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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

"As each script developed," remembers designer David L. Snyder, "the fungus was sort of a metaphor for the mushroom element in a Nintendo game. In a Nintendo game, the mushrooms are the opponents for the allies, depending on what side of the game you're playing. Mushrooms and fungus are in the same family. The metaphor for the mushrooms is the fungus, and as time went on it became a character. All of a sudden, it's like a gigantic character and it became this deposed king of this world that Koopa has taken over. So it developed and we had a company go in and do a survey, and they did a report and came up with five stages of growth of this fungus."

Made of fishing lure base and hot glue by prop designer Murton, the fungus is evolving to heroic, plot point stature. The fungus is destined to be the savior of Mario Mario and his brother Luigi. The fungus would soon rule.

Many are hoping Joffe will step in and cut the fungus.

Joffe had brought to this project the best in the business: "Blade Runner" art director Snyder was designing the elaborate sets; visual effects wizard Chris Woods of 'Ghost' was creating the special effects; Caruso was balancing the budget.

Joffe had even constructed a mini-studio out of an abandoned cement plant. He had hired not only movie stars Hopper and Hoskins but Samantha Mathis, who happened to be on the current Seventeen magazine cover, and many of the world's finest stage actors. Shaw, one of England's finest theatrical performers, was portraying the movie's villainess. Obie-winning Leguizamo had captivated Off-Broadway audiences with his original show "Mambo Mouth." Fisher Stevens was a consummate stage actor as well.

Joffe, determined to maintain the integrity of his first purely producing effort, resists the savior role. "I hope to be the kind of producer I'd want as a director," he says. "As a producer I don't intrude. I suggest and guide by asking questions. Sometimes I find my voice in this very technological film is one that's asking, 'Yes, but what about the character? What does the audience feel?' And it's a learning process for me, to ask them."

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This Socratic method is a Joffe trademark. After being directed by the magnetic Britisher in "The Killing Fields," Spalding Gray observed that Joffe has "the demeanor of Christ, the eyes of Rasputin and the body of Zorro."

Gray may prove prophetic. To produce "The Super Mario Bros." will require the patience of a saint, the obsession of a madman and a warrior's stamina.

Joffe's heroic achievement while directing "The Mission" in South American jungles has become the stuff of industry legend.

"Roland's always, even when he was a young theater director, always been an oddball, always off the wall," remembers Hoskins, who knew Joffe when both worked in London theaters in the 1970s. "He would have loved to have taken this film down the Amazon. That's where he'd have been happy."

But "The Mission" might have been easier than 'The Super Mario Bros."

"We fought very hard to get the project," remembers Joffe of the bidding war for the movie rights in 1990. "There were a lot of contenders." But none had what Nintendo considered a viable solution to the absence of a plot.

"I went with a storyboard and story outline," Joffe says of his initial pitch meeting to Nintendo President Hiroshi Wayauchi. "I said, 'This won't be the story, but it'll be a story that contains some of these elements.' I was improvising."

Joffe knew that he wanted to make Mario Mario and Luigi Mario real people, not computer generated or animated cartoon figures. His concept won their infant production company Lightmotive the movie rights to "Super Mario Bros." Joffe believes Nintendo trusted him to actually get the film made, that it would not become just "another studio project" left on a development shelf.

It also didn't hurt that Eberts and Joffe offered "a creative partnership" allowing Nintendo to retain merchandising rights.

So in 1990 Lightmotive paid $2 million for a three-word plot: "Super Mario Bros." Now what? "We needed to find a way into this story to bring the game to life, that gave everything a kind of reality and created a myth of its own," Joffe decided. "The game is made up of an odd mixture of Japanese fairy tales and bits of modern America."

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Joffe visited Nintendo headquarters in Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital of Japan. There he met the game's creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, who explained that Mario had initially been inspired by the company's office landlord in New York. Miyamoto further explained that the Koopa Kids were modeled after the team that designed Game 3. Joffe learned that the precise translation of "Super Mario Bros. 2" into English is "Doki Doki Panic."

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