Mortal Kombat Movie Writer Greg Russo Talks Sequels, Cole Young, and Authenticity

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The Mortal Kombat reboot movie has been, by most accounts, fairly successful since it launched in theaters and on HBO Max in late April. That said, there were never any guarantees that that would be the case. It’s been in development for years only to then be delayed thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — and that’s not taking into account the new initiative where all of Warner Bros.’ 2021 movie slate ended up on a streaming service on the same date as in theaters. had the opportunity to speak with the movie’s writer, Greg Russo, prior to release all about the movie, the characters within it, and his hopes for the franchise’s future.

Fair warning: while the interview doesn’t exactly get into spoiler territory — it was conducted before release after all — there are probably tons of tidbits that would be best received with the experience of having already watched the movie. Thankfully, as noted above, the Mortal Kombat reboot film is now available on both HBO Max and in theaters.

The cast of the new Mortal Kombat movie includes Ludi Lin as Liu Kang, Mehcad Brooks as Jax, Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade, Hiroyuki Sanada as Scorpion, Josh Lawson as Kano, Tadanobu Asano as Raiden, Joe Taslim as Sub-Zero, Chin Han as Shang Tsung, Sisi Stringer as Mileena, and Lewis Tan as new character Cole Young. You can check out all of our previous coverage of the film right here.

Have you had a chance to see Mortal Kombat yet? What did you think of the writing? Let us know in the comments, or feel free to reach out and hit me up directly over on Twitter at @rollinbishop to talk about all things gaming! And keep reading to check out our full interview with Russo!

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

On Getting Involved Obviously, the movie was in development for some time. How did you first get involved?

Greg Russo: It has been in development for a while. I got involved in 2016. As far as I know, the film had been in development for about five years or so before that, once the decision to reboot the movie came across from New Line, and in 2016, I had already been working with the studio. I’d done a couple of scripts with them, and they knew that I was huge gamer and a huge fan, and I knew that Mortal Kombat was in development there.

So I just was kind of slowly nudging and elbowing anybody I possibly could, just to be like, “Hey, if you need help with that, please keep me in mind. I’m a huge fan. I’m a huge fan.” And in 2016, they had brought in producer James Wan to help, I think, steer the ship creatively. At that time, they were looking for a new writer, and thankfully, I was in the right place at the right time, I guess I’ll just say that, and was able to get the job.

On Other Writers

Dave Callaham and Oren Uziel are also credited on the screenplay and story. What did that process actually look like? Was it something they had worked on before that you came in, or where they were working with you?

Yeah, no, that’s a good question. Yeah. So again, dating back to the start of development, so we’re talking, let’s say 2011. That was when I believe Oren had written a draft. He was the first writer in, so about 10 years ago. Then there were some other writers, actually, that aren’t credited that worked on the script, and then Dave worked on the script, I would say, around 2015, and then in 2016, I came in after that. I inherited kind of the script that had been, for lack of a better word, cobbled together by a number of different writers, and so I was able to kind of take it from there and kind of work on it through production.

On the Mandate of Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat Movie Mileena
(Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

What was sort of your mandate when working on Mortal Kombat?

I think in terms of mandate, I’ll just say the mandate to myself. So when I came in to work on Mortal Kombat, what I wanted to make sure that we did was that we told a faithful adaptation to the lore and the mythology, that we made an annotation that was finally for the fans, that gave them something that they want it for 25 years. And me being a huge fan myself, it was what I wanted. So it wasn’t like I was following anyone else’s mandate. It was really just, “I love Mortal Kombat, I want to see a bad-ass, amazing Mortal Kombat film, so I’m going to write that. I’m going to try to deliver that as best as I can and get it there.” And so the mandate was to me, myself, to my passion for it, and to the fan base to try to say, “Hey, we’re going to give you one. You’re finally going to get that movie that you always wanted.”

On Authenticity

Something that producer Todd Garner and director Simon McQuoid have talked about over and over in the various interviews that they’ve done is authenticity to the franchise, to its characters, everything, and it sounds like that was something constantly on your mind as well. So what makes an authentic Mortal Kombat film? What makes an authentic adaptation for the fans?

The number one thing that I think makes an authentic Mortal Kombat film is respecting the mythology. It comes down to this idea that… Basically, what we said, myself, Simon, Todd, and kind of the core crew that worked on this really for the last five years, we basically said, “We don’t want to change anything. We do not want to change any of the preexisting mythology that’s there. We don’t want to change the characters. We’re not going to try to turn people into things that they’re not. Let’s respect the canon. Let’s respect everything that’s there. And to add our originality, we can bring something new to the table.”

And bringing something new to the table we felt was okay, because as long as we didn’t touch what was on the table, we feel like we are doing it justice. So I think that’s part of making a faithful adaptation, is respect the canon, respect mythology, respect the characters, don’t change them, and then try to bring something new to it. Because I think that is part of respecting it too, is not just rehashing what’s already there. It’s adding something new to it as well.

On Creating a New Mortal Kombat Character

You know, speaking of adding something new, obviously Cole Young, an original character. What was that like, creating a new Mortal Kombat character?

Yeah. Again, this was a decision that we made quite a while ago, and what we wanted to do was to bring a new perspective into Mortal Kombat. We have all of these pre-existing characters, with kind of set-in-stone backstories and set-in-stone personalities. What we wanted to do was to have a new way into the movie, and that’s true not just for new audiences, because there’s a lot of people that are going to watch this and have no idea who these characters are, and they’re going to be asking a lot of questions.

But it’s also true, I think, for fans, because what we wanted to do, as a fan myself, is we wanted to kind of introduce someone new. And if you look at the games, every game that comes out, right, they introduce a whole new lineup of characters. So we felt like we were within the rights of the Mortal Kombat legacy to say, “Okay, well, we’re a new thing, so we’re going to introduce a new POV as well.”

And then it became a question of — without going into any story spoilers — it became a question really for me as the writer to find a way to make it all work in the mythology. To make it feel organic, to not have it feel like something has just been dumped in there that doesn’t belong. And so that was part of the challenge, was really making sure that any of our additions, Cole being the major one, that they worked within the Mortal Kombat mythology overall. I feel pretty confident that we accomplished that.

Mortal Kombat Movie Lewis Tan
(Photo: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros./Mark Rogers)

On Being the Writer on Set

Once production started, were you on set getting consulted? What was it like working with Simon and Todd and the core team? Or how did that all work out?

Yeah, it was incredible, and yes, I was on set. I worked on, I would say, four years from 2016 to… We shot it at the end of 2019, so I worked all that time. That was in development, that was in rewriting and rewriting and rewriting the script, and really kind of honing it in and getting it to where it needed to be. And then, yeah, we started shooting September 2019. So I went to Adelaide, which is where we shot the film in South Australia, and I got to be on set there, and I was still writing.

The thing is, I think some people think that, well, once a movie goes to in front of the cameras, that’s it, like the script’s locked. It’s not really true. You’re constantly changing and rewriting things based on locations, or based on availabilities, or just based on things that we’re still thinking up. I think after the film comes out, maybe we’ll talk more about it, but there’s a really cool part of the story that we actually conceived together, Simon and I, on set. Literally on set. And we were like, “Oh my gosh, we should change that.” And so we went back in, redid this bit, got the approval from the studio, and then was able to shoot it. So you’re constantly going. You’re constantly writing.

On Characters Making or Not Making the Cut

We have heard multiple times that throughout various revisions and things, there are characters that did exist in the script, characters that didn’t exist in the script, like Rain. As the writer, what sort of involvement do you have in those decisions? Or were there any characters you lobbied for including that didn’t make the cut, necessarily?

That’s a tough part of writing. A tough part of writing is editing. You constantly want… especially as a huge fan, I would… There’s 70-something characters. I would love to put all 70 characters in this movie. Can you imagine what that would look like? OK, that would be insane. So clearly, as a screenwriter, you’re constantly editing, you’re constantly in service of the story. I can’t even be in service of my own fandom. There’s characters that I love that I had to say, “All right, they don’t work. If I put them in here, it’s going to be a disservice, so I got to be in service of the story and let them walk.” And that was extremely hard to do.

And then there are other things that we had to cut just for other reasons. There are things that… You mentioned Rain. Yeah. I think that came out. Somebody talked about that Rain had been in… And he was. He was in a script at a certain point a long time ago. First of all, I was lobbying to remove it because I felt that he wasn’t… I inherited that, and I felt like he wasn’t done justice. And whenever I inherited or saw anything that I didn’t think was right for the fans, I was like, “Let’s get that the hell out of there.”

So that was a long process, was just slowly chipping away at the stuff that I felt was inaccurate or a disservice. That was just an example. Things get taken out for many different reasons. But in terms of lobbying for things and how much control I have over it, I actually have a lot. I mean, I basically picked the rosters, I guess. I chose the fighters, so to speak, and so I hope you guys like the choices.

So what you’re saying is you’re the big Nitara fan. That’s what I’m hearing here.

[laughs] Nitara is in there because of me, yes. I chose to put that character in there. I thought she was a lot of fun. I thought she was never really given any much of a spotlight to shine, and so we were looking to kind of pad the Outworld roster a little bit, and we were looking for characters… Even though she’s neutral in the source material, the idea that Shang Tsung is able to manipulate anyone really that he has dominated over the years, felt like she could be a natural fit for that team.

mortal kombat movie btw sub zero new cropped hed
(Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

On Favorite Characters

With your history with the franchise, do you have a favorite Mortal Kombat character? And I guess as an addendum, do you have a favorite Mortal Kombat movie character now that this is coming?

This is where it gets funny. My favorite character is the character that I grew up playing in the arcades. There was an MK2 machine at the bowling alley in my neighborhood, so I used to go there and play every day after school. And I would just rule the machine with Kitana. She was my character. I couldn’t be beat. I couldn’t be beat. I was king of the hill all day until I needed a soda break. So she was my favorite character. That’s where it gets interesting.

And then having written the film, I will say that the actors bring so much personality to those roles. You can write it, and then when you see it performed, it’s like, “Wow.” And the acting in this movie is really good. I was just blown away by what those talented actors were able to bring to each of these roles. And they really do influence what it looks like on screen, obviously.

So I will say that I was… I’m going to go outside the box here and say one character from the film that I was really blown away by when I saw it was always Kung Lao. Max Huang, who is a… Really, this is his first on-screen speaking role of his career. He’s a young guy, done a lot of stunt work, came from Jackie Chan’s stunt team, and he embraced Kung Lao in a way that I was like, “This is nuts.” It literally is him from the game. He somehow embodied that character in a way… Down to the very poses. You probably saw some in the trailers, like just the way he kicks. He knows that fighting style, so he’s got the Kung Lao fighting style already locked in. I am very impressed, but honestly, it’s true of almost all the actors. They really brought it.

It’s interesting that you pick Kung Lao, because I kind of suspected that might be the pick, just listening to Max’s interviews and him talking about how he really appreciated martial artists getting tapped for these roles and how he feels like acting isn’t just the acting, it’s the fighting, too. That’s also acting.

Yeah, it’s so cool. And it’s so amazing how much passion was brought to this film. Obviously, I brought my own passion as a writer, as a lover of the games, but just walking on set, everybody just brought this intense passion and love for the material to it. I mean, I would walk into the props tent on set, and everybody in there would be like, “Hey, come look at this knife for Kano.” And I was like, “What?” And they’re like, “Look, we did this beautiful black dragon sketch on a knife blade.” I’m like, “Dude, I don’t know if that’s going to even be seen in the movie,” but they did that. I think Mileena’s sais have this intricate, Edenian and Tarkatan designs on each one, representing lineage. It’s crazy how much love and fan service went into this thing.

On Sequels

How are you feeling about those sequel prospects right now?

I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful. Fingers crossed that we can do more of this. I certainly… When I wrote this, I’ll tell you, I wrote it as a trilogy. I didn’t write the trilogy, but I wrote it with a trilogy in mind. I always think as a writer, we need to make sure that we leave ourselves places to go, that we don’t paint ourselves into any corners. So, there are places, there are worlds, there are characters and things that I would love to explore, but ultimately, that is up to the fans. It’s up to the viewers. If an audience comes out, if they go to the theater, if they watch the movie on HBO Max, it will send a message that Mortal Kombat is valuable, and hopefully more stories can be told. So I’ll leave that one up to the viewers.


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