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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

But during the nights in Kyoto, Joffe slept on tatami mats, "just as the Japanese have been sleeping for 3,000 years." During the days, he visited the "completely sanitized" Nintendo Headquarters where "rooms are so airtight to keep out the dust and everyone wears white coveralls." Afterward, he'd visit ancient temples and discuss mythology.

Joffe returned to Los Angeles with at least a feel for "these conjunctions of images." He wanted to capture on screen whatever elusive archetypal qualities made the video game so compelling to an entire generation of children--including his own son, who loved playing the game that his father couldn't master. "How do we catch this wonderful mixture of images and inputs and strangeness?" Joffe wondered.

The initial capture came from Morrow, who brought aspects of his work on "Rain Man" to the plumbers. That first draft established Mario Mario as the elder brother, Luigi as the naive sibling. Together the blue-collar team formed a dysfunctional family relationship. Their story would be a prequel relating the adventure that led to the Mario brothers' "super" video game status.

Although Morrow's original script established the characters, "it was more of a serious drama piece as opposed to a fun comedy," remembers co- producer Caruso. "We were looking for the same audience that enjoyed 'E.T' as well as 'Ghostbusters' as well as 'Terminator II' and 'Batman.' "

Ed Solomon, co-writer of "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," was hired to rewrite the script. Meanwhile, discussions were held with Danny DeVito, who was offered both the role of Mario and the director's mantle. Arnold Schwarzenegger was approached to portray the evil Koopa. So was Michael Keaton. Director Greg Beeman ("Mom and Dad Save the World") was hired, then fired. Designer Wolf Kroger was hired then, after "creative differences," replaced by Snyder.

"We made some mistakes," acknowledges Joffe. "We tried some various avenues that didn't work, that came up too medieval or somehow wasn't the right thing. I felt the project was taking a wrong turn. And that's when I began thinking of 'Max Headroom.' " Joffe admired the television program about a computer generated talk-show host who became a British cult hero in 1985. He went to Rome to meet with two of Headroom's creators, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel.

Joffe remembers their immediate description of their immediate version of the Super Mario story: "65 million years ago, when the meteor hit the Earth where Brooklyn is today, it pushed a small group of dinosaurs into a sub-dimension, and they evolved into something like us--humans descended from reptiles."

Although their sole feature directing attempt, "D.O.A." for Touchstone in 1988, was a critical and financial bomb, Morton and Jankel became co-directors of "Super Mario Bros." They had worked in MTV and done commercials for such sponsors as Coca-Cola and Hardee's restaurants.

Dinoyork was born: an alternative reality, a kind of reverse version of contemporary America but "basically a reptilian society and therefore infinitely more brutal than our mammalian society," says Joffe. "So it's a wonderful parody of New York and heavy industry. We call it the New Brutalism."

*

Now the project had more focus. With the "Dinoyork" concept came the location. When Caruso, who had worked in North Carolina for Dino De Laurentiis on, among other films, "Blue Velvet," introduced Joffe to the deserted Ideal Cement Co. plant, "the building looked to me like a temple abandoned by Aztecs," recalls Joffe.

Scenes from "Terminator II" and "Ninja Turtles" had been shot inside the cavernous chambers, but no company ever transformed the site into a mini-studio, complete with special-effects labs and prop departments.

"I wanted the concentrated energy of a studio and the obsessive focus of being on location," Joffe realized. "And you couldn't get anything more New Brutalist than a deserted cement factory."

Designer Snyder and his craftsmen had found a unique opportunity: "In this building, with all the existing concrete structure, we could hang the scenery from the structure, and not have to build scaffolding, and could integrate the concrete structure into the film's design."

The factory's remaining machinery--such as two 400-foot-long rotating kilns that once melted gravel at 2,800 degrees--quickly became fodder for Snyder. He constructed an exterior street--Dinoyork's Koopa Square--inside the mill.

'In 'Blade Runner,' the street was one level," says Snyder. "Here I have a street level, a pedestrian walkway and above that Koopa's Room, plus six or seven stories in height. I have more flexibility in layering of levels. It's a major, major opportunity. You'd never be able to do this on a sound stage. There isn't a sound stage big enough."

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