Interview with MORTAL KOMBAT: REBIRTH Director Kevin Tancharoen; Talks About What He Wants to do in a Feature Version!

     June 9, 2010

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If you’re a Mortal Kombat fan, yesterday was Christmas.  That’s because an awesome short film called Mortal Kombat: Rebirth hit the net and it featured a gritty, real world approach to the material.  Featuring Michael Jai White, Jeri Ryan, martial artists Lateef Crowder, Ian Anthony Dale and Matt Mullins, the short film has been getting nothing but positive write-ups across the cyberspace.  You really should check it out.

But the big story was what was the purpose and who made the short.  Some guessed it was for an unannounced feature film, and others thought it might be for a new Mortal Kombat game.

When word got out it was directed by Kevin Tancharoen (Fame), I was kind of stunned. After all, who would have thought the guy who made Fame would have directed an awesome Mortal Kombat short.  Thankfully, I had Tancharoen’s email and reached out to see if he wanted to talk about how the short came together and why he wanted to make it.  If you’d like to know a lot more, hit the jump to either read or listen to our interview.  I’ve also included some highlights as bullet points:

Some highlights:

  • They shot the short film over two days on two RED cameras
  • Started in early April and it took 2 months to do the post production.  Most people donated their time.  The short was made for $7,500
  • Knew if he was going to get a chance at a genre picture, he’d have to show he could do it on his own.  This is a calling card for a chance at making the next Mortal Kombat feature film and it’s his vision for how he’d do it.
  • No one at any studio knew he was doing the short
  • Oren Uziel wrote the short.  He’s currently listed on IMDb to write the next Mortal Kombat movie at Warner Bros.
  • Says he wants to make a movie that balances the real world with the mysticism and the special powers.  Compares it to the way Harry Potter exists in two worlds.  As in there are two universes that coexist with each other.
  • Confirms “fatalities” are definitely in his movie.  He wants to put them in the tournament in an “organic way”
  • Definitely would use “get over here” (the classic line from the game)
  • Michael Jai White plays Jax Briggs in the short and he’d definitely be a part of the feature.
  • Says Scorpion is the bad guy and will stay a bad guy
  • They only had 4 hours to shoot the big fight scene

Kevin TancharoenHere’s the full interview that was done just a few hours ago. If you liked the short and want to know how it all came together, you’ll really like this interview.  You can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio by clicking here.

Finally, a big thank you to Kevin Tancharoen for giving me his time today…

Collider: So let’s just jump on in.  This thing came out of left field on yesterday.  It was everywhere.  So how long ago did this project first get started?

Kevin Tancharoen:  I had been thinking about this for awhile now.  Just in passing, I’ve always had these conversations about “Mortal Kombat” because everyone was talking about rebooting the movie.  I guess that’s the popular term everyone uses now.  Reboot, reboot, let’s just take everything and reboot it.  Of course I had my opinions on it, because of the first two movies, and because I was such an avid fan of the game.  I was a quarter dispenser, and I don’t know how much I spent over at the Sherman Oaks golf course, whatever that place is called now.  Right by the Galleria.  And I had a lot of opinions on it.   I really, really thought that something special could be made there.  And it got to a point where we just kept talking about it, and I just had to do it.  It took over a two-month span of time.  I shot this whole thing in two days on two Red cameras that were donated to me with a group of friends who all believed in the cause.  We shot it at Lacey Street Studios on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and we just kind of had fun with it.  It all started at the beginning of April and it took two months to do all the post and the editing.  I edited it myself and the visual effects were great people donating their time.  It turned out to be pretty awesome.  I was very, very happy about it.  It’s one of those passion projects that lived in my head.  The technology is so accessible now.  There’s was no reason why I shouldn’t do it, so I did it.  I’m very, very happy that people are responding well to it.  I know that there’s definitely a handful of purists that have their opinions on the mysticism and the mythos of Mortal Kombat.  But I do have an answer for that: this is just a prelude to what my movie version would be.  And of course, when you’re working by yourself, you have a limited resource of budget.  I made this thing for $7,500.  I couldn’t go balls-to-the-wall on visual effects.  I had to utilize what I could and make the best of it.  I want the mysticism to be treated carefully and with integrity.  We just kind of went for it, and did it.  And everyone was available, they believed in the project.  We picked up the camera, and we went, and we didn’t stop.

It’s just funny when — I think one of the things that a lot of people thought was interesting was that the guy who directed Fame: hardcore Mortal Kombat fan.

KT:  Yeah, yeah, here’s the thing about that.  Though I had some success in the choreography realm and if you look at my background it’s more plastered with Britney Spears, and dance fights, and Pussycat Dolls.  But ever since I was a kid, and this has never changed, the first thing I did was take karate.  Forever, I’ve been nothing but a lover of comic books and video games.  I’ve been immersed in the fanboy culture.  That’s me as a person.  And somehow, because I got really savvy with the technology, I was able to utilize MPC and Pro Tools and really get into music, it steered me in the direction of the pop music scene and choreography and stage directing.  My heart has always been deeply immersed in fanboy culture.  As a kid, all I wanted to do was be a Ninja Turtle who morphed to a Power Ranger.  As long as I was in the suit, I was going to be happy, because I just wanted to be in the suit.  I think, of course, for the people that know me, this is not really a shock.  Because they know that this is my love.  And I do understand that it’s crazy to see such a shift in genre.  But this is what I want to do, and this is what I’ve always wanted to do, and am very passionate about.  And I knew that because I’ve always been in the performance world, if I ever wanted to make a genre picture, I had to do it myself first.  So that was another reason why I felt like I should do this.  And I went for it.

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Oh, no, I definitely think that sometimes you have to show people rather than tell people for them to understand where you’re coming from.

KT:  Especially nowadays, we’re just coming into a world where people are very skeptical of taking your word anymore.  And you can’t just really draw a storyboard or concept art, because the technology is so available that they kind of expect you to have already made it.  Seeing these handful of films from really great talent out there — I think The Raven was one.  Pixels was one.  Carl Erik Rinsch is obviously a very good commercial director.  But when his short films came out, everyone really responded to them.  It’s such a unique tool for younger filmmakers now more than ever.  And to not use that, I think is a mistake.  I think it’s great that younger filmmakers are really able to showcase their work on the web.  Because the social networking is so huge now.  It’s such a great testing ground.  There’s no reason to not do it.

So the big question is, did the studio, or anybody involved with the video game or anybody know you were doing this?

KT:  No.  They did not. (Laughs) This was something I did completely on my own.  However, there is a little bit of a tie-in, because I happen to be friends with Oren Uziel. And since we’re friends, I just called him up and said “Listen, I want to do this.  This is what I have in mind.  I want it to be contained, because I am not a studio with endless amounts of cash.”  Then we started storyboarding from there, and started calling my friends, and started pulling as many favors as I possibly could.   And I was thrilled that they all said yes.  (Laughs)

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One of the things that, looking at the comments online and something that I like about it is the whole — you’re setting it in the real world without the supernatural thing.  So everyone is sort of — it’s a very real-world, grounded kind of feel.  Obviously, a lot of fans out there are probably hoping you are going to land being able to do the movie.  Is this your take on what would be your feature film?

KT:  Oh, yeah.  Definitely, this is my take on what I would want to do with Mortal Kombat.  I would love it if Warner Bros. wanted to do it this way.  But I was so passionate about doing this, that I just had to pick up the camera and do it.  Now like I said, because I am such a fan of the Mortal Kombat series, I know there’s a lot of concern about the mysticism and the special powers and all that kind of stuff.  Well, like I said, this is really designed — the short so far is really designed like a prologue to the movie. Now, in a movie version, I am going to have that mysticism there, but it has to be done in a very tasteful way.  I wouldn’t like it too campy or too cheesy.  I know this is a weird analogy, but it’s the best one I can think of right now.  It’s kind of like when in Harry Potter, there’s two universes that coexist with each other.  There’s the real world, and then you get on the train and then you go to Hogwart’s, and that’s where all the magic is.  It was actually kind of similar in the first Mortal Kombat, too.  They had to get on the ship and go to the island, and that’s where all the crazy stuff happened.

Mortal-Kombat-Rebirth-imageSo that’s essentially what I want to do with this movie, but I want to do it tastefully.  I don’t want it to be over the top, too much wirework.  I think one of the reasons why I chose such a gritty, grounded base was because I am such a huge fan of movies like Flashpoint, Kill Zone, The Protector, Ong-bak.  I came at that from a choreography end and lately I’ve been a little tired of the wirework Crouching Tiger style of martial arts and really gravitated towards a hard hitting, in-your-face, ground-and-pound, just going for it kind of martial arts when Tony Jaa burst into the pop zeitgeist.  So that was one thing I did want to make sure I was going to be able to do, and it wasn’t going to be too over the top with fireballs and electricity.  Even though I do want to have that in there.  But I really feel like there has to be limitations to it.  There has to be rules.  Because when you take a special move, and you make it indisposable, to me it’s no longer special.  It has to all come from something that has a little bit of limitation to it.  I think whenever I talk about stuff like this, I always give the analogy of the whole Matrix trilogy.  I personally only really love the first one, because I feel like that’s the only one that had personal stakes with Neo.  He had limitations.  He had obstacles that he had to overcome.  His powers were limited.  But once you got him there, it was amazing.  The other two, not so much.  When he turned into a CG character, and he has the big metal pipe, and he’s killing eight thousand versions of Agent Smith. When I saw that for the first time, I felt like Peter Griffin trying to make it through Failure to Launch.  He got up and just said, “Done.”  I tuned out it because it wasn’t real for me anymore.  I didn’t really feel like there were any obstacles to overcome.  So with all that mysticism, I want to infuse it.  But I also want to infuse it with a little bit more of a demonic presence, as opposed to an Asian mysticism presence, so that it feels a little bit more evil.  That’s the thing about Mortal Kombat.  I love that it was all the bad things.  It was evil, it was bloody.  It was your way of being twelve and rebelling.  “I’m not gonna play Sonic the Hedgehog — I’m gonna play Mortal Kombat.”  I definitely want to incorporate all of that stuff, but I want to incorporate it in a very tasteful way.  Not in an over the top, campy way, where everyone one is just throwing fireballs, and throwing electricity, and having an unlimited supply of special moves.  Because then, if you do that, to me they’re not special anymore at all.  And I want to incorporate all of the very iconic things that have made Mortal Kombat so special.  I think, obviously one of the more iconic ones is Scorpion having a flaming skull.  However, you have to take in mind that that’s also Ghost Rider.  You have to really be clever with how you’re going to do that.  You can’t just do it again.  It just won’t look good anymore.  So that would be my movie version if I ever get to be lucky enough to to do something like that.

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Obviously Mortal Kombat, the original game, had limited characters.  And as the sequels kept going, they kept on adding more and more characters.  Do you see yourself — say you were able to make the movie.  And also, with the short that you did, was there a purposeful choosing of the characters that you got?  And where’s the line, if you did make a movie, between the realistic characters and the almost fantasy characters.

KT:  I wanted to put some grit in the fantasy characters.  Like with Reptile, I found a very interesting way, I think, of making him feel real.  Even though, of course, in real life it would never be that extreme.  Now the line that has to be drawn is I don’t want to go so crazy and just have so many damn characters that you can’t track — I think a lot of movies actually suffer that flaw where all of a sudden there’s too many.  The only thing useful I can come up with is the second Transformers and the third Spider-Man and it was like, I had no idea who I should watch anymore.  There’s just too many people.  I did want to make sure it feels focused.  Now in this short I made, these characters made the most sense, conceptually, to carry out a clean narrative.  Now, I love Liu Kang, but Liu Kang has been told already in the first and second movies.  Now I want Liu Kang for the tournament.  I don’t want to have to follow him as the main protagonist because that would be repeating the first movie.  Of course, as a kid, to me there were only two characters that I loved.  And it was Scorpion, and Sub-Zero.  And the fact that we haven’t seen their rivalry played out, I think, is a shame.  Because I really want to see that story.  To me there’s nothing better than a really, really good rivalry against each other, and a revenge tale.  It’s all so, to me, gratifying.  I wanted to utilize Scorpion, because he is arguably the most iconic of the Mortal Kombat franchise.  There are key words that pop up when you say Mortal Kombat.  There’s the techno theme song, obviously.  There’s “Fatality.”  There’s “Flawless victory.”  There’s “babality.”  And there’s “Get over here.”  That’s one of the big ones.  I wanted to take the bad guy and make him one of the leads of the movie.  I always think it’s interesting when you can have a three dimensional character like that be at the forefront of the film.  And I think Jax is such a real character.  I would love to see how he got his metal arms.  I thought that was great.  Sonya’s also such a classic character.  Everyone knows Sonya.  I did want to utilize the most iconic characters and not get too carried away with the over the top nature that you can get away with in video games, but not necessarily in cinema.  So I probably wouldn’t have people like Cyrax.  I would have people like Kabal.  But not Cyrax. Stryker is another interesting character.  I would definitely like to explore Kitana and Kung Lao.

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I definitely want to ask you…”fatalaties”.  That’s like the most iconic word with Mortal Kombat.  How do you plan to — is there a plan in your brain for how to put “fatalities” into the movie.

KT:  I would definitely have them.  The thing about the first film was that it had to be tamed down so much for the audience.  There’s a part of me that understand that, but then there’s a huge part of me that’s like “Guys, Mortal Kombat was very popular for very specific reasons.”  I was so angry when they came out with the Super Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat and the blood was gone.  It was like sweat and sand and I was really pissed off.  And then they came out with a cheat where you can turn the sweat red.  It still wasn’t the Mortal Kombat that I wanted.  In the arcades, we would all cheer when someone actually knew how to do a fatality.  So I would want to incorporate a good amount.  Not over the top, where it feels like we’re just doing it for shock value.  But I think Sub-Zero has a great fatality.  I think Scorpion has a great fatality and I think Kano has a great fatality.  These are all the original.  I would go back to Mortal Kombat 1, 2, and 3, and adhere to those fatalities.  Because those are the ones that I feel everyone kind of remembers, and really has a nostalgic value to them.  I would incorporate them in the tournament aspect in a very organic way.

And what about the, of course, “get over here?”  And certain lines like that, obviously.  Is there a plan for certain characters to use those?

KT:  Yeah, of course.  I would definitely save that to the end.  It’s got to be one of those moments.  It’s got to be like “the movie moment”, when he finally says “get over here.”  If you have them say it throughout the movie, it’s not really special anymore.  But I want to make a huge moment of that.  You gotta have that moment where you think…in classic form you think Scorpion is about to die to his enemy and then he finally gets up and he says the iconic line and then starts kicking ass.  You want to have that.  And I 100% plan on using that.  You have to.  There’s just no way around it.  I even had to include it in the short because, I don’t know, there’s something about the way tonally that expression is said in the video game that just rings in my brain on, like, a broken record.  I just wanted to make sure I included it in the short.  But yes, there’s definitely a plan to have that movie moment, when he finally says “get over here” towards the end of the film.

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You have Michael Jai White as the police captain.  Obviously, the guy is just an incredible — he’s so good with action.  I’m assuming that if you’re able to do something that his character would be somehow involved with the battle.

KT:  One hundred percent.  He’s Jax Briggs.  He’s the detective from the real world.  And that’s actually part of the story of the original Mortal Kombat.  He’s part of a special unit that deals with the Outworld program.  I think having a grounded character in the mix here is very important.  That’s why I had Sonya and Jax be such important characters in the short film.  Because if I were to ever do a feature version of it, I do feel like their presence is extremely valuable to be thrust into that world.

You have Scorpion being the sort of protagonist of the short for the feature.  So is the plan for the character to basically — I guess a lot of people are always apprehensive about seeing the villain turned for good.  Is your plan to keep it so he’s just the villain, and he just happens to be —

KT:  Listen, Scorpion is the bad guy and will stay a bad guy.  His motives are personal.  It’s not to help out anybody.  It’s to get Sub-Zero.  If Jax and Sonya can coattail off of that revenge, awesome.  But Scorpion does not care.  He’s going after one thing, and one thing only.  And I personally love that.  I don’t want to see Scorpion go soft.  Do I think Scorpion can be flawed?  Absolutely.  There’s no such thing as an interesting character that’s just one dimensional.  I love it when the bad guy is at the forefront because you’re able to tell so many different stories that are not so conventional.  And I love that.  I really do.  I think there’s a lot of that kind of style of storytelling, I personally only see in Korea.  I would love to see that kind of new main character be told here.  I obviously respond to movies like A Bittersweet Life and Oldboy where this guy has one motive.  It’s very clear, and he goes after it.  And it’s never wholesome.  But for some reason you’re very engaged in his cause, and that’s exactly what I would hope to achieve with Scorpion, because I think he’s such a cool character, a really cool character.  Him and Sub-Zero are both, to me, will be the main Mortal Kombat icons.

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What’s your reaction to getting almost a million views, as I am talking to you, on YouTube in 24 hours?

KT:  I am so happy because I’m a huge fan of social networking and I feel like it’s such a unique tool for young filmmakers like me.  You know at first I was just making this to prove to Warner Bros, but then I sent the link privately to some friends for their opinions.  All of the sudden it was on some websites.  I freaked out for a minute, but I couldn’t stop it at that point.  And I was extremely nervous about this one.  Because what I wanted more than anything was support from the fans who like this kind of stuff.  And the fact that this is overwhelmingly positive so far — obviously you can’t please everyone, and there’s going to be a handful of people who don’t like it.  Even on Youtube, if you look at the likes/dislikes, it’s about 95% good.  The negative 5% is there, but I even think some of that negativity will be lifted once they know what I plan to do with the mysticism side of it all.  Like Raiden’s not going to be an electrician with lasers on his forearm or anything like that.  I have no interest in doing anything like that.  I just thought Baraka was a cool character and I know there’s — you know, on comment blogs you get a lot of mixed things.  And there’s obviously a lot of questions about race, but I don’t understand why that’s such an issue when Nick Fury is Sam Jackson.  I took the liberty of making Baraka a real.  I wanted to ground as much as I could in the prologue that leads us up to the tournament.  So I’m overwhelmed by the fan reaction because I did not expect for it to be this… viral, I guess?  I don’t even know if it’s considered viral yet, I just know that a lot of people are questioning it, and liking it, and watching it.  And I am more than happy that there’s a large group of fans who really like it, and that’s all I’m happy about.  I’m very happy about that.

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Switching gears completely, let’s ask — obviously, you wrapped Fame like a year ago.  I don’t even know how long ago it was now.  A year and a half?  It was a little while.  You got this.  Have you been developing other things?

KT:  I am developing two or three other things, but it’s such in a phase that I can’t talk about it right now.  But I definitely plan on telling everyone what it is in the next two months.  Obviously the past two months I’ve focused on doing this, and once you’re passionate about something and you do it, you can’t stop doing it.  So now that I’m done with it, I can focus on the other projects that I was getting started.  But I’ll have to let you know about those projects in a couple months.

Oh no, totally.  Do you have any sort of behind-the-scenes videos or any other stuff that fans can maybe look forward to seeing?  Or are you just keeping this short as “That’s it”?

KT:  Originally it was just the short, and that’s it.  But I didn’t even know if there would be an appetite for more.  Yes, we have behind-the-scenes footage.  Of course I had someone there shooting all the footage and the behind-the-scenes work and that kind of stuff.  But we didn’t do anything with it.  It was kind of my personal video.  I didn’t edit it or anything so it would act as a featurette.  But if it’s something that fans want to see, I would definitely put it out.  The fight scene was also cut down a little bit.  We only had four hours to shoot that.  So I was running and gunning.  Me and the fight choreographer had bigger plans, but then once you get there on set, and there’s so many other obstacles to jump over, you have to start trimming.  But there is a longer version of that fight that has a little bit more groundwork.  Like, MMA groundwork.  That slowed us down in the short film, but was pretty cool on its own.  Maybe I’ll release that as well.

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I think a lot of people really dig the design you came up with for some of the characters.  Often what happens is when, say, studios have characters they do these character posters.  So my question is, did you guys have anybody on set taking any still images of some of the characters that could be released for people as screensavers.

KT:  Yeah, yeah, definitely.  We took a lot of pictures of the makeup for Reptile and Johnny Cage and all the others.  We definitely had on-set photography.  What I’d be very interested in is releasing those photos and seeing if there’s anyone out there willing to make awesome posters.  Because that’s something I didn’t do.  But yeah, I would love to release those photos and things like that.  If I can get my hands on them and get the photographer’s permission, then yeah.  I think that’s something that would be really cool.

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