The Pain and Gain of Making Video Game Movies

Filmmakers behind the hits ("Resident Evil' and 'Tomb Raider'), the bombs ('Super Mario Bros.') and the movie that was taken away in editing ('Hitman') share their triumphs and challenges.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures; Courtesy of Photofest
'Resident Evil: The Final Chapter' (left) and 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider'

In 1993, an Oscar-nominated producer, the biggest video game company in the world, and the most famous plumbers of all time teamed up for a movie. What could possibly go wrong with a big-screen adaptation of Super Mario Bros.?

As it turned out, quite a lot.

First-time directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel oversaw a fraught production of the first big-budget video game movie, which would go on to be one of the most infamous bombs of the '90s and would even see stars Bob Hoskins (Mario) and Dennis Hopper (the villain, King Koopa) later disavow the project. 

"It was a really complicated film to make, because this was the early days of these things," says Roland Joffe, who had twice earned Oscar nominations for directing The Killing Fields and The Mission before producing Super Mario Bros. "I think this movie was a little bigger than [the directors] expected, so I had to spend quite a lot of time trying to make sure things didn't fall off the edges. And sometimes they did."

Part-animatronic goombas had a way of breaking down just in time to ruin a shot, while John Leguizamo (Luigi) later wrote in his autobiography that he and Hoskins would do shots in between takes to deal with the stress. ("We’d have a shot together at lunch. And after lunch. And before lunch. And later in the afternoon," he wrote in 2006's Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends.)

Though the film is now beloved by cult audiences, Super Mario Bros. was an inauspicious start for video game movies, and was followed in 1994 by the abysmal bomb Double Dragon (1994) and Street Fighter, which was panned by critics but did better at the box office, and then finally by a genuine hit in 1995 — Paul W.S. Anderson's Mortal Kombatwhich stayed atop the box-office charts for three weekends.

An even more unlikely success story came seven years later, when Anderson moved to the Resident Evil franchise, which has become the longest-running and most profitable video game movie franchise ever. Now, the writer-director's sixth and final installment, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, is opening Friday and is poised to push the series over the $1 billion mark at the global box office.

Anderson is part of the first generation of filmmakers to grow up playing video games (he calls seeing his first Space Invaders cabinet a "monumental experience"), and recalls making choices studios thought would be box-office poison for 2002's Resident Evil, which introduced Milla Jovovich as action badass Alice in the zombie apocalypse series. 

"Having a really strong female lead at the time in Hollywood was not fashionable at all. No studio wanted to do that," says Anderson. "And then also, there was the question as to whether people want to see zombies or not, because no one had made a zombie movie in 15 years."

Six films later, zombies are everywhere in Hollywood and female-led movies are becoming more prevalent.  

Ask a video game director what the toughest part about the process is, and they'll all likely have the same answer: Playing a video game is an interactive experience. Watching a movie is not.

"Fans of the game are used to being in control of what happens and get their positive feedback from getting through the various obstacles. When they watch the movie version they are in the hands of the filmmaker and have no control," notes Simon West, director of the 2001 Angelina Jolie hit Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.  "So what I did was to make sure the movie delivered hero moments often enough to satisfy an audience that may have or may not have played the game."

West had plenty of big-screen cache when he joined the project, having already directed Con Air — so he also had control on the project.

Hitman director Xavier Gens was in a very different boat. Just 30 when he was brought on to helm the 2007 adaptation, the French director had only one feature under his belt and was used to the European way of filmmaking — slowly developing a story for a few years, with the director truly being the author of the movie. That wasn't the case with Hitman, which starred Timothy Olyphant as a killer raised from birth to be an assassin.

"The script was already written and we had to start very quickly, because it was a tight schedule to make it. It was, 'Just go and shoot and make the film,' " says Gens. "The process was a tiny bit too fast in my opinion, but that's just the rules and you make it or you don't make it."

After a whirlwind shoot, he had just 10 weeks to deliver a cut of the movie, but 20th Century Fox ultimately removed him from the editing process and created their own cut — which is what made it to the screen. (The movie was a hit, earning nearly $100 million worldwide, though critics dismissed it).

Ten years later, Gens still has his own directors' cut on his computer, though it almost certainly will never be seen by the public. No hard feelings, though. 

"It's like doing a commercial. You shoot the commercial. You direct every aspect. You choose the music, you make the edit, and then the [ad] agency makes the final decisions," he say of the process.

Though their movies couldn't be any more different, Super Mario's Joffe and Tomb Raider's West do have similar fond memories from their trailblazing films — and they both involve their stars flying through the air.

"Bob Hoskins, who wasn't in those days the most athletic person in the world, had to be flown up and down and thrown about and through all that," says Joffe of creating a believable Mario, who's key attribute in the game is his jumping prowess.

Joffe says despite the production challenges, Hoskins and Leguizamo captured the innocence of the two beloved brothers.

"It was an effort to keep that when you are being flown up and down 60 feet in the air and having to jump off onto air bags. There would be shots where somebody has to jump off a bridge into one of those giant trucks that moves 40 tons of ore," says Joffe. "And if your directors aren't terribly experienced, it's very easy for stunts like that to go off half-cocked — and if they do, that can be quite dangerous. It was a bit like trying to fly a Boeing 747, but actually you had a lot of the engines driven by elastic bands."

As for West, he's still fond of Tomb Raider's bungee ballet scene, which Jolie performed herself. 

"It was quite risky, and she spent many weeks learning the necessary skills. Just seeing her jump from a 40 foot balcony and then swinging in time to classical music, It’s a very beautiful sequence," says West. "My other memory is the sequence that was never shot. I designed what I think would have been the most incredible car chase sequence ever filmed. However there was just one too many action sequences in the movie and it was cut for budget reasons. I still have the storyboards for this sequence and one day I will put it in another of my films as I still haven’t seen anything like it yet."


2016 was supposed to be the year video game movies earned a newfound respectability, but the long-gestating and very expensive Warcraft movie underwhelmed many fans and Assassin's Creed bombed. No video game movie has ever received a "fresh" rating from the critics sampled on 

But 20 years ago, superhero movies were in a spot similar to where video game movies are today. Consider 1997's comic book movie offerings: Batman & Robin (hated by critics), Spawn (ditto) and Steel (a miserable $1.7 million at the box office). But here we are today, in an era when a movie called Doctor Strange earns nearly $660 million worldwide and nobody is surprised. Looking ahead, Alicia Vikander's Tomb Raider reboot is earning buzz for its strong casting.

Is there a scenario in which video game movies could earn a similar amount of respectability to superheroes?

"Video game adaptations are more likely to fail than they are to succeed. And it's not because there is anything inherently wrong with the idea of adapting video games," says Anderson. "It's a fine line that you walk pleasing those two audiences. I think it's a little easier if you are adapting a comic book rather than something that's already a visual medium with moving image."

Gens is putting his hopes in an adaptation of the post-apocalyptic game The Last of Us, which centers on a two characters trying to navigate the world 20 year after an infection has ravaged humanity. (The movie is set up at Sony, though is having trouble getting off the ground.)

"You are seeing a relationship form between the two characters and all the decisions you are doing is impacting that relationship," says Gens. "The Last of Us will probably be the most successful — among audiences and critics — video game adaptation, because the video game is already so well-written in terms of character."

For Super Mario Bros. producer Joffe, he never let the negative reaction tarnish his view of his movie.

"Making a movie is a bit like having a relationship with somebody," Joffe says. "When you have a relationship with somebody, you don't actually care what anybody else told you about the relationship, because you really know what's in it. So you don't listen to the friends who say, 'Well she's this kind of girl or that kind of girl,' or 'He's that kind of guy.' I knew what was making me proud and I knew what I thought we pulled off and what I thought we hadn't."