CASTLE HAYNE, N.C. — Super CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg rode past forests bordering the Great Northern Cape Fear River and down Holly Shelter Road. He had flown to this wilderness to personally decide if his minions were correct about the film debut of a fabled Brooklyn plumber who, according to polls, had grown more popular with American youth than Mickey Mouse.
The chairman of Walt Disney Studios was on a secret mission to meet Mario Mario.
He was not the first: Previous executives who had made this pilgrimage included 20th Century Fox President Joe Roth, Cinergi Productions chief Andy Vajna and interested parties from both Columbia and TriStar Pictures.
When his driver turned onto Ideal Cement Road, Katzenberg suddenly saw it. A huge concrete edifice of rusted catwalks and towers loomed from the Southern Gothic landscape, surrounded by burial mounds of grave and limestone quarry pits.
But bent and crumpled automobiles blocked the entrance: A Plymouth Gremlin, a Ford Torino, and a police car with a bulldozer blade for a hood. Horns honked and modified engines rumbled as the crazy motorcade led Katzenberg into the abandoned factory.
There, an even more imposing sight welcomed Katzenberg: Koopa Square, the heart of Dinoyork, a reverse Times Square. A campaign billboard displayed a reptilian Dennis Hopper with a chain saw. A movie marquee: "I Was a Teenage Mammal." Flames hissed through metal scaffolding. The Boom Boom Bar's neon signs promised cocktails of hot blood. Eight-foot-high Goombas nodded their lizard heads in greeting.
Katzenberg apparently assumed that producers Jake Eberts and Roland Joffe must have indeed figured out how to make a film of the world's most popular video game.
The deal was soon done: "Super Mario Bros.," a $40-million adaptation of the Nintendo computer game, would be released in the United States by Disney's Buena Vista Pictures, joining German and Japanese distributors already signed up. The domestic bidding war was over.
The location war resumed.
In trailers squatting on the swampy ground, the day's script changes are being tossed, unread, into drawers. Why bother to read the latest rewrites? sigh Hopper and co-star Bob Hoskins.
"The directors won't give interviews?" Hopper says in his air-conditioned trailer, after being informed of the directors' decision not to talk to the press about their work. "That's the smartest thing I've heard from them. That's the only intelligent thing I've heard that they've really actually done."
Hundreds of extras stand around in the 90-degree Southern humidity, waiting for "Rockabell"--the cast and crew's dismissive moniker for directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. "Rocky and Annabel, the Flying Squirrel Show" is another nickname for the creative partners; "The Hydra" is yet a third. First there's two heads on this snake telling you what to do, explains Hopper, then four, then eight heads.
Under the multicolored circus tents, actors mock the directors. The joke of the day: Jankel kept condemning a star's work for being "too Batman"--while wearing a Batman cap.
During one production meeting, the two directors had insulted director of photography Dean Semmler by giving him their list of camera setups for the week's shoot, plus specific lenses and light readings. "Why'd you hire me?" shouted the Oscar-winning cinematographer of "Dances With Wolves."
"I suspect it will probably be rewritten," Hopper says of the latest rewrites brought to his trailer. His eyebrows are shaven and his hair sculpted into dinosaur ridges to make him resemble the Mario Bros. archenemy Koopa, a descendant of Tyrannosaurus Rex. "The script had probably been rewritten five or six times by the time I arrived here. I don't really bother with it anymore. I just go in and do it scene by scene. I figure it's not going to hurt my character."
"All these rewrites get frustrating so I don't do too much research," says Hoskins grimly, while waiting all morning for the directors to decide the shot. "The trick is: Don't take the job too seriously, turn up and do your day's work. That's all.
"My 7-year-old son is quite depressed about my playing Mario," he says. "He knows I can't even program a VCR, yet alone play the game. How do I prepare for the role? I'm the right shape. I've got a mustache. I worked as a plumber's apprentice for about three weeks and set the plumber's boots on fire with a blowtorch.
"New pages," mutters John Leguizamo, who's been cast as Luigi Mario. "Every day's a new page. It's like waiting for the news. What the hell happened yesterday? And there it is: All new, all live. 24 hours: Ding, ding, ding."
But actors Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson, who portray Koopa's stooges, are happily inventing new dialogue. They've just added an original rap dance number.