How Australia Built Mortal Kombat

How Australia Built Mortal Kombat
Contributor: Alex Walker, Sarah Basford

The Mortal Kombat film is coming back with a distinctly Australian flavour — and not just because of Kano. So back when set visits were still possible we took a trip down to Adelaide to learn as much as we possibly could about the return of fatalities to the big screen.

Kotaku Australia was given the chance to interview some of the film’s biggest names: director Simon McQuoid, producer Todd Garner, Lewis Tan (Cole), Chin Han (Shang Tsung), Max Huang (Kung Lao), Sisi Stringer (Milenna), as well as other members of the cast and crew responsible for props, prosthetics and production design. It’s worth adding that all of these interviews were conducted before the pandemic had entered the public consciousness, too.

A common thread among all the interviews — all conducted by Sarah Basford, who has since moved on to reporting from Australia’s capital — was appreciation for South Australia government and the support of locals. All cast and crew also spoke about a deep reverence for Mortal Kombat as a franchise, not just from the campy humour of the 1995 original film, but the later games and spin-offs as well. One of the props for Shang Tsung, for instance, is a scroll directly taken from the character in Mortal Kombat 11. (You can see it on the side of his clothing here.)

As a bonus fun fact: Simon McQuoid, the movie’s director, has a longer background with video games than you might think. Back in his Australian advertising days, McQuoid directed the Enemy Weapons ad for Halo 3, which won a Cannes Lions award in 2008, and the To Michael commercial for the PlayStation 3.

mortal kombat
Image: Warner Bros

We were like a little bit stuck and then [South Australia] reached out to us and [director Simon McQuoid] and they came here and thought there’s a lot here we should do it here,” Todd Garner, producer on Mortal Kombat, told Kotaku Australia.

“It’s informed a lot of the script based on the locations that we found here,” he said. “The Quarries, and the Coober Pedy and the Pine Forest they have up here, it’s really lended itself to being able to give this movie a lot of different looks which is great. I mean I haven’t shot in Sydney so I don’t know how the look would have changed, but we are very fortunate to get everything that we need.”

According to McQuoid, South Australia also provided some physical benefits that people might not have initially realised. “We have been all over South Australia so there’s a lot of pretty amazing locations,” McQuoid said.

“We started in the valley and so Raven’s Temple’s exterior, when they travel through Mongolia and get shots of the breakaways, it’s everywhere,” McQuoid said. “[But] all the dirt in the temple is just truck loads from [South Australia’s] Coober Pedy; we brought in like 4 tonne trucks of dirt, so that’s actual Coober Pedy in there.”

But Mortal Kombat actually has a lot more of Coober Pedy in it than dirt. The town, which is better known for opal mining, is also home to a very particular type of rock. Naamon Marshall, a production designer on the film, explained how much of the debris was sourced from the town, instead of being built in styrofoam.

“The fight pit took red sand … so we brought that in, and then we brought all the debris from Coober Pedy. It’s a very specific rock and it’s real crumbly and it’s a lot lighter than you imagine,” Marshall said.

You’ll also see a lot of Coober Pedy’s caves in the film. In the movie, Raiden’s Temple is built within a cave that has a series of tunnels within. The interior was shot in Vietnam’s Phong Nha, but Coober Pedy provided a perfect shot for the outside. The state’s pine forest reserves also appear briefly in the official trailer, while Mortal Kombat‘s Outworld was shot in a coal mine in South Australia’s Leigh Creek.

“It’s going to blow your mind when you see that. It’s probably my favourite stuff, it’s unbelievable Shang [Tsung] and his guards in the bottom of a coal pit, it doesn’t get much better than that,” McQuoid said.

“For me it’s just, it’s all there it’s all on camera and the visual effects just add into that world rather than doing the heavy lifting; it’s not like I’m in a parking lot with green screens,” he added. “[South Australia] really provided … not only some brilliant local filmmakers in various departments and some discoveries of the people have just been astounding.”

mortal kombat
Image: Warner Bros

COVID notwithstanding, the circumstances and expectations around Mortal Kombat‘s theatrical reboot have substantially changed. Mortal Kombat had a passionate audience when its first film launched in 1995, not to mention added public awareness after a series of congressional hearings into violent video games. Partially because of the outrage around Mortal Kombat and other games like Night Trap, the United States ended up implementing a voluntary age ratings system. That process also spurred on the establishment of the Interactive Digital Software Association, a trade group for video game publishers that would later become the ESA.

In 2021, video games sit in a very different space. Despite a middling critical reception, the Resident Evil series of films has recouped over $1.53 billion over 6 films. Sonic the Hedgehog, a film that was initially delayed after a disastrous reception to Sonic‘s design and teeth, made over $388 million globally and almost $14 million in Australia alone. (Curiously, almost $4 million of that was after the coronavirus forced Australia into a nationwide lockdown.) And Detective Pikachu, perhaps owing to the success of Pokemon over three decades, made $552 million worldwide and over $12 million locally. Video games have become hugely successful adaptations on streaming services too: The Witcher remains Netflix’s second most successful series of all time, and the platform has greenlit adaptations based on Assassin’s Creed, Resident Evil, Cyberpunk 2077, Valve’s DOTA, Tomb Raider and Cuphead.

Video games have become Hollywood’s crutch, the source of its billion-dollar blockbusters and the audiences that bankroll their bets. And the audience for video games, and those who grew up with games, is enormous. Gaming is expected to be worth $229.8 billion in 2020, compared to $37.58 billion in 1995. The film industry is making plenty of money alonelots more if merchandising revenues are combined with the box office.

But the broader point is that films and video games have an almost symbiotic relationship now, maybe even more so after a global pandemic. Studios need franchises with a built-in fanbase, and following its outstanding reboot (and its particular impact in Australia), Mortal Kombat is as good a bet as any.

mortal kombat
Image: Warner Bros

But the other side of that fandom — or broader background awareness at least — also means the expectations are a lot greater. Some Mortal Kombat viewers will literally have grown up with childhood memories of certain characters. Others have been permanently impacted. Kano didn’t begin life as an Australian, but after Trevor Goddard’s performance in the 1995 film, the games canonically made Kano an Aussie.

That connection is what makes the Mortal Kombat series stick, and it’s something both the new movie’s producer and director understand well.

“Ultimately Mortal Kombat is popular because of its characters,” McQuoid told Kotaku Australia. “There’s been plenty of fighting games, and plenty of video games that are similar but I think the reason it’s stood the test of time [is] a very powerful much loved timelessness of those really interesting characters.”

“There’s sort of multiple audiences to this, and I want to really do justice for the fans so that they feel like their characters are being respected. They have invested a lot of time and love into this film and these characters and I think bringing them to life in a way that makes them feel for the first time human, even though some of them aren’t human,” he said.

It’s partially also why the movie won’t focus on Johnny Cage or Liu Kang as the central character, as the earlier films and so many of the video games have done previously. Cole Young provides a blank slate that means the creators have a little more agency not just over how iconic characters are introduced, but easier onboarding for those completely unfamiliar with Mortal Kombat.

“If you don’t know the game, then you need a settling in to go, what is Mortal Kombat, who are these people, what is the history, where are we, what is the rules,” Garner explained. “So we just wanted to say OK, and kind of like what the Transformers movie did, which we had all these great characters but none of them were really agnostic that could come in and go ‘Here’s what Transformers are’. That’s what [Cole Young] is, he’s a narrator for the audience that doesn’t know all the rules.”

It also lets the crew better control the tone: the original Mortal Kombat was deliberately campy and was built around the idea of the Mortal Kombat tournament.

“They had already been working on the script for four years when they brought me on,” producer Todd Garner said. “I read the script and I didn’t like it I thought it wasn’t the right direction. I don’t know if you know the series that they did, it was very insular and dark and it felt like wrong for this if you are trying to do something cool and different.”

“I mean the tone of the [1995] movie is insane — I mean you couldn’t do it now, but [it] felt a little too insular and small and it didn’t feel like it had the scope that the movie needed. And none of us just wanted to just make a tournament movie where it’s just like fights so we worked on the script for another five years.”

mortal kombat
Image: Warner Bros

Crucially, a change in Hollywood’s environment — and perhaps the nature of video game audiences — meant that casting was less reliant on big-name stars, and more able to draw on fresher faces that felt more authentic, like Australian Sisi Stringer.

“You know what else happened, which is great?” Garner said. “Is that the world changed, the world changed from like having to have movie stars in every movie to just kind of being more faithful to the material which worked in our favour.”

CGI has improved in leaps and bounds too, making some of the kinds of fatalities that Mortal Kombat is known for vastly more possible in the context of a film. Films are also still held to a slightly lower standard than video games, although the narrative bar is very different. Sonya Blade can put a fist through Kano’s abdomen in round one and Kano can still win the fight. But if Sub Zero shatters someone’s face in the first act of a film, they shouldn’t be doing backflips by the third act.

“I think as far as the gore and the blood level is concerned, that’s really about the tonality of how we show it,” McQuoid said. “There’s scenes where there’s a shitload of blood, so we are not shying away from it.”

“There’s a shocking way to do and there’s a really elegant, sort of elevated way of doing it,” the Mortal Kombat director added. “But the gore is there but it’s just done in a really elevated way so it feels a little real. There’s nothing comedic about the gore … so if it’s made more powerful and has an authentic quality to it then is actually resonates with you more.”

mortal kombat
Image: Warner Bros

It’s heartwarming to know that Mortal Kombat‘s cinematic reboot has such a strong Australian flavour. Sonya Blade is canonically American, but the character is being played by Jessica McNamee, whose acting career began on Home and Away. Kano is also played by the Australian Josh Lawson, and the film is the first major part for Sisi Stringer. Other locals like Mel Jarnson, Elissa Cadwell, Laura Brent, and first-timer Matilda Kimber, are all getting a part. The fact that an Australian director is leading the way is the icing on the cake, too.

It’s worth remembering just how long the battle has been to get to this point. People have been trying to make another Mortal Kombat film since 2001. Garner told Kotaku Australia that he’d been “wanting to make [Mortal Kombat] for nine years”, almost going back to when shooting on a Mortal Kombat movie — one based on the Mortal Kombat: Rebirth webseries — was supposed to begin.

So when Mortal Kombat finally launches in Australia on April 22, it’ll be nice to know that it’s done so with such a heavy dose of Australiana. The country owes a debt of gratitude to the franchise, as its ban in 2011 triggered a wave of change that ultimately led to the introduction of the R18+ rating.

And with any luck, the movie’s release will spawn a new cinematic wave: one fans have eagerly waited for since those first few minutes of Rebirth hit YouTube over a full decade ago.

All interviews were conducted by Sarah Basford Canales, who has since left Kotaku Australia for the finer shores of the Canberra Times. You can continue following her great work here and on Twitter. 


9 responses to “How Australia Built Mortal Kombat”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *