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The Mummy director Alex Kurtzman on making a modern-day monster movie

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Universal

As a screenwriter, Alex Kurtzman has worked on some of the biggest franchises of the last decade. And now, as a director, Kurtzman is taking the reins of one of Hollywood’s most famous film sagas. The first Mummy film hit theaters 84 years ago, at the dawn of the sound era. On June 9, The Mummy will enter the modern era, with the release of a new film starring Tom Cruise and featuring Star Trek Beyond actress Sofia Boutella as the first female to assume the titular undead role. It’s a stark change from the period-piece action-adventure of the Brendan Fraser Mummy trilogy. And the new film also marks Universal’s first step toward a Cinematic Universe featuring on their stock of iconic movie monsters.

Before the first trailer for The Mummy arrived this weekend, Kurtzman showed a group of journalists the teaser and some extended clips from the film, which featured a more in-depth look at Russell Crowe’s role as Henry Jekyll — who in this incarnation is an enigmatic scientist operating out of a mysterious place called Prodigium. EW sat down with Kurtzman to talk about the tone of his reboot, the crucial importance of the female Mummy, and what it was like to film a fight scene between Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe.

 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the trailer, we see Tom Cruise die, and then come back to life. I have to ask: Is Tom Cruise a Mummy in this movie? Or is that the visual iconography you were trying to create with that moment?

ALEX KURTZMAN: There’s an origin story happening on two different fronts. I won’t tell you too much more than that, other than to say: One of the things that I think has defined Tom Cruise movies, for 30 years, is that Tom Cruise always saves the day. You know whenever you’re in a Tom Cruise movie that he’s gonna figure out a way to save the day. And that’s great, and it’s why I pay my money to see his movies. However, in the context of a monster movie, it’s challenging, because monster movies are about characters who are often very out of control, and don’t know how to save the day. The first thing I said to Tom was, “It’ll be scarier if we can take away the fundamental knowledge that you’re gonna solve the problem.”

In the trailer, when he comes back to life, suddenly he’s in a situation where he has no idea what’s happening. It removes safety of: “He knows what he’s doing.” Once you remove that, and anything is possible, the movie can actually free itself up to be scary. The ending of a more traditional movie would probably be the ending of our first act.

Can you talk about Nick Morton, the character that he is playing?

I’ll tell you that he is an amoral, absolutely-out-for-himself guy. I always find stories most interesting when you put a gun in the hands of someone who should absolutely not have one. Tom, both as a movie star and a great actor, has played some of the more morally complicated roles in the last 30 years. Look at Vincent in Collateral, look at Frank Mackie in Magnolia, look at Rain Man.

Let’s talk about tone. Even if you haven’t seen the original Mummy, you know what that film’s aesthetic was — that shadowy early-horror look. The Stephen Sommers-Brendan Fraser films brought in more of an action-adventure sensibility. How did you want this Mummy film to feel, compared to the original film and to the other Mummy films?

Putting it in modern day forces you to ask the question: What would it really be like if a monster came to our world? Immediately asking that question, you’re in a more grounded attempt at reality.

In terms of tone, let’s talk about the distinction between a monster movie and a horror movie. When I was a kid, I saw Frankenstein, and it terrified me. The scene I have always remembered — and the scene that I think endures for me as the single greatest monster movie scene in history — is the scene where Frankenstein meets the little girl by the water. That scene starts, he’s been chased, he’s been repelled, everyone’s terrified of him, he just wants to connect. He runs into a child who is carrying none of the associations that the adults carry, and sees this being who wants to be loved. They form this beautiful connection. They pick flowers together. She hands him the flower and she throws it in the water to show him it can float. He’s so delighted that he picks her up and throws her in the water, and she dies, because she can’t swim. All he was trying to do was make a friend.

As a kid, that kind of scene really messes you up psychologically. Because you are utterly sympathetic to the monster, you feel terrible for it, and then you are gobsmacked by what it’s capable of doing. That’s what makes a monster movie different from a straight horror movie, or a slasher movie. It’s our ability to fear the monster and fear for the monster.

So then your version of the Mummy is not just a purely villainous figure?

If you listen closely to the dialogue in the teaser, Russell [Crowe] says, “She will claim what she’s been denied.” That clearly suggests a story of some kind for her. For me, making the Mummy a woman was the reason to make the movie. In thinking about the story, and thinking about the history of the Mummy movies, and thinking about what versions of the Mummy had been done before, there was always a real premium put on the backstory of the character. What led them to be wrapped up in bandages and buried alive?

There were several drafts that we had developed where the Mummy was a man. There were cool things about it, cool story elements about it, but in my gut, I felt like it wasn’t different enough, and I wasn’t going to be able to deliver something that felt truly original. This voice had been saying in my head: “Make it a woman, make it a woman!” And the second I opened that door, a world presented itself. Her story was very different from the other Mummy movies that had existed before. If she goes back 5000 years, being a woman in that time period was very different than it is now. And in other ways, maybe not so different. And that’s what’s so interesting: What does that mean? How did her unique story end up with her being turned into the Mummy?

You’ve been referring to the “Monster Universe.” Is that the official terminology? And can you talk about constructing The Mummy as the first film in a potential cinematic universe?

It’s not an official terminology. It’s how everyone has referred to it, as the Monster Universe. We really have to tell great individual stories. Obviously, no Mummy movie has ever had Henry Jekyll in it before. That was a real conversation, a lengthy one. If we’re gonna bring Henry Jekyll into the story: Why? Is Jekyll organic to the story? Does he bring something specific to the Mummy story, aside from being his own great character?

Audiences are too smart, and ultimately, I think, it feels cynical when you start to throw in characters that I’m supposed to care about because that character has existed in previous movies or literature before. That doesn’t mean anything to me. You need to make me fall in love with that character first. You need to introduce that character like I’ve never heard of him or her before. If you can do that, and still tell a completely cohesive story that’s really The Mummy, then great! Now you’ve accomplished two things. You’ve made a fun, successful Mummy movie, but you’ve also sown the seeds for something else down the line for another character, which is great.

We saw Henry Jekyll introduce Morton to “Prodigium,” which seems to be a potential entry point into stories beyond The Mummy.

He’s our entry point into the larger world of Monsters. The idea of a secret history — the idea that a movie lets you in on a secret that just you and the characters are sharing, but the rest of the world isn’t in on it — there’ something very satisfying about that.

Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise. Two of the biggest movie stars of the last few decades. Fighting. What was it like filming that scene?

The best! [laughs] A funny thing prepared me for it. I was a PA on Michael Mann’s Heat. I was sitting about four feet from De Niro and Pacino, the three nights that we shot the scene at Kate Mantilini. I was the fortunate PA who was, like, “You lock up that door next to the two of them!” I remember that, over the course of those three days, there was this incredible buzz on the crew: “Holy sh–! We’re gonna shoot a scene, that they’re gonna be in, together. What’s gonna happen on that day, when those two are sitting across the table from each other?”

Jump to now, I’m a director, I’m not the PA anymore. It felt very similar to me. There was a buzz, the whole crew going like: “What is it going to be like? Are they literally going to punch each other?”

Tom and Russell have been wanting to work together for 20 years. They talked about various projects and it never quite came together. When this came up, they both were like: Absolutely, let’s go! The physicality of shooting this scene over four days was really intense. Neither of them will take a stunt man on. They’re both utterly committed: “We’re doing this ourselves!” There’s not gonna be any doubles. So now you’re talking about: What if they injure each other? They’re gonna be slamming each other into walls, into glass, into tables. You don’t just want to stage a fight where they’re in a contained space, punching, you want them to go around the room and destroy the place.

The thing that amazes me, as it amazes me with all truly trained actors and movie stars who’ve just been doing it for so long, is they are so unbelievably aware of the camera and of each other and the space they’re in. Once we started getting into it after a lot of rehearsals, you watch these two guys who understand their bodies like Olympic athletes. They really understand how to make it look utterly real without hurting each other.

That being said, it’s painful to do that for four days. They were literally slamming each other into things. They were both unbelievably sore. It was hard to do, but it was totally joyful. Another thing that’s amazing about Tom and Russell is they are incredibly generous actors, not just with each other but with me, and the three of us got along really well. And you need a huge amount of trust when you’re doing that stuff. They’re putting themselves in physical jeopardy. Everything has to be right. They can’t do it too many times, no human can. When Russell tackles Tom, body slams him into the air and then slams him into the table, there are no wires there. They make it real.

Cruise himself shared a behind-the-scenes look at the film on Monday morning: