Since 1932, The Mummy has been one of Universal Studios’s most successful and enduring franchises. During a Hollywood-wide absence of swashbuckling adventures in the late 1990s, director Stephen Sommers (Deep Rising, Van Helsing) came up with a great idea about how to bring it back to life; two sequels, a prequel series, a theme park ride, and more followed (including Tom Cruise’s 2017 reboot, and the so-called “Dark Universe” that was meant to spring from it).
The 1999 film starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and John Hannah was a huge hit at the box office, though film critics weren't always so kind. But in the more than 20 years since its original release, The Mummy has subsequently received a critical reappraisal from viewers who weren’t initially as enthralled with its thrilling combination of tragic romance and roguish, dusty action. Here's what you need to know about The Mummy.
1. Filmmakers spent many years trying to revive The Mummy.
The first time Universal attempted to update The Mummy was in 1987, when producers James Jacks and Sean Daniel recruited master of horror George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) to write and direct it. “[Universal] said, ‘What we want is something like The Terminator,’” screenwriter Abbie Bernstein told Cinefantastique in 1999. “What I came up with was an idea that a sacred orb had been buried with the Mummy. If you got this thing wet it would completely dissolve anything organic, so if you got one drop of this on your body, you would melt like the Wicked Witch of the West.” Bernstein's script was one of several that was developed by the studio, but ultimately never made it into production.
2. At one point, Daniel Day-Lewis was being eyed to play the mummy.
According to Cinefantastique, a rotating list of writers, directors, and actors were attached to different iterations of the project over the next several years. Clive Barker (Hellraiser) wrote a treatment and Mick Garris (Hocus Pocus) penned a script. Joe Dante (Gremlins) envisioned a massive production with Day-Lewis playing the monster; John Sayles did a rewrite of one version of the screenplay. Both Romero and Garris came back for another round in the mid-1990s. Finally, in 1996, Universal hired screenwriter/producer Kevin Jarre (Tombstone) to come up with a fresh take. "There were arguments for each of [the scripts],” Jacks told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. Ultimately, however, it was Sommers's version that won them over.
3. A pig in the city led to a mummy in the desert.
In 1998, Babe: Pig in the City was a notorious bomb for Universal, grossing a not-so-nice $69 million against a budget of $90 million. The studio needed a hit, so when chairman Stacey Snider sent out a list of scripts and properties that Universal owned, Deep Rising director Stephen Sommers saw his opportunity. “I've always wanted to do a version of The Mummy,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 2019. “When I was 8 years old, I saw the old Boris Karloff one.”
Though Sommers's vision for The Mummy "was the most expensive version we’d had," according to Jacks, "it was also the biggest movie," making it a true event film.
4. Stephen Sommers won Universal over with his contemporary approach.
Sommers sold the studio on his version of the script, which he wrote in just six weeks, in part because his take was set in the 1920s. At the same time, he chose to make the Mummy more nimble, creating a better-matched antagonist for adventurer Rick O’Connell, who was written as an Indiana Jones-like hero. Jacks particularly enjoyed the movie's mix of fun and frights; he described it to the Los Angeles Times as “a period romantic adventure with major scares."
Based on Sommers’s script—and their confidence that it would be a hit—Universal upped the film’s planned budget from $10 million to $80 million.
5. Brendan Fraser wasn't sure if he was making a comedy or a horror movie.
The Mummy's horror-comedy element that proved so intriguing to the studio was the source of some initial confusion for Brendan Fraser, who was cast in the lead following the success of George of the Jungle, which had earned $174 million at the box office. "We didn't know whether we were making a horror movie, we didn't know if this was an action picture, we didn't know if it was a romance picture," Fraser told EW in 2019. "All of the above? None of the above? We didn't know. We. Did. Not. Know."
6. The Mummy was shot in the desert, but the team had a secret weapon.
At the time The Mummy was being produced, Egypt’s political instability made it impossible to set up a film production there. According to the movie's official website, shooting took place both in Marrakech, Morocco, which stood in for Cairo, and later in the Sahara desert, where Hamunaptra was built in a dormant volcano. "A city hidden in the crater of an extinct volcano made perfect sense," Sommers recalled. "Out in the middle of the desert you would never see it. You would never think of entering the crater unless you knew what was inside that volcano."
Fortunately, The Mummy team included co-producer Patricia Carr, who had worked as a production manager on The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and The Temple of Doom (1983). "We had to do a great amount of work in a relatively small amount of time," Carr said. "But after meeting with the local city officials, we were able to get medical cover in place, as well as arrange all the catering and transportation and have everything completed in record time."
7. Extreme heat and deadly snakes were all in a day's work.
Filming in sweltering temperatures is just one of the challenges the cast and crew faced while filming The Mummy in the desert, "The biggest challenge was maintaining the energy level right up to the start of the scene," Hannah said. "It was really hot out there, and the snakes and scorpions and the spiders made it difficult to keep focus and your enthusiasm."
Several crew members ended up being airlifted from the set to a local medical center after being bitten or stung by local wildlife. "They sent a memo out describing a type of snake," Fraser told Entertainment Weekly. "I think it had yellow dots on it. They said, 'If you see this kind of snake, do not go near it. Because if it bites you, at best, they'll amputate your limb.' ... Anyway, there I was, pissing down a rock, and I look down and there's the yellow-dot snake. I was like, 'F***!' I just ran for it."
8. Terrorist activity was also a potential threat.
As Sommers told Entertainment Weekly, "We were way out in the Sahara, so if your camel got lost you could end up in Algeria and never come back. I didn't tell the actors until it was over, but I took out terrorist insurance policies on all of them."
9. The visual effects team told Sommers to think big.
In a 2017 interview with vfxblog, The Mummy’s production visual effects supervisor John Berton Jr. (who worked with Industrial Light & Magic at the time of the film’s production) explained that:
“When Stephen Sommers came to me with the idea of doing The Mummy, the first question that he asked me … was, ‘What should I avoid? What can’t I do? I don’t want to propose things that we can’t afford or that are impossible to do or put us in a bind.’ And I said, ‘Ignore that. Give me what you got. Give me everything. Give me every idea you have. Just go to the top,’ which was a dangerous thing to do with Stephen Sommers as it turns out, because he’s really good at going to the top. But I stand by that. And the idea was, put it all out there on the table and then we’ll discuss what we can and can’t do. But if you try to restrict yourself in the very beginning with some sort of assumption about what is or is not possible, you’re not taking advantage of the power of visual effects, and you’re surely not taking advantage of the power of digital visual effects.”
10. Figuring out what The Mummy looked like proved to be a challenge.
Sommers was insistent that he did not want The Mummy to be a horror movie, so they went through many design iterations for the monster to give it the right amount of intensity. Actor Arnold Vosloo, who played Imhotep, wore what has become the traditional performance-capture costume in some scenes to play opposite his co-stars. ("This was a whole new thing to me," Vosloo told EW. "They had to put these little red tracking lights all over my face so they could map in the special effects. A lot of the time I was walking around the set looking like a Christmas tree.") In other scenes, however—where he was fully replaced by a CGI character—the only thing the cast had to inspire them was a picture of Vosloo in his full mummy get-up. “Being PG-13, there was a limit to how gooey, or scary, the Mummy could be,” Sommers said.
11. Brendan Fraser had at least one close call with death.
In a scene where O’Connell is hanged, Fraser actually stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated. In their respective DVD commentaries, both Fraser and Sommers point to a close-up in the scene where he couldn’t quite touch his toes as he hung in the noose, and ended up passing out.
“I did fully get choked out,” Fraser told EW. “It was scary … I remember seeing the camera start to pan around, and then it was like a black iris at the end of a silent film. I regained consciousness, and one of the EMTs was saying my name.”
12. Fraser was particularly helpful to the CGI artists.
During the climax of the film, O’Connell must rescue Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) from the “sacrificial slab,” and fight off an army of mummies in the process. Fraser choreographed the battle meticulously, and the CGI artists were impressed by the actor's remarkable ability to recreate his movements with such precision, especially since he was fighting opposite nothing on the set. Fraser's exacting work enabled them to more easily, and convincingly, create the mummies afterward.
“I had to learn the fight in two days,” Fraser recalled on the movie’s commentary track. “It’s like one big mimed fight with Rachel and I, and we did it all in one take.”
13. The filmmakers took a lot of creative liberties with history.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film about a villainous mummy, Sommers mixed fact and fiction into the story. For example: While Imhotep was a real person, he wasn’t a high priest, as seen in the film; he was the architect of the first pyramid. Seti I, the pharaoh he betrays at the beginning of the film, actually ruled around 1300 BCE—almost 1300 years after Imhotep died.
14. Details about the Medjai warriors who watch over Imhotep’s tomb were created, or changed, for the film.
Oded Fehr plays Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay. He and his fellow Medjai were given tattoos that their real-life counterparts would have gotten to commemorate their sixteenth birthdays, but Sommers actually scaled back on the number and placement of the tattoos. “I just couldn’t do that to [Fehr's] face,” Sommers said. “He looked too good.”
15. Approximately $15 million of the movie’s budget was spent on visual effects.
Not only did ILM have to create multiple versions of the Mummy depending on his level of “deterioration,” they also had to merge those elements with live-action sots of Vosloo as the character, which was a difficult—and costly—challenge at a time when that sort of work was still in its relative infancy. But the production also employed CGI to make the story’s literal backdrop seem more expansive, creating vistas and other environmental elements beyond the sweeping dust storms with the Mummy’s face screaming out of them—all of which added up to a pretty costly VFX bill.
Sommers told Entertainment Weekly that at one point the studio wanted to make the entire movie for $15 million, to which he responded: “I'm going to need that for visual effects alone.” According to Film Hounds, that's reportedly just what he spent.
16. The film’s success spawned a Mummy empire.
The Mummy Returns, which Sommers also directed, was released in 2001, and a third film was released in 2008. Sommers cast Dwayne “Then Still ‘The Rock’” Johnson in his very first acting role in The Mummy Returns. “I only shot Dwayne for one day because he had to fly from the Sahara desert for a big wrestling deal,” Sommers recalled to EW. “He had food poisoning and heatstroke.” Johnson went on to headline The Scorpion King, a spinoff, which then generated its own sequels.
Additionally, Universal created an animated series in 2001 that ran for just two seasons, and later built an elaborate roller coaster ride at Universal Studios called Revenge of The Mummy, which opened in 2004.