The second season of Mortal Kombat: Legacy recently premiered on Machinima.com. It's the follow up to the most successful web series to be based upon a video game of all time, and a genuine groundbreaker for this fledgling genre of film.
The man behind it all is Kevin Tancharoen, who created a short film based upon a franchise that he loved dearly in his youth, and one that has been languishing ever since. He hoped to one day be the driving force its return to the big screen, and funny enough, that's exactly what's happening.
I spoke to Kevin, the road that has led him to the upcoming 2015 motion picture, which he paved with a combination of a heavy dose of drive, with a side of superb timing, and a healthy dose of good old-fashioned luck:
Matt Hawkins: Is it safe to say that the original plan, behind your initial Mortal Kombat short film, Rebirth… which was pitched originally to sell the idea of a film franchise reboot… ended up working after all? After all, you are now set to helm the next big screen adaptation of MK.
Kevin Tancharoen: You know, I would love to take credit that there was a master plan to this whole entire thing. But it kind of organically presented itself in a unique way.
When I did Rebirth, it was originally intended for just film executives, when Warner Bros had just acquired the Mortal Kombat game. And I think they were trying to think about ways of approaching the franchise in a new, fresh way. Because the original 1995 film, as nostalgic and great as it was, doesn't work in this generation.
So as we were talking about it and figuring it out, I decided to just shoot something on my own. I'm a genre fan and have always wanted to do action films, but by my background didn't necessarily put in me in a position to be the guy to shoot those kinds of movies. So I used that short as a proof of concept, to show executives that I could handle genre properties.
And then, because of unplanned timing, the next Mortal Kombat was about to come out in four months. So the execs saw the short film did 10 plus million hits on YouTube, and… nowadays, people are rethinking commercials. Arguably I watch more commercials online that on television, because of DVR. So they went, instead of spending money on a traditional advertising campaign, why don't we give you a small budget to shoot short films.
And that ended up becoming season 1 of Legacy. I had no idea what an impact that it have in terms of online viewing, but it became the most watched series of all time. It all organically presented itself; I never had a vision that it would all turn out this way. Of course, being able to develop the feature film is something I really, really hoped for. And I'm glad it happened this way, starting from a grassroots fan film, which helped people to get behind and thus realize.
So when making Rebirth, you had no idea that another game was in the pipeline?
I had no idea that another was coming out. Because, up until I did the short film, Mortal Kombat was not on people's radar. It wasn't part of pop culture anymore. Everyone knew that it existed and loved it at one point, everyone knew the term fatality, "Finish him", "Get over here"… They knew all those things. But I didn't know the game was about to mount a come back.
When it comes to genre material, there's always been a handful of franchise while growing up as a kid that I wanted to do. Mortal Kombat was one of them. Ninja Turtles was another. And I went, one, I can't do Ninja Turtles because I can't afford to do CGI turtles or the costumes the right way, without breaking my bank account. So I went, let's do Mortal Kombat, because I don't think anyone is going to do a Mortal Kombat short film anytime soon, let's be the first ones to do it.
How did the two stars of Rebirth react when you approached them with acting in a short film based upon Mortal Kombat? Were they familiar with the source material?
Well, the funny thing is, in 1995 Michael Jai White [who played Jax in the Mortal Kombat Rebirth] was offered the same role in the feature film, when the Jax role was a bigger presence, before he became a side character with just a couple of scenes. So he was offered Jax as a lead role in Mortal Kombat 1. But then Spawn came around and he all of a sudden had to make a choice. Because they were being made at the same time, and by the same studio, New Line. So he chose to do Spawn. So when I called him, it was like "Yeah, I love your take… but more importantly, I'll finally get the chance to play Jax!"
Now, Jeri Ryan [who played Sonya Blade in Rebirth], she admitted not knowing much about Mortal Kombat. Did she know the title? Of course she did. But we had a mutual friend who told her about it, and Jeri went "Sure, I'll stop by for an hour and a half and do one scene, no problem." So that was just a great favor of hers… and it all happened because of a mutual friend. Was one of those "Well, it couldn't hurt to ask?" kind of deals, so I lucked out on that.
I need to ask; what are you thoughts on the original Mortal Kombat motion picture? Because you hasn't held up, but I somewhat beg to differ. Obviously there aren't many good examples to compare it with, but I believe it's still pretty solid, for a video game movie. Can you clarify what you meant?
Well, I absolutely don't think it was cringe-worthy. I think it was a very well made movie… I still watch it all the time! What I meant is how, cinema tone has just shifted completely. And Mortal Kombat 1 in '95 was fun, had all the right moves, all the right references. But I don't think that wink and a nod tone that the original movie had would play well with the audiences in 2015.
I think everybody wants something that feels a little bit more grounded. Obviously, Batman has shifted the way genre films, or even comic book, video game movies are treated and expected off. And I think the first film, even though it was so much fun, wouldn't be the Mortal Kombat movie that fans would want to see now. Because they've all grown up, and what they're hungry for is the down and dirty, dark Mortal Kombat.
MK has always been known for being violent, so I want to give the fans who are older the film version that they've always wanted.
On that note, why do you think most video games have been such failures?
I think Hollywood is just not treating video games with any real sense of seriousness. And there was a time in which comic book movies were treated the same way. Like when David Hasselhoff was doing a made for TV movie called Nick Fury: Agent of Shield. A time when comic book movies suffered the same disrespect.
And now look at them; they're the main draw for theaters every summer. So I think we're turning the corner in which video game movies are going to be taken very seriously. Because, we're seeing video games are being taken very seriously. And because video games themselves are becoming such cinematic experiences.
So I think Hollywood is going to approach the idea of video game adaptations in a very new way. And finally take it seriously. It's already happening, with the upcoming Assassin's Creed movie with Michael Fassbender, we've got Need for Speed with Aaron Paul. There are a lot of good adaptations in the works.
Back to your body of work, Rebirth led to the very first season of Legacy. What was the biggest challenge you had to deal with?
The budget, but in my case it wasn't a huge deal. Because I always like stories about the lead getting that one thing about them that I know very well. So I immediately knew that I wanted to see what Kano was like before he got the metallic face plate, or how Jax got those metal arms. And Scorpion versus Sub Zero, that one was so obvious; I want to see what it was like when Scorpion was a human, before he was a hell spawn. Such an approach is cheaper as well.
The Raiden episode is maybe the best example. Because the budgets we were given are, again, not big at all. And Raiden being the thunder god, our thought was "Well, he's gotta be in Outworld, in his castle… ancient temples… we can't do that, how are we going to do a Raiden episode?" Around that time, I happened to be scouting a mental institution, and it struck me that there's definitely version in which Raiden lands on earth, and in the wrong part of town. In which he says "I'm the thunder god and Mortal Kombat is coming!" and he gets locked up.
How did you approach Legacy 2? Is anything different? What as the biggest challenge this second time around?
What I was most mindful off, even more so than before, was character; I wanted to make everyone as compelling as in any television drama. Because that's the one thing that's always been lacking in video game adaptations; usually the characters are paper-thin because they're so focused on getting to the video game moments, that you really don't care about the characters.
Especially given all the history that all the characters have, that creators have meticulously crafted over the past 20 years. I wanted to make sure to push the drama, and have rich story arcs. And that was definitely a challenge; making sure there was plenty of action, but above all else, that the storytelling was as compelling as it could be.
Is this new crop of actors more familiar with the subject matter than perhaps before? And if they aren't, how do you approach said talent? Do you simply tell them "Play this video game!" or is it more than just that?
Oh, it's more than just that. At this point, pretty much every actor knows what Mortal Kombat is; they might not have been avid fans of the game or even played it, but they know of its existence and its importance. I think it helped for me, for some of them who didn't know their characters per say, because we were able to kind of craft it from the ground up. How to humanize them, and how to mix it up a bit, while keeping the spirit of the original characters and storyline.
The thing that was so great is, because it stemmed from this fan film I originally made, I got a lot of actors who wanted to become a part of it, of a fan creation. And that was something I was very excited about, for them to want to be part of whatever this thing that started as a passion project.
How did you manage to snag Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who played the original Shang Tsung, a role that he's most known for?
I couldn't believe it happened! The guy played Scorpion, Anthony Dale, happens to work with Cary, and I think Cary mentioned that he had watched the first series of Legacy and liked it! He thought it was great. So I asked Anthony if he could get Cary on the phone with me. And I discovered that he simply loved playing Shang Tsung, that it was one of the best roles he ever played.
And he was disappointed that he wasn't in the sequel… I believe there was some frustration there, with the way Hollywood approached that sequel and left him out, even though he was an iconic character. So he liked the spirit of where this is coming from and said that he would love to play Shang Tsung again. And I was like, this is awesome!
Are there plans for Legacy 3, or are you just working on the movie?
Right now I'm working on the movie, but it's always been my intention to do a season 3. Of course we have to see how season 2 does first. And we kind of go from there. But everyone wants to do it, so hopefully it does well enough to warrant another series!