t overload people.

You’re probably sick of people speculating about whether this movie would break the so-called curse of video game adaptations, but I wonder what you think breaking that curse would look like. A movie based on Mortal Kombat probably isn’t going to win Best Picture or gain great critical acclaim, so how would you define a successful reception?

I’m already seeing it. It’s hard not to look at the reactions of the fans coming out, and they all go online and they post. It’s just over and over again people coming out and saying, “It reminded me of being a kid. I felt like I was back there. They captured the things that I loved about the game. For the first time, I felt this thing that I loved has been presented to me in a way where it felt true to what it was.” That, to me, is success.

It’s seeing that passion that we put into it reciprocated from the fans that are seeing it, and coming out of the theaters with big smiles, and posting photos with their Mortal Kombat shirts and dressed up as the characters, and saying, “Thanks for bringing something back that I loved.” Whatever ends up being the box office numbers, whatever the streaming numbers are for HBO Max, whatever our Rotten Tomato score ends up being, the thing that I will deem successful is, did the fans go and did they have a good time? Did they love it? Because I made it for them. I didn’t write it for the stodgy critic who just immediately writes this off because it’s a video game adaptation.

How did you balance writing for fans and writing for non-fans who might still see the movie?

That’s the real challenge of adapting a video game—you’re writing for two audiences. You’re writing for the fans, you’re giving them the fan service. And also you want to write a film that someone who doesn’t know what Mortal Kombat is can come in and have a good time and understand what’s happening. We were trying to bring new fans in too. Someone that maybe gaming wasn’t a thing in your life, or maybe you don’t have time for that, but maybe you watch the film and you’re like, “Wow, this is an interesting world. These characters are cool. What’s the deal here?” Maybe that audience member will go and explore more, maybe even become a fan of the game. You definitely want to extend the invitation to people who don’t know what Mortal Kombat is and hope that they’ll come along for the ride.

What did you want to carry over from the first film, and what did you want to do differently?

We’re talking about two vastly different time periods. I think [the 1995 movie] accomplished a lot given the fact that it didn’t have a lot of source material to work with and it was under budget constraints. I love that film. Same studio, so everybody making [the new movie] has a fondness for it. But we’re now in a much different place in the world, and we wanted to exist as our own thing. What I didn’t want to do is pretend like it never existed, so I pulled a lot of fun things out of there, whether it was just lines, or little moments, or things that became a signature of that original 1995 film. They’re sprinkled in here so that if you’re a fan of the original film, you’ll see this and be like, “That’s the line.” An example would be the great Shang Tsung’s line “It has begun,” which I think is a popular meme on social media now. That line, which originated from the film, is something that we carried over and our Shang Tsung says as well. There’s little nods, and we pay homage to it whenever we can, but ultimately we’re a different universe, we’re a different timeline, and we’re taking it into a new direction.

Campiness is key to the appeal of the ’90s movies. How much of that quality did you try to channel?

It’s not just the ’95 film. I think it’s the games, too. If you played all the games, Mortal Kombat has never taken itself too seriously. That’s a part of its wonderful charm. It does take its characters seriously, and the stakes in the world, and the story lines are serious. It also has this incredible self-awareness to it. This is the game that created Friendships and Babalities, where you can turn your opponent into a baby. As an adaptation, we wanted to embrace that too. But when you start saying, “We’re going to embrace some of the campiness and the cheesiness of it,” you’ve got to be careful, because if you go too far, then all of a sudden, you’re now just camp, or you’re a joke of yourself. We wanted to bring some of that in, but we also wanted to respect the characters, respect the mythology as much as we can. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t want to add a little bit of that cheese coating to it, because that’s what makes it so much fun. That’s what makes Mortal Kombat lovable.

Reboots often bring back actors from the originals to create continuity. Annihilation already recast most of Mortal Kombat’s characters, but did you consider bringing back any actors in different roles?

No, not that I remember. No Christopher Lambert cameos. As wonderful as that is, and much as I love Highlander, I think it’s about just creating your own identity, rather than saying, “This thing gives me a link to this movie from 25 years ago.”

There’s also the question of how heavy you go on the supernatural elements versus the gritty, realistic, Mortal Kombat: Rebirth–type take.

I remember that; really dark. In a game world, anything goes, because you’re in a game. People are just throwing powers around, they’re doing anything they want. When you say this is no longer a pixelated, interactive experience, and we are making this a real world, our world, well, those crazy elements, they necessitate an explanation sometimes. You have to make it believable to people that it would exist in our world. That’s where some of the adaptation needs to happen. We do some of that with our abilities, our powers. [If] they’re running around throwing fireballs for no reason and you didn’t know what Mortal Kombat was, you’d come in and go, “What is this? What the hell am I watching?” It was about taking some of those elements and saying, “No, no. Let’s break it down. Let’s build some logic. Even if we have to add to the preexisting mythology, let’s find ways to do it so that everything has a reason for being there.”

You make some effort to convey these characters’ histories. It’s clear that Sub-Zero and Hanzo hate each other and that their feud dates back centuries. But you don’t explain how they became bitter enemies; you ask the audience to accept that they’re fire and ice and sworn enemies. How do you establish motivations without getting bogged down in backstory?

It’s balancing the amount of time you have with getting out the emotion of the scene over the exposition of the scene. Exposition is a huge drag to any film narrative. It just brings the thing down. But it’s a necessary evil. Watch a Christopher Nolan movie and see how much exposition there is. You have to tell people what is happening. With this film, it’s an added challenge, because we’ve got a dozen characters that you have to introduce. We’ve got multiple realms. We’ve got the rules of the tournament. We’ve got rules of combat. We’ve got rules of the powers. We’ve got rules of the chosen one. We have so much information that we have to get out, and we have a certain amount of time to do it.

While I would have loved to have spent an extra five minutes in feudal Japan, talking about the Shirai Ryu and Lin Kuei and the feud and why do these people hate each other, the movie would have been six hours. I just don’t have the time. As a writer, I have to say, “I understand that maybe we’re not answering every single question about this character, but ultimately what needs to come out to move the story?” What needed to come out was the emotion of that scene. The emotion of that scene is Sub-Zero coming and killing Hanzo’s family brutally, because they have a feud together. And ultimately, it’s going to set off this path of revenge. That’s what the scene is about. It’s about creating the starting point for Scorpion’s and Sub-Zero’s characters and building out that emotional moment between them. That alone took 13 minutes. That’s just the challenge of filmmaking. I totally get it when people come in and say, “He didn’t explain Sonya, who she was in college.” I’m like, “Trust me, I would love to. Look at the map I have to fill in here and put yourself in my shoes sometimes.”

My takeaway is that Sonya needs a better filing system. She’s got all of her research about the tournament taped to the wall, and when it goes up in flames, she says, “Years of research, just destroyed.”

It’s a real fire hazard.

She should have computerized those records.

Exactly.

Imagine New Line had come to you and said, “We want to make the Mortal Kombat Russoverse. You can build this out the way that you want to. Here’s a blank check. Make as many movies as you want.” Would you establish the characters in individual films and build up to the tournament? Or would you do it the way you did?

In a weird way, they did say that. That’s part of the trust that the studio put in the creative team by saying, “We don’t know much about this. What do you guys think? Here is, maybe not a blank check, but a decent check. Let’s see how we can figure this out.” The way that I conceived it in my mind was that it was going to be a pre-tournament film that was going to establish a lot of what’s going on and hopefully lead us into the tournament, the big draw. And then, hopefully, lead us into the post-tournament fallout.

What I liked about that was it allowed the narrative to not fall into all the clichés of the tournament movie. As soon as you say, “We’re going to do a tournament movie,” then you’re in Enter the Dragon again. You’re in the first Mortal Kombat movie again. You just box yourself in, where it’s going to be, “We’re going to go to a place, and then it’s going to be fight scene, fight scene, fight scene, fight scene, fight scene.” We wanted to establish more to it. We wanted to talk about Scorpion and Sub-Zero and all of these other interesting elements of the nostalgia, and it was hard to get to that if we were going to box ourselves into a tournament movie. It was always, at least in my mind, “Let’s build up to that big moment, and then we’ve got the canvas for the next story, if there is any.”

How did you come up with the character roster? Were you intentionally saving Johnny Cage or Kitana for a sequel?

The character decisions were probably one of the most challenging parts. It wasn’t like we just put everything in a hat and pulled random people out. It was really driven by the story. Every character has their own reason for being in it, but it started with a soft spot. I really wanted to explore the Sub-Zero and Scorpion backstory, which is something that I felt hadn’t been done effectively yet in a live-action setting. I wanted to dig in there and pull out that emotion. And then I knew if I was going to start there, I was going to end there. Around that, I was going to create some dramatic driver.

The way that I staggered the structure of the movie is an homage to classic video gaming, which is that as you go through the story, you unlock more and more characters. From a narrative perspective, it helps me, because it allows me to give each character their own little moment alone. Give them a little bit of a chance to shine, and then do some cool stuff, and then we get to unlock the next one, and the next one, and the next one. And ultimately, we’re building to an Avengers-style movie. But really, it’s just about what the story needs, as to which characters are in there and how they fit in. Just to show how difficult it is, my favorite character is Kitana, and I had to put her aside. I couldn’t even get my own favorite character in. It all came down to one rule, which is that if it ends up being that we’re going to jam the character in just for them to be there, then I would say, “Let’s wait. Let’s not do the character a disservice by putting them into a role. Let’s actually give them a chance and wait on them so that they can be done justice later on down the road.”

I assume you specified which fatalities to use in the fight scenes, but how detailed did you get in describing the blow-by-blow?

It would make my job so easy if I could just write, “Fight scene.” Pay me, where’s my check? No, as a writer, you are orchestrating everything on the page. You are designing exactly what kind of powers they’re using, how the rhythm of the fight is going to work. When you write a set piece, it’s all about a rhythm. It’s not, “I’m just going to write a bunch of crazy bullshit.” Well, it is to a degree, but really it’s about parceling out a scene so that the set piece has dramatic movement to it, it has emotional movement to it, that you take breaths. If you don’t stop in a set piece, people lose their attention, so you have to find a way to take breaks but bring the action back, to ramp it up, to increase the odds, increase the stakes.

And then with something that has a preexisting IP to it, I’m always pulling from source material. You watch the film, you’re going to see moves out of the game. Fans were putting stills up [comparing] the movie and the game, and they were almost identical, down to how the characters were standing, to how they were summoning the powers. With the fatalities, it’s the same thing. One of the joys I had working on this was that I got to pick them. We wouldn’t throw these violent things in there just to be flashy. It was, “No, no, no. If we’re going to do this, let’s make sure that they matter to the story, that they would matter to the characters.” And then, once we knew that and who was on the receiving end of them, we could have fun with it, and then I could pick them.

Goro referred to ripping out someone’s spine, but I noticed that nobody actually did it.

Yeah, right. Little bit of a nod to it. I think we have eight of them. It definitely got to a level where it was like, “I think we’re good.” Also the MPAA was like, “I think you’re good.” We definitely pushed it as much as we could. I wanted some classic ones. I wanted the stuff that the arcade kids like me grew up on and would remember. So there’s some iconic ones from MK1, like Kano’s heart rip, for example, and Scorpion’s iconic fatality. Then I wanted some other fun stuff. I put my favorite one in, which is Kung Lao’s Razor’s Edge fatality. Thankfully, nobody took that one out, because that one was very brutal, and everyone was like, “Let’s just do it,” and the MPAA was, I guess, OK with that.

You inherited the audience-proxy character of Cole Young, played by Lewis Tan. Was that a burden, or did you see an advantage in not having to rehash Liu Kang or some other preexisting character?

I saw that as a real possibility to do something original. What I thought would have been lazy storytelling would have just been to retell the same story of the same three people getting on the same boat, going to the same island that we’ve seen in multiple films. I wanted to say, “Let’s dig into a different side of the Mortal Kombat story,” because there’s a lot more to explore. It was much different when I inherited the script before me. I really wanted to rebuild it.

The decision-making on how Cole would fit into the story really didn’t start with him. It started with Scorpion, and it started with Sub-Zero, and the idea that I wanted to tell that story. That story happened a long time ago. I wanted to end with that story, but I needed connective tissue. I needed something in my narrative that was going to bridge the time-period gap and connect those stories together. That’s why Cole began to take form. The other thing was that I wanted him to play a real role, and I wanted him to feel connected to the mythology so that he didn’t just feel like a fish-out-of-water guy. And he acts as this glue that holds these other larger, preestablished characters together, like Scorpion and Sub-Zero.

It seemed like you had a lot of fun with Kano.

Kano is a blast. I get asked a lot about the Cage question, and really that’s the answer to it. I’m always looking for conflict with my characters. I always want to make the road as difficult as I can for them to achieve their goals. If we just want a bunch of heroes, like if it was Sonya and Cole and Liu Kang and Johnny Cage, they’re all heroes. They all have one point of view, which is “Let’s get together, let’s go save the world and beat the bad guys.”

It’s just not as interesting as when I can drop someone like Kano into the mix, who only gives a shit about himself and doesn’t care about anything else. It just creates more drama. It creates more conflict, because he’s a pain in the ass the entire movie. I just prefer that dynamic. That’s really the reason he’s in there over a different hero. And then sometimes you get very lucky with an actor like Josh Lawson. This is a comedically trained actor who’s done improv with Will Ferrell. He comes in and he just added all that Aussie-ism to it. I write those lines, but then he comes in and he adds these little Aussie buttons to them, which just elevates it so much more.

I kept waiting for the iconic Mortal Kombat theme song, but I didn’t hear it until the credits. Was there a conversation about using that as the soundtrack to fight scenes?

If there was, I wasn’t involved. That’s simply a decision between the studio, the director, and our great composer, Benjamin Wallfisch, who did Blade Runner 2049. What I thought was beautiful is that he actually took the iconic techno song and he put it into the score of the movie. You’re hearing these threads from the techno song. This is a guy who works with Hans Zimmer, so it’s done in the Hans Zimmer way, where I’m like, “Oh my God, this is incredible.” When I first heard that—Simon, he played it for me, and I was like, “This is nuts.” That was his recruitment tool for the actors. He would play Ben’s score, and they’re like, “What the hell? This is crazy. This is what it’s going to be?” But then I’m so happy that at the end they remixed it and gave us the old techno blast, because that was part of it too.

You’re a lover of video games and are working on other video game adaptations, such as Saints Row and Space Invaders. Is Mortal Kombat your first step toward a video game screenwriting empire?

I’m still a huge gamer. I still have one of the top Xbox Gamerscores in the world. It’s funny, I didn’t come in writing this stuff, even though I am a huge fan. As a writer, I came in writing little Hitchcockian character thrillers. Those are the scripts that I sold and the stuff I love. I’ve written two-handed comedies. I’ve written all sorts of stuff. As a writer, while it’s nice to say, “I’m really good at this one thing,” it’s also important to say, “I can also write all of this other stuff, and here’s the samples to prove it.”

What makes a video game ripe for adaptation? Something like Space Invaders isn’t an inherently rich text on the screen. Did you adapt it because people know the name and they’ll come see it? Or does that blank canvas provide the potential for a satisfying story?

You just decide if there’s enough there to tell its story. One of the first games I ever played on my Atari 2600 was Space Invaders, so I do love it dearly. But yeah, there isn’t really a story there. You’re a pixelated ship moving back and forth shooting a cannon at crab enemies coming down the screen. You may look at that as a challenge, or “Hey, there’s not enough there, so just don’t do it.” But I actually look at it as an opportunity to say, “What is it about this property that I loved?” Even though there isn’t necessarily a story there that I can directly pull from.

For me, adapting Space Invaders wasn’t trying to make another Independence Day. I didn’t want to make a movie I’ve seen 100 times. It was about capturing the nostalgia of that time period, and what it meant to be a kid back then playing that, and the emotional ties we have to gaming, and how those emotional ties sometimes come from our parents and pass down to us. I actually took Space Invaders and I was able to create a much more interesting, emotional way into that property. I don’t need to know who that pixelated ship shooting aliens is to be able to capture what made Space Invaders so lovable back then.