Home » ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Directors Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic Talk the Immense Pressure from Fans – Exclusive Interview

‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ Directors Aaron Horvath & Michael Jelenic Talk the Immense Pressure from Fans – Exclusive Interview

by A. Felicia Wade
A graphic of Mario, Peach, and Toad from THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE sitting on a giant mushroom in front of the start screen from the classic 1985 Super Mario Bros. Nintendo game for our exclusive DiscussingFilm interview with directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie has smashed its way into box office history. It took the film no more than two weeks to easily win the title for the highest-grossing video game adaptation of all time, and it’s not done just yet. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is very well on its way to surpassing $1 billion at the global box office, solidifying it as the biggest release of 2023 so far even before it releases in international territories like Japan. This partnership between Nintendo and animation giant Illumination has paid off in spades. Of course, there are many to thank for this historic success from the film’s energetic voice cast to the long list of animators who beautifully brought Mario’s expansive worlds to life. At the helm of it all are The Super Mario Bros. Movie directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, two lifelong gamers who defied expectations.

Nintendo and Illumination’s adaptation follows the two titular plumber brothers, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day), as they get swept away from their hometown of Brooklyn into a vibrant and whimsical world. When they two get separated upon arrival, brother Mario must traverse the Mushroom Kingdom with the tiny but mighty Toad (Keegan-Michael Key) and request the help of the noble Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). Meanwhile, brother Luigi falls into the clutches of the evil King of the Koopas, Bowser (Jack Black), who’s just stolen a Super Star for his own plans to take over the neighboring lands. The animated film goes on to introduce more familiar faces like Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen) and Cranky Kong (Fred Armisen) with tons of easter eggs and nods to classic Nintendo games, including those from the famous Super Mario World, Mario Kart, and Donkey Kong Country series.

Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic, most known for creating Teen Titans Go! for Cartoon Network, were trusted with delivering the ideal cinematic adaptation of the Nintendo gaming experience as the directors of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. In honor of the film’s growing success, we sat down with the creative duo to dive into their history with the gaming franchise and collaboration with original Mario creator and video game developer Shigeru Miyamoto. They discuss the immense pressure of having to satisfy generations of fans, especially after Nintendo’s controversial past with sharing their IP, and why video game films in Hollywood often carry a bad reputation. Whether it be a direct sequel or spin-off, more Nintendo adaptations from Illumination are surely on the way. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see both Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic back as directors given their deep love for Mario.

Exclusive Interview with directors Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic for The Super Mario Bros. Movie

First of all, can you both talk about your entry points into the Mario franchise and which have been your favorite video games?

Aaron Horvath: We’re ’80s kids, so I’ve been playing Super Mario Brothers. since the 8-bit era. Super Mario Bros. (1985), in particular, really captured my imagination when I was a kid. There’s just something about the graphics, the movement, and the sense of discovery and wonder that just really got me going. It really ticked a lot of boxes for me. And I just kept gaming, like it became my hobby. So I’ve played pretty much every single mainline Mario game.

There are a lot of offshoot games that I haven’t gotten to yet, but I mean, Super Mario 64 was revolutionary with that transition to 3-D graphics. So I’ve been playing Super Mario games for my entire life. Which, you know, there was a time when I was like, “Maybe I should go outside and do something more important?” But now that I’ve had this experience, it all paid off. All that time was worth it!

Mario, Peach, and Toad travel across the Mushroom Kingdom filled with floating mountains, mystery cannons, and green hills in THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE from Nintendo and Illumination.
‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ courtesy of Universal Pictures

Michael Jelenic: I had a similar experience to Aaron. I’ve always tried to make it sound like I had this proper childhood with a lot of toys. I really didn’t though. I come from immigrant parents, so we didn’t have a lot. But I did have a Nintendo NES! I had Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt. I never actually played Duck Hunt. In case a Duck Hunt movie comes along, I’m probably not the right person for it (laughs). But I did spend probably two years straight playing Super Mario Bros. The other day I was telling Aaron, I thought it was immoral to use the warp zones. I was determined to defeat the game without using any warping and getting every coin I could possibly get. That took me maybe two years, I’m not very good I think (laughs).

But that was my entertainment for a massive chunk of my childhood. Then I had a couple of other important touch points in college, Mario Kart was very popular and fun. That was just a completely different experience of playing, you know, with just a bunch of people. So it was very communal and competitive, which was exciting. Years later, my kids started playing 3D World and Mario Party and those are completely different from the previous things. So I have a whole spectrum of experiences and who I was playing with at the time. It really just speaks to the accessibility of the character and the games that Miyamoto-san and his team have created.

How did your families react when they found out that you were going to be directing The Super Mario Bros. Movie for Illumination?

Aaron Horvath: My brother thought it was really cool. He’s a couple of years younger than me and he had the real, “No way?!” kind of response. And my parents, as with everything in my career, they’re just like, “That’s nice. They’re paying you for this right?” (laughs).

Michael Jelenic: My kids are pretty young, so I don’t know if they sort of understand what this all means. They’ve kind of grown up through this almost four-year process. So they went from very young to just young. But the longer I’ve been on it, the more excited they got because now they have a really big understanding of Mario’s place in pop culture. My daughter also has a small part in the movie. She plays the little Blue Star, so now she feels tied into the Mario universe!

Wait, that’s really her voice?

Michael Jelenic: Yeah. You know, it was supposed to be scratch. I tried to get Aaron’s kids to do it but he was like no, they’re too old.

Aaron Horvath: My kids are precious and I love them, but they don’t have those little kid voices anymore. We needed somebody who sounded just super duper sweet and young to say the most depressing things.

It was perfect, the little blue Luma has definitely been a highlight for many people who’ve seen the movie with a packed crowd.

Michael Jelenic: It’s pretty wild because, again, we weren’t intending her to be in the final product. She’s 8 years old but now she’s thinking about the red carpet and how she’s famous and I’m like, “No, your not!”

But that experience together must have been something really special.

Michael Jelenic: It’s funny because Aaron, especially when we first came onto the project, always talked about how special it was playing the Mario video games with his kids. And there aren’t a lot of video games that you can play with your kids and likewise play with your parents. I sort of had the experience of making this movie with one of my kids and that’s also something you never get to do. So that was fun!

The nihilistic little blue luma star named Lumalee voiced by Juliet Jelenic smiles happily from her cage in Bowser's prison in THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE.
‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ courtesy of Universal Pictures

So jumping into your previous work, you both wrote Teen Titans Go! To the Movies but didn’t direct that film together like this one. What was it like to make that jump as a duo?

Aaron Horvath: I co-directed [Teen Titans Go! To the Movies] and had directed some of the series. But I had never worked in CG and I definitely have never worked on a project with this level of importance. It was very cool, very exciting, and also very scary. With these characters, it was so important to get it right. That was our goal all the way through; maintain what people really love about these characters in this world. Generations of people have been talking about playing these games with our kids. Generations of people have played Mario games and they all have unique experiences, specific memories, and emotions attached to them.

We really just wanted to do everything we could to protect all of that and capture it in this movie. I think once we really started building up the crew and finding out not only how talented they were but how much they love Mario too, it became just a joyous experience. Every day we were discovering something new, like some new thing that an artist had done that reflected Mario in like a really satisfying way. So it was a big change, really scary at first but then it ended up being really cool.

Michael Jelenic: It’s still scary for me. It’s funny because Aaron and I kind of got put together. Aaron, he’s an animator. He could design and storyboard. I came from the writing side. If you ever watched Teen Titans Go! we would always joke that it was a very aggressive schedule. The budgets were very small and I didn’t have a lot of support in the writing area, so I brought Aaron – like I stole him from the art side – and we wrote like almost every episode with another writer here and there together. After Aaron set up the art side of the show, that’s where the attention had to be placed.

Coming on to this movie, it was the opposite. Suddenly, we’re going into directing which I didn’t have a background in. Aaron didn’t have a background in writing and he was just a natural writer as it turned out. I was used to very much like, especially on tight time schedules with Aaron, coming up with an idea and then sending it out to be executed. And directing is very much an execution-based profession. So it was very hard for me at first to figure out, like, how do I influence stuff in the way that I always wanted to from a writing point of view but now as a director? So that was a really interesting thing for me. I think I took Aaron under my wing for writing and he took me under his wing for directing.

Speaking to what you said earlier Aaron, about satisfying all these generations of fans. When making something like The Super Mario Bros. Movie, how do you go about satisfying the fans while still satisfying your own direction?

Aaron Horvath: I guess I didn’t think about satisfying fans really because I’m a fan and I was just trying to satisfy myself. So if I’m satisfied and I’m happy seeing this stuff, then I think everybody else will be too. Honestly, this was probably the exact opposite approach that we took on Teen Titans. In the 2000s, there was an amazing animated series run by Glen Murakami and so many brilliant artists in TV animation. That [original Teen Titans series] was so beloved. It went off the air for a few years and Warner Brothers wanted to reboot it as a comedy-first series because Regular Show and Adventure Time were really popular at the time.

So this type of offbeat comedy was really hitting on Cartoon Network. The studio came to us and asked, “Can you take Teen Titans but make them really funny?” So we took this comedy-first approach – it was satirical, subversive, and irreverent. Absolutely, it was just making fun of the superhero genre and the characters themselves. And yeah, certain people really hated us for that (laughs). I feel kind of bad.

I’ve seen fans on both sides actually! I think it was just a little jarring at first because you didn’t know what to expect after seeing the original animated series.

Aaron Horvath: But with the Super Mario Brothers, I grew up in the ’80s, so there was a movie and a TV series that I was familiar with – The 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie and The Super Mario Bros. Super Show. I love them both now, like in retrospect, but at the time when I was younger, I was like, “This isn’t what I want. I want Mario kicking Koopas, eating mushrooms, and being powered up and breaking bricks.” All the stuff that I like to do in the games and the feelings that gives me, I want that in the movie or in the TV show. And I never got that when I was a kid. So now, I’m like fulfilling my destiny and delivering that promise for my past self, and hopefully generations of fans too. But yeah, I really just made this one for me.

Bowser voiced by Jack Black walks up purple floating magical steps to steal the Super Star from the Snow Kingdom in THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE from Nintendo and Illumination.
‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’ courtesy of Universal Pictures

Speaking of the older Super Mario Bros. film and show, Nintendo is widely known to be very protective of their IP now. So I have to ask what your experience was like working with Nintendo and Shigeru Miyamoto?

Aaron Horvath: Nintendo was great. The partnership between Illumination and Nintendo was super smooth, it was really collaborative. I was really worried at first that we were going to be absolutely crushed between these two forces. From the very first meetings we had with Chris Meledandri and the team and Illumination and Miyamoto-san and the team Nintendo, it was clear that they had been talking for a while before we joined. There was this level of trust and mutual respect between the two studios, and that was very comforting to me. I think Illumination absolutely respects what Nintendo does as a game development company and then conversely, Nintendo absolutely respects what Illumination does as a film company. They both understand that games are one form of entertainment and movies are another form of entertainment.

This movie was always going to be an adaptation, so [Nintendo] wants it to be revered of course but they also understand that certain changes are going to be made or there’s going to have to be a lot of development in the story. You know, Miyamoto-san would often tell us that game development is a little bit backwards from movie development. Whereas the games, they figure out what’s fun first – like they figure out the “game” part of the game and then they reverse engineer the visuals and the story to match that. Then with the movie, it’s the story and the characters first, and then you go from there. So they knew that there were going to be changes but we were all completely aligned with delivering a really satisfying and really authentic Super Mario Bros. experience.

Finally, as we all probably know, video game films have previously carried a bad rep in Hollywood. Why do you think video game adaptations have had such a mixed history and what do you think is the key to adapting a video game right for the big screen?

Aaron Horvath: It’s just about the creatives or the approach to making the movie itself. I think we’re at the perfect time now where kids who grew up with video games are now old enough to be in these leadership positions on these movies or TV shows. So that’s one aspect of it: we’ve all grown up. With Michael and I being huge fans of Super Mario, of course, we just want to deliver the ultimate Super Mario Bros. movie the right way. I think we also have the benefit of the creators of these franchises still being active in their industries. So being able to lean on Miyamoto-san and his team at Nintendo was really important for us. The fact that the studio was there and we can have this creative relationship with them, that’s what makes the experience great and authentic.

Michael Jelenic: I think that’s the key though, being authentic. Whether it’s superhero movies or video game movies, when people don’t have a sort of love, affinity, or understanding of what makes them special, they aren’t authentic. Like, those early superhero movies weren’t great because the people making them didn’t understand what made these characters cool. I think it’s the same thing with video games, which is like, “These are popular! Let’s see how much money we can make.”

Aaron Horvath: Right, it’s a little bit of a cynical approach. So then you have a director or creative team that’s like, “Well, I don’t really know what it is or I don’t really like it, so I would rather do my own version of it.” Then you get something that’s like, maybe it’s valid or maybe it’s not, but it doesn’t deliver in a satisfying way for fans of the original idea.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie is now playing only in theaters!

Follow writer A. Felicia Wade on Twitter: @becomingfelicia

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