Thursday, April 30, 2020
The Green Screen ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’
The existence nor the success of a live-action adaptation was preordained. It’s nearly impossible to fathom now, but there was a time when Hollywood did not stockpile pre-existing intellectual property. For a stretch, no one seemed to be interested in bringing franchise cocreators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s brainchild to the big screen. Up until the late ’80s, the most serious interest Eastman and Laird had received was from B-movie king Roger Corman, who wanted to enlist comedians to play the title roles. “Sam Kinison, and Gallagher, and Billy Crystal, and Bobcat Goldthwait, wearing sort of green paint and shells and being the Turtle characters,” Eastman recalls. “It was a very hilarious treatment and concept.” Thankfully, that one never got made.
But eventually, Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest did agree to finance TMNT. But the production was a quagmire: The budget was low, there was infighting among the filmmakers, the cutting-edge animatronics developed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to power the Turtle costumes often broke down, and the young cast’s tolerance for physical and mental exhaustion was tested daily. Still, a mixture of technical wizardry, a clever director who cut his teeth making classic music videos, and a group of indefatigable actors saved Ninja Turtles from being a typical kids’ schlockfest—and that translated at the box office. Besides the movie being far better than anything about amphibious superheroes named for Italian Renaissance artists had any right to be, it also became a massive hit, pulling in more than $200 million worldwide and grossing the fourth-most money out of any movie in 1990.
“If you added up everything that could go wrong, it did go wrong,” says Tom Gray, then Golden Harvest’s head of production, “but the result of the baby was beautiful.”
The story of the birth of one of the strangest, most unlikely blockbusters of the past 30 years naturally begins—somehow, though perhaps fittingly—in the late 1980s with the manager of the watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher, Gary Propper, the late professional surfer turned event promoter who happened to come across an issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at a tour stop in Detroit, Michigan.
Part I: “Saved by a Butt Cheek”
Kim Dawson (producer): Gary calls me and says, “I found this comic. I think we could make a feature out of it.” He started going on about this Turtle thing. And Gary notoriously smoked a lot of pot. I said, “Gary, you’ve been smoking too much, dude. I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said, “OK, I’m gonna overnight the thing.”
Kevin Eastman (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise cocreator): As you head into the end of ’88, the obvious evolution was a live-action movie. And we just had horrific grimaces thinking of movies that had somebody in a rubber suit. We were very concerned: “How do you pull off these extremely unique and visual characters in a way that could be believable?”
Dawson: What Gary was going on about was, “You don’t need big names, because they’re in costumes. You just get funny guys to do the voices.”
Eastman: In those days, 90 percent of everything that came into the studio, to Peter and myself, came through our agent, Mark Freedman. We were partners—a third, a third, and a third—in all things Turtles. Peter and I, of course, had final say in everything, but Mark was the one fielding and bringing ideas.
Dawson: I called Mark and I said, “I’d like to option the live-action rights to make a feature film.” And so we negotiated.
Eastman: I never met Kim in person. I talked to him once on the phone, I think.
Dawson: About that same time, I was working with Bobby Herbeck, a stand-up comic.
Bobby Herbeck (cowriter): Kim brought me the movie.
Dawson: We’re pitching everyone we know. Everybody in the business: Jerry Weintraub; independents and studios. Everybody goes, “OK, there’s two factors: Garbage Pail Kids, same idea—comic book heroes, ‘We’re gonna make ’em live action.’ Totally tanked. George Lucas’s Howard the Duck, same thing—totally tanked.”
Herbeck: I was already doing another movie for Golden Harvest, which does Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies.
Tom Gray (Golden Harvest head of production): He was working with me on a comedy that I commissioned him to write.
Dawson: Bobby kept bugging him about the Turtles.
Herbeck: He kept turning me down on the picture. He just said, “Finish the fuckin’ movie I’m paying you for.” He called it the “Ninjin Pinjin Turtles.” He said, “Don’t bug me with this Ninjin Pinjin Turtles shit, Herbs.”
Gray: I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think it would fly.
Herbeck: And then one day it dawned on me that he had a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old at home. We went and had a drink after work and I said, “Tom, I promise I won’t bring it up again.” He said, “Here we go.” I said, “You’ve got two kids at home. Ask ’em.” Before I got back to Long Beach—he lived in Beverly Hills—on my Record A Call, he said, “Herbs. Babes.” Those two words meant you’ve closed the deal. “Get your buddy up here tomorrow morning and let’s talk about it.”
Dawson: We’re having lunch and he’s going, “I don’t get it, I don’t get it.”
Herbeck: Tom had all but said no and he slid out; he had one bun out of the booth. We were saved by a butt cheek.
Dawson: I go, “You don’t have to hire famous actors. The actors are all gonna be scale actors, Tom.” And he goes, “Oh OK, lemme see.”
Gray: I said, “You know something, this is really simple. We have all these great stuntmen in Hong Kong. And we just put four guys in rubber suits. Look, we can knock this out for three million bucks.” So I sent a memo, which I still have, to the boss, Raymond Chow, and I said, “Look, here’s how we put all this together.” And I sent him the concept. He said, “You know, I think we can do this.”
From left to right: Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael New Line Cinema
Part II: “Oh My God, That’s Insane.”
Golden Harvest planned on making Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but how? The studio needed a director, a script, and a cost-effective way to design costumes that didn’t look too cartoonish.
Simon Fields (producer): My longtime partner then, Steve Barron, we were making music videos and commercials.
Gray: He had done “Billie Jean” and “Take on Me.”
Fields: We were friendly with Anthony Minghella and he happened to be adapting a film called A Night in Bangkok for Golden Harvest.
Steve Barron (director): While he was there, they mentioned that they had this comic book that they didn’t quite know what to do with or where to go with it and he suggested me as director. He put them on to me.
Fields: Golden Harvest said, “We want to make a kung fu movie that’s like a couple of million dollars and here’s the idea.” We said, “Great, but we’d like to do something different.” We didn’t tell him exactly what we wanted to do. But we knew it wasn’t kung fu.
Barron: I met with Peter and Kevin, and just said that I’d read their first graphic novel and I felt there were quite a few scenes, and a certain type of structure, that could work just straight out of that.
Eastman: The original series Pete and I did, he had gone through it and sort of postmarked different beats and moments to the point where you can actually see some of those moments brought to life on the big screen. He used those when he was working with Brendan McCarthy as one of his main storyboard artists.
Brendan McCarthy (storyboard artist): Steve Barron called me up and asked if I’d ever heard of something called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I said I most certainly had, and that it was a huge sensation in the comics world. I thought he’d be perfect directing it.
Fields: Eastman and Laird loved what we pitched them, which was completely different than the [script] written by Bobby Herbeck. And so I found another writer.
Todd Langen (cowriter): The somewhat-panicked L.A.-based producers began making inquiries around town as to who they might hire—cheap—who could capture the comedic tone of a Turtles movie and do so very, very quickly.
Barron: We went looking for writers and found Todd Langen, who was working on Wonder Years, and a good television writer. Had the good tone of reality and comedy.
Brian Henson (second-unit director–chief puppeteer): Steve brought me in first before I even brought him to the Creature Shop because he was trying to figure out how the heck to do it. And I can remember doing an illustration of a Turtle doing a back handspring, then a flip, then going down into a manhole cover and landing in a crash test below street level. I think of that at my age of 56, and I’m saying, “Oh my God, that’s insane.”
Barron: Jim was worried about the tone of the Ninja Turtles. They’ve got nunchucks, and they’ve got swords, and sais. And it’s all about quite heavy fighting. And that was very different from what the Creature Shop, or Jim Henson, had really gone to before.
Henson: When you’d say to my dad, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” he’d have no idea what you were talking about. But he said, “Hey, if Steve wants to do it, if Brian wants to do it …”
Barron: I just said, “Jim, the spirit of this film is what it’s all about. It just cannot be mean-spirited in any way.” And he bought into that.
Gray: They said to me, “Look, I know it’s $3 million, but we can’t do it for that. Why don’t we go get Jim Henson?” And I said, “Well, there’s no way we can afford Jim Henson.”
Barron: Jim started doing all kinds of tests and things and putting together the budgets; their budget was $3 million alone. I said to Tom, “This is the way to go.”
Even with Henson on board, Golden Harvest still needed to secure an American distribution deal. Without that, there would be no movie.
Gray: I had a deal with Fox for $6 million for domestic. Everything was fine, and then there was a change at Fox: Leonard Goldberg left, and then came Barry Diller.
Dawson: He wiped the slate clean and there was no deal.
Gray: We went to New Line Cinema and Mitch Goldman and Sara Risher, who had children, really fell in love with the project.
Sara Risher (New Line Cinema president of production): My son was only about 5 at the time. And he watched the cartoons. He even had a Ninja Turtle birthday party. I knew all about it from that. And I knew about all the tie-in toys and what a big deal it was for kids.
Gray: They took it to Bob Shaye, the owner. Bob said, “I don’t think so.”
Risher: I think Tom was only asking for about $2 million. It wasn’t that much money, but for us, it was a lot of money. So Bob was very against it. He typed up a sheet of paper that he made Mitch and I both sign, that said if we lose money on this, that we would personally pay it back. Neither one of us could find that piece of paper afterwards because we wanted to frame it.
Gray: Along the way, costs were escalating. … The budget was now $6 million and going to $8 million, and it ended up at $13 million finally, but we had to start production.
Barron: We were left there with a couple of weeks to go till shooting with not enough money to make it.
Gray: I had the unsavory duty of calling the boss in Hong Kong, at 6 a.m. and saying, “Raymond, are you awake?” He said, “Yes, I’m going out to play golf. What’s up.” I said, “Well, I have some bad news. The Fox deal has collapsed.” And I said, “We can take legal action but I don’t know that’s the way to go. ... We need $6 million.” And he said, “We don’t have $6 million in this company. Where am I gonna get $6 million?” The only thing he did say in the end was, “Well, what do you think?” I said, “I promise you, we will not lose money on this film. I’ll get your money back.” He said, “Alright, give me 24 hours.” Twenty-four hours later, he calls back and says, “OK, I got $6 million.”
Part III: “It Was Like Stepping Into the Best Disneyland Ride You Ever Got On”
The TMNT cast, which included Sam Rockwell in his first movie role as a thug in the sinister Foot Clan, Elias Koteas as Turtles ally Casey Jones, and Skeet Ulrich and Scott Wolf in bit parts, had no idea what it was in for.
Josh Pais (Raphael): My agents called and said, “I have an appointment for you for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and I was like, “What?” I couldn’t connect those four words. “And you’re auditioning for the lead turtle.” And I was like, “Whoa. Alright.” I didn’t know anything. I did a first audition for Lynn Kressel, who was the casting director, and was pretty much sitting and just reading in a chair. And in Alphabet City where I was living, there were a lot of guys that were, as a survival strategy, almost trying to make themselves bigger than they were. Always on guard because of the possibility of some kind of violence. I kind of was like, “That would be an interesting element for this guy—well, Turtle.”
Michelan Sisti (Michelangelo): I was in the crocodile when I did Peter Pan. In Cabaret, when I was there with Joel Gray, I was his gorilla. I had a reputation for doing unusual things like that.
Leif Tilden (Donatello): I was working on Sesame Street and Jim Henson asked me to try out for it. It was the first movie that I ever did.
Judith Hoag (April O’Neil): My agent sent me the script, and he used to call it, “Teenage Mutant Ninjin Turtles.” He didn’t even know what they were.
James Saito (The Shredder): I really didn’t know what it was but there was a young guy who worked in the front office of my agency and when I called in to talk to the agents, he picked up the phone and said, “Ah, James, you’re in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! You’re the Shredder!” And I said, “What is this?”
“When I called in to talk to the agents, [this guy] picked up the phone and said, ‘Ah, James, you’re in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! You’re the Shredder!’ And I said, ‘What is this?’” —James Saito
Tilden: The original Ninja Turtles were vigilantes. They were all black and white and the only color was red, and that red was their bandanas and the blood that they produced. And so I was really into it. But this was not that—it was kind of the Hollywood version of the Ninja Turtles.
Sisti: They flew me out, I got to Heathrow at about 5 o’clock in the morning, and they drove me down to this Creature Shop.
Pais: There were all these guys, some of them in lab coats. It was like a fantasy laboratory. And I remember somebody was working on a wolf for some movie. The animatronic wolf was like, up on a table. And they had all these wires to make the whiskers above the eyes move.
Tilden: I had this body cast and I’m completely encased in papier-mâché. I have a straw in my nose and these Brits are like whistling Dixie to me. That was the beginning of this surreal experience.
Pais: They took me to a back room and suspended my arms on these strings and then they cast the back side of my body. And then they started doing the front of my body. And then they started doing my chest, and finally my face, sticking two straws in my nostrils. At that point I was freaking out. I couldn’t move. The plaster gets warmer as it settles. I was just going, “OK! OK! Lemme out.” I could just hear these Brits laughing.
Sisti: I took a freezing shower in the plaster shop, they took me to lunch, put me on a plane, and I was back within 24 hours. It was like stepping into the best Disneyland ride ever.
Eastman: It was really a magical/scary moment as we started getting photographs and some VHS clips of the development over at the Creature Shop in London. Pete and I were just floored. Seeing a person standing next to a full-size clay sculpture of one of the Turtles—it just sent shivers down your spine.
Hoag: I was doing pre-production on Ninja Turtles while I was wrapping up Cadillac Man with Robin Williams. I’d literally zip out of there every Friday then zip back Sunday night and shoot, and it was funny because it was Robin who asked me, “Where are you going? You are out of here.” And I said, “I’m shooting another movie.” And he said, “Well, what’s the title of the movie?” Now, I didn’t know there was a cartoon. I didn’t know anything about it. I’d never heard of Ninja Turtles beforehand. And so when he asked me, I was embarrassed. And I think I mumbled it a little bit. I was like, “Yeah, it’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And he went, “What?” He lost his mind. Because he had the first comic book. He was a fan. And he said, “Are you playing April?” He was so excited. From then on I was like, “I’m in a movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Judith Hoag as April O’Neil. New Line Cinema
Part IV: “I Want to Kill Everybody in This Room”
TMNT takes place in New York, but Golden Harvest couldn’t afford to shoot the majority of the movie there. In the summer of 1989, the production set up shop in a slightly rickety studio in Wilmington, North Carolina, outfitted with a makeshift city skyline and underground tunnels.
Henson: State representatives came to London to talk us all into going and shooting in North Carolina. The Dino De Laurentiis studio had bankrupted and the bank had basically said to the state, “What can you do?” So when we shot Ninja Turtles, the state actually owned that studio and were trying to drum up business.
Eastman: We went down to the set in Wilmington when they started shooting in July of ’89. This hot, sweaty North Carolina location. Walking through the maze of the backlot, getting to where they were doing a night shoot, we come around the corner of New York City lit up in all its grandeur, and see all the actors fully dressed in the suits. That’s the first time we’d seen them live and up close and in person. It was just jaw-droppingly mind-blowing. Holy shit, you guys did it. You pulled it off.
Henson: Every day we thought, “What we’re doing is impossible.” You can’t have a bunch of animatronic turtles with people inside the costumes fighting in a burning building and flying through windows and doing backflips and going through manhole covers.