EXCLUSIVE: 'The Mummy' Director Alex Kurtzman on Building a Dark Universe and Dream Casting Jennifer Lawrence
By John Boone
Alex Kurtzman knows his way around a franchise. The writer-director-producer had a hand in creating million-dollar tentpoles out of Transformers and Star Trek, in addition to scripting the second installment in The Amazing Spider-Man series. With his latest, a reboot of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise, he hopes to not only resurrect the iconic bandaged baddie, but spawn an entire cinematic universe of Universal Monster movies, to be known as the Dark Universe.
"It's like childbirth," Kurtzman told ET of the anticipation he feels over fans finally being able to see his take on The Mummy (in theaters now). "The head is crowning, so you're just waiting for the whole world to see your child. It's exciting! It's been a long journey."
ET: In terms of building this new cinematic universe, which came first: the idea of rebooting The Mummy or this plan to build the Dark Universe?
Alex Kurtzman: The idea to bring The Mummy back. The Dark Universe was an agenda that kind of evolved as the script developed, in looking for ways to tell a new Mummy story while honoring the classic Universal Monsters films. One of the ideas that emerged was this idea that she [Sofia Boutella's Princess Ahmanet, the titular mummy] exists in a larger continuum of monsters and maybe was one of the earliest ones, but certainly not the last one. Once that began to take shape, we began to think about bringing other monsters into the world and folding them under one umbrella. That's how Dark Universe came to be.
Why is The Mummy the best choice to launch this universe?
The Mummy is so familiar to people. It has endured for so long, because it asks some really fascinating questions about life after death. And the mythology of The Mummy has always been so interesting. Because it is so familiar to people, we wanted to give them an entry point that was easy, and yet, we wanted to do it in a way that felt fresh and different. That's why we led with The Mummy.
This is, essentially, a reboot of two movies -- the original Boris Karloff The Mummy from 1932 and the Brendan Fraser franchise from the '90s. What were the things, while watching those films, that you wanted to hold on to?
To me, the defining trait of all monster films is that you are scared of the monster and you sympathize with the monster. I love that about the Universal Monster films. They are, in many ways, a genre unto themselves for that reason. I wanted to honor that. I wanted to find a story for our mummy that was different and interesting and sympathetic and complicated.
The mummy's power to mesmerize was something that, obviously, originated in the Karloff film, and I loved the idea of applying that to a Tom Cruise movie, because we know that Tom Cruise is always going to save the day. But the minute you have a mummy inside his head controlling him in a way that even he doesn't understand, everything becomes very unpredictable. I thought that was exciting. And there's a dagger that features very prominently in the Karloff film that we pay homage to in ours.
Did you ever consider a Brendan Fraser cameo, just as a little Easter egg for the fans?
We wanted to tip our hat to it, and there are two moments that do that in the film [including the Book of Amun-Ra, which Fraser's character use to defeat Imhotep in 1999's The Mummy]. We never really talked actively about bringing Brendan Fraser in, because he lived in a very different time period than the modern day and so he would be potentially not even alive. [Laughs] Unless he himself were a monster, it didn't seem like he would make a whole lot of sense. And if he were a monster, then we would have had a lot of explaining to do about why he was there.
Tom Cruise toplines so many franchises, with Mission: Impossible and the Jack Reacher movies and now Edge of Tomorrow and Top Gun are both getting sequels. When you are setting out to create a new franchise, do you ever worry about casting a guy who already has too many?
Not really, because I think what I love about Tom and the films that he has done is that he has this amazing track record of playing very morally challenged characters in a very likable way. For me, as an audience member, it's far more satisfying to watch somebody who's messed up and broken and discovers their better self than it is to watch someone who is perfect. And in order to really do that right, you need a movie star. And very few of them can do it. I've been a lifelong fan of his, starting back at Risky Business and Top Gun and Taps. To be able to take that and work with him, for me, was just too exciting to pass up.
I actually started thinking about whether franchise saturation exists because of Dwayne Johnson. Everything he's in becomes a franchise and now there are rumors he might get a Wolf Man franchise, too.
Who knows! But it's true. I mean, there are certain actors who bring with them this "I want to see him again in that story" quality. And Dwayne is obviously one of those guys. Tom is one of those guys. It comes with the territory with movie stars these days.
Can you tell me your best Tom Cruise-doing-his-own-stunts story?
It was easily the first time we spoke about doing the plane crash sequence, because I said, "Look, I think what I want to do is build this rotisserie set, which is a rotating set. We'll put the camera on a crane. We can move the crane through the set. It'll be really cool." And he said, "Yeah, that sounds great, but why don't we do it for real?" And I went, Oh man, I'm making a Tom Cruise movie. And then he told me about the vomit comet, which is this plane that we shot the sequence in and the plane literally plummets toward Earth and freefalls for 22 seconds and everything you're seeing in that shot is real. It's Annabelle [Wallis] and Tom spinning through the air. There's no CGI there. Just being given the opportunity to shoot a sequence like that, really could only happen if you are doing a Tom Cruise movie, because so few actors would want to do it for real. But he is always looking to deliver an experience for the audience that they haven't had before and immerse them in the reality of the moment.
When you have Tom Cruise doing most of his own stunts, does it make the rest of the cast who -- hey, maybe might use a stunt double in another movie -- step up and say, "If he's going to do it, I'll do it too"?
Oh yeah, for sure. It's not really an option, because if he's in the scenes with other people and the intention is to use long takes where you're actually seeing Tom in the middle of the action, then anyone else who is in the shot with him needs to be doing it for real. So, that is Annabelle on that plane. That is Jake [Johnson] running across those rooftops, dodging explosions. It was deeply challenging, because for sure, they had been used to [stunt doubles]. You know, Jake hadn't even done stunts before this movie! But they really rose to the challenge, and I think Tom brings that out of everybody.
You are building the Dark Universe around villains, which is unconventional, because you expect the villains to be vanquished at some point, if not the end of the first movie then certainly in a sequel down the road. Does that mean we will be seeing a number of different mummies, Draculas and Creatures From the Black Lagoon?
What I love about the classic Universal Monsters is there is an assumption that these characters are broken, without any expectation that they are going to get fixed. Because if they get fixed, they won't be monsters anymore. I think that, given the fact that Universal Monsters were the first shared universe ever -- it started with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man -- we have license to do a lot of that. That being said, we really want to make sure each movie, at least at the outset of Dark Universe, is a standalone monster film, is a satisfying film in its own right. And if in the context of that, we can open the door to the larger Dark Universe, then great! But it's really important that you go to the theater and enjoy that movie and don't feel like you're being sold on something so big, you know? Just go have fun at the movies.
Have you already started thinking about The Mummy 2? The ending leaves it open, in terms of whether we will see Sofia's mummy again or bring in a new villain for the next one?
There have been lots of conversations about it. As we were developing the first movie, many ideas emerged that didn't make it to the film and so you start keeping a book of those, a list of those ideas. So, absolutely, anything's possible. And, certainly, Tom's intention is to return to another one.
When you're building a cinematic universe like this, you have to plan ahead, but you don't want to plan too far ahead and put the cart before the horse. I know you and Universal have revealed many of the titles they want to tie into this, but how many of them are actually broken out into detail?
We have Bride of Frankenstein written as a script, so that's now done in great detail. We are in the process of writing Creature, Wolf Man, [and] Van Helsing. There's quite a lot going on. And you're exactly right. The idea is to build these stories and there are lots of really talented writers with some really excellent new takes about what these movies need to be. But you also want to leave room for surprises and for evolution. We see how the movie works and we go from there. I come out of television [Kurtzman created "Fringe" and is executive producing the upcoming "Star Trek: Discovery"], where you want to put stakes in the ground for the larger ideas, but then also leave yourself room to be surprised. And that's what we're doing here.
What role will you, specifically, have going forth in the Dark Universe?
I'll be working with Chris Morgan and Chris McQuarrie and David Koepp to think globally about the universe and produce the films and work with the directors that we hire. And we'll see -- I'm kind of open to whatever's best for Dark Universe.
Sort of like the Dark Universe's showrunner, then?
Yeah, but more collectively than that. Because you're talking about extremely experienced guys. McQuarrie and Koepp were my heroes growing up as a screenwriter, and I want to make sure that we all can contribute to the vision of this. Then each director who comes in gets to put their own stamp on the films that they make. So, hopefully, you will come to expect a consistent tone from the universe, but I love the idea that each director puts their own signature on the movie.
Will all of the movies be set in the modern day? A lot of people were confused when you mentioned titles like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in terms of doing them in a contemporary setting.
They are going to predominately take place in modern day, but it is inherent in the monsters that they have a very deep history that goes back potentially centuries or even millennia. And the past will always play a big part in these films. So, it's not as clear-cut as "It's modern day." There will be some movies that have some structural surprises about how they play out.
In a recent interview, you named names of actors you'd like to bring into the universe: Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Angelina Jolie. You mentioned Jennifer Lawrence, too. Is there a dream role you have for her?
Um, yes. But I can't tell you! [Laughs]
I have a suggestion: Gender-flipped Creature From the Black Lagoon.
Ooh, that's interesting! All right! We'll put it up the pipeline.