‘TMNT: Out of the Shadows’ Director Dave Green on Turtles, NYC, and Fan Nostalgia

In the early ’90s it was nearly impossible to go a full week without seeing a cartoon turtle with a martial arts weapon on television or in toy stores. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a beloved part of the childhood of many millennials in the United States and around the world, and Dave Green was no exception. So when the call came with the offer  to helm the latest sequel in Paramount’s current iteration of the Turtles franchise, it meant much more than just a professional opportunity. Green spoke with Boxoffice about the Turtles latest adventure ahead of the film’s release.

You’re in your early thirties—that means you were just about the perfect age when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze hit in the early ’90s. How big a fan of the Turtles were you as a kid?

I was a huge fan of the Turtles growing up. I would come home from school every day and watch the show with my friends—that cartoon was a huge part of our lives. I’d look at every Turtle and connect them to each friend of mine. Everyone has a favorite Turtle, and mine was Donatello because he was nerdy and into tech. My goofball friend was Michelangelo, and our bossy friend who always told us what to do was our Leonardo.

I’m glad you liked Donatello—he was my favorite too. I feel like there weren’t enough of us, though. l never had trouble claiming him in the playground. 

That’s true! Michelangelo was always the fan favorite. And this movie actually has a deep and wonderful story for Leonardo as well, and I think everyone who is a Turtles fan and everyone who isn’t is going to be able to see something in the characters and an arc for each Turtle. We really took the time to do that.

Your previous film, Earth to Echo, has a similar tone to the one you’re taking with the Turtles. Do you think that film was a factor in getting this opportunity?

It was a really exciting step. What comforted me every day was that I was able to hang out with a group of characters that felt like family to me. Characters that I knew and loved for so long as a kid. The moment I walked onto the set and saw the actual Turtle Van in front of me, I just had to pause and think about how cool that was.

Earth to Echo was a movie about young friendships and brotherhood, about the connections between friends growing up. There’s a bit of that in Ninja Turtles as well, and when I met with [producers] Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, they responded to Echo and liked its sense of humor, something they wanted to bring into Ninja Turtles.

You also got a chance to introduce some popular characters with this film.

The movie has a wonderful and broad palette of fan-favorite characters that I’m really excited and honored to be able to bring onto the screen. This movie has Casey Jones in it, played by Stephen Amell, who begins the movie as a corrections officer for the New York City Police Department. He reaches a moment when his job becomes compromised and he needs to decide whether he’s going to stay in the force or go out and fight crime on his own. What’s great about Casey is that he’s learning the ropes in this movie, learning what it means to be a vigilante for the first time. That means he’s still a little rough around the edges in his fighting style and taking in the fun of the situation and the thrill of fighting bad guys.

We’ve also got Baxter Stockman, played by Tyler Perry. There’s a great deal of science mythology in the Turtles lore, from the green ooze that created the Turtles to mutagen that has the ability morph a human into an animal and vice versa. This is something that Baxter uses in the movie and becomes a central dramatic point for the Turtles in the story. Tyler was wonderful and he came in with his own costume, the type of glasses the character would wear. Tyler really tackles his characters from top to bottom. From day one he was working on a walking pattern for Baxter, for example. He did a wonderful job portraying an arrogant person through the shell of a shy person.

Bebop and Rocksteady are also in the movie and they’re fantastic. They’re played by Gary Anthony Williams and Stephen Farrelly. They met a few days before we started shooting, and when I saw them I could instantly tell that they were going to be very fast friends. I asked them to go out and grab a drink together, and by the time they came back for the first day of shooting they were like old friends. They’re such a great comedy duo. Gary is an improviser out of Los Angeles and Steven is a professional wrestler with his first acting role, and their banter and rhythm together became infectious on set. There are moments in the film that came out of their improvising and bantering together.

Coming into a franchise for the first time in a sequel means that you’re already inheriting some design elements, but the additions you just mentioned also gave you a chance to make your mark in this whole world’s design. What challenges did Bebop and Rocksteady pose from a design perspective?

When we first started working on those characters, we looked at all the cartoons, toys, and pieces of their wardrobe that were iconic and that we couldn’t do without. That meant arranging toys on the table and saying, “Look at how cool this is; Rocksteady has this club with spikes sticking out of it.” We analyzed all those little pieces of weaponry and clothing detail. The real challenge with Bebop and Rocksteady in terms of design was actually back-thinking their human costumes. There is a period in the movie where we see them in their ordinary human clothes before they mutate into the characters we know them as. The trick was integrating those characters in their human form into a reality we could buy as current-day New York. We weren’t sure about it at first, stopping to think if something like a leather vest would work on a guy like this, for example. For us it was more about looking at the environment we put them in and picking pieces and touches of New York that actually integrated with this sort of punk vibe.

And that’s something that really stood out during that ’90s Turtle mania, New York as this iconic part of their identity—down to the pizza. It always felt more tangible to me than, say, Metropolis for Superman or Gotham City for Batman. Even Spider-Man’s connection to New York didn’t seem as essential to me as a kid. I remember my father going on a business trip to New York while I was growing up in Mexico, asking him to come back with pictures of the city so I could see where the Ninja Turtles lived. How much of that New York identity did you want to carry over in the film?

Quite a lot. The producers and I wanted to feel more of the city with this film. For me as a kid, growing up with the Ninja Turtles, they were as integral a part of New York City as the Ghostbusters. They live in the sewers, in this fascinating underbelly of Manhattan. It pointed us to establish a sense of geography about where the Turtles lived—very far beneath the subways, traveling through the sewers chains. They can’t be seen outside during the day. So we really wanted to lay into the rules of what that meant for the Turtles and adhere to those rules. In servicing that, we shot all over Manhattan: Liberty Island at night, Grand Central Station, Madison Square Garden. Part of the thrill of shooting in New York is that every direction you point the camera has a terrific depth, grit, and reality. It’s something you can’t capture in Los Angeles, Toronto, or Vancouver.

Nostalgia can play a really big factor in these films, especially when they cover intellectual properties that have existed in various mediums for decades. We didn’t only grow up with the cartoon and the early ’90s movies—I assume you also wasted all of your allowance playing the arcade game from the period. How much nostalgia is too much? How are you able to balance it out for younger viewers who might not have those pop culture connections with the material?

One of the great things about the Ninja Turtles is that it has all this geek love from various generations of fans. Whether it’s my generation that grew up on the cartoon and early ’90s movies, or fans of the comic books or the Nickelodeon series—there are so many different story lines and artistic interpretations of who and what the Turtles are. Part of my job was to go back and remind myself what it was about the Turtles that was so much fun. The cartoons and movies from my childhood had this wonderful tone that didn’t take itself too seriously, but there is also a great edge that comes from the early comic books. The first Ninja Turtles film that Steve Barron directed did a fantastic job of capturing that edge. Our job in the movie was to not adhere to just one specific era of the franchise, but to honor a small piece of each. We peppered the movie with Easter eggs from different iterations of the Turtles—from poses from the comics to toys. I hope that when fans see this movie they can notice these little bits and remember an era of Turtles they grew up on.