The Making Of "Super Mario Bros.": It Ain't No Game!

by Tyme

Magazine Reprint (27 MB)

Millions of people worldwide have played, and even mastered, the popular Nintendo adventure game, Super Mario Bros. For four months this summer in a small town called Castle Hayne, 200 people lived the ultimate adventure. Not with eye-hand coordination, but with filmmaking savvy, they faced and conquered the ultimate challenge...the making of "Super Mario Bros.", the movie.

Intrigued by the notion of a genre departure, Jake Eberts and Roland Joffe acquired the movie rights to the successful Nintendo adventure game Super Mario Bros., having outbid many high-powered competitors in the process. With script in hand, Lightmotive Fat Man Productions enveloped itself in development. During the early stage, the producers planned to take over a large portion of the burgeoning Carolco Studios complex in Wilmington, North Carolina. When their story concept changed, as did their creative players roster, the location requirements changed as well. It was at this point that Co-Producer Fred Caruso, along with Production Designer David L. Snyder, and Co-Director Rocky Morton, began the search for the ideal location.

"When we started looking for locations, [after] we changed the concept of the picture," Caruso explains, "We decided to go to wherever there was a big space. So, we went to Pittsburgh and looked at the steel foundries. We went to Massachusetts and looked at old abandoned woolen mills. We went to Houston, Texas. We were in Atlanta, Georgia. We were in Charleston, South Carolina. We went to Salt Lake City, Utah. We did research through photographs and film commissions and various ways that you do research to find a big place that was available. We narrowed it down to four places. The bottom line was this had everything that we needed plus a working [film] crew that was readily available to us."

At home on 908 acres near the Cape Fear River, the 268,000-square-foot facility is quite impressive, even in its abandoned state. For Snyder, perhaps best known for his art direction on "Blade Runner," it was love at first site. "My first response was to get finished scouting and then get on to designing sets. And even though we were going on to Atlanta and Houston, we had pretty much made up our mind, because this was ideal."

Could the Castle Hayne cement plant be the ideal location? The granite sign that welcomes guest to the site implies that it is. It still bears the name of its former owners, Ideal Cement Company. Although the plant is owned now by Carolinas Cement Company, the location most often is referred to by locals and filmmaking alumni as Ideal Cement.

Before a final decision would be made, the scouting group explored the interior potential of the facility. Here, they met their first obstacle -- no electricity. "We took a lot of flash pictures," Snyder explains. "We took a look at the pictures after they were developed, and said 'Oh yeah, that's what we saw.' " And what they saw obviously was enough.

After months of site seeing, the scout was complete and the location chosen. But...How does one persuade the owners of an 11-year-abandoned cement plant, which was about to undergo an $80-million renovation, to relinquish temporary control to a film company? Well, if you are Production Liaison Les Pendleton and Stage Coordinator Johnny West, you just walk right in and ask. (Exploiting the adage "If you don't ask, you don't get!") Bob Pyle, Plant Manager, remembers: "Les and Johnny walked in on me early one morning, and we chatted in the office. They told me a little about this show and the magnitude of it. At first, I had told them that we just were not interested in leasing it for filming operations. But, when they began talking about the magnitude, I felt that it was a situation for Mr. Cohrs to make a decision rather than I. So, I got him involved."

Carolinas Cement Company was in the process of securing construction permits in order to begin the renovation. Consequently, they had turned down previous filming requests by production companies. It was because of the permit delay that Fred Cohrs, Chief Executive Officer and General Manager, was able to consider Lightmotive Fat Man Productions' filming request. "It looked like a fairly substantial movie, a good organization, responsible-type people," Cohrs said. "So, I felt that [it] might be a pretty good opportunity to get a lot of the plant clean up done in preparation for construction; get some benefits and all of the improvements, in addition to the rent."

But, before site preparation could begin, the producers had to satisfy one important contractual point: the provision of a $20-million insurance policy, independent of the plant's policy. While this did not pose a problem for Lightmotive, the insurance issue did yield a surprise for Carolinas Cement Company. "I had a liability policy in place, [a] relatively small one," Cohrs explains. "...my liability policy expired in June, and I went back to my insurance company for renewal. They found out that a movie was being made; so, the underwriter who wrote the policy refused to cover it. We ended up having to go to another insurance company and the rate doubled."

From Abandoned Cement Factory To Movie Studio

"We thought we were breaking new ground on this show because of the magnitude of the show and the location where it was done, and how it was done," says Johnny West, Stage Coordinator. "This was our studio, as well as...our location. So, it created an interesting settlement for demands that you wouldn't normally find."

Perhaps the greatest demand was to revive the unconscious cement factory. Before the plant could be returned to active status, it had to be cleaned. This task was as massive as the plant itself. A clean up crew of as many as 30 men worked for two months, during the raw cold of winter, to clean the plant. In addition to this crew, heavy equipment and its operating crew were used to complete the clean up effort.

First, a super sucker was used to vacuum up the debris in the buildings. "He [the operator] worked here for two straight weeks with a crew, sucking all the trash out of here," Pendleton says. The entire area around the plant was graded and landscaped, eliminating mounds of debris 10- to 12-feet high in some places. Then, pressure washers were used to remove the dirt. Pendleton recalls: "We pumped over 50,000 gallons of water through the art department office alone. We probably used half-a-million gallons if you count the whole plant. We washed down everything."

Hardened cement dust posed an enormous problem for the Locations Department. Lee Henderson, who was assigned to oversee the clean up effort, remembers it well: "Every floor had a collection of at least six inches to three feet of concrete dust in various spots. There was one place [where] there was twelve feet deep solid concrete. It took six guys two weeks with two jack hammers and a little Bobcat to get it out. We ended up moving, it seems, 50 tons of dirt just out of that building."

Initially, debris had to be removed by wheel barrow and shovel, because it was impossible to get heavy equipment up to the third, fourth, and fifth floors. "We swept each floor four or five times," explains Pendleton. "We would dump [debris] through those big holes in the floor, down to the next floor. We just kept dumping it ahead until [it] got to the basement. Then, on the basement floor, we took backhoes and front end loaders...and then hauled it out of there."

Concrete debris was not the only challenge. An old engine room became home to the Dormitory set. "That particular [room] was a grease pit," recalls West. "There was grease 3 inches thick on everything. I would have never believed that thing could be cleaned up as much as it was. We had people working a couple weeks on that."

Once the clean up was complete, the plant's infrastructure had to be revitalized. There was no water to the site. The Locations Department, through subcontractors as well as their own crew, dug a 170-foot well and put in a new drain field for the septic tank. All the bathrooms were re-plumbed. In spite of the upgrade, the sewage system often was overwhelmed by the high-volume use (200 crew members, plus as many as 250 extras). More than 300 electrical ballistes and fluorescent lamps were installed. Production offices were built, carpeted, and air conditioned. The plant, for the most part, was a shell.

Once the infrastructure was re-actived, preproduction began. The enormity of the compound proved to be the advantage in converting the industrial site to a movie studio. As Snyder points out, "Not only did we have enough room to build the sets, but we built the metal shop, the wood shop, the plaster shop, the prop shops, special effects, special visual effects, the art department, the editing rooms...all of these functions are in one facility. We never had to go anywhere else to perform these functions."

While the creative forces of "Super Mario Bros." were enamored by the location, the technical forces were not as enthusiastic about the filmmaking environment. For Special Effects Coordinator, Paul Lombardi, safety was a major concern. "What we were concerned about mostly was fire. We put 2,000-gallon tanks on top of the [five-story] building, and we had an 8,000-gallon water tanker outside with a fire engine pumper running all the time. So, we had charged hoses on the set all the time with seven fireman standing by all the time."

To create the special effects, the department built a 20,000-square-foot shop that was prop shop, welding shop, automotive shop, and machine shop all in one. In addition, a 40-foot effects truck was parked outside for additional work.

Likewise, the lighting department was affected by the logistical problems that the location presented. For example: Due to the immensity of the Dinohattan Main Street, it was necessary to build a platform from which to work above the set. Gaffer, Dwight Campbell, explains: I just came to a standstill with production and said [that] we have to build some sort of platform up there to work off. We got the grips to build about 200 feet of greenbeds and crossovers. We were able to place at least 50 lamps up there and do whatever we needed to do. I had a crew of two or three guys up there moving lamps to a position where I wanted them. It was like a real motion picture studio, in that way."

For the Dinohattan Main Street set, Campbell made the best of the huge five-story building. "We had the ceiling painted white, so we had ambient light if we wanted it," he explains. "The idea there was that if I ever needed to, I could always just pop a light into the ceiling and create a higher light level, because there were so many people."

The Grip Department might have adopted the motto: 'I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.' Many obstacles popped up to remind them that they were not in a real movie studio. Led by "Chunky" Huse, they were confronted constantly by the physical challenges of the plant. With no working elevator, equipment had to be carried up the numerous concrete steps, or brought up by rope. Only limited areas allowed a scissor lift to be used to move equipment. In addition, many areas of the massive plant had to be blacked in with Duvatyne or Visqeen to control light leaks. Unfortunately, on many occasions, Mother Nature was less than kind to their effort.

For example, when the Visual Effects unit began shooting, they shot at night, as the Visual Effects bay was not enclosed completely. In an effort to synchronize with the shooting schedule of the other two units, Visual Effects made the decision to go to a day schedule. Consequently, the Grip Department was called upon, at the last minute, to black in the bay. They met the challenge, and even got the chance to repeat the effort when, several weeks later, strong winds blew down much of their work.

For Sound Mixer, Richard Van Dyke, the plant itself was not a hindrance. The sound challenges that he faced were those common to location shooting, i.e., noise from a nearby industrial plant, and noise from production: working generators, air conditioning units, special effects, construction, etc. "We were our worst enemy," Van Dyke remarks. Due to the hard surface of the concrete and the abundance of it, the off-set noise was grossly reverberated. Controlling the noise became the issue, rather than the noise itself. With three units working at the same time, "locking up" the set, without hindering the shooting of another unit, proved to be an Assistant Director's nightmare.

Actually, Van Dyke found recording conditions favorable in one bay, home of the Police Station and Ice Tunnel sets. "It's the single biggest room out there, with cement walls and sides, but the ceiling is like a wave," he says. "The biggest problem you have in a square room is what's called a standing wave problem: The sound source goes to the wall and comes back almost in the exact same pattern as it went to the wall which creates that sound of echo. But because the ceiling is wavy like it is, it breaks up the flow of the sound as it comes back." A gift from the cement plant gods.

The cement plant housed the Construction, Scenic, Art, Lighting, Animatronics, and Wardrobe departments, as well as a Props and a Set Dressing warehouse. The Lighting, Grip, Camera, Special Effects, Props, and Wardrobe departments used trucks (20- to 40-footers) in addition to the covered space. Makeup and Hair trailers were set up in the plant's parking lot, convenient to the talent's trailers. Editing also occupied trailers. Company meals were taken under the big top.

In the Face of Adversity, Meeting the Filmmaking Challenge

A man looks at an abandoned cement factory and sees lonely concrete. A man with a vision sees Dinohattan, a world parallel to modern day Brooklyn, where the inhabitants are descended from dinosaurs. Production Designer, David Snyder, with an arsenal of 20-person art department, 1.5 square miles of plywood, 62 miles of lumber, and 50 tons of steel converted the elements of the five-story Carolinas Cement Company plant into head-turning sets.

Mechanical elements of the plant were incorporated into the set design. Most strikingly, two 40-foot-high silo cones became the De-Evolution Chamber, two 400-foot-long rotary kilns introduced the De-Evolution Chamber, and a former mill building became the multi-leveled Dinohattan Main Street. "What I did on this film," Snyder said, "was I adapted what I found that was immovable -- adapted it into the architecture and the design of Dinohattan. The reason I couldn't do that at the steel facility is because the things that I found there did not adapt themselves into it. They were uninteresting large bulky shapes, as opposed to the shapes that were existing here. And, by the way, once we found these shapes, not only did we augment these shapes, but we took these shapes and used them as a thematic design element, and repeated it here and there to give us a feel that we were in some sort of a homogenized environment."

Even to Fred Cohrs, who has been associated with the Castle Hayne plant for five years, the facility took on new life. Cohrs recalls: "The few times I talked to him [Snyder], I started to look at the plant myself in some different perspective, because he could see things that I didn't see. And it's amazing how he brought existing dead facilities, structures, vessels, machinery to life with completely different results."

Technically, the story offered tremendous challenge for the special effects crew. Paul Lombardi and his team produced the mind-blowing special effects for the show. "This show ran the gamut as far as special effects," Lombardi explains. "Anything I have done in special effects, with very very few few exceptions, we did on this movie." They covered the weather elements with wind, rain, and snow. Lombardi notes, "...the mechanical effects and the prop shop work was the heaviest load any of us has ever had on a movie." The special effects accomplishments are even more impressive, given that the adventure takes place in a fictionalized world. Among the products from the special effects department were 27 custom automobiles (including a process police car), flame throwing weapons, an array of hand props, a 200-foot ice tunnel, a full-scale waterfall, and a mattress that flies six people 45 feet above the Dinohattan Main Street, for a distance of 100 feet.

At its peak, a crew of 40 people was utilized to prep and facilitate the various special effects. Operating the Dinohattan Main Street set alone required a 15- to 20-person crew.

The lighting effort was no small task either. At times, as many as eight sets remained lit and camera-ready -- the Dinohattan Main Street set being the largest. Campbell estimates that their standard lighting package had to be double to accommodate the four-story Dinohattan set. Four levels, overlooking the ground level, were lit for simultaneous action. "I would think that the highest light in lighting Dinohattan was probably 65- to 70-feet high," explains Campbell. When all levels were used simultaneoulsy to light the action of 250 extras in addition to principal actors, lighting required five to six generators and up to 7,000 amps. Two additional generators were needed to accommodate the power load of special effects. "I couldn't give you a cable count, but that power went up six floors, some of it," Campbell says, "...that's a tremendous amount of cable."

As impressive as are Snyder's set designs, he admits, "The sets are really dry without the lighting...that's where the drama is." The rotary kiln area set was one of Campbell's favorite for the lighting challenge that it presented. The script calls for Koopa (played by Dennis Hopper) to walk a 200-foot distance, along the two steel pipes, in a continuous take. The set was one of the natural treasures of the cement plant. Forty feet above ground level, the 400-foot steel pipes and catwalk straddle 10 bays of the plant: more than 10,000 square feet of immovable set. The Visual Effects Unit also utilized the entire set for a matte shot of the Goomba Army.

CONCLUSION

By all admission, the Castle Hayne cement plant was chosen for its Production Design appeal. While an actual sound stage would have better served the technical departments, the benefit to production design was the greater value. Convenience was traded for creativity. "If this film had been shot anywhere but the 'Ideal' [Carolinas] Cement plant, the entire look would be completely different, claims Snyder. "It wouldn't look anything like it does now, except maybe the color and the graphics and style. The shapes would be completely different."

As the look of the film was important to Snyder, the cost of the look was important to Co-Producer, Fred Caruso. "You couldn't afford to do this on a sound stage. Not only couldn't you afford it, but you couldn't find a space big enough. There is no sound stage in the country that's as big as the [Dinohattan] street. If I had to create the [Dinohattan] street, I would then have to do it as an exterior location, and then be involved with the weather problems: if it rains, I can't shoot; if the sun [comes up], I can't shoot."

No existing sound stage affords the luxury of shooting a four-story 165- by 175-foot set, day or night, rain or shine. The De-Evolution Chamber set alone would have cost as much as four times the amount to construct on a sound stage. No filmmaker's replica could compare to the original rotary kiln area. Surprisingly, even "Super Mario Bros." could not exploit all the natural aesthetics of the cement plant. (It was designed to be a showcase for the application of formed concrete. When built in 1964, it was the most expensive cement plant in the world.)

Fred Caruso contends that the facility lease and site preparation cost were insignificant to the overall production budget. And, he maintains that shooting at the cement plant saved considerable money. The compromise for this filmmaking treasure was the working conditions. The heat of summer raised the temperature in the concrete structure to as high as 110 degrees. Few sets could be adequately air conditioned. In addition to the heat, the physical challenge of hauling equipment up and down the numerous concrete steps, and the abundant cement dust took a toll on cast and crew. Unlike with video games, eye-hand coordination wasn't enough in this adventure.

The making of "Super Mario Bros.": It ain't no game!...yet.

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Tyme is a freelance writer and filmmaker.

(c) 1992 Tyme | Published in Markee Magazine, 1993.