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MOVIES : The Bros. Mario Get Super Large : Take the world's most popular video game, add $40 million, some Koopa Troopa turtles, two rewrite-happy directors and outspoken actors like Dennis Hopper and Bob Hoskins, then mix together in a deserted cement factory . . .

August 16, 1992|RICHARD STAYTON | Richard Stayton is a playwright and free-lance journalist. and

(Reached after the production had wrapped, co-director Rocky Morton said he didn't want to comment on the frustrated comments of the cast and crew. "It was a tough schedule. It was a big project. It was just very, very difficult." He found nothing unusual about the various rewrites. "Doesn't that always happen?")

"It's not unusual to go through many script changes," says co-producer Fred Caruso, whose distinguished career includes "The Godfather" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "and especially with this particular film because this comes from a video game that has no story. Everything we're doing is made up and it comes from the flow of what we're shooting. All the games have are the characters."

Other than the Italian plumbing duo ("the most likable wrench wielder you've ever seen," promises Nintendo's Player's Guide), the Nintendo video game features fantasy characters such as Princess Toadstool and the fighting Koopa Troopa turtles. The game's minefield of obtuse obstacles (sea urchins and Piranha Plants) and inexplicable enemies (Bowser, King of the Koopas) means that even the most dogged of players must inevitably fail--even after the 650 hours of playing time Nintendo claims it takes to finish Game 3.

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Since making his initial cameo in "Donkey Kong" in 1981, Mario Mario and his sibling have spawned a multibillion-dollar market. The third Super Mario Bros. game, introduced in 1990, has earned more than $500 million. There are Mario pajamas and sheets, shirts, underwear, lunch boxes, dishes, clocks, pillows, wastebaskets, cereals, cookies, crackers, comic books, a Saturday-morning cartoon show and a limited number of Super Mario Bros. plumbers van sculptures.

No accident that Nintendo player's guide "Mario Mania" boasts that the Italian-American plumber has "a heart of gold valves and spigots."

The directors are improvising the story as they inch along--and entering the eighth week of a 12-week shoot that ultimately went three weeks longer. At least nine writers have worked on the script--now grown as thick as nearby Wilmington's phone book, rainbow-colored with rewritten pages. The only page color missing is the original draft's. No white pages remain.

The mission had always verged on the impossible: Transferring a kid's game from video to movie screen. Starting with a property instead of story meant you had to start from scratch.

The first writer had been Barry Morrow, one of the Academy Award-winning writers of "Rain Man." Another had been Ed ("Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures") Solomon. The team of Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais, who wrote "The Commitments," had contributed a draft.

This week, Chicago-based writers Parker Bennett and Terry Runte, who previously worked on a "middle draft," had visited the set while driving south. Now they were suddenly enlisted for more revisions.

"It's the best kind of work there is," said an elated Bennett of his unexpected fortune, "the last minute. All the actors know their characters. They come to us. They're looking for solutions rather than options, so it's high energy."

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But a recent solution chosen by the directors is to put Hopper and Fiona Shaw, who plays Koopa's queen, into a mud bath with $3,000 worth of worms.

"The first script I got was witty," sighs Shaw, whose previous credits include the doctor in "My Left Foot." "That was maybe 10 scripts ago. Now they're talking about taking a bath with worms."

But Shaw's courage inspired the directors to add the tub of worms. During a scene in the Boom Boom bar, they had instructed Shaw to sip from a shot glass containing a worm. Assuming the worm was fake, she'd done as directed--only to find it wiggling from her lips. Shaw had maintained her professional composure until after the take. The directors loved it so much they'd asked her to do it again. She had reluctantly done so . . . and did it again . . . and again. . . .

But special effects are crucial. Just this week an audio-animatronic dinosaur named Yoshi had arrived and had to be integrated into the story. No video-game-loving kid would tolerate the absence of Mario's best friend.

"It can get confusing and somewhat crazy," confesses prop designer Simon Murton, "but two directors give you two points of view. They have very, very fertile minds but they're constantly changing into newer, better ideas. So I rush things to completion before they change again."

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The fungus has become a rival to the Marios. The fungus is taking over. What had once been a minor element in the video game now dangles, brown and ominous, from every corner of the sets.

"Rocky and Annabel invented this idea that the old king had gotten devolved into a kind of primal organism," producer Joffe explains, "and a few of the cells escaped and had to start from scratch and began growing into fungus, but fungus with a conscious mind."

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