How a 'Mortal Kombat' Fanboy Ended Up Writing the New Movie's Script

While his parents were getting divorced, Greg Russo spent a lot of time in arcades as a kid. Naturally, those arcades had a Mortal Kombat machine.
April 19, 2021, 1:00pm
An image from the movie Mortal Kombat
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

In a few days, a new Mortal Kombat movie arrives. It's hard to process, but the original and still-enjoyably goofy Mortal Kombat movie came out in 1995, more than 25 years ago. The bloody fighting series has seen its own fair share of ups and downs over the decades, but recent entries have ushered in a welcomed new era of Mortal Kombat.

There have been various attempts to bring Mortal Kombat back to the big screen, and it's not hard to see why. Mortal Kombat's ludicrously weird and fun mythology, combined with its larger-than-life characters, helped it ascend beyond a popular game and into pop culture.

Advertisement

In today's comic-crazed world, Mortal Kombat makes more sense than ever, with huge audiences ready and willing to accept premises far sillier than a fighting tournament featuring superpowers that takes place in another realm. In a lot of ways, Mortal Kombat now seems fairly quaint.

2021's new Mortal Kombat movie is a more serious (and violent) reboot, disconnected from the 1995 entry, outside of having been released in shockingly close proximity to Monster Hunter, yet another game adaptation by Paul W.S. Anderson, who helmed the original.

I've seen the movie and, well—it's not great, I'm sorry to report. It's certainly more violent than its predecessors, but a lot less fun, too. But watching the film, it was clear many hands involved in the production were well-versed with the world of Mortal Kombat beyond reading through a Wikipedia page. There's love in this movie, even if it doesn't fully come together.

I recently had an opportunity to better understand where that love and care came from, after speaking with one of the movie's screenwriters, Greg Russo. He's co-credited with another writer, but Russo wrote the final draft of the movie's script and has spent the last five years helping shepherd the project from a bunch of words on the page into the movie that's here.

Russo, like so many, loves Mortal Kombat, and that's where our conversation began.

Advertisement

Waypoint: I checked your Twitter account before we hopped on and you mentioned that part of the reason this project means so much to you is that Mortal Kombat itself meant a lot to you when you were younger, and was a series that actually got you through some tough times. As comfortable as you're willing to elaborate, what is the emotional resonance of Mortal Kombat for you specifically?
Greg Russo: When I was growing up, when Mortal Kombat first came onto the scene, it was mainly in the arcades. I was 10 years old, and I was one of those children of divorce. My home was kind of a rough place at times. Like many kids in the 90s, we would go elsewhere, and one place we would go would be the arcade. And so for me, it was my safe haven. It was a place where I could just go and be myself and hang out with other kids. We had our own little clique of arcade warriors. It was our coven of kids that didn't want to be elsewhere, and Mortal Kombat was the game there. It was just the game we played. 

I grew up with this emotional attachment to it. It was something that just mattered to me. People attach to things for different reasons, but I think the things that you attach emotionally are the things that stick with you. And that was it for me.

Is it happenstance that you, someone who has a deep attachment to Mortal Kombat, becomes a screenwriter for Mortal Kombat, or has this been a project you've been chasing and then just the stars aligned?
It was really the second. I would love to claim that it's something that was designed. But no, when you come in as a writer—you come in hoping to work on things like this. But it took a long time. You've got to prove yourself. You have to build up credentials, you've got to build up street cred just like anything else.I worked for a number of years as a writer out here just on anything I could, really, anything that would pay. Just to be paid as a writer is an accomplishment when it comes to screenwriting. 

Advertisement

I just slowly started building up that resume, and eventually I was working on a movie at New Line [the production company behind Mortal Kombat] and this was there. I knew it was there, and I knew they were working on it. And so I just talked to my agent at the time and talked to some people that were involved with it and said "look, if it opens up, if they don't like what's happening and they need some fresh perspective, I'm here, I love this. It's something I truly love and I can help. So keep me in mind." 

Thankfully, that's how it worked out, coming to me in that way. I'm thankful that they did, certainly grateful, and I hope that it pays off. [laughs]

99568FE8-7417-4C18-AB76-AB34D2CF1FDC.jpeg

It's gotta to be rare where someone that gets attached on a screenwriting level has more than just a passing reference to the material.
Yeah. [laughs].

I talked to Simon [McQuoid, director of Mortal Kombat] earlier this week and a lot of what he said is what I've seen a lot with these adaptations: trying to manage fan expectations. But you're a fan yourself. When you went into this process, how did you manage your internal fan expectations? When it becomes, "Great, the whiteboard's in front of me. I can pluck from nine different palette swapped ninjas from the Mortal Kombat mythology!" 
Basically, your dedication is first and foremost to the story. You come in as the screenwriter, you come in as a writer. You come in with a toolset to try to write the best possible story and the best script that you possibly. Being a fan certainly helps. It certainly makes it a lot easier because then what happens is you're writing for you. You're writing something that you really legitimately care about and that you would be decimated if it didn't turn out well because you love it so much. 

Advertisement

I can't speak to every project that's been adapted and all of that, but I'm going to go ahead and take a pretty good guess that a lot of times what happens with these video game adaptations is the studio just picks the next the writer on the list and that person goes on Wikipedia—and there's a movie! That always bugged the hell out of me. I was sick of it. And so for me, one of the mission statements of the movie is that I want fans to see that an actual fan has written your movie. I don't know if that has happened before. Maybe it has. Maybe it hasn't. But I doubt that there's ever been an adaptation where the writer loved it as much as I do. 

Look, it's a shared credit. [Editor's Note: Russo was editing and adding to an existing script which is common on big Hollywood productions] I've been on it the past five years, so it's been a great journey for me. I hope the fans see that.

When I spoke with Simon and asked if he had any history with Mortal Kombat, outside of being vaguely aware of the pop culture nature of Mortal Kombat, he was like, "well, I really relied on my assistant and people like Greg to keep me in line on the mythology. And I tried to stay in my lane." [laughs]
We had Simon's back, don't worry. And there were a few of us that just loved the games so much, and we would always jump in and say, "Hey, why don't we do this?" When it came down to the writing process, that was something that I was always trying to do. 

When I was growing up, when Mortal Kombat first came onto the scene, it was mainly in the arcades. I was 10 years old, and I was one of those children of divorce. My home was kind of a rough place at times. Like many kids in the 90s, we would go elsewhere, and one place we would go would be the arcade.

When we were developing it, I was always the guy that was like—if I felt the story was going in a direction that felt that wasn't true to the game, that was distancing itself too far or taking too many liberties with the property, I would [say] "hey, guys, let's bring it back in. Let's make sure that we're being loyal and authentic to it." I was the crossing guard for like five years. [laughs] It was always like "wait, OK, I think it's safe. Let's proceed down this way. We're not doing anything to harm the property." And that's just how much care went into it. I hope it shows.

What's fascinating about Mortal Kombat as a franchise is that it's tonally all over the place. The mythology takes itself extremely seriously. It's very campy in that regard. But it's also extremely over the top. You have the game designers appearing in the corner with real-life photographs yelling "Toasty!" The original Mortal Kombat movie definitely leaned in to the goofier side of that. The new film it's not without its levity, but definitely leans further into a modern interpretation—it's more serious. 
Very carefully. I think tone is probably the trickiest thing to pull off when you're adapting something like Mortal Kombat, because, as you mentioned, as you said quite well, the game doesn't take itself seriously. There's always this sense of levity to it. There's always a wink-wink mentality. And so you wanted to embrace that, but at the same time, you want to make sure that it didn't detract from the stakes and the emotion in the characters that we wanted to put in the film, too. To the game's credit, their storylines and their characters, they take that all very seriously. 

E641D1BC-589C-47FB-A1FA-63926438CDE5.jpeg

Especially the most recent ones. They're legitimately fun, good stories. I'm not much of a fighting game person these days, but I will still play the story of a new Mortal Kombat.
We wanted to respect that. We wanted to go off where the game developers were going and say, "look, we want to embrace the fun nature of the property, too" on the film side of it. But we also want to make sure that the stakes in the characters and emotions are also real. It was just a constant thing that we kept in the back of our minds. Especially writing the script, it was something [that] I said, "OK, let's have some fun here. But then also let's make sure that it never goes too far that it feels campy or that it feels silly, just for the sake of being silly." 

In terms of the fourth wall breaking stuff, we played around with it a little bit. There were some little moments where we thought about it. But ultimately, it felt too far. 

Advertisement

I was hoping that maybe somewhere in the soundtrack, I'll just hear someone yell "Toasty!" 
I'll tell you, here's a secret. I actually had "Toasty!" in the script. They filmed a version of it, where a character says it, and it ultimately didn't make it. Probably for the better. [laughs] 

The idea of a vessel character for the audience was in the original script, before you came on board. What was your reaction to that? I think a lot of what's been released about this movie has gone over very well with fans, but that decision has really struck people as, "oh, this is something pretty different. Is this secretly going to be a character that we already know, and this is just a smokescreen?"
My initial reaction when I got the script—Cole was very difficult. I think his name was Chris, or something, in the script that I inherited? He was a very different character—different backstory, different stakes, different everything. It was just the idea of having a protagonist that the audience could get behind that could walk us into that very dense mythological world and be our best, as you said, vessel gaining that information. 

Which I think is very important, especially when you're going into a world where all of the preset characters have their own point-of-views already established. They have their own backstories already established. None of them really felt it the right way in for an audience, they always felt like you'd be jumping off an already heightened character. We wanted somebody that could feel a little bit more grounded, a little more down to Earth, a little bit more like the audience. 

Advertisement

When I came in and I saw that, I said, "OK, this version I don't think works, but I think we could make it work." And so part of my job was finding the best version of Cole that would fit in the world organically, that he made sense in that world, that he had an actual real role to play in the story. That was part of rebuilding it. It was just a matter of making sure that it was fulfilling and that if we're going to do it, we were going to do it right.

9ACC1D55-BD04-4766-831D-ACEB0D3AD442.jpeg

In my research, I saw that you co-wrote the upcoming Resident Evil film, that you've done a script for Space Invaders, and are involved in Saints Row? I didn't even know that was in any sort of production for a film, but it doesn't shock me; I could see why that series would fit. At a certain point, do you just become the video game guy? "Hey, we know Greg, he understands these games, if you need him to take a pass." 
Being pigeonholed as a writer is not a bad thing. It's another word for branding. You always want to try to be like "Hey, I know I can do this. I truly love this. If you want someone to come on to these video game titles that really has an appreciation and a passion for it and can give the fans what they want," then, hey, my hand's raised. But at the same time, as a writer, you're always trying to push yourself. 

It's funny, video games are my hobby, but I studied film in college. I came in loving Hitchcock and the great Kurosawa. I was a film nerd. I broke in writing thrillers, little character-contained thrillers. That was my go to. I just love all film, and as much as people will be like, "hey, that's the video game guy," I also want to be like, "hey, guys, I can write a two-hander comedy, too. I can do other things." I think people that know me know that. 

But yeah, I'm excited to hopefully keep working in the video game space. It's something I'm truly passionate about.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).