Inside the Plan to Create a Dark Universe of Monster Movies

'The Mummy' mastermind Alex Kurtzman takes us deep inside the process.

"The Mummy"

When Universal announced in late May that the new reboot of The Mummy would mark the beginning of a new interconnected series of monster movies known collectively as “Dark Universe,” it created a mix of excitement, concern, and confusion. On the one hand, Universal has a beloved library of what it calls Classic Monsters — including Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man, among many others — with interpretations that are considered the definitive cinematic versions of these creatures. But on the other, most of those movies came out before World War II, and recent efforts to reimagine and relaunch had mostly been considered failures.

In fact, many fans thought that Universal was actually already trying to build out a “cinematic universe” in the style of Marvel Studios’s sprawling web of hits. It had been at least reported that two critical and commercial failures, 2010’s The Wolfman and 2014’s Dracula Untold, were intended to be the first steps in the studio’s top-to-bottom, interconnected reboot. But according to The Mummy writer/director Alex Kurtzman, Friday’s new reboot was always supposed to be the Big Bang of the Dark Universe. When he came aboard in 2014, Universal saw the Gary Shore-directed Dracula movie as part of a line of reboots, but nothing more.

“[Reboots were] on the agenda but never as a coherent universe. The studio wasn’t really thinking of it that way; they were thinking of them as individual monster movies,” Kurtzman tells Inverse. “I think it became clear that coming up with a unifying organization, like an umbrella to fold all of them under, might help the films work.”

That Kurtzman came to this conclusion is no surprise, as he is an expert at launching reboots and shaping cinematic franchises. He co-wrote the 2007 Transformers adaptation, then co-wrote and produced the 2009 Star Trek movie and its sequel. After that, he worked on Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and its aborted spin-off universe. He’s also a co-creator on CBS’s revival of Hawaii Five-0, and its upcoming Star Trek prequel series, Discovery. But, as the 43-year-old filmmaker explained during a conversation that became his guide to writing reboots and multiverses, the inception of the Dark Universe came long after he came aboard The Mummy, which he first joined as a producer.

“We were looking for fresh story elements that would make this Mummy different than the others,” he said, referring to both the 1932 original and the 1999 reboot starring Brendan Fraser. “And one idea that came up was this idea that the Mummy exists in a larger world of [gods and monsters]. We began to talk about that, and the idea of the mummy being taken to Prodigium, and us learning more about this mysterious organization, and Dark Universe started to coalesce and become a more fitting idea. At that point, we began to embed it more significantly in the story.”

With this origin story for a new origin story established, here are the rules that Kurtzman stresses for reboots and multiverses.

Plan Ahead, Think Like TV

Ever since Marvel Studios struck gold in 2012 by bringing together its first wave of superheroes in The Avengers, rival studios have been scrambling to replicate that sustainable, multi-billion dollar success. Warner Bros.’s effort to launch a new universe of DC Comics movies hit early speed bumps but has corrected course, at least for now, with Wonder Woman. Paramount is working to turn its decade-old Transformers franchise into a quasi-universe, with more sequels and new spin-offs.

The difference between those with a carefully laid out plan, and those improvised based on established material and corporate requests, are obvious. Being able to plan long-term from the start is crucial.

“I come from television, and in television, when you approach a season, I’d ask, What’s the big idea of the season? What are the key pivot points of the season?” Kurtzman, who began his career working on shows like Hercules and then Alias, explained: “I’d say, Here are three poles that we want to get to over the course of the year. And then I’d ask, What do we want to end our season with, that would cliff-hang and also springboard us into the next season?

TV seasons have some wiggle room, as scripts and even post-production on later episodes can be adjusted to account for public opinion — maybe a bit character proves unexpectedly popular, or people really hate a particular storyline — as well as new creative ideas.

“You want to organize your thinking around, OK this is ideally what I’d like to get to, but you want to leave room for surprises, because there may be ideas that emerge as we go that are super exciting and better than what came before,” Kurtzman said. “I believe rewriting is actually a really good thing, that nobody can see the big picture in its entirety the first time they write a script. I would apply the same approach to the universe: Here are our instincts, here’s what we know we like, here’s where we know we’d like to get to, and let’s leave room for a new surprise to present itself.”

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 30: (L-R) Actors Sofia Boutella, Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, and director Alex Kurtzman attend 'The Mummy' Paris premiere.

Getty Images / Pascal Le Segretain

Make Sure to Modernize

The Mummy lent itself to an easy translation to modern times; the original film concerned an ancient curse being excavated and unleashed on the present day, so changing the setting was no big deal. It is a much bigger movie than the 1932 version, but the 1999 reboot was a blockbuster as well, so again, a new adaptation caused little consternation.

But not every film will be as easy to translate. “The monsters are defined by the audience’s ability to fear them and empathize with them,” Kurtzman said. “I think if we were to violate that, people would feel like we were disrespecting the core of what those films were about. That being said, some of the stories aren’t relevant today, just contextually, because they were in such a different time period.”

The original Bride of Frankenstein, for example, hardly features the title character; she appears in her classic form only in the last act, and really, with only 10 minutes left, to make a dramatic decision. Thus, the new version has more heavy lifting to do — namely, to make the bride an actual character.

“What we have to do is harness the spirit of the choice she made, and imbue that character in the bride and give her her own story,” Kurtzman said.

At the same time, the conceit of Frankenstein, with a monster created by a doctor working on the fringes of science, is very applicable to updating.

“Frankenstein lends itself perfectly to today,” he said. “What was then was really science fiction now is absolute reality. In the case of Frankenstein or Bride, I think the idea of genetics and testing and hybridization, all the things that those films were about, are more relevant than ever.”

Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Sofia Boutella in promo for Dark Universe


Focus on Individual Movies

The early Marvel movies — two Iron Man outings, Captain America, and Thor — all told individual stories and could mostly be watched in any order. They were set in different time periods and even on different planets, and even though comic books often feature crossovers and team-ups, the focus was on one individual character in each.

That’s the approach Kurtzman is trying to emulate with Dark Universe. The new Mummy stars Tom Cruise as Nick Morton, a rascal of a soldier who finds himself cursed after helping unleash an ancient demon buried beneath the desert sands. There are no other major monsters present; Dr. Jekyll (played by Russell Crowe) runs Prodigium, but there is no Invisible Man lurking in the background.

“Everyone’s asking, Is there going to be a Monsters Avengers?” he said, reporting back on months of pre-release interviews. “And there could be. Certainly, that’s what happened with the classic Monster films, but I think the key for us is that each monster film must be satisfying on its own terms.”

Case in point: Frankenstein came out in 1931, a year before the original Mummy, and it took over a decade for the first crossover, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

“When Universal did Frankenstein Meets Wolf Man, there had already been three Frankenstein films, and there had been Wolf Man films, and the audience had fallen in love with those characters, and the logical next step was to bring them together,” he said. “If they started with Frankenstein Meets Wolf Man, then I don’t know if it would have felt the same. So that’s the goal, to figure out a way to tell a satisfying story and then open the door to a larger world in that context.”

How movies perform, the order in which they’re released, and how fans react will also dictate the future.

“We have a bigger picture idea of what will organize the monsters into a unified film,” Kurtzman promised. “But at this point it’s too early to say that is written in stone. It wouldn’t make sense, because we haven’t built the universe yet. We want to see how these monsters play out and what audiences find in them, and react accordingly.”

The original Classic Monsters


Sprinkle in the Seeds, Carefully

Still, astute audiences will notice several little nods at the presence of other monsters in The Mummy, in particular when Nick first enters Dr. Jekyll’s massive lab at Prodigium headquarters in London. On display is a human skull with vampire fangs, as well as a large glass case with a fin that looks like it was removed from a certain creature that dwells in a black lagoon.

Kurtzman points out that those elements don’t arrive until halfway into the movie and are more slight acknowledgments than deliberate plot points.

“One of the most important things is to tie them to character subjectivity. We don’t start any of those Easter eggs until Nick enters into Prodigium and begins to see them for himself,” he explained. “And so by that point in the film, you’ve been so tied to his experience emotionally, that when you get there, you’re experiencing it through his eyes, which makes it a more satisfying reveal.”

As Inverse noted to Kurtzman, this is in direct opposition to the way future members of the Justice League, like the Flash and Aquaman, were introduced in an extended sequence that interrupted the flow of Batman v Superman.

“Right, so you kind of go, I don’t really understand why you’re showing me these things,” he said. “And that was the key, figuring out a way to do it in an organic way.”

Writers Rooms Can Be Helpful

Not only does he prefer to approach an overarching story like it is done for TV shows, Kurtzman also prefers to keep the creative structure. Kurtzman wrote for years with Roberto Orci, and now he is one of several big-name Hollywood writers working on the Dark Universe series.

On The Mummy, he shares “story by” credit with Jon Spaihts, who wrote Doctor Strange and Prometheus, as well as Jenny Lumet, who previously wrote Rachel Getting Married. And then the screenplay was written by heavy-hitters David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man) and Oscar-winner Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Edge of Tomorrow).

“McQuarrie, Koepp, [Fast and the Furious series writer] Chris Morgan, and I are all part of a larger group of folks who will do some writing and also help each other stay at 30,000 feet to observe the universe and let it grow in whatever direction it needs to,” he said. “If that becomes a successful model for us, maybe that group gets bigger as we go.”

Right now, the writers have fanned out to tackle their own monster installments. Koepp wrote Bride of Frankenstein, which will be directed by Oscar-winner Bill Condon, and several more scripts are being written. “We’re in the middle of a fantastic take on Creature from the Black Lagoon; we are in the middle of a really cool take on The Wolf Man; and we have a really good script on Invisible Man.”

Give People What They Want, But Not How They Expect It

Fans often love reboots for different reasons than the people writing them. For audiences, it’s a chance to revisit favorite characters and tropes; for filmmakers, the draw is generally the opportunity to play in a world they loved but rearrange the pieces and tell new stories. Finding a compromise between the two is crucial.

“What you want to try to do is understand and hold on to the spirit of what those films represented, and know the rules of those particular universes, because every rulebook is different,” Kurtzman offered.

And he would know — rebooting Star Trek was one of the most daunting assignments in recent Hollywood history. What he and his writing partner at the time, Roberto Orci, landed on was a way to split the difference between their creative imperative and the demands of some of the most passionate — and exacting — fans in the world. Sometimes, they had to save fans from themselves but still deliver the most important elements of the saga.

“In the case of Trek, there’s an established canon that has 50 years of legislated, organized thinking, that you really can’t break those rules,” he explained. “Which is why in the reboot that we did, we wanted to say, Well we can’t deny canon, but if you know how Kirk and Spock died, then how are there going to be any stakes? So we took a Star Trek trope, which is to deviate the timeline and have an alternate timeline. We’re not in any way disrespecting what came before, we want to honor it, but we want to bring something new to the table so that the stories can be unpredictable.”

In the case of the Dark Universe, the plan is to hold back from any sort of studio demand for resolution and tone.

“In the soul of those films, the characters are broken. The assumption is that they’re going to stay broken, and not necessarily get fixed, because if they were fixed, they wouldn’t be monsters anymore,” Kurtzman said. “So we have to be extremely careful to make sure that in the demands of studio filmmaking, in which you must reach a global audience, you can’t compromise the dark soul of those films.”

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