Luke Owen sits down to interview some of the people behind Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie to find the stories behind the film…
Part way through the filming of the first season of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, producers Haim Saban and Shuki Levy found themselves in a quandary. The show was pulling in huge ratings and the merchandise was flying off the shelves to the point where they’d made over $1 billion in their first year, but three of its stars felt they were being underpaid for what they were doing. Austin St. John (The Red Ranger), Walter Jones (The Black Ranger) and Thuy Trang (The Yellow Ranger) felt their non-union contracts for several movies and forty more episodes were unfair, and as a result left the show to be replaced with stock footage and stunt doubles while their characters left to attend the World Peace Conference. “I could have worked the window at McDonalds and probably made the same money the first season,” St. John would later tell The Huffington Post. “It was disappointing, it was frustrating, it made a lot of us angry.”
The trio leaving was problematic for the show, but it also caused some issues surrounding the development of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie.
Among those looking to be cast in the TV series (and by proxy the movie) was Steve Cardenas who had heard about the auditions through a radio show. “[Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers] had already been on for a year, so I was familiar with the show,” he recalls. “I was a karate teacher, and I heard they were looking for people who could do karate so I decided to go down and try out for it. I never thought I’d get it ‘cause there was, like, 4,000 people at the audition.” He adds: “. I was not an actor and had no aspirations of being an actor. It was really on the job training. I had to get an acting coach. I was definitely out of my comfort zone in that respect, but the action side was easier for me. The acting side, not so much.”
Cardenas was cast as the new Red Ranger alongside Johnny Yong Bosch as The Black Ranger and Karan Ashley as The Yellow Ranger, and it was during their contract signings that the bombshell was dropped. “On the day we got hired they said, ‘congratulations you guys are the new Power Rangers, we’re going to film for a month and a half to get some episodes in the can, and then we’re gonna shut down production so we can go to Australia to shoot the movie’”, Cardenas recalls. “They told us all of that in the same sentence.”
The development of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie had been ongoing for some time. Saban and Levy had used their contacts at Fox Kids (who were airing the TV show) to meet with 20th Century Fox’s Chris Meledandri about a big screen version along with producer Jon Landau. Joining them was Suzanne Todd, and they hired in nine writers to come into Levy’s house and pitch their visions for Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie. Among those writers was Arne Olsen. “I had done a movie called Red Scorpion, which had gotten made, and then I wrote a script called Cop and a Half, which was about a kid who becomes a cop,” Olsen remembers. “And then after that I got to be known as a kid’s writer. They quickly peg you in Hollywood. The latest thing what you sell, that’s what you do. So I was known as this kid’s writer, and Cop and a Half didn’t do all that good and it’s not a good movie, but I had done another spec that had gotten into the hands of Chris Meledandri – who is a god in Hollywood with all his animated movies – who was the executive at Fox. He basically said, ‘do you want to come in and pitch on this?’”
Olsen’s pitch was to take the Power Rangers into space. “The TV series is contained to this town, and we’re doing a movie so we’ve got this opportunity to open it up and take them somewhere else. It lends itself to these kind of adventures anyway,” he says. “So it was this space adventure, and something dire happens back home and they have to save them.” The producers liked Olsen’s take, and chose him to write a script along with John Kamps and a third writer but eventually passed on Olsen’s draft in favour of Kamps. “They liked it, but they liked this other one better,” he says.
However, the producers didn’t just take Kamps’ draft and run with it, instead combining elements from his and Olsen’s draft. They retained Kamps’ villain Ivan Ooze and several of his story elements, but felt that it was missing something. “It was a mess,” Olsen admits. “And they asked if I wanted to come in and re-write it , and of course I did.”
Olsen’s first task was to make Ivan Ooze more interesting. Kamps’ version of the character was very straight-laced and serious, while Olsen’s villain was more cartoony. “I ended up using a lot of my villain with his villain,” Olsen recalls. “I wanted to have a really funny villain, with one-liners and that kind of stuff. [Kamps’] was more straight-ahead.” Olsen’s new version of Ooze had him as a shape shifter, who would mould himself into new versions including one scene where he transformed into a woman. This aspect of the character was very appealing to the man they looked to cast in the role, Paul Freeman. Best known for his role in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Freeman jumped at the chance to play a role with such a creative range – even though it was eventually cut. “The original script that I was given to do an audition was much crazier than it eventually turned out,” he told the audience at Power Morphicon 2016. “Ivan kept changing and becoming other people, which eventually gave me the idea of the different voices. At one point he changed into a woman during the course of the original script. So when they cut all that and decided he was going to look one or two ways, all these changes went out of the script but I kept it in the voice. I had fun with it. Normally you wouldn’t get the chance to do that in a role.”