Interview: Shigeru Miyamoto And Koji Kondo Talk The Super Mario Bros. Movie
After a decade of planning and cross-company collaboration, The Super Mario Bros. Movie is finally out today. The project comes from production company and distributor Universal Pictures and animation studio Illumination. Notably, the trio of production teams involved with this film is rounded out by Nintendo, the legendary company responsible for the creation of Mario nearly four decades ago. Nintendo was involved not as a licensor but as a partner with Illumination and Universal.
Every step of the way, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, who is credited as a producer on this film alongside Illumination CEO Chris Meledandri, had creative input regarding the story, characters, and references to the games. Meanwhile, Koji Kondo, who is responsible for many of the iconic songs from the Super Mario series, acted as a score consultant, working with the movie's composer, Brian Tyler.
Following last weekend's premiere of The Super Mario Bros. Movie in Los Angeles, California, we sat down with Shigeru Miyamoto and Koji Kondo for a rare double interview to hear their thoughts on the movie, talk about the collaboration, and more. You can read the full transcript below.
How have you found the reaction to the Super Mario Bros. Movie now that other people have finally seen it?
Koji Kondo: Well, everyone laughed at the right times. They had the right reactions with the right moments of the film that we were hoping for. I saw a lot of children who seemed to be enjoying the movie as well, so it was fantastic!
Shigeru Miyamoto: So, in Japan, this obviously hasn’t aired yet, and so we’ve only been able to show it for people who are involved. Just the way that Japanese culture is, people don’t laugh or emote very much during the movie if it’s enjoyable. You know, they’ll tell us it was very funny and enjoyable afterward. So it was the first time that we were able to see the movie with an audience in the States, and it was great to be able to hear some of the emotion that was coming out of it.
When you look at the vision you had for this film when the partnership with Illumination first started, how did the final product differ?
SM: When we talk about vision, I think really this whole thing started between Mr. Chris Meledandri and me, and our discussion and how the way we create things is very similar. So, we felt that by working together, we’ll be able to create something that’s going to work, and that’s how the discussion started. So rather than having a vision of what the movie is like, it was more like the vision was being able to do something creative with Chris, and then that’s how the discussion about the movie started.
And with all that said, I think it worked out great. As the movie takes shape, there’s a lot of complex moving parts that we need to deal with, but I think both Chris and I were really able to work together well with each of our teams, and the teams took some of the feedback and opinions that we had to heart and were able to work really well. I think overall, it worked out great.
In terms of vision as in content, obviously we want to create something that’s enjoyable, that’s fun. And one of the goals was obviously to make sure that we’re able to create a movie that a lot of fans of gaming and Mario games can really feel satisfied in watching, but at the same time, it’s not going to work if it’s a movie that only core game fans are going to understand, so you have to make it enjoyable and fun for everybody.
And so that was kind of the underlying principle. There’s a lot of discussion around this that happened. And as we’re creating this, we realized that a lot of the staff at Illumination working on the film were fans themselves. So, there’s a lot of content and Easter eggs that went into the film without us knowing. I think the balance of what’s enjoyable for core game fans and what’s enjoyable for everyone else – I think we struck a good balance there.
And that’s the thing about this movie: There are so many references that stretch all the way back to before even the original Super Mario Bros. and all the way up to things as recent as Bowser’s Fury. Why was it important to include references for the entire spectrum of the series?
SM: While we were working on the screenplay, we had a lot of people provide as objective feedback as possible in the process. The feedback we got a lot of times was it’s a screenplay that’s really dynamic. From our perspective, all we were doing was lining up Mario elements as we would in a game, and through that process, we realized that perhaps Mario is a game that has a lot of content, but not a lot of dynamic changes within the game itself, so that was something that we were able to kind of relearn and reconfirm on our end.
And then also, as we do that, then we start putting elements like Donkey Kong in the movie. And so, this provided us with an opportunity to see that there is a way to create something that has all of these elements and extends to sort of a Mario family. To be able to see that it works to have all those elements in one place was a new learning for us too.
When we’re making a movie and we’re working on the screenplay, I think it’s natural that there’s a tendency or desire to create something new – a new character specifically for this. When that came up – and there was a lot of content that was outside of what we have – and this is something that I also share with other projects or even when we’re working on the theme park – that there’s plenty of assets and content in the Mario world that we can use. So let’s start there, and let’s see what we can use there. We realized that after putting all of that into the movie there’s so much that the Mario world has that we still have leftovers that we weren’t able to use.
Why do you think Mario is a character that has remained popular across so many generations?
SM: I think one aspect is that we’ve been close to 40 years developing Mario, and players who have been playing Mario, some of them are 40 years older, and I think that’s one aspect to consider. The other aspect is the gameplay experience itself. It’s very intuitive in that when you see a hole in the ground, you know to jump over it. When there’s a high place, you want to climb it. That’s something that they tried to recreate using the controller, and then, as they’re playing and as they’re interacting with what’s on-screen with their body, it comes to a point where it’s almost like an illusion that they’re actually doing the actions themselves.
When that intuitive and direct connection happens then, people are encouraged to say, “I want to try this. I want to go there. I want to challenge this.” And then, through that, they’re rewarded with other gameplay experiences. That feedback it creates, I think that’s the kind of gameplay that Mario is, and this is probably why it can be so appealing to so many different people across both ages, but also across cultures and countries.
As I mentioned, in a gameplay experience, it really is intuitive and a direct feeling you use your body to go through that experience. But when it comes to movies, it’s a little bit different. What we focused on is really trying to create the illusion that Mario might be someone that might actually exist in the real world, and that’s something that’s a creative endeavor that we discussed, both Chris and I, about how to make that a reality.
Once that came to fruition, I was able to see the movie and recreate the story around that goal of trying to make Mario feel like he’s someone real. While there are fantastical and unreal creatures, that’s the goal we were going for and to see it come to life in the movie, and once it was done, I feel like we were able to get close to that point. It was something that I’m really happy we were able to achieve.
In getting back to the references in the movie, the songs and the compositions from the games really translate well to complement the cinematic moments of the movie. What do you attribute to that?
KK: Well, that’s really all thanks to Brian [Tyler], who is the composer of the movie score. We originally planned for him to do the entire movie, so what we did on my end was look at different scenes from the movie and made up a list of music that I thought would enhance them that would work well with the movie. And then I sent that off to Brian, not with any order, like, “Hey, use this” or anything like that, but he was able to take the suggestions and incorporate them into something that became so cinematic, as you described.
The reason we didn’t give specific directions like “Please use this here” is because we wanted to make sure that the music supported the story throughout the movie. I thought that if we dictated which music was used in which scene, it might actually interrupt the story and take the audience away from the movie and go, “Oh, I remember that from this game,” and then lose track of what’s going on on-screen. We didn’t want that to happen. That’s why we didn’t give specific directions to Brian on what music to use in which area.
Brian took the game music that we had shared with him – the game music that he was aware of – and added it in the right places throughout the movie score to enhance the experience for the audience. I do think that his arrangement was fantastic, and it ended up becoming something that did support this wonderful movie.
SM: When we were working on collaborative efforts like this, we always asked if they could use some of the sound effects from the games. I think this time that we sent over hundreds of sound effects for them to use. There’s a scene where Mario and Toad go through the pipe in the Mushroom Kingdom, and [Tyler] was able to compose music that has bits and pieces and snippets of Nintendo music and sound effects in the score that we felt really fit that perfectly.
We asked Brian, “Do what you’ve got to do. Take all of this, and freely arrange them however you want.” We realized he did great at it, and there was a lot of it. As we were working on the movie and moving towards the latter part of production, we realized they wanted to use even more of this music. Now the directors were bought into the idea, and then really, towards the end of the movie production, we just started cramming more music and audio cues from Nintendo games.
KK: I know there is a lot of visual Easter egg stuff that the people have latched onto, but there are as many audio Easter eggs that I think people will catch. It’s something that will get people to watch the movie again and again so that they can try to catch as many of those audio Easter eggs as they possibly can.
We’ve talked at length about [Miyamoto’s] collaboration with Chris Meladandri and [Kondo’s] collaboration with Brian Tyler on this project, but how has the collaboration between the two of you evolved over the many decades you’ve worked together?
KK: When I entered Nintendo, it’s been 38 years, and we’ve maintained this distance where it’s not too close and not too far.
SM: When there’s work on the Mario series, I would go to Kondo-san and ask, “Can you write one track to this?” and make requests like that. There’s obviously no guidance that I can provide in terms of music to Mr. Kondo, but I am in a position where I can perhaps provide creative guidance to him.
And so over the years, what we really talked about is that when we’re creating music for games, let’s create music that can only be possible in games. For example, let’s make it so this music speeds up when you’re running out of time, or when we’re making Mario Kart, let’s add music or sound effects you really wouldn’t hear in any other racing game. The idea-creation process is the responsibility of the game designer, and likewise, these kinds of creative ideas need to come from the sound designer as well.
That’s been something that I’ve been kind of encouraging Mr. Kondo to do, but I don’t know… sometimes he doesn’t speak up, so… [laughs]
KK: [Laughs] That’s not true!
SM: No, but you know, he’s got a career of almost 40 years, so the idea of creating something that is uniquely Nintendo comes naturally to him now.
KK: Even from the very first time I worked on a Mario game, I realized that we’re creating music that elicits real-time interaction – music and sound effects that we didn’t see in other media, like movies or TV. I think from that time, Mr. Miyamoto has continually reminded me that that’s what we’re doing, and I’ve been able to really focus on those areas, and it’s been something that I’ve really enjoyed doing for all of that time.
The last time we saw Mario on the silver screen, it was 30 years ago, with something that I don’t think many people were expecting. Do you think the reaction to that original Super Mario Bros. movie contributed to why it took three decades to see Mario return to the world of movies?
SM: No, I don’t think there’s any impact or influence that the old movie had. I think the people who made the movie had put a lot of work into it, but I think the difference is that the movie that was made 30 years ago, we licensed the Mario IP and they made the movie. This time, we were looking to maybe get into movies and do the movie production ourselves instead of licensing it about ten years ago.
When that decision was made, we were searching for partners, and that’s when we encountered Chris and his team. So really, the challenge here is really taking the creators from Nintendo and creators from Illumination and then working together. That’s what the challenge was, and that’s what the difference is.
Up until only recently, the general sentiment was that video game movies are bad. Lately, it seems like video game adaptations have gotten so much better, and I think that the Super Mario Bros. Movie is a great example of that. What do you think changed?
SM: I think one thing to consider is just the thoughts and feelings of the creators making them has changed and evolved. Speaking specifically about this movie, there’s now a set of creators on the movie creative teams that have grown up with and understand Mario. That’s a big point.
On our end, we’re really busy creating games, so on the one side, we kind of feel like, "I’ve got someone else to make the movies because we’re really busy." But at the same time, it’s really important that the people who understand the important aspects of the game are part of that movie creative team so they have a really deep understanding of the important aspects of what makes the game the game it is, and also they have the skills and know-how to create movies. I think that’s what’s important.
When you have a team of people who feel that way and who have that experience, they can have the discussions that are really necessary to create a movie that can only be from this game. What I mean by that is that sometimes, I think it might be easy to assume that as long as we follow the beats across the span of a game, an enjoyable movie should be created. It’s kind of a naïve way of thinking.
I think it’s really important to make a movie that has interesting drama and then add interesting and important game elements to that to make something great. If we can shift the way we think into creating movies like that, we can kind of do away with the “video game movie” genre and just enjoy good movies.
Also, this time around, the voice actors really knew the characters as well to the point that they were so excited to be these characters.
KK: I think another example of that is Brian himself was someone who played Mario music as a kid on his piano and looked at Nintendo magazines and was really involved with the gaming industry, so he knows it really well.
It feels like Nintendo has been on fire lately. The Switch continues to sell really well, the Lego sets are very popular, you have two Super Nintendo World locations open, and now the Super Mario Bros. Movie is hitting theaters. What do you attribute the affluence of Nintendo in this era to?
SM: You know, approximately ten years ago, we thought that the popularity of Nintendo was directly attributed to the amount of fun that the games we made were. We were making characters for that purpose of being used to make the games fun. Because of that, we try to avoid setting any unnecessary things like maybe deciding what Mario likes to eat because we didn’t want that to then become a limitation for any future games that we release or create. And so that’s the kind of approach that we’ve been taking.
But really, about ten years ago, people would think that you’ve got to decide between Nintendo and Sega or Sony and Microsoft, and we thought that creating fun games is how we can get people to make the decision to choose Nintendo. But now, people aren’t looking for that. There are just a lot more forms of entertainment available, and there are just a lot of things that people want to have and that people want to purchase.
Within that competitive field that we find ourselves now, our focus has shifted into how can we get people to choose Nintendo as Nintendo and really ask, “Why would people choose Nintendo?” Talking about the Super Nintendo World park, and in the movie as well, to see people’s reaction as enjoying Nintendo as a product – Nintendo as a brand – was something that was really great to see. I wanted to really make sure that people understand that Nintendo is something that brings reassurance that is safe and really almost like a necessity for any family. That’s the kind of thing that I’d really like to make sure happens.
Do you see any ways that the Mario movie could influence the games going forward?
SM: When we were creating games back in the day, there were movies that we watched that might have influenced us. But now, we’re in kind of uncharted territory for how Nintendo movies may impact and influence Nintendo games. But really, our approach with the integrated hardware and software is something I’m really looking forward to how that will change.
Now that The Super Mario Bros. Movie is here, do you see any other Nintendo game franchises that would make for a good movie franchise?
SM: You probably know that we have Nintendo Pictures now as a group. Whenever we create games, that’s one form of content. And when we create animation, that’s another form of content. And we want to continue to expand the amount of content that we can produce. In terms of announcing or sharing anything, I try to hold off until there’s something really good and enjoyable. So, there’s probably nothing to announce in the near future, so I ask you to put all your focus in this movie currently. [Laughs]