The nine-part digital series Mortal Kombat: Legacy premiered earlier today, and we had a chance to talk to the creative team about this gritty new take on the long-running franchise, including a promise that more fantastical elements are coming soon.
The series is the brainchild of Kevin Tancharoen, a one-time dancer and choreographer who has taken the unlikely step of adapting one of the most violent video games of all time. His unofficial fan film Mortal Kombat: Rebirth attracted Black Dynamite star Michael Jai White as Jax and Star Trek: Voyager's Jeri Ryan as Sonja Blade, as well as the attention of Warner Bros., who gave the green light for the new nine-part digital series Mortal Kombat: Legacy. You can check out the first episode of the series here.
Yesterday, we discussed the project with Kevin Tancharoen, who said the original Rebirth project narrowly beat out his other plan to make a Ninja Turtles fan movie. (This was scrapped, understandably enough, when it became clear he wouldn't be able to make four convincing latex turtle costumes.) We asked him about his decision to remove the supernatural elements of Mortal Kombat. He acknowledged that this was a budget-conscious decision, but he promised Mortal Kombat: Legacy will address that:
I think I got lucky [in terms of the lack of supernatural elements] because I was setting everything up - it was sort of that procedural concept. They weren't at the tournament yet. The tournament is where all the special effects would happen, and I just wanted to give the backstory. In my original short film I didn't do a lot of that stuff simply because I didn't have the means to. On this one, we're doing a lot of visual effects and we are doing some of that mysticism and special moves. So I know a lot of people were complaining about that in the first one, well we'll get it in Mortal Kombat: Legacy.
We also asked him about the particular challenges of adapting Mortal Kombat to a narrative format - and, as anyone who has seen the original movies can vouch, it's certainly a challenge. Tancharoen explained that simply trying to make sense of the game's backstory opened up some interesting storytelling possibilities:
The most surprising thing for me is that it felt pretty natural to come up with the emotional context of these characters because you have to really go to why the hell they would join a death tournament, and what's at stake. Not just the macro of it all, just the personal stakes. And I found the interesting thing about the storytelling was finding out what would make them want to join or have to join, or why certain interpersonal relationships were embedded in the game and go back to that dynamic.
Of course, the franchise is called Mortal Kombat for a reason, which means that characters really do have to start dying off sooner or later. Tanchareon admits that he's side-stepped that problem for now, but sooner or later he'll have to decide how to stay true to the game's basic premise:
The hardest part is - and luckily I haven't had to deal with it yet - but the main point about Mortal Kombat is they fight and then they kill each other. So it would be hard to retain the main characters without ripping their heads off. I think the biggest challenge for me is that if there was a next go-around if figuring out how to balance either how the characters would avoid killing each other or finding a tasteful way for them to die or not make the audience feel like none of the main characters will die or are in real danger.
We talked to star Michael Jai White about his approach to the character of Jax. True to the spirit of Mortal Kombat, it's all about finding the right fighting style. White, who holds seven black belts in various martial arts, also explained why it's important for him to find a way to fight in character, and why he'd love to see other actors take the fighting aspects of their characters more seriously:
Every time I play a character my fighting will change depending on what character I'm playing. So with Jax, of course, he's a military guy, he's a cop. So he has that more direct, close combat type of fighting style. It was cool to showcase that. Any character I play, the fighting has got to be a part of the actual character. Many times, people do fight scenes and they don't fight in character. You look at rich characters like Christopher Walken or Jack Nicholson, they do all their acting things in their particular characters, but when they fight, they fight like everybody else. It would be interesting to see a Jack Nicholson fighting style that's gruff like he is, or an unpredictable Christopher Walken fighting style. Then it's become infinitely more interesting.
For her part, Jeri Ryan admitted she's not quite Michael Jai White's equal in fighting prowess. In fact, she told us that for the original short film she only had about 30 to 45 minutes with a very patient fight coordinator to figure out what do do before she shot her scenes. For Mortal Kombat: Legacy, she said she now has had plenty of time to tackle some more complicated fights, which will be on display in the first three episodes, which focus on Sonja and Jax.
Of course, at its heart, Mortal Kombat is always about the video games, and so we also chatted with game creator Ed Boon. He explained that the latest incarnation of the game, which is simply titled Mortal Kombat and due to be released on April 19, takes a back-to-basics approach to the franchise, revisiting the world of the original three games. This, he explained, is a perfect fit with what Mortal Kombat: Legacy is trying to do:
This is the first time we're introducing digital short films that are going to lead up each character to the Mortal Kombat tournament. This game, Mortal Kombat, is kind of like a time travel back to the first Mortal Kombat game. This series really gives a more contemporary look at the origin of Johnny Cage, Sonja and Jax, Scorpion and Sub-Zero, and a number of other characters basically introducing them into the tournament and then the game takes over from there.
Mortal Kombat: Legacy is produced by Warner Bros. and Machinima.com. You can follow the series here.