The marketing tagline read: “This ain’t no game.”

Who says there isn’t any truth in advertising?

Veteran Nintendo players have been some of the harshest critics of the first-ever video game-based movie, Super Mario Bros., for straying from the spirit of its beloved–but bizarre–source material.

In spite of the fan outcry, and the surrounding stigma from the press who panned the angel-hair-thin storyline, the film has carved itself a place in pop cultural history, developing an unabashedly advocatorial following over the years who can look past the flaws to appreciate the creative vision behind the decidedly chaotic production.

East meets West: The father of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, posing with Super Mario Bros. leading man, Bob Hoskins. (Image source: Twitter.com/Buffalo15ny)

As the faithful try to resuscitate the film from decades of detractors, another type of rescue is taking place by movie memorabilia collectors.

The tangible things seen on the big screen–the props, the costumes, the sets, which all work together to cast the magic of the movies on cinema-goers around the globe–serve an inherently ephemeral purpose. Prop makers and designers generally fabricate such objects from temporal, cobbled-together materials that will hold up until the cameras stop rolling and the director yells, “Cut!”

Understanding this, and to clear storage space for the next blockbuster, studios have a tendency to toss even the most key items in the trash after shooting wraps. There is seldom much care taken to preserve them for posterity’s sake, unless they can generate future economic gains, such as studio-sanctioned auctions or admission-charged exhibitions.

This is especially true for less successful pictures, like Super Mario Bros., which are typically not afforded the same white-glove treatment that more popular and profitable films enjoy.

Bertha (Francesca P. Roberts), a character who shares the name of the big mouth bass baddie in Super Mario Bros. 3, carrying stunt version Thwomp-Stompers. (Image source: From Microchips to Movie Stars: The Making of Super Mario Bros.)

Case in point: Nearly every pair of Thwomp-Stompers, the memorable high top boots featured in Super Mario Bros., which were cast in a lightweight foam rubber for actors to wear during non-close-up shots, wound up getting flung out with the fungus.

Remarkably, one of the smallest and strongest game-accurate artifacts from the movie–a 3-inch resin Bullet Bill cartridge–survived years of storage in property master Richard “Petie” Waldrop’s warehouse in Wilmington, North Carolina, or “Wilmywood,” as it has come to be known by locals, where most of the filming took place in nearby Castle Hayne.

Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis) can be seen wearing a similar example on her bandolier as she bursts into Mario (Bob Hoskins) and Luigi’s (John Leguizamo) Brooklyn apartment to seek out their help during the cliffhanger ending.

This battle-worn Bullet Bill has seen its fair share of wear and tear, exhibiting paint loss throughout, and a tiny chip, which seems to be a common issue with these props, as the rim at the bottom marks the weakest point.

For something with such little screen time, the attention to detail that went into creating this cartridge demonstrates the amount of effort that the artists put into even the least significant of pieces. Reportedly, according to one inside source I talked to, the prop department commanded a massive budget, somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million, which was the highest that Waldrop ever had to work with in a career that spanned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze to The Hudsucker Proxy (link).

Four different colored versions–blue, copper, yellow, and a red-blue blend, which the prop makers nicknamed “rainbow”–appear briefly in various scenes, such as when Luigi holds up a few in the Boom Boom Bar coat check room before escaping with his fugitive brother, as well as inside of the Thwomp-Stomper display case that Mario and the Brooklyn girls smash into while riding a getaway mattress.

The hero version Thwomp-Stompers were sculpted in Hollywood using real ski boots as the base (link). (Image source: From Microchips to Movie Stars: The Making of Super Mario Bros.)

The film’s Bullet Bills behave vastly different from their video game counterparts. While the original Nintendo Entertainment System title’s instruction manual offers the terse description “Chases after Mario slowly but steadily,” in the movie, they act as helpful accessories: projectiles to propel Thwomp-Stomper boots.

Inserting one allows the wearer to burst into the air and leap great distances, simulating the springy aerobic action of the run-and-jump game series.

This pre-production artwork shows an undeveloped concept for a punny Bullet Bill-powered elevated train. (Image source: From Microchips to Movie Stars: The Making of Super Mario Bros.)

An earlier draft of the script refers to these cartridges as “Banzai Bills,” the gigantic missiles introduced in Super Mario World, which The Nintendo Mario Mania Player’s Guide defines as “a bigger, more powerful cousin” to the Bullet Bill, “who can plow down anything in one pass” (link).

Although the screen-used props lack the Banzai Bills’ stature, they have inherited their signature shark-like sneer.

Waldrop, whom fellow Wilmington-situated property master Robbie Beck labelled as a “pack rat,” held a clearance auction of sorts in January 2004 in the same town where most of Super Mario Bros. was shot. The 400+ items put up on the block highlighted some of the region’s cinematic past: the Santa suit from Ernest Saves Christmas, Dawson’s Creek high school lockers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mutagenic ooze canisters. Super Mario Bros. saw representation, too, with props ranging from Thwomp-Stompers to an unidentified “ray gun,” the former of which sold for $75–a bargain as far as silver-screen collectibles go (link, link).

Even more miraculous than the Bullet Bill, this highly fragile Bob-omb also stood the test of time, and can be spotted when the fungus offers the cute-but-deadly explosive to Luigi about midway through the film.

The mono-filament attached at the top used to be covered in goo and was used to lower the Bob-omb during that particular scene.

“Hey, look at that! What is that?” Luigi asks Mario as the Bob-omb dangles. When Luigi goes to reach for it, Mario pulls him away, shouting, “Goombas! Let’s go!”

The prop department modified a TOMY wind-up toy, and painted over it with a matte gray finish. The gag towards the end of the film, when the camera reveals the Reebok symbol on the Bob-omb’s feet, functioned not only as goofy product placement (the footwear company received a special thanks credit), but also as an obstruction to the copyright information.

As for the missing winding key, Jeff Goodwin, the film’s makeup artist, who won a BAFTA for his contributions on The Last of the Mohicans and who created the infamous severed ear in David Lynch’s nightmarish masterpiece Blue Velvet, explained to me, “The winding keys were all added to the props and were just made of paper so it did not last long on any of the props. In fact, I think it was gone by the time this one was given to me.”

Composed of a delicate plastic, the Bob-ombs, themselves, break easily, so it is not known how many of them lasted afterwards.

This faux snakeskin leather jacket was custom-made specifically for the legendary actor Dennis Hopper to wear in the movie as the evil, eyebrow-less dictator King Koopa. Designed by Joseph A. Porro, whose subsequent feature film fashion credits include Tombstone, Stargate, and Independence Day, the clothing has scaled texture to evoke Koopa’s slippery, reptilian nature. Despite looking black, the jacket is more of a dark blue in person. Eerily purchased mere hours before Mr. Hopper’s passing, it is customary to whisper “…Bob-omb!” in his memory after viewing this iconic wardrobe. Please pay your respects now.

In the 1992 book From Microchips to Movie Stars: The Making of Super Mario Bros., Porro talked about the process of tailoring the film’s outrageous outfits.

“We purchased every fabric we could find in the United States and Europe that was a lizard pattern or that was slithery or shiny and had something to it that was real nasty-looking.”

He estimated that half of the garments took as many as 200 man-hours to make.

A dazed-looking Hopper takes direction from Max Headroom co-creator Annabel Jankel. (Image source: From Microchips to Movie Stars: The Making of Super Mario Bros.)

Shigeru Miyamoto cited Easy Rider, which was directed by Hopper, as a “great influence” (link). The same went for Bob Hoskins.

In an interview with Southam News, Hoskins, who at one time worked as a real plumber’s apprentice for three weeks until he set the plumber’s shoes on fire with a blowtorch, revealed one of the reasons why he joined the cast.

“I wasn’t that keen to do the film,” he said. “But when [producer Roland Joffé] finally told me that Dennis Hopper would be in it, I said–oh, well, that’s different!”

Making light of Hopper’s former struggles with drugs and alcoholism, Hoskins dryly joked, “Back in the 1960s, when Easy Rider came out, Dennis Hopper was my biggest hero. And the fact that he’s still alive I think is wonderful!”

Eastern Costume Company, a costume rental house located in North Hollywood, acquired this jacket from the movie’s costume house when it folded.

This original hand-painted maquette stands 8 inches tall and was used as a miniature scale model to create the full-size Goomba costumes. Super Mario Bros. was nominated for two Saturn Awards in 1994 for Best Costumes and Best Makeup.

Through the supervision of Oscar-nominated Blade Runner production designer David L. Snyder, the over-the-top sets that formed the strange subterranean world where prehistoric creatures roam, the alternate-dimensional Manhattan known as Dinohattan, represented an immense amount of labor–not to mention money, $6 million, according to the tabloid Daily Mail.

The abandoned cement factory before the movie magic. (Image source: Twitter.com/Buffalo15ny)

A fleet of artists and carpenters transformed the Ideal Cement plant, an industrial-gray behemoth rising from the woods along the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River, into a weird and wild world seeping with sentient slime and neon-strobing surrealism. Pre-existing structures from the closed-down factory, which ceased operations in 1982, suddenly took on newfound meaning: a 400-foot rotary kiln tunneled into Daisy’s fossil evacuation site; two enormous conical hoppers turned into King Koopa’s De-Evolution Chamber; a suspended gravel hopper channeled the climatic Koopa Clown Car in Super Mario World (link).

The final product: Koopa Square.

It was at this same location where the Shredder (James Saito) carried out his diabolical Foot Clan operation in 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and where Top Dollar’s (Michael Wincott) Club Trash and boardroom scenes in The Crow took place before Brandon Lee’s life tragically came to an end when the metal tip of a dummy bullet was accidentally fired into the 28-year-old actor’s lower-right abdomen (link).

Urban explorers later claimed the spot to be haunted, in part because it was the site for an episode of MTV’s 2000 paranormal reality show FEAR–never mind that the television program wove an invented narrative regarding fictitious owners called the Duggan Brothers (link).

(Image source: Google Maps)

More recently, Titan America, a Virginia-headquartered heavy building materials manufacturer, fought with concerned citizens and grassroots environmentalists for eight years over building a new coal-fired cement plant and strip mine on the land before finally pulling the plug in 2016 (link, link).

This was not the first public health scare attached to the area. Fangoria reported that airborne concrete dust caused “several nose-bleeds and respiratory casualties” among the Super Mario Bros. crew (link).

The maquette came from Patrick Tatopoulos Studios. Tatopoulos is credited as a conceptual artist on the film.

According to From Microchips to Movie Stars: The Making of Super Mario Bros., producers showed Allan Apone, the CEO of Makeup and Effects Lab (“MEL”), Tatopoulos’s Goomba sketches during an interview for the job to construct the life-size creatures. To win them over, Apone returned to his lab that same day, sculpted a head based on his memory of the drawings, and sent over pictures to prove his commitment to the project. After getting the contract, MEL created a total of 15 Goombas over 10 weeks, each weighing approximately 80 pounds with the metal armature, mechanical rig, woolen coat, and a single fake arm.

(Image source: From Microchips to Movie Stars: The Making of Super Mario Bros.)

“When we created the Goombas they were supposed to be a very small part of the film,” Apone said. “Then, when we got to North Carolina and everyone saw them, they kept writing more and more scenes with [the Goombas] in [them].”

The Goombas cost $50,000 apiece to build, which might seem like a lot, until you consider the price tag on the movie’s 3-and-a-half-foot Yoshi, which took five months to complete: a cool half a million dollars.

Dennis Hopper used this black canvas chair back on the set of Super Mario Bros. The front has the film’s title and the actor’s name embroidered alongside the logo of Lightmotive Fat Man Inc., the atomic-bomb-named company that produced the movie with Allied Filmmakers.

Roland Joffé, the British owner of the nascent Lightmotive, was well-regarded for having directed weighty dramas, poignant morality plays like The Mission, starring Robert De Niro as a Jesuit priest in 18th century South America, which took home the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes and racked up seven Academy Award nominations including a win for Best Cinematography (link).

Joffé’s business partner, Ben Myron, told The New York Times in January 1991 that he wanted “to find projects that would have a commercial appeal but would not compromise the standards he’s come to be associated with.”

In addition to Super Mario Bros., Lightmotive was working to adapt the best-selling children’s book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! into an animated musical, with the original author, Dr. Seuss, penning the screenplay (link).

Canadian Jake Eberts, the head of Allied Filmmakers, had a proven track record in Hollywood, having previously produced acclaimed hits like Chariots of FireGandhiDriving Miss Daisy, and Dances with Wolves.

In a 2012 Montreal Gazette obituary, Fiona Eberts explained what attracted her husband to the world-famous plumbers: “He made the mistake of doing Super Mario Bros. years ago, because his kids loved those games. He didn’t like it, but he thought it might be good for a whole generation. It turned out to be a complete disaster, even though it now has a strange life of its own as a cult film” (link).

The two respected forces agreed to set up a meeting at Nintendo of America to discuss a live-action movie that would have a bite to it.

“We wanted to concentrate on the relationship between the two brothers as we pitched the story,” Eberts was quoted as saying in From Microchips to Movie Stars: The Making of Super Mario Bros. “Without good characters, you have no story.”

Joffé flew to Japan to speak with Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s corporate president at the time, showering him with gifts of tea over a 10-day trip (link).

“I went with a storyboard and story outline,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I said, ‘This won’t be the story, but it’ll be a story that contains some of these elements.’ I was improvising.”

Facing stiff competition from major motion picture studios, Nintendo shocked Tinsel Town by handing over the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom for a mere $2 million, the same as what Hoskins was reportedly paid for his role in the film, and merchandising rights (link). 7-Eleven went on to sign a $4 million deal, according to the Herald Sun, to sell movie-branded Slurpee cups in its U.S. stores.

“We needed to find a way into this story to bring the game to life, that gave everything a kind of reality and created a myth of its own,” Joffé said. “The game is made up of an odd mixture of Japanese fairy tales and bits of modern America” (link).

Oscar-winning Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow was initially hired to shake a story out of the two-dimensional sprites, one that morphed drastically as more writers entered and exited the picture. Once husband-and-wife directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel stepped up to the joysticks, King Koopa had changed into a germaphobic human-like creature with Tyrannosaurs rex roots, and a science fiction narrative followed, centering around the wasteland slum that he plotted to expand into Earth’s dimension. The trademark charming, chimerical environments of the video games darkened into a dingy hubbub of hookers and hard-edged squalor.

When Hollywood Pictures, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, decided to pick up the film through Cinergi Productions, which trade magazine Daily Variety pointed out had a five-year theatrical distribution deal with The House of Mouse, the studio scrambled to soften the mature themes to pander to family audiences, resulting in a clashing mishmash of tones, right down to the soundtrack, with the headlining song, Roxette’s “Almost Unreal,” being swapped in from the Bette Middler kiddie-comedy Hocus Pocus. Rumors abounded that Disney had plans to create a theme park attraction tie-in, and reportedly put up $12 million in an effort to bring Mario into the fold.

Super Mario Bros. opened in fourth place and ended up earning only $20.9 million domestically at the box office, roughly 43.6% of its reported $48 million production budget (link). Aside from showcasing some of the movie’s props at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, the idea of an interactive ride got flushed down the drain.

If Nintendo Power is to be believed, the movie’s stars lounged on chair backs like this one while playing the Game Boy or Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo during breaks in filming.

John Leguizamo’s autobiography tells another tale, however, one in which they downed shots of scotch, and he smoked weed and ate, appropriately enough, ‘shrooms “out of pure depression.” According to Columbia-born Leguizamo, to get through the making of the movie, he and his Cockney co-star, Hoskins, would routinely get “totally fucked up” during the many scorching hot, aimless days, which contributed to an accident with the Mario Bros. plumbing service van that left Hoskins in a cast with a broken finger.

Hoskins elaborated in Daily Mail that he likewise suffered four stabbings, an almost electrocution, and a near drowning. “After a few accidents, I thought, ‘If you are going to survive this film, you’ve got to be very careful, son’,” he told the reporter.

A stone cold sober Hopper, meanwhile, would fume in his trailer, as the ever-changing screenplay rewrites piled up.

Hoskins spoke on behalf of him on CBS This Morning, “Well, for me, it jolly weren’t so bad, you know, because we–we could joke around and do it but poor old Dennis–Dennis Hopper … he had reams of stuff; these speeches that went on forever. And he’d be up all night learning these speeches; he’d come in and they’d go, ‘We changed that.’ He’d say, ‘What?’ ‘We changed that’ every day. ‘Hey, wait a minute! You’re not changing this. I know this. I don’t know that.'”

Hopper eventually began ignoring the script altogether, which he told the Los Angeles Times had been rewritten five or six times by the time he arrived. “I don’t really bother with it anymore. I just go in and do it scene by scene. I figure it’s not going to hurt my character” (link).

On a publicity tour, Hopper refused to promote Super Mario Bros. for a feature article in The Guardian, instead talking up the Western crime thriller Red Rock West, which released internationally around the same time.

(Image source: Google Maps)

Hopper viewed himself as a “compulsive creator,” and, in interviews, often expressed deep regrets for losing decades of his creative life to substance addiction (link). A passionate painter, as the tumultuous Super Mario Bros. shoot extended from five weeks to 17, he retreated to the heart of downtown Wilmington to rent an art studio when a realtor showed him a crumbling Masonic Temple that was built in 1899. Dignified and grandiose in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, the actor fell in love with the five-story building, and bought the place for $150,000, which he proceeded to restore in the dreams of opening an acting academy that he would one day run. When the state later turned down his grant request, he sold the property, but kept an apartment in the back so he could always return (link, link).

David E. Harshbarger, a Hollywood property master, who assisted Hopper on every film that he directed since Catchfire, liquidated items from his collection in a 2010 yard sale, which happened to include this chair back.

With Super Mario Bros., no middle ground can seem to exist: you either worship it or despise it. As a tremendous admirer of the games, but not of the movie, I succeeded in baffling both camps when I started accumulating these pieces. Neither side could understand how someone could delight in the Pointillistic dots without regarding the finished painting.

Examining the craftsmanship manifested in these works opened my eyes to how much talent, how much potential, the film genuinely possessed. I saw myself again as an eight-year-old boy approaching the theater doors in the summer of 1993, the smell of hot butter and faint Coppertone wafting through the air conditioning, excitedly wondering about the possibilities of what could have been.