Greg Russo: On Writing a Film Based on a Video Game

Professional screenwriter Greg Russo discusses the joy and challenge of converting a popular video games series into a screenplay and the balance of enticing a new audience while honoring a franchise's fans.
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Greg Russo has worked as a professional screenwriter for more than a decade. His first produced feature “Mortal Kombat” based on the acclaimed video game series will release on April 16, 2021, from Warner Bros and New Line Cinema. Greg has sold multiple specs, pitches, and TV pilots and written films for Universal, Paramount, Sony, Fox, and Warner Bros. Recently, he adapted the classic video game "Space Invaders" for New Line Cinema and "Saints Row" for director F. Gary Gray. He is currently writing "Death Note 2" for Netflix, based on the best-selling Japanese manga among other unannounced projects.

Greg Russo

Greg Russo

In this post, Russo discusses the joy and challenge of converting a popular video games series into a screenplay, the balance of enticing a new audience while honoring a franchise's fans, and more!

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Name: Greg Russo
Agent/Representation: Verve Talent and Literary Agency
Script title: Mortal Kombat
Production company: New Line Cinema/Warner Bros
Release date: April 16, 2021
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Elevator pitch for the script: MMA fighter Cole Young seeks out Earth’s greatest champions in order to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high-stakes battle for the universe.

Mortal Kombat, Screenwriter Greg Russo

Mortal Kombat, Screenwriter Greg Russo

What prompted you to write this script?

It’s been over 25 years since the original “Mortal Kombat” film released in 1995 and since then, adaptations of video games have consistently missed the mark. Pop culture even saddled this trend with the derogatory label—the “video game curse.” As a gamer, with a passion for the source material, I couldn’t understand why video game adaptations couldn’t be successful if handled the right way. I grew up wanting to end this “curse” and create something that broke new ground.

I got that chance in 2016. Writing this script was more than a job, it was a mission. I had worked with the studio prior to this assignment. My previous work along with my love for the material got me the job.

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How long did it take to go from idea to release? 

I worked on the film for five years, from its early stages of development through initial production.

When you develop a script, the story is constantly shifting and changing based on many different (and sometimes unseen) factors. Those factors could be anything from budget constraints to casting choices. There are also many voices that weigh in on the story throughout the process. The studio. The producers. The director. You need to stay flexible as a screenwriter. My responsibility is to the story first and foremost but part of my job is also acting as a mediator to the many voices involved.

That being said, while the story shifted throughout the process, the idea itself: the protagonist’s journey to protect his family, understand the stakes of Mortal Kombat, and ultimately find resolution, remained in place.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the production process for this script? 

Seeing a script go from your head to the screen is one of the most fascinating experiences. The thing I learned, that surprised me the most, is just how many people it takes to make a film of this scope and size.

It takes an incredible amount of talented people that work myriad jobs, and each job is vital to keeping the train on the tracks. My favorite part of production was learning the many facets of moviemaking from these talented creators.

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Were there any surprises in the writing process for this script?

This is less of a surprise and more of a hard truth when it comes to successfully adapting a video game or any property with a built-in fanbase. You’re essentially writing for two audiences: The hardcore fans who know every single thing about the lore and mythology and a new audience who knows next to nothing.

Part of the reason game adaptations fail is that the story leans too heavily one way or the other. Either the story is too devoted to the source material that it leaves outsiders in the dark or it’s too distanced from the material that fans can’t recognize what they love about it. Balance is key. It’s not easy but it’s essential to pulling off a successful adaptation.

What do you hope your audience will get out of it?

I hope the fans will appreciate the love that I (and the rest of the crew) put into making something that honors and respects the source material. We’re fans too! At the same time, I hope audiences new to “Mortal Kombat” will see how much fun this world is. It’s been a long, tough year for most of us. I hope this brings everyone who needs it a chance to have some fun and escape for a little while. That’s the power of the movies.

Greg Russo: On Writing a Film Based on a Video Game

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

This is for screenwriters. Remember that you are one voice among many that will ultimately decide what a film is going to look like. While your responsibility should always be to the story, don’t push away those other voices. Embrace them. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium. 

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