The Mummy: What We Learned From The Director

Screen Rant attends a special Mummy event to see the new trailer and footage, and director Alex Kurtzman discusses his approach to the film.

The Mummy Tom Cruise casket

With the first full trailer for The Mummy just debuting, following a teaser and new poster late last week, Screen Rant had the opportunity a few days ago to get an advance look at both the trailer and some additional footage from the film, along with a chance to join a small group of journalists in conversation with director Alex Kurtzman. Both the trailer and the additional footage we saw drive home two things: this is not an Indiana Jones-esque adventure in the style of the two Mummy movies starring Brendan Fraser, but nor is it a slow-burning mood piece like the original 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle.

Instead, what Kurtzman has fashioned (from a script by Jon Spaihts and Christopher McQuarrie) is a horror/action/adventure hybrid, a movie that doesn’t skimp on fast-moving visual pyrotechnics but which he also intends to be as “scary” as possible. Of course, with a star like Tom Cruise, the action promises to be as intense and kinetic as possible. But the director also categorizes the film quite clearly as a “monster movie,” which is important given that it is the first in what Universal hopes will be a shared universe starring modern versions of its stable of classic monsters like Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man and more.

“I love monster movies,” Kurtzman says to introduce the trailer. “There was sort of a defining moment for me when I was a kid, and it was when I saw Frankenstein. And I was very young when I saw Frankenstein and I saw the scene where Frankenstein makes friends with the little girl, and they share the flower and she throws it into the water, and he thinks that’s just how they’re playing so he picks her up and throws her into the water and she drowns. And as a kid, it was like a deeply emotional and very confusing experience, because I felt huge empathy for this monster and I was scared for him, and on the turn of a dime he killed this girl. Not because he was trying to but because he didn’t understand how to communicate with her...

The Mummy Tom Cruise casket

“For me, what has always endured about the monster movies is that they are the only movies - there are exceptions, obviously, within every genre - but they’re the only movies where you are afraid of the monster and you are afraid for the monster. And what that does, for me, is it sort of reflects, I think, the parts of our personalities that are the parts that society wants to throw in a box and tamp down, and not let become expressed. I think that’s the monsters have always represented. They are these wonderful mirrors that reflect parts of who we are as people, and I think that the obligation of making a monster movie is to figure out a way to find empathy for the monster, to find empathy for all the other characters, but also to scare people.”

Kurtzman then explains the reason he wanted to gather journalists together to look at the trailer and give him feedback: “I felt strongly that when I would talk to people and get feedback there was this sense of like, ‘Okay, we understand The Mummy as a title, we understand a studio wanting to make The Mummy, but why now? Why is it important? What’s going to be different about it than what came before?’ And there are a bunch of things. First of all, no one has made a monster movie writ large. Meaning, no one has made a good monster movie - a proper, Universal Monsters monster movie - with the size and scope that I think we’re going to deliver in this movie.”

While Kurtzman backs up to add that he does think the Fraser Mummy movies were an example of using the Universal monsters as the springboard for a big-budget blockbuster, he also points out that he’s going for a completely different tone with his film. “Tone is where the ballgame is won or lost. You look at all the world-building universes these days from Marvel to DC to anything, and each one has its very specific tone. I think our tone - the first thing I felt was we have to go modern day. We have to go modern day and we have to make it feel grounded… I think if we can an audience feel what it would actually be like if a monster came into our world, as opposed to we’re just sort of watching this fake world on screen, that would be an achievement if we could get there.

“When Tom came on board, Tom had all the same touch points as a kid that I did about monsters. Loved them. Was terrified of them. Hid under the bed from them. All the same things that I think we all feel when we think of the Universal Monster movies. And I don't know how many of you have talked to him or ever met him but he never does anything halfway, so if he’s in, it’s a thousand percent in, in the most intense way possible, and that was what was required for us to get where we need to go in this movie.”

Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet in The Mummy

After unspooling the trailer -- which hopefully you’ve seen by now too -- some immediate questions spring to mind. First, the trailer opens with a furious action sequence aboard a plane that is headed for major trouble and breaking apart in mid-air even as the mummy (Sofia Boutella) begins to awaken. Kurtzman says that he wanted to do as many of the effects as possible practical instead of digital, explaining that the plane sequence is a good example: “Traditionally when you do a plane crash sequence inside of a plane, what the studio will tell you is, ‘Okay, fine, you’re going to build a rotisserie (rotating) set and you’re going to do a lot of green screen work on the set and we’re going to do cables and blah-blah-blah,’ right?...when I brought this up with Tom, I said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to build the set,’ he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but we’ve got to do it for real.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘We’re going to up in the vomit comet!’

“Vomit comet” is the nickname for a type of reduced-gravity aircraft that provides brief near-weightless environments for space flight training, research and, yes, making gravity-free movie shots. “You should have seen the crew when we were shooting on the vomit comet,” recalled Kurtzman. “You go up, basically with the G’s of a rocket going into space. Then you even out and everything starts to go weightless, and then you free-fall for 22 seconds and everybody goes up in the air. We had grips holding lights and puking while the shot was going on. I mean, it was the craziest experience ever and ultimately worth it because, again, our whole thing was ‘Let’s do this without cuts. Let’s really do this so that you can actually stay in this shot and watch these guys float around and go, ‘How the hell did they do it?’”

There is one shot in the trailer where Cruise is almost hanging out of a gaping hole in the ruined plane and screaming like you’ve never heard the usually unflappable Cruise scream before. “I said, ‘Scream in terror.’ He was like, ‘Really?’ and I said, ‘Yeah!’” laughs Kurtzman. But the idea of a vulnerable Tom Cruise is driven home even more forcefully by a shot in which we see seven shroud-covered bodies laid out in a morgue -- until one of them sits up and reveals himself to be the star. What does that shot mean, exactly?

The Mummy Tom Cruise Annabelle Wallis

“I’m not going to answer your question directly, I’m going to answer it indirectly,” replies Kurtzman. “When we were developing the script and I knew that Tom was going to do the movie, the first thing that we talked about was, I said, ‘Listen…I have 30-plus years of embedded “Tom Cruise is going to save the day” in my experience and my relationship to you, as an actor. And the problem is in a monster movie, the scariest monster movies are the ones where the protagonist starts to feel very out of control. So how am I going to believe that you’re really out of control, because I know you’re going to save the day, you know?’

“(But) if you present him as somebody who thinks he knows what’s going on and then you throw the craziest thing at him in the world, which is ‘Oh shit, he dies and then comes back up in that morgue,’ now I go, ‘Okay, he doesn’t know what he’s into, I don’t know what he’s into, I don’t know that he’s going to save the day.’ And everything became very unpredictable at that point. So in terms of what I want the conversation to be about there, it’s interesting you said ‘Oh my god, I’ve never heard Tom scream in fear before.’ That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it. He’s never been in that position before.”

If the plane scene and the morgue scene put Cruise’s character in positions of sheer terror and unexplainable (at least for now) resurrection from the dead, then his introduction to a place called the Prodigium, an vaulted, labyrinthine underground complex which we got to see a bit more of in the footage that Kurtzman presented after the trailer. The Prodigium seems to be some sort of secret location where monsters are not just acknowledged to exist but captured and studied, and it is here that Cruise finds himself, along with the chained and shackled mummy, with all presided over by none other than Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe).

Of course, Universal is looking to The Mummy to kickstart its classic monsters universe, and it seems that the introduction of Dr. Jekyll is the first key to the interlocking nature of the movies to come. “In looking to figure out how to place The Mummy in a larger context and setting up this organization that has actually been dealing with monsters for longer than any of us have been around, it became clear that we needed somebody to be the voice of that organization,” says Kurtzman. “The next thought was like, ‘Well, it could be Joe McGillicuddy, or we could actually go into another character that makes sense organically.’ It was a real point of conversation with Tom. If we’re going to bring in Henry Jekyll, how is bringing Henry Jekyll into the mummy story not detract from the mummy story? How does Henry Jekyll become part of this story in an organic way? And part of what Tom’s character, Nick, learns about the mummy and about the history of the mummy comes through Jekyll’s very deep understanding of monsters and how monsters have existed quietly in this world for eons.

Russell Crowe in The Mummy

“I believe strongly that the only way you can build a universe is not to start by trying to build a universe,” says Kurtzman at another point in the conversation. “If you want to get there, the only way you’re going to get there is if the audience allows you to get there. Meaning, you have to do great individual films first. The audience has to fall in love with those movies first, and those characters first, and if they do and you develop an organic story reason to start bringing them together, great! But you can’t start with ‘Let’s just mash everybody together’…In order for you to enjoy The Mummy, you have to have a satisfying mummy experience. If we are then in that context able to set up a larger world? Great! But the setup of that larger world and whatever characters Tom may meet over the course of the mummy movie have to be part of the mummy movie. It cannot take you out of that.”

(By the way, the director answers, “No,” when asked point-blank if the 2014 misfire Dracula Untold is part of the same canon that The Mummy is launching.)

Other aspects of the film that Kurtzman touches upon are the mummy’s look --- she is certainly not the shriveled cadaver that Boris Karloff was, but she will be swathed in the traditional bandages -- and the film’s rating, which is squarely PG-13 given the movie’s size and scope. But Kurtzman emphasizes that he intends for this movie to be filled with suspense and psychological fear, while being a classic monster movie. From what we saw in the trailer and the additional footage, The Mummy looks like it’s going to be something different from both the old Universal mummy films and the swashbuckling movies starring Brendan Fraser: a large-scale, spectacular action/adventure with overtones of supernatural dread and menace and a dark edge to its characterizations of both the hero and the monster.

“I think that our goal is to make a movie that’s full of suspense, full of adventure, that has moments of horror, but that isn’t defined as ‘a horror movie,’ but that will ultimately scare the s**t out of you,” explains Kurtzman when asked by Screenrant about what kind of movie he’s making. “This goes back to the requirement of having an unpredictable Tom Cruise in the movie. Because if you remove from the audience’s mind, ‘Oh I know he’s going to save the day,’ and in fact go, ‘He really might not, he has no idea what to do here,’ now I’m in a situation where I’m kind of scared for him because I don’t know what he’s going to do and I don't know what’s coming.”

What do you think? Did the trailer get you excited for the movie and do you think Kurtzman is on the right track?

Key Release Dates
  • The Mummy (2017) release date: Jun 09, 2017
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