By the start of the ’90s, the once-feared Universal movie monster the Mummy had become a laughingstock. “[The joke was] you could use him as toilet paper,” says director Stephen Sommers. But the studio believed there was still money to be found in those Egyptian bandages, and after years of development, it finally greenlit a pitch from Sommers. Released in May 1999, The Mummy was a huge hit, the start of a franchise that would rake in more than $1.4 billion around the world while making movie stars out of Rachel Weisz and Dwayne Johnson.
That success is remarkable, given the movie’s challenging Morocco shoot and the fact that even its leading man, Brendan Fraser, had no idea what kind of film he was in. “We didn’t know whether we were making a horror movie, we didn’t know if this was an action picture, we didn’t know if it was a romance picture,” says the actor. “All of the above? None of the above? We didn’t know. We. Did. Not. Know.”
STEPHEN SOMMERS (WRITER-DIRECTOR): I’ve always wanted to do a version of The Mummy. When I was 8 years old, I saw the old Boris Karloff one [1932’s The Mummy]. It took me to ancient Egypt, and Cairo of the ’20s and ’30s, and scared the crap out of me. The producers, Sean [Daniel] and Jim [Jacks], had been developing it for nine years. I was just finishing Deep Rising [Sommers’ 1998 aquatic horror film], and I heard they’d parted ways with another writer-director. They took me right into Universal. One of the first things I said was “Nobody wants to see a guy wrapped in bandages; they’re going to laugh at it.” I walked out, and Jim was like, “The studio wants to do it for $15 million.” I said, “I’m going to need that for visual effects alone.”
KEVIN J. O’CONNOR (BENI GABOR): Stephen’s theory is: If you can get someone who’s just as good as somebody else, but they’re nicer to have around, pick that one.
SOMMERS: My editor and producing partner, Bob Ducsay, as soon as he read the script, he said, “This is Brendan Fraser.” It made sense. Brendan’s a big, strapping guy, and he has a great sense of humor.
BRENDAN FRASER (RICK O’CONNELL): I liked the script very much. It was at a time in my career when, in studio-speak, I was bankable, so that must have played into it.
SOMMERS: Brendan’s character was easy to cast; he’s a dashing adventurer from beginning to end. Evelyn [Carnahan], she’s this meek librarian. But by the end, she’s this dashing adventuress. The studio started throwing up all these American actresses. Nobody knew who Rachel [Weisz] was. Rachel auditioned four or five times. The studio could see it was a good pairing.
JOHN HANNAH (JONATHAN CARNAHAN): Four Weddings and a Funeral changed my life, and then, not long after, I got Sliding Doors, which did not do huge box office-wise but did a lot of good for me.
SOMMERS: His agent really hyped him up to Stacey Snider [Universal’s president of production]: “He’s hilarious. Sliding Doors is going to be this massive hit.” Stacey got it in her head that John was this great comic actor. When I met John, he was like, “I’ve never been funny in my life!” He had no idea why we cast him.
ARNOLD VOSLOO (IMHOTEP/THE MUMMY): I remember thinking the script is really fun; it’s Indiana Jones-like. I went down to Universal and met Steve. I said, “What I think will make the movie stronger is if I can play a man in love. This guy loves this chick, Anck Su Namun [Patricia Velasquez], who happened to be married to the Pharaoh. He does it all for her and f— the world.” I think by the time I got back home to Santa Monica, I got the call saying, “You’re the Mummy.” I always wonder: If it were happening today, would I get the part? I mean, here I am — white, South African. They’d probably cast a real Egyptian.
OMID DJALILI (WARDEN GAD HASSAN): I have an Iranian background, so I was very aware that, if I ever did film roles, I had to represent Middle Eastern culture. This was at a time when there were very few Middle Eastern roles at all that weren’t terrorists. Steve said, “We’re looking for kind of Rifki from Midnight Express,” and that was a Turkish warden who was really evil. I said, “Look, why don’t we play him differently because, with all due respect to you, what you’ve written is not even one-dimensional. I can possibly get this to a two-dimensional stereotype.” So I did this piece to camera, it had nothing to do with the script, and he said, “That’s great. Does it have to be so funny?” And I said, “The only way I can do this without being lynched by my own people is to make it slightly humorous.” Then someone said, “What are you doing between April and September? Because we’ve seen 65 people for this role. I think he wants you.”
SOMMERS: The Mummy cost about $62 million.
THE SHOOT, PART I: MOROCCO
VOSLOO: They go, “All right, here’s your wardrobe.” It’s, like, a G-string. I liked my beers; I had a bit of a paunch — still do. Steve told me afterwards that the wardrobe master said, “We’ve got a problem. We’ve got a fat Mummy!” So in Morocco I was just running and walking and eating whatever it is they make you eat to lose weight. It all worked out.
SOMMERS: It was a British crew, and I was this young American, and everyone was like, “Who is this guy?” And not in a good way. I told everybody, “We have a six-week shoot in Morocco.” They looked at the pages — [cinematographer] Adrian Biddle, the camera crew, and the grips. I think they thought, “There’s no way in hell we’re getting out of here in six weeks.”
FRASER: Jim Jacks said, “I took out million-dollar kidnapping insurance policies on you.” We were like, “So, basically, you put a bounty on our head?” He’s like, “That’s one way of looking at it.” I’ll never forget: Kevin J. goes, “How much insurance did you take out on me?” “Eh, $50,000. That should do it.”
O’CONNOR: You’d see one little black cloud and you’d think, “What is this?” This little black cloud would turn into a sandstorm that was blinding and threw the camera equipment around. It was insane.
VOSLOO: I went back on set, and the trailer that I used — [the sandstorm] had taken all the paint off the aluminum.
SOMMERS: It was hard. Snakes and scorpions all over the place.
FRASER: They sent a memo out describing a type of snake. I think it had yellow dots on it. They said, “If you see this kind of snake, do not go near it. Because if it bites you, at best, they’ll amputate your limb.”
O’CONNOR: I chose to wear open-toed sandals for my character. After my first night, I realized how wrong I was. I would look down and see something moving in the sand.
FRASER: Anyway, there I was, pissing down a rock, and I look down and there’s the yellow-dot snake. I was like, “F—!” I just ran for it.
VOSLOO: Everybody got sick. We were all like, “Let’s have gin and tonic with ice cubes. It’ll be fine!” [Makes a puke sound]
FRASER: We got a lot of B12 shots in the ass, whether we wanted them or not.
HANNAH: I struggled a bit doing The Mummy at first. I was like, “I don’t understand what I’m doing here!” Brendan’s the hero, and Kevin J. was doing the comedy stuff. I’m like, “Steve, what’s my function?” He said, “Just mess around in the background, and if it’s funny, we’ll cover it.”
FRASER: I did fully get choked out [in the scene where Rick O’Connell is hanged in a prison]. It was scary.
SOMMERS: [Brendan] is totally to blame.
FRASER: Rick is dangling at the end of the rope, and he’s such a tough guy that his neck didn’t snap. There was a hangman’s gallows, and there was a hemp rope tied into a noose that was placed around my neck. The first take, I’m doing my best choking acting. Steve says, “Can we go for another one and take up the tension on the rope?” I said, “All right, one more take.” Because a noose around your neck’s going to choke you in the arteries, no matter what. I remember seeing the camera start to pan around, and then it was like a black iris at the end of a silent film. I regained consciousness, and one of the EMTs was saying my name. There was gravel in my ear and sh— really hurt. Steven — he and I disagree — but I think he was trying to go, “Oh, that wacky Brendan, acting up a storm again!” I was like, “I’m done for the day.”
SOMMERS: He tightens the noose, and then, as we’re about to take the shot, he’s trying to make it look like it’s really strangling him. I guess it cut off his carotid artery, or whatever, and knocked him out.
FRASER: Technically, yes, it was my fault, that I was following direction from my director to sell it!
SOMMERS: He did it to himself.
FRASER: I remember Rachel at various points saying, “Oh my God, they’re going to confiscate my Equity card.”
VOSLOO: There was a scene — I think Rachel was tied up at my feet or something. The whole crew are down at the bottom of the sand dune. Steve says, “You’re going to conjure up the sand wall.” I said, “Just tell me to look left, tell me to look right, because I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.” Steve’s on a bullhorn, and he’s like, “Come over the sand dune! Now look at Rachel! Now gesture at the thing and shout!” I looked down at Rachel and I said, “We’re never going to work again.”
SOMMERS: You could feel the chemistry between Rachel and Brendan.
FRASER: Rachel is just a heck of a lot of fun to work with and easily someone you can have a platonic movie-star crush on for all the right reasons — to translate that to a chemistry that plays on screen.
SOMMERS: We got out of the desert in six weeks.
THE SHOOT, PART II: LONDON
SOMMERS: We shot all over London and out around Southern England. Some of the Nile stuff at night was the Thames. [Laughs]
O’CONNOR: I’m an old film fan, and being at Shepperton Studios was such a thrill. I remember one of the [other] Americans saying, “Oh, it’s so dank in here.” I was like, “Are you nuts? You know what was shot here? A Man for All Seasons! Hobson’s Choice!” You’re like, “Oh my God, be quiet!”
SOMMERS: In the first Mummy, ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] charged you if you ever moved the camera. It’s not that long ago where you said, “There’s 80 CG shots, and for 20 of them we can move the camera.” We really had to figure stuff out.
FRASER: That big fight with the skeletons at the end, there was a motion-capture camera that was the size — no kidding — of a very large industrial refrigerator. It was on rails, it was robotic, it was programmed, and you couldn’t mess up a move or improvise anything because then the camera wouldn’t capture what you did.
VOSLOO: They put me in one of those motion-capture catsuit things with white ping-pong balls. They just kept saying, “It’s going to be a skeleton, but it’s going to walk like you.” I was like, “I don’t know what the f— that even means.”
SOMMERS: The studios always do tests, and nobody had any interest in seeing a Mummy movie, we were finding out. I’m like, “Oh my God, what have I done?” [Laughs]
VOSLOO: When I came back, my friends were like, “Why the f— did you do a Mummy movie?”
SOMMERS: Then people saw our 30-second Super Bowl spot. It went from nobody wanting to see The Mummy to, the next day, the studio was on fire. We thought, “Man, this film could do $20 million.” That would have been a pretty big opening. The next day [after The Mummy was released], I hear the phone ringing downstairs. It’s 6:40 in the morning. Ron Meyer [president of Universal Studios] said, “The movie’s going to open at $45 million.”
DJALILI: The Universal representative said the film’s opening was so strong, it saved the studio. Universal had a number of flops, and The Mummy literally saved the studio.
VOSLOO: Steve did a great job. He did an even better job with the second one [2001’s The Mummy Returns, a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson’s debut film], I think.
SOMMERS: I only shot Dwayne for one day because he had to fly from the Sahara desert for a big wrestling deal. He had food poisoning and heatstroke. It was probably 110 degrees, and he would be covered in blankets, just shivering. I’m like, “Dwayne, we’ve only got one day!” I go, “Action!” Dwayne threw off the blankets and charged forward. We went all day. That guy gutted it out.
VOSLOO: I never saw the third one [2008’s Rob Cohen-directed The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor], and I never saw the Tom Cruise one [2017’s poorly received The Mummy].
SOMMERS: Whenever people find out that I directed The Mummy, it puts a big smile on their faces.
FRASER: It’s as familiar to some people as the furniture in their house. That’s nice. I like that.
O’CONNOR: I was doing There Will Be Blood with Daniel Day-Lewis, and one of the local town kids, he was looking for a skinny guy that played Beni. He pointed to Daniel-Day Lewis and said, “Was he the guy in The Mummy?” [Laughs] I said, “No, that was me.”
VOSLOO: It comes back to Steve Sommers’ script. The movie comes out and people go, “Oh, Arnold, you made a great movie!” I’m like, “Thanks.” But what you really want to say is “You should look at who wrote the movie. You should call that f—er and thank them!”
A version of this story appears in the August issue of Entertainment Weekly. You can buy all five covers, or purchase your individual favorites featuring Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, White Canary, and Batwoman. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
• Brendan Fraser had a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a snake on the set of The Mummy
• Brendan Fraser deserves some respect
• Dwayne Johnson was seriously ill when he shot his part in The Mummy Returns