‘Mortal Kombat‘ Director Simon McQuoid On How To Avoid A Dreaded NC-17

For the first time in 24 years, Mortal Kombat returns to theaters (well, and also HBO Max, which would probably be confusing to try and explain people in 1997) in an all new story that has nothing to do with the previous two movies other than the characters. Ahead, director Simon McQuoid explains how time and resources have given this new movie an advantage, being able to draw on a richer backstory that’s been laid out in the games over the last two plus decades. And that’s true, as the movie is anchored by the battle between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, which takes place over many generations and creates a whole mystical backstory about these two and why all these people have to fight each other in the first place. (In the original 1995 version of Mortal Kombat, these two characters just kind of showed up, looked cool, and fought without much explanation.)

And this Mortal Kombat is very much rated R, so now the signature gory finishing movies from the game will be depicted in the film. But there’s a difference between video game violence and movie violence and McQuoid explains how, if they went too far, then the movie could get into NC-17 territory, which is not what they wanted.

So I was trying to get in your head. I rewatched the movie from ’95 and it’s kind of weird you have to make a movie with the same group of characters with the same abilities, just “a different way.” As in, even with superhero reboots the villain is usually different. These are all the same chess pieces. Does that make sense?

Yeah, no, it makes total sense what you’re saying. And I think the thing you’re talking I felt was a really exciting part of the creative process for me: how to make these characters that have had iterations before, how to make them feel really powerful and really believable and give a very elevated version of them that we haven’t really seen before. And that’s also goes to how their powers manifest and we have the benefit of a great deal of advantage in visual effects. So those sorts of things, nothing had been done really to this level on Mortal Kombat, game aside. The game is amazingly well done and incredible…

Yeah, well, Rambo is in it now.

Yeah, exactly. So, that was something that was very exciting. And one of the images I’ve seen where someone put the 1995 version of Sub-Zero next to the 2021 version of Sub-Zero next to each other and kind of what they look like, and that to me was really a visual encapsulation of what I was trying to achieve. To elevate these characters. And I love the process. I thought it was a real privilege for me to be able to take those characters and elevate them to a place where they felt really gutsy and interesting and layered and rich.

One of the big differences are Sub-Zero and Scorpion. Because in the ’95 movie, they’re just kind of cool looking and fight. In your movie there’s a mythology between them.

I also think that we, again, we’ve had 30 years of the guys at NetherRealm building backstory and really adding a dense, rich history to this stuff. So that we’re able to probably draw on more stuff than they would have in the game, in the original film. So we did. We thought that was a really, really important ingredient to the backstory, not only of each of these characters, but also the whole Mortal Kombat canon. We wanted to do that justice by opening the gate and really having that rivalry be the spine of the film, of its structure. So I just think we looked at all ingredients that were given to us and perhaps back in the original film they just didn’t have that. Different world, different time.

What character were you most looking forward to kind of sinking your teeth into?

Well, and this might be a bit of a bland answer to your question, but the actual process of taking each of these characters and elevating them into a space where they haven’t really been presented in this way, that was the most joyous part of it. So, therefore, each character just came with its own set of challenges and fun aspect to it. For instance, Kung Lao, when we got the hat, we got the balance of that hat right. It was a really, really good day in pre-production, because it looks effortless the way Max Huang handles it and it’s all down to the way he goes about handling it and Max is fantastic, but that took a lot of work, that hat. I really loved that aspect of it. I love pre-production. I love designing. I love the visual, how we build and create those things. And how we’re dealing with our costumes, and we didn’t always get them right first time. There was a whole different look for Sub-Zero that just didn’t work…

Oh, how so? Because people have a good idea of what he looks like.

Yeah, absolutely. But what we did in pre-production was we had this giant room, and all around the walls of this huge room we put every single iteration of all our characters up on the wall. So we could see the through line of the essential strands of DNA, through lines, of what was important to each character. Because some of them have very different iterations of looks that bounce around quite a bit over the years. And even Sonia, even though what she’s wearing and what she looks like, it’s very simple and very human and normal, she’s had a few different looks across the years. So, what you can do is you can take these through lines and you can go off in different trajectories. For instance, the Sub-Zero example, it looked like Sub-Zero, but the crucial step, when it goes from concept and illustration and ideas, then to reality, that is a really important and that’s the step where you see whether it succeeded or not. It was that step that didn’t quite land on the first iteration of Sub-Zero. It wasn’t that he didn’t look like him, it was just more like, wow, he doesn’t look powerful. It just lacked that screen presence.

You also expanded on Jax in this movie, especially compared to the first movie.

Yeah. Mehcad [Brooks] did a great job. He’s a fantastic actor and really put a lot of time and effort into thinking about how to give him some substance. And with the arms, again, like I was saying, there are many different iterations of those arms over the years, but we ended up going back to the very early ones. And some of the arms we designed and we built, it doesn’t really look like Jax because there’s been so many mechanical arms and hands and legs and bodies and Iron Mans. And there’s been so much that’s been done that it was very easy just to fall into, oh, it feels like it’s coming out of Iron Man, or that feels like something from that. So we went back to the original: very chrome, if you remember those ones, which just had the lines in them that’s sort of organic and smooth and muscular. And we sort of took that as the blueprint visual and said, “All right. That is Jax there. So now how do we bring it to a modern iteration?” And so that’s why we ended up with a slightly tarnished titanium look because it felt more like Jax. So each of these characters got built through many people bringing their expertise. Obviously the actors and who they were, but then the costume and visual effects and special effects and, yeah, everyone came together. Hair and makeup and that was a great process. Really great team of people.

You’ve mentioned how you wanted to avoid an NC-17 with some of the death scenes? And how a video game can get away with a gory finishing move and a movie can’t as much because we process it differently. So how did you balance that? What’s the trick to prevent this from becoming too grim?

I mean, to be clear, I never said we nearly got an NC-17. What I was saying was it wouldn’t be hard for us to jump into that space, given the material. So two slightly different things. And it’s something we were really careful of because we didn’t want to get there. It was just a constant assessment and calibration and building – and we’d always just look and make sure we weren’t totally getting it wrong, the way the shots were blocked. They go by pretty quick, and that was by design. We felt that if you romanced them and slowed them down and made them too gratuitous in that sense, which is actually an element of the game – and I think in a game you can get away with that – whereas in reality, you can’t do that. It becomes a totally different thing. And so, yeah, it was just a matter of studying and assessing all the time and trying not to take your eye off the ball with that stuff. So, just constant analysis really.

‘Mortal Kombat’ premieres Friday, April 23rd via theaters and HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.