Raising Shell: Director Jeff Rowe Brings Passion and Nostalgia to TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been cultural icons for nearly 40 years. Brothers Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael, along with their sensei, Master Splinter, have been protecting New York City from evil since 1984. Whether following the Turtles in comic books, on TV, in video games, or at the movies, kids of the late 1980s and early ’90s likely spent quality time with the fearsome fighting team. It all began with a joke illustration between creators and then-struggling artists, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Once the Turtles were successful in comics, Playmates Toys expressed an interest in creating a line of Turtle toys, complete with an animated TV series that would serve as marketing to youngsters. The comic was toned down for TV, and the series established each turtle’s signature color. Turtlemania ensued, and in 1990 the Turtles hit the big screen with a live-action film. On a reported budget of $13.5M, the film turned in over $200M at the worldwide box office and cemented “TMNT” as a film franchise. Five more theatrical releases eventually followed, bringing the total box office to more than $1.14 billion.

One of the most memorable moments of this year’s CinemaCon was the opening of Paramount’s presentation, where a group of turtle-clad break-dancers kicked off the show, and the president of domestic distribution at Paramount, Chris Aronson, emerged from an onstage sewer with a box of pizza for the audience. The energy of that CinemaCon performance perfectly captured the vibe of the newest iteration of TMNT. Directed by Jeff Rowe (The Mitchells Vs. the Machines), Paramount Pictures’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a new and vibrantly animated coming-of-age take on the young future “heroes in a half shell.” In advance of the August 2 release, Boxoffice Pro talks ’90s nostalgia and bringing the ninja teens back to the big screen with director Jeff Rowe.

How did this project come to you?

In a dream. [Laughs.] I went through a lot of interviews and talked to a lot of people. I think Nickelodeon was inspired by my passion. I think Point Grey [Productions] and I connected over our love of telling real stories about authentic characters. We both come from a place of wanting things to be grounded and feel human. I think that was when the sparks flew and we’re like, “Yes, we should do this together. This would be great.” I was starting Turtles while we were finishing up the mix on The Mitchells vs. the Machines. So there was a couple months of overlap, but it worked out. I was able to import the skills I had learned from one [project] straight into the next.

Prior to this project, what was your personal experience of the Turtles?

They are truly the first thing that I ever loved. They taught me to be a fan of something. I’m 36, about to be 37, so the ’89 TV series and those original live-action movies were straight over home plate, like made for me. It was at the height of Turtlemania and the toys were hard to find. I remember my dad, on like a Saturday, drove me around to four different Toys “R” Us [stores], because we were trying to find [TMNT action figures] Tokka and Rahzar. They weren’t anywhere, and then we found one that they hadn’t put on the shelf. We were like, “Can we buy this?!” It was one of the more exciting days of my childhood. I really loved the characters, and I loved the world. I really loved those toys and how much thought went into them. They’re very artful. Like there’s “Surfer Mikey,” and he’s got a starfish stuck to him and a bunch of seaweed hanging off him. The toys had jokes built into them. Mondo Gecko had a roller skate on his tail. I think even when I was 4 or 5 years old, I knew that someone cared about these and put love into them. It made me care about them and think about them as characters. It’s been really nice to revisit that.

The action figures all had a pretty robust set of accessories, which if memory serves, you could store in their shells.

One hundred percent! Or the pizza shooter, it was like a tank that shot pizzas. In my first meeting with Point Grey, I was describing it to them: “You know the totem in Inception? That only you know the weight of and is so personal to you? Those little plastic pizza discs are like my Inception totem.” I remember them so well.

Were there any specific aspects of Turtle lore that you wanted to ensure were in this version of the story?

It does kind of come back to those toys. I remember that the back of the box had like 20 different mutants. They were each a different cool type of animal with a cool design. We had this artist, Woodrow White, who designed all the characters and mutants for the film. He did an amazing drawing of Bebop and Rocksteady. We were like, “Whoa, those are really cool. Mondo Gecko’s not going to be in the movie, but should we have Woodrow draw one? Just to see what that would look like?” Then he would draw one, and it was like, “OK, shit, we have to put Mondo Gecko in the movie. Oh, man, his Ray Fillet drawing is amazing. Let’s put that in there.” I really wanted there to be a lot of mutants, because I think that visually they’re so asymmetrical and weird looking and funny. I hadn’t seen an animated movie turn the amp to 11 on having that many cool-looking designs. Later in the process, we wrote a bunch of mutants into the movie and ended up calling it Mutant Mayhem. But yeah, that variety of characters: I think we knew we wanted it to have a lot of characters and a lot of cool visual touchstones.

Speaking of visuals, this film is unlike any other version of TMNT animation that’s come before. Given that the Turtles’ namesakes are Italian Renaissance artists, can you talk about the approach to the animation? How did you arrive at the look and feel of the film?

There was a time in the late ’80s, early ’90s with Toxic Crusaders, The Garbage Pail Kids, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Creepy Crawlers, where gross was an aesthetic. As a kid, I was there for it. I loved it. I think the impulse sometimes is to make things look slick and take the weird edges off and make everything symmetrical. So much of our nostalgia comes from those weird, imperfect designs. We knew we wanted to honor that and the historical weirdness of the franchise. We’re telling a story about teenagers, voiced by teenagers for the first time ever—which seems insane to say out loud, but they somehow never did it. They can’t be super muscular; they can’t be giant, hulking, turtle monstrosities. They need to feel lanky and awkward. They’re still growing into their bodies, like authentic teens. In the way that Spider-Verse made a movie look like a living comic book, we were like, “Well, what’s our inspiration? Turtles has been a live-action movie, comic books. It’s been so many different things, which one do we honor?” What we landed on was teen drawings. The way you draw when you’re a teenager. When you don’t know how to draw yet, and you haven’t had formal training. You’re just like, “I’m going to draw a fighter jet. It’s going to be so cool. I’m going to draw every little bolt on it, and it’ll be perfect.” But the perspective is all wrong and you can see both wings at the same time. It’s super messed up, but there’s so much passion. It’s like your passion is betrayed by your utter inability to do what you’re trying to do. That functions as this beautiful metaphor for the characters in the film. It’s an origin story. They’re not heroes yet. They’ve got a lot of confidence, but they’ve got a lot to learn. The story started reflecting the art style and vice versa.

Many of the artists and animators also worked with you on The Mitchells vs. the Machines. What has that collaborative process been like, bringing “Turtle power” to life?

A lot of them had no prior knowledge of Ninja Turtles. They were like, “Is that a problem?” And I’d be like, “No, that’s a great thing! It means you’re not bringing any preconceived notions; you’re never self-editing to make it feel like something in the past.” It was a good path to creating something new. But generally, I am really picky about who I hire. I try to only hire people whose work I absolutely adore and then just let them go loose and try not to micromanage. If they’re making artwork that I love, and I ask them to make artwork for this movie, it will end up being artwork for this movie that I love. It was such a dedicated, passionate team. They really gave their all to it. It feels like when you’re a kid and you’re getting away with something. “The studio’s letting us make it look this weird? What?! OK.” I can’t believe we just have lines shooting off the characters and that they’re so misshapen. There’s been a giddy excitement to it.

The trailer harks back to ’90s hip-hop with “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are also scoring the film. How important is music to the story?

I would say music has always been a hugely important part of the film. When we screened it for the first time, it was a completely different story. The feedback from most people was, “Man, the music in it is great. The story’s busted, we’ve got to fix that, but the music is rad.” It gave us a tone to start making visual decisions around. This collection of songs, which was predominantly late ’80s/early ’90s hip-hop, started becoming a collection of songs with visuals. Then that started becoming a tone and a vibe and these weird esoteric things, but it really feels like a part of the DNA of the film. I hope at the end of the day, all our effort feels laid back and off the cuff. Even the style of dialogue and the way the characters talk over each other; we really want it to feel like a good time, and the soundtrack is a part of that.

What were sessions in the booth like?

Initially, we wrote the script in the way you write a comedy. There are setups and payoffs and a rhythm. Then we recorded the kids individually, and it always felt kind of stiff. When we edited it together, it was fine and it functioned, but it didn’t feel new, and it didn’t feel fresh, and it didn’t feel alive. Then Seth [Rogen, screenwriter, producer, and voice of Bebop] was like, “We have to record them ensemble.” And we’re like, “We can’t do that. It’s an audio nightmare. We can’t have them all talking in a room overlapping. What are you crazy?” He was like, “Find a way to do it.” So we found a way to do it and it was an audio nightmare. I’m sure the sound people on our film want to kill us, but we went into that first session with all four of them together. Shamon Brown Jr., who plays Michelangelo, was in Chicago for the first few records. Brady Noon, who plays Raphael, was in New Jersey. So we also got them all physically together and around each other for the first time. It was like lightning in a bottle. The way they talked over each other, the way they interjected. Seth and I started rewriting scenes in the session. One of them would say something funny, and we would be like, “Drill down on that. Talk more about that. Donnie, defend why you like the third Mission: Impossible movie the best, and then everyone else make fun of him for it.” There would be a lot of things like that, which then pushed the work into edit, where we would have hours of these things to sort through and shape into a cohesive arc for the scene. The really amazing thing is, Seth has a lot of experience doing that in live-action; in the Apatow comedies and the stuff he’s done with Nick Stoller. It’s a lot of improv on set, and then finding the scene and rewriting it as you go. But you’re limited to cameras and [camera] coverage. Sometimes there’s things you just can’t cut to. The line [of dialogue] is great, but you don’t have that [coverage]. With animation, it’s just the voice. We can put any line from any place anywhere next to each other and then put the pictures to it later. So it was this really methodical, laborious redrafting of something that then hopefully feels completely loose and improvisational.

That sounds daunting. During the process, did you feel that you were starting to find the arc of the film?

We did a couple of scenes, and then in future records, it became easier to know, “We’re going to use this, we won’t use this.” Then what we would write in the script would set us up for better sessions. It became this learning feedback loop. It was a really organically grown process that led to the end result.

You mentioned bringing skills directly from your last project, The Mitchells vs. the Machines, into this project. Were there any skills you developed on this film that you’ll take into your next project?

I feel like I was lucky to receive a masterclass in directing actors from Seth and from those [recording] sessions. I really learned a lot, and I think it will forever change the way I approach a script and recording characters. Also, the value of letting inspiring people inspire you. Not trying to control departments or reach outcomes, but literally letting some really, really talented people go for it, and then pushing them to go further. It led to results that I’m really happy with. And everyone seems happy. People are a little burned out, but sometimes at the end of [other projects], it’s like catastrophic. [On this project] everyone still had some gas in the tank, in a good way.

Seth Rogen was on hand at CinemaCon to deliver an exclusive look at the film. What was that collaboration like?

We have a similar taste. I also have to recognize the fact that my taste is probably partly shaped by the things that he made, so of course we have the same taste, because he made my taste! I think we care about the same things. When we got into a rhythm of, “Can this be better? Can that be better?” I think, to the annoyance of everyone else on the production, we were just like, “Well, let’s just completely change this.” We never wanted it to be dangerous to say an idea out loud, or to say, “I don’t think this story point is working.” It was a very safe, collaborative environment to bring those things up. Then if they did [come up], we would work really hard to fix them, to make sure that what was getting on-screen was the best version possible.

What can you share about this iteration of the “cowabunga” crew?

They are the same characters you have always known and loved, but they are also so fresh and so unique and so endearing. It’s hard not to love them. You want to hang out with them and watch them go on this journey. I think “O.G.” fans like me will really love it. People who came into the Turtles during the 2012 series and during [the 2018 series] “Rise” [of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles], I think they will find a lot to love in this as well. I would say, see it on a big screen. See it on the biggest, best screen that you can find. It’s really theatrical and cinematic. I think it’s worth experiencing in that way. Also, just to laugh in a room of people. The movie’s really funny and it’s just so much more fun to laugh with 300 strangers. There’s a lot of work we put into the color and the lighting and things that just look great on a big screen. Also, the sound; between Trent and Atticus’s score, our sound designer Mark Mangini—who did Mad Max: Fury Road and Dune—he’s an incredible sound designer. It’s going to sound great. It’s going to look great. I hope people like it.


Do you have a favorite movie going memory?

When I saw Jurassic Park. I must have been 7 years old. I love dinosaurs more than anything in the world. All the toys were out beforehand. It was in the media. I was so hyped for this film. This was made for me. I was so excited to see it. Then 30 seconds into the opening, I’m crying, covering my eyes, saying, “Dad, I want to go home. This is too scary.” But it made an impression on me. I think after that I wanted to be involved in movies for the rest of my life.

What’s your go-to item at the concession stand?

Give me the popcorn. It probably used to be Sour Patch Kids, but now it’s popcorn and sparkling water. That’s my life now.

You can’t go wrong with popcorn. I think this movie’s going to make me want a slice of pizza, though.

Come on theater chains, stock up!

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

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