Mortal Kombat writer Greg Russo was not some hotshot 20-something who rolled into Hollywood and made waves off a film-school short. When he graduated from Vassar College in the early 2000s, he shipped off to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he worked as a Manhattan headhunter by day and wrote at night. Russo describes it as “the most soulless occupation imaginable,” but it afforded him the chance to eventually upend his life at 27, move to Los Angeles, and start pitching scripts. Luckily, headhunters can pitch anything.
So Russo pitched thrillers. He understood the fundamentals of tension and character, and he could write at any scale. His first big studio sale was a Hitchcockian two-hander set in an elevator. Eventually, New Line Cinema hired him to sequelize the disaster movie Into the Storm. Neither script was ever produced, a frustration that would become a theme — Russo has spent nearly 10 years writing movie after movie in an industry that is notoriously picky. Mortal Kombat is his first script to actually go before cameras.
Passion has something to do with MK being The One: On top of pounding away at the keyboard, Russo has worn down his fair share of controllers over the years. When we spoke earlier this month, he had just wrapped up Zombie Army 4 and was playing through the Sniper Elite games. He’s anxious to get his hands on The Medium from Bloober Team. Playing is as big a part of his life as writing (and he has the Gamerscore to prove it — more on that shortly). So when the idea of a new Mortal Kombat movie came up, he immediately jumped at the chance to adapt the lore-heavy source material. Since getting the job, he’s been actively developing films based on everything from Saints Row to Space Invaders.
Greg Russo did not arrive to the scene as a hotshot, but he’s become one in the burgeoning Taking Video Games Seriously movie era. With Mortal Kombat set for release in theaters and on HBO Max on April 23, we talked to Russo about the showbiz hustle and putting his firsthand fatality knowledge to good use.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Polygon: Did knowing games on a molecular level help you get a job like Mortal Kombat or was it a coincidence?
Greg Russo: It was just a happy collision. I’ve always been a gamer. I’m still a huge gamer. I have an obnoxiously high Xbox Gamerscore, which I won’t mention.
There is literally no better place to mention it.
I have like 1.5 million Gamerscore on Xbox, which puts me in, like, the top 50 in the world … and top 15 America [laughs]. But it’s funny, you don’t go in being like, Hey, look, I’m the gamer guy — pick me. You have to prove yourself as a writer.
With Mortal Kombat, it was a property that I knew was at New Line. I’d worked with them before on a sequel to a film called Into the Storm, which was this little tornado movie they put out during the summer one year. And Mortal Kombat became available, and I was like, “Please just give me a chance. Let me let me take a shot. I know this stuff. I know it really well.” And they did. That was four and a half years ago. So I’ve been on the movie for almost five years.
What was the first step in turning Mortal Kombat into a functional, modern blockbuster?
I came into the project with a script already there. I could see some potential, but it didn’t feel like Mortal Kombat, was my overall assessment of it. I just felt like it was … too far away from the lore. It was too far away from the mythology. It was doing things with the characters that just didn’t feel accurate. And as a fan, I thought we needed to respect it a little more. So then it became just a process of slowly developing it. The director [Simon McQuoid] came in after about a year, and he brought a lot to the table.
When you talk about a movie, you’re talking about maximizing your audience. You want everybody to be able to come to the movie and and understand and have a good time. It’s impossible to write a movie just for the fans — it would never get made. But I wanted to give as much fan service in that script as I possibly could. I wanted to be faithful to it wherever we could be. I really tried not to change what was there. If we were going to do anything, we were going to add to it, bring something new to the table.
How much time did you devote to picking fatalities?
So the first discussion we had about fatalities was about how they needed to be balanced tonally, that they didn’t go into that ridiculous, over-the-top place. And that they had a place in the story, that they weren’t just thrown in to be the candy-coated, firework moment. Once it was figured out where they were going to go and who was on the receiving end of them, then I got to kind of play around with it. I wanted to put some of the classics in some of the ones. There’s some iconic stuff, like everyone’s favorites from MK1. My favorite fatality is in there — it’s actually a later one that came on MK8, or 9 or 10, I can’t remember. But it’s a Kung Lao fatality that I’m really excited about that involves his hat. Whenever you give somebody a razor hat, you kind of open the toy box. Things are going to be severed off.
What lore felt sturdy enough to prop up the movie?
There’s a lot of lore and they’ve also rebooted, switched timelines, and retconned things. So what I had to do is, I had to kind of look at that dense patchwork of mythology, and basically extract as much of a linear storyline as I could that was faithful to material. One thing I really wanted was to start with the Sub-Zero and Scorpion origin, because I’ve always been affected by it. I think there’s a lot of emotion in that storyline. If you look at the entirety of the Mortal Kombat mythology, that’s probably one of the richer storylines from a character perspective: It sets Scorpion off on his path of revenge. It sets Sub-Zero off on his path through the story. And it felt like a natural place to start. So that was my onramp, and if I was going to start there, I was going to find a way to end there.
And throughout the rest of the movie, it’s a lot of learning about what Mortal Kombat is and learning about what the tournament is, learning about the stakes, learning about the different realms — there’s a lot to set up, and I had two hours to do it. I also had about 12 characters. That’s the other thing people don’t tend to forget with Mortal Kombat. We jumped right into Avengers mode. I didn’t have the luxury of setting up all these characters in their own movies. So it’s a lot to get to. And so, as a writer, you have to make sure that you’re not drowning in too much mythology, that you keep it simple as much as possible.
Why did you need to invent Cole Young, the new hero played by Lewis Tan?
The idea of a new protagonist predated my involvement in the project. So that was in the draft that came before me. And it was something that the studio wanted to put in the movie. And when I came in, I said, “OK let me work with this.” And the way it was originally written, nothing connected to the mythology. Bringing in a new character does two things: It gives the audience kind of a fresh set of eyes, allows them to walk into the world. It’s the easiest delivery system for all of that intense mythology. If you were to start with a Mortal Kombat character, they come in with their preset backstory and preset point of view. The problem with doing that is, in order to make that character work as a surrogate for the audience, we’d have to change parts of the character. I didn’t want to do that. I’d rather wait and introduce them correctly than try to jam them into the story and force them to be in a role that they really shouldn’t be in. So part of it was giving the audience a way in, and it was also allowing us to bring something new to the table. We felt there was precedent in Mortal Kombat, because every game, they bring in about seven or eight new characters. So my job then was to say, “We have this new protagonist. I’m going to make sure that he fits organically into the mythology, that he ties organically into it.”
You took the material seriously, but Mortal Kombat games can be pretty silly. Goro is there! So what ways were you able to push that side of the franchise?
With something like Mortal Kombat, where we’re talking about soul-sucking sorcerers — which is great — but if you’re not too careful, it can very easily slip into camp. Everybody involved really tried as hard as they could to not let that happen.
I love the ’95 film, but it drips in nacho cheese. In the best way — it’s deliciously cheesy. But we were in 2021, and we wanted to deliver a movie that felt more authentic, a little more realistic. So you’re always battling against kind of the natural elements, but you don’t want to extract those elements of Mortal Kombat, because that’s what it is. So, Goro: He comes to this movie and he’s terrifying. He is villainous. He is just a beast. And we embrace the scariness of Goro, you know. As much as I love the puppet from ’95, it was decided that if you’re going to bring Goro back, we had to make him an intense, scary thing.
You mine a lot of comedy out of Kano.
If you look at Mortal Kombat, there’s humor throughout it. You want to be true to that part of it. […] The Kano character felt like such a fun way to to add some of that in there, because he’s such a bastard. He’s such a smug asshole. We had all our heroes. We have Sonya, we have Jax, we have Liu Kang, Kung Lao — loaded with the good guys. And to me, from a storytelling perspective, I always love when they throw one real jerky character into the mix. It breaks up the good-guy feeling. I grew up as a fan of the Beverly Hills Cops [movies], 48 Hours, the two-handers like Die Hard, him and the cop. I love that style of action movie where there’s just a lot of good banter. So Kano became that kind of great character, where we just let him run with it and he’s constantly a pain in the ass for the heroes. He’s constantly dragging them down. And he just makes the journey more difficult. Kano felt like a natural way to do that. If we had just taken Kano out and subbed in another hero — like, a Johnny Cage-style hero — it’s just all good guys. It’s just not as fun. That became Kano, and Josh is a great improviser and he did a great job with the scripts.
You mentioned Johnny Cage — how much time did you spend picking the lineup?
Let me tell you how hard this was; people think that you pick stuff out of the hat. But there were hours and days of conversations about how we’re going to do this movie, and what’s the best for the movie. My fan favorite isn’t even in the movie! My favorite character’s Katana. That’s the kind of sacrifice you make. I had so many cool things I wanted to do. But I realized for the story that it didn’t make sense to start bringing in the Edenian characters yet, because that was a whole other realm. And we’re so packed in this story with Earthrealm and Outworld to start bringing in the Sindels and Katanas, and it just — it would have been overload. It would have been [Mortal Kombat: Annihilation], where it was just every character they could think of.
So picking the roster was really difficult. And when it came to Johnny Cage, it was really a story decision. It was. We had Kano, and everybody loved the way that Kano was fitting into that story. And the thing is, Kano and Johnny Cage have very similar personalities. They’re both that egotistical, noxious character. And when I was putting them next to each other, it was way too much. And then it got down to the point of being different. We didn’t just want to recycle the same three people getting on a boat that you’ve seen in every iteration of Mortal Kombat in the last 25 years. So it felt like, OK, let’s not do that same core group of people again, and if we’re going to take a character out, let’s wait and make sure that we can do them justice.
Mortal Kombat is your first produced film, but you have a number of projects in the works, many of them video game-related. How close are they? Is the Saints Row movie still happening?
So, Saints Row is something that I’m working with F. Gary Gray, who is a great director. One of my favorite films is called Set It Off, which he did in the ’90s. He’s done some great bigger stuff recently, obviously Fast and Furious. But [Saints Row] is a property that I’ve always loved, and they came to me with it. The first question was: What’s the tone? Saints Row is another game that, tonally, goes all over the place. The first two are like gritty street movies. And then you’re fighting aliens [with] Santa Claus. So we’re looking at like things like The Warriors and Escape from New York. I love that ’70s grittiness. And we’re still gonna have a shit ton of fun with it.
Are you involved with the live-action Resident Evil movie arriving later this year?
I wrote on Resident Evil. I wrote a draft with James Wan back in the day. But then the rights holders and us, vision-wise, we didn’t quite see eye to eye. [Our vision was] just scary. Back to the roots. Contained. Nasty. Everything that made Resident Evil so terrifying. I played every game. So it was just going back and making it brutal and horrifying. And yeah, [the rights holders] had some crazy ideas like time travel. I wish them the best of luck.
You wrote a script for Space Invaders, a game property New Line’s been trying to get right for years. What does getting Space Invaders “right” even mean?
It’s a project that I absolutely love so much. The one thing I wanted to do with Space Invaders was, I didn’t want to do Independence Day. When you think of that title, your mind goes to those big ridiculous alien invasion movies. I didn’t want to do that. So I worked on it for a while, just trying to find a new way into an alien invasion movie, and this is really early so I can’t say too much, but I found a really fun, surprising way into an invasion movie that has a lot of heart, has a lot of emotion, and that I think people will be blown away by it and say, “This respects what I loved about that classic game.”
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