'Mortal Kombat' Director Simon McQuoid on the Challenges of Video Game Movies and the Freedom of an R-Rating [Interview]

It’s time once again for Mortal Kombat as a new film arrives based on the wildly popular, wildly violent video game franchise. Like the games and the previous films, the new movie centers on fighters from our world must battle enemies from another dimension with the fate of Earth in the balance.

The filmmaker tackling Mortal Kombat this time is Simon McQuoid, making his feature debut. In an interview with /Film, McQuoid talks about how he approached the material as someone who was initially not very familiar with the games, and spoke about the freedom in having bloody, R-rated fight scenes.

I feel like there’s a certain stigma around most video game movies; that you often see people talking about a video game movie curse, and that so many video game movies end up being a disappointment. And I’m just wondering if you have thoughts on that, and thoughts on how to break the curse, so to speak. 

I just feel you’ve got to take what the material gives you and respect it and elevate it. You don’t ignore it. You don’t change it fundamentally. And then you don’t look at the game for anything executional, other than perhaps some character specifics. And so, executionally, you’ve got to look at what makes a good film and make sure you’re doing as much of that as you possibly can. And then, because you’re not necessarily trying to create the same final product – because a video game is by its very nature a much more interactive and immersive thing [than a movie]. It’s just the way it is. So I didn’t really look to that to try and take anything from the video game architecture. But I did look at the Mortal Kombat canon and be able to draw character things and story things from that. But I didn’t look at anything to do with the video game. I’m really just trying to make the best script structure that actually means the film itself plays as good a film as it possibly can. It’s about knowing what to ignore and knowing what to keep and what to really care about.

So how familiar with the Mortal Kombat source material were you before you came on board the film?

Not very at all. I had a cursory understanding of it, I’ve played it a bit. I was aware of some of the key characters, but I didn’t really know much about it at all. And it wasn’t until I was sent the script and decided, “Okay, I’ll see if I can make this,” did I really do the deep dive. And I’m still learning new stuff to this day. There’s so much to know.

And then how did you go about learning about the material? 

I played the games, and read up about it early on; I just sort of read as much as I could, and then just hired smart people around me, who knew more than me. So I relied on them…we would do these deep-dive, immersive processes into understanding…in our pre-production offices, we had rooms full of all the characters and every single iteration of that character that we could find. And we spent a lot of time just really digging into [it]…We spent a lot of time just kicking the tires and exploring and working it out.

I was wondering why, with so many characters from the games to draw on, the film gives us a newly invented main character [MMA fighter Cole Young, played by Lewis Tan]? 

We felt was okay to bring a new character in because Mortal Kombat [brings] new characters in quite often. And there’s certainly a lot more [characters] now than there was when the first game came out. So I sort of felt that there was a precedent there, and that was okay. And we needed a new set of eyes to bring us through…if you look at the characters in the film, Cole’s the one that knows the least, but then Sonya and Jax also, when we meet them, know less than the outsiders as well…So it was a matter of looking at the characters and seeing what they all served for us character-wise, and how they could drive the story forward. Then once we got on to that, we needed to make sure that Cole was really born materially out of what exists in the Mortal Kombat lore. I was trying to put as much emotion into this as possible because I think that’s when people enjoy going on the ride of the film, and going through the story. If you care or you believe, you emotionally connect.

Unlike the previous movie, this one is rated R, and it earns that are rating. Was being able to fully lean into that violence freeing or intimidating?

Well, it was freeing in that it meant I could really play the authenticity card, which is what I was trying to do through the whole film, with every aspect of it. I wanted it to feel real. I wanted it to feel authentic. I wanted it to feel as though you could really connect with these things. So it meant that if someone gets stabbed and blood would come out just as it would [in real life], so that was good.

It meant we didn’t have to hold back with how the fights were portrayed, and then we didn’t have to cut around anything, which was great. And I think there’s power in that, and then there was a great deal of thought and process about making sure we were handling the [fights] the right way to do the title justice, but…in some ways, it was kind of easy because it was just right for what Mortal Kombat was. And then it just became an executional consideration to make [the fights] feel like they stayed stylistically within the film itself and the [story] we were telling. We needed to really spend a bit of time and thinking each of [the fights] through. They’re all different from each other. And they all had a story reason to exist, and they all arrived at the right time, and we didn’t telegraph stuff. I just took them as, “Okay, well, these are important, but let’s make sure we’re using them the right way for a film, not just ticking a box.”

Mortal Kombat arrives in theaters and on HBO Max on April 23, 2021. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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