Michael Jelenic: How I created Super Mario Bros. Film

"In Paris, we had more than 200 people dedicated to Super Mario Bros. Film. And then the pandemic came. Everyone had to go home.”

"In Paris, we had more than 200 people dedicated to Super Mario Bros. Film. And then the pandemic came. Everyone had to go home," says American Croat Michael Jelenic, who directed Super Mario Bros. Film with Aaron Horvath.


When we asked people the first week why they came to the cinema to see Super Mario Bros. Film, they mostly said it was because he loves Mario. The second weekend the story changed. Now the viewers mostly said that they came because they heard that the movie was good. I couldn't have received a better compliment - Michael Jelenic, co-director of the animation hit Super Mario Bros. Film, speaks in an exclusive interview for Kinofilm.


The American Croat, born in San Pedro in the family of port worker Albert and teacher Miranda, directed the film with his longtime creative partner Aaron Horvath. The duo became famous thanks to the television animated series Teen Titans Go!, which brought them as many as four nominations for the Emmy Award, and after the feature film Teen Titans, let's go to the cinema!, they got the chance to take the mustachioed plumber Mario on a movie adventure.


The responsibility was huge. Mario is a well-known character, one of the most famous in the world of computer games, but his only movie adventure so far ended ingloriously. 30 years ago, a feature-length feature version of Super Mario was filmed, but the film did so badly that Nintendo hesitated to put its most popular hero on the big screen for three decades.


However, the fear was unjustified. Jelenic and Horvath have done such a good job that in recent weeks Mario has been collecting coins around the world. In three weeks, the film has already earned more than 850 million dollars, more than 85 thousand tickets were sold in Croatia, so there is no doubt that Super Mario Bros. Filmwill be the first hit of the year with more than a billion dollars earned.


"I can't take all the credit for myself. After all, this is a team effort, and I have collaborated with top media companies such as Illumination and Nintendo", says Michael Jelenic, who comes from the island of Pašman on his father's side and the island of Ugljan on his mother's side.



How was Super Mario Bros. Film created?


Michael Jelenic: It's actually a miracle that this film was made. I started working on it in mid-2019, so almost four years ago, and Illumination had already started preparations. In Paris we had more than 200 people dedicated to Super Mario Bros. Film. And then the pandemic came. Everyone had to go home. It's amazing how in just 2-3 weeks we managed to get everything up to speed so that people continued to work from their homes. Hundreds and hundreds of people worked remotely, bypassing all the obstacles that would arise on the way. At one point, when the pandemic subsided a bit, Aaron and I moved to Paris, where we had an office with a few key collaborators, but most of the others still worked from home. If someone had told me in 2019 that I would be able to make a film, and that I only communicate virtually with most of my collaborators, I would not have believed them.



When you and Aaron Horvath agreed to direct the film, what do you think was the biggest problem?


Michael Jelenic: Both Aaron and I were most afraid that we would find ourselves between two fires. Illumination is a large animation studio. Nintendo is a giant of computer games. We were afraid that we would have to be intermediaries between them. And it wasn't like that at all. From the beginning, everyone was in agreement about the kind of film we wanted to make. The collaboration between Illumination and Nintendo has enabled us to work with people who are the best in their field. Everything was easier with them. Although we had a fast work rhythm, the animators are so skilled that they knew how to realize our every idea. Everything we imagined came true. Of course, there were changes. Every film undergoes certain changes during its creation. But they were always aimed at the same goal – how best to tell the story we want.



How did you agree on those changes in the film?


Michael Jelenic: Film is a shared art. I can't do anything by myself. That's why we supported everyone to add their touch to the story. We even encouraged the actors to improvise and then they would take what we liked. Of course, everything starts from the script. Its foundations must be strong, and then we add a series of little things that fit together. Let's say it was Aaron's and my idea to put Bowser's song in the movie. No one will immediately say - they can't. We had the freedom to do what we wanted, show the result, and then together we would decide whether it was good or not.



How long did it take you to find the right voice for Mario with Chris Pratt?


Michael Jelenic: Not too much. We all had a pretty clear idea of the direction we wanted to go. We wanted a realistic voice. Not necessarily the kind Mario has in the game, because after all this is a movie, not a game. And Chris is such a professional that he was willing to do anything and try everything to get the best result. At the first rehearsal, we tried several versions and very quickly agreed on which one was the best. He captured the humanity of the character brilliantly, the way he can be funny and heroic at the same time. We are really happy that we managed to get him for the voice of Mario.



How did you end up specializing in animation?


Michael Jelenic: It's a fun story. I actually wanted to be a screenwriter for comedy series, but I couldn't get an internship anywhere during my studies. The only television series that wanted me was „King of the Hill“, an animated series created by Mike Judge and Greg Daniels. The series ended up having 13 seasons, and I joined the team in the second. I was there for six months on an internship, and then they offered me the position of assistant. So I got into animation and never did anything else. It's a happy coincidence. I wanted to do studio comedy series, which are hardly ever made anymore, and I ended up in animation, which is more popular than ever.



You have an impressive filmography behind you. With Super Mario Bros. Film, what is your most important project?


Michael Jelenic: I am proud of everything I have done so far. But the animated series Teen Titans Go! She gave me the confidence to do things I thought I shouldn't do. I could bring in my own personality, but also show things and places that are close to my heart, such as San Pedro or Croatia. I could have written an episode about buying real estate, which is something you don't expect in children's animation. It was a great experience. The series was very popular, and no one was telling us what to do. We were just doing what we love.



In the series Teen Titans Go! you were a screenwriter on the movie Super Mario Bros. you are a director. Do you consider yourself more of a screenwriter or a director?


Michael Jelenic: I don't consider myself anything. It's fun, I don't even like to introduce myself as a screenwriter. If you don't believe me, just ask my wife. She will testify that I am speechless when someone asks me what I do for a living. I always felt like an intruder. It's like I don't belong anywhere. I still feel that way. A few years ago I even came to a situation where I am not too embarrassed to say that I am a screenwriter. But now I'm no longer a screenwriter. Now I'm a director. And I don't feel that way. Well, I simply say that I work in animation. And, what is perhaps the most accurate, that I work with a lot of people.



Do you already have plans for the next film? Will it be a sequel to Super Mario Bros. Film?


Michael Jelenic: I would like it to be a sequel. But that is a decision that will not be made by me, but by people at much higher levels than me. That's why I don't worry about it. I'm just glad people love the movie enough to talk about a sequel, instead of saying it should be 30 years again for a new Super Mario Bros. Film.



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Michael Jelenic, Jack Black and Aaron Horvath (Foto: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)