We grabbed some time with director Alex Kurtzman at the Australian premiere of The Mummy to talk about resurrecting Universal's iconic monster for a new generation.
Horror fans are going to get a kick out of this film. It reminded me of a Tobe Hooper movie called Lifeforce – was that an influence at all?
That’s funny, what an amazing reference! It wasn’t, but I know the film well. Thank you for that, it’s very kind of you.
Aside from past Mummy movies, which other films inspired your approach to this new version?
First and foremost, the original Karloff Mummy was the biggest point of inspiration. Tom [Cruise] and I would watch a movie a day when we were in prep and talked a lot about what we wanted the movie to look and feel like.
We watched a ton of Hitchcock – The Birds, Psycho, Vertigo… just in terms of rhythm and style and the way that Hitchcock would build suspense. No one has really come close to matching that kind of brilliance – we took a lot of inspiration from that.
We looked at The Exorcist. That was a big one for texture and tone. You look at the first eight minutes with Max Von Sydow in Iraq and there’s almost no dialogue there, but you’re immediately immersed in that world and experience a deep sense of dread. That was a big influence for me.
We’ve seen a vengeful Egyptian Queen in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb and The Awakening, but there’s never really been a female Mummy until Princess Ahmanet. Was that something you wanted from the very beginning?
Originally it was a man, and as we were developing drafts it didn’t feel fresh enough. There were variations on the story and things were kind of interesting, but they never really grabbed my attention. A voice in my head kept saying ‘make it a woman’. Once I listened to that voice, a whole new story area opened up and I suddenly got very inspired by it, very connected to her story. I felt like we had something topical to address there.
For me, one of the key defining elements of the Universal Monster films is that they really are a genre unto themselves. You fear the monster and you fear for the monster. She needed a story you could connect to and understand. I loved the idea that she’d been promised all the same things that any man would be promised if he were the son of a pharaoh. And it all got taken away from her, and she’s now going after what she believes she deserves.
Did you always have Sofia Boutella in mind for the role?
Always and only! She had just come off Star Trek Beyond and had done four to six hours a day of make-up playing Jayla, so understandably she wanted to know what tone this movie was going to take, aside from the make-up issues. When she came to meet with me, I’d already done a tremendous amount of design work with her face as the mummy, and I think she was struck by the fact that I wasn’t kidding when I said ‘you have to do this movie, you are the only person for this part.’
We got along incredibly well and I think she understood that we were trying to honour the heritage of the Universal Monsters and do something very different, and that she was going to be a very powerful character.
We see very little of Egypt in The Mummy. Why did you choose London as the setting?
One of the most important things about the movie was to bring it into the modern day, and one of the things I love about London is that it’s an incredible collision of ancient and modern. There’s such a deep history there. As the archaeologist in the film notes, it’s a city literally built on centuries of death. And then on top of that you have massive skyscrapers; a millennia of history to draw from and a wonderful collision of tones all over the place, no matter where you look.
Princess Ahmanet is entombed in a well filled with mercury – does that come from Egyptology?
I did years worth of research into different things the Egyptians believed – totems, magic... You have to understand that for them, it wasn't a question of whether or not the gods existed, it was every single thing they did was being watched by the gods, and that there is an afterlife and everything is leading toward that. As I was doing my research, one of the things that really struck me was the idea that in some ways, mercury was like Kryptonite to evil – they believed it repelled evil. To me, that was such an interesting visual...
Doctor Henry Jekyll in a Mummy movie is a meeting of worlds in the style of Penny Dreadful. There’s a sense that we’ll be seeing him again…
This is the first film in what Universal is now building, called Dark Universe, which is dedicated to the Universal Monsters. They take great pride and call them ‘their’ monsters because the studio is literally built on those monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Wolf Man… Those are the films I grew up with as a kid, and the idea was to give the audience a peek at what’s behind it. We’ve really only begun to tease what’s there, and there’s some deliberately open-ended questions at the end of the film. The Prodigium and Doctor Jekyll will return.
The Mummy is in cinemas on June 8.