Producer and director Alex Kurtzman talks about resurrecting Universal’s iconic monster for a new generation in The Mummy.
From Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr., to Christopher Lee and Arnold Vosloo, The Mummy is one of the screen’s most enduring monsters. Now Sofia Boutella joins the long lineage of evil Egyptians, as the first female movie mummy, Princess Ahmanet. However, producer and director Alex Kurtzman reveals that the character didn’t start out that way.
“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,” he says. “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.”
When her claim on the throne is threatened by the arrival of a baby brother, Princess Ahmanet invokes Set, the Egyptian God of Death, to reclaim what is rightfully hers, and is punished by being mummified alive and buried in a hidden tomb in the Middle East.
“You fear the monster and you fear for the monster…”
“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,” says Kurtzman. “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.”
Kurtzman adds that once the monster’s gender was decided, Boutella was his first and only choice for the role of Ahmanet. However, having just played Jayla in Star Trek Beyond, the actress was understandably reluctant at first to return to the makeup chair for a lengthy stretch.
“Aside from the makeup issues, she wanted to know what tone this movie was going to take,” explains Kurtzman. “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.”
Another point of difference in Kurtzman’s take on The Mummy is that a majority of the film is set in London, not Egypt. The director explains that the shift in location was important in terms of bringing the story into the modern era, as well as drawing on the city’s deep foundations in history.
“One of the things I love about London is that it’s an incredible collision of ancient and modern. 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.”
Ahmanet’s tomb is also a unique addition to Mummy lore in that her sarcophagus is submerged in a well filled with mercury – a detail Kurtzman discovered when researching Egyptology, its totems and magic.
“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.”
Horror fans will find plenty to enjoy in The Mummy – as well as the obvious connection to the eponymous monster and its long screen history, there are nods to several other horror classics.
Kurtzman notes that while Boris Karloff’s original 1932 incarnation of The Mummy was the biggest point of inspiration, both he and Tom Cruise watched a film per day during preparation in order to find the right look and tone for their version.
“We watched a lot 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,” he says.
The Exorcist was also a big influence, especially in the scenes where Cruise’s soldier of fortune uncovers an ancient evil buried in the desert of the Middle East. “That was a big one for texture and tone,” adds Kurtzman. “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.”
MORE MUMMY MADNESS
Elegant 1959 Hammer Horror version in which Peter Cushing desecrates the 4,000 year-old tomb of Queen Ananka and faces the wrath of Christopher Lee as Kharis the Mummy.
DAWN OF THE MUMMY
A fashion shoot disturbs the tomb of evil pharaoh Safiraman. Taking their cue from George A. Romero, his army of zombie servants rise from the dead to devour the flesh of the living.
BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB
Hammer Films’ atmospheric adaptation of Bram Stoker’s ‘Jewel of the Seven Stars’ is the first and the best. Later remade as The Awakening and Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy.
DOCTOR WHO: PYRAMIDS OF MARS
They might look like chunky mummies but, as Tom Baker’s Doctor discovers, these bandaged Egyptians are actually the robotic servants of the evil Sutekh the Destroyer.
The latest Mummy movie is a dark universe away from the Indiana Jones-like antics of the 1999 film starring Brendan Fraser, but one movie it does curiously resemble is Tobe Hooper’s 1986 cult sci-fi spectacular Lifeforce.
Based on Colin Wilson’s novel Space Vampires, Hooper’s film features an ancient evil being brought to London in the form of a beautiful – and naked – alien woman (Mathilda May), who has a strange psychic and romantic connection with the astronaut (Steve Railsback) who freed her from her crystal tomb inside Halley’s Comet. Moreover, once on Earth, her victims are drained of life energy and return as mummified zombies that wreak havoc on the British capital.
Those who love this insane cult masterpiece will be quick to notice the similarities (sans nudity, of course) with The Mummy, and we suspect Alex Kurtzman may have been unconsciously inspired by Hooper’s film, even though he stated otherwise when the question was asked.
“That’s funny, what an amazing reference! It wasn’t [an influence], but I know the film well. Thank you for that, it’s very kind of you.”
BUILDING A DARK UNIVERSE
“[The Mummy] is the first film in what Universal is now building, called Dark Universe, which is dedicated to the Universal Monsters,” Alex Kurtzman explains. “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 loving as a kid, and the idea was to give the audience a really satisfying Mummy movie, but also to open that door and give them 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.”
Kurtzman and his producing partner Chris Morgan will be involved in future Dark Universe films, which will include Bride of Frankenstein, directed by Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast), as well as the return of The Invisible Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, played by Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem, respectively.
News of Condon’s involvement in Bride of Frankenstein is particularly exciting given he has such passion for the material, having helmed the James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters (1998) starring Ian McKellen.
“It feels like he was put on this earth to do that,” agrees Kurtzman. “He’s the perfect director for it, so I’m really excited to see what he does with it and how he evolves it.”