Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Filmmakers Extol Michael Bay’s Comedy Sensibilities, Fan-Friendliness
Perhaps no movie coming out this summer has been as preemptively trash-talked as the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with Transformers fans terrified that producer Michael Bay will do for the pizza-loving foursome that he did to Bumblebee, literally pissing on (and figuratively pissing off) people. Soon enough, people will be able to make up their own minds – tune in later today for our review to get a sense of where those thoughts might go.
But first, let’s hear straight from the filmmakers themselves what you may or may not have gotten wrong about your fears. Speaking with director Jonathan Liebesman, producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, and writers Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec and Evan Daugherty, I had the chance to ask them everything. The early script where they were aliens, the nostrils and lips, the influence of Michael Bay…nothing was off limits. What you learn may surprise you.
Luke Y. Thompson: Jonathan, I was wondering, is there a South African sci-fi clique with you and Neill Blomkamp and Gavin Hood?
Jonathan Liebesman: Listen, the truth is, we all grew up on the same movies. And I can’t speak for those directors, but I imagine they saw the same films I did, which were only the big Hollywood movies brought to South Africa. We didn’t get a lot of smaller movies, and so we grew up on a diet of massive science fiction films, and fell in love with those movies.
Also, we’re in the generation where a lot of directors saw Star Wars, and that was the movie that [made them]want to make films. I think that ultimately that’s where that all stems from. It’s not just that South Africans are into science fiction, but I think if you look left and right, every film maker of this generation loves the ability to take stories that they saw as kids and loved, and try to make them even more real with today’s technology, like Ninja Turtles.
LYT: Since almost day one, this has been referred to by the fans as “Michael Bay’s Ninja Turtles.” How do you guys, as the creative forces behind it, feel about that? Is it just like, “Fine, let Michael Bay take the heat from the fan-boy nitpickers, we’ll do our own thing,” or is it like, “Hey, we want some credit here”?
Brad Fuller: Well, we’re all a team. The four of us – Michael’s not here right now – but we’re all a team. Drew, Michael and I have been working together for fourteen years. Liebo [Liebesman] made a movie for us seven years ago, so we all know each other very well. We’re very comfortable with Michael’s name being front-and-center, and I think were it not for his involvement, we wouldn’t be able to have made this movie the way that we wanted to make [it].
Andrew Form: And by the way, it would be really weird if it was “Brad Fuller’s Ninja Turtles.” [all chuckle]That would be odd.
LYT: You mean it would be weird billing, or it would be a weirder movie?
AF: Yes. Weird billing.
BF: But listen – Michael knows ILM and how to work ILM and how to get the best out of that group, and we all kind of drafted off of his experience on Transformers 4. We were lucky to have a lot of the same artists that he had on Transformers 4. I think that the quality of the movie is a combination of Bay’s relationships and Leibo’s ability to direct it, so I think it was a very good and strong team.
JL: I also think having his name on the movie allows you to have an amount of money that you can create a scope and a sandbox for your Ninja Turtles to play in that they would never have with most other film makers. And not only that, but from years of directing, when Bay is involved, you want to live up to that bar of action that he sets. And so you I was always pushing myself and putting pressure on myself, and watching Bay’s Transformers 4 reel that he would send over.
He’d say, “Look what I shot in 20 days!” And I would get depressed and want to shoot myself in the head, but it would sort of spur me on to make my movie better. And not only that, but a guy like Bay, I think, is incredibly underrated for his comedy. Incredibly underrated. His action is strong, that goes without saying, but if you look at his movies like Bad Boys, whether it’s the first Transformers – the comedy is super strong. So having his input and ideas on those scenes is invaluable, and at the end of the day, who cares who gets credit, because the movie is better for it.
And so his name allows you to play in a sandbox you wouldn’t get to play in, and to have access to technology you wouldn’t be able to have access to, without his name on the movie.
LYT: For example, you use longer takes in this than he has in some of his movies. How much of the visual style do you feel is yours, and how much was there pressure to, in any way, emulate his, if there was any at all?
JL: Um – I think – OK, let me start with this: Michael Bay has one of the best eyes in Hollywood. I don’t give a shit if you like his movies or don’t like his movies, they connect with audiences. And I think they connect with audiences because he has an ability to create shots that make you want to watch the next shot.
And so I wanted to allow myself to totally be influenced by his way of framing. I love film makers like Alfonso Cuar?n, who do super-long takes, or Spielberg, who’s able to do four compositions in one shot. So that’s an influence too.
So how can I take bits of Michael Bay’s framing and, because we know the movie is going to be in 3-D, try and have longer shots and things like the snow chase and stuff like that, where there are opportunities, and Michael was completely supportive of that stuff. We would show him the pre-vis of these ridiculously long shots, and he never once said to me, “Cut it up! That’s bullshit.” He never said that. So that’s a sort of testament to the fact that he lets someone have their own voice on the movie.
But I allow myself to be influenced by his visual style, because it’s a fucking incredible style that, you know, it’s almost like you had Tony Scott, then Michael Bay took that to the very next level, and I think it’s great to allow yourself to be influenced by that.
LYT: You’ve come on board existing franchise reboots before, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and even the short “Rings” film. In all of those cases, there was another director before that took the heat for being the one who reboots.
JL: Smart, right?
LYT: How does it feel being the one who gets to do the first one now?
JL: I think it’s cool. Listen, I love taking, like with “Rings,” a world that’s incredibly thought out and sort of extrapolating off of that. And I think creating a world is exciting too. We had the cartoon and the movies before us, and the comic books, to build from. So even though it’s the first one, there’s a lot of material that the producers and I would always look at and make sure we had our favorite stuff in there from.
I mean, we’re all such massive fans of Ninja Turtles. And I will say, that’s the one thing that I can’t wait for fans to see, because I just watched the movie last night, and I loved the movie and am satisfied, and I can’t wait for them to understand that we are as big fans as them, and I’ve never seen producers like Michael, Brad and Drew, who take fans more seriously. All the shit that they get, I’ve never seen a film maker care as much to satisfy fans as possible. We would find out from the set that fans would hate this, and he would go “Don’t fucking do it!” He wouldn’t let us do it. So there’s a lot of respect.
BF: That was the worst impersonation of Michael Bay, and I’m glad you got that on tape.
LYT: I think that you guys have previously said that Freddy Krueger was the big ‘get’ in terms of remakes and reboots, but this is obviously a whole other level. How do the fan bases compare between doing something like this and doing something like Nightmare on Elm Street again?
BF: Well, the good news is that a lot of the fans are younger, and so that is a totally different audience for us. Freddy Krueger’s fans are usually people that are in their 20’s and 30’s, or beyond that. So this is an opportunity for my kids to see what I’m doing and enjoy it.
Freddy Krueger was the big get – I should have said in the horror world, because we’ve all been – Drew and I – have been fans of the Turtles forever, and it’s kind of a dream come true to be able to work with them every day.
LYT: Did you guys anticipate how big a deal the nostrils would be to fans?
AF: Lips and nostrils?
BF: What do you mean? [all laugh]We all designed the Turtles. Liebo led the design, Michael was involved in it. We were always convinced that no matter the way we designed it, there would be people who would have problems.
AF: Everyone has their version of what the Turtles should look like. I mean, Eastman and Laird drew them 30 years ago, and then we saw them in the Jim Henson suits in the ’90s, you see them in the cartoons. We knew that we were going to create our own Turtles in 2014, and use the motion capture, and we own that design and we put it out there. We love the design, and we feel like once people see the movie and they realize the personality of the Turtles are coming through perfectly, then if you were a little off on the design, maybe when you saw an image or something, that would go away in one second. No matter what, the Turtles are there. We were very true to the canon. The personalities are coming through on these Turtles, and we wanted to make sure that happened.
JL: I wanted them to be more badass, and I think that’s what the design achieves. I just wanted them to be badass. What I liked about – Bay wanted them to be distinctive and look big. I love that. I love that they have weight. I love when Leonardo lands in the rooftop scene and goes “Boom!” Lands in front of Raphael, they are these big, scary things and they tower over Meg. I think that’s – I don’t know – I think that’s larger than life and awesome, and an extremely valid take. It’s exciting to me. I think fans will agree. I mean, I’m a fan, and I think they’re awesome.
We were very inspired by fan art that had been done over the last 30 years. These designs – we didn’t just pull them out. They’re inspired by people who love the Ninja Turtles as much as any fan.
LYT: What influenced the last-minute Johnny Knoxville voice casting?
AF: Buddy, what do you think?
BF: I mean, listen – we got lucky. To have the opportunity to work with Johnny was amazing. He’s in the Paramount family, and we were talking about ideas for Leonardo, and it was a no-brainer for us.
JL: He’s got a great leadership quality that’s pretty effortless, which I like. And it’s not like an arrogant one. Leonardo is a character that is the leader, but is unsure of himself, and is constantly questioned by his brothers.
One thing I think people don’t realize about Knoxville is he was incredibly directable. I remember in the ADR booth, you’d give him six different directions and he’d take all of them and do three different things. He’s very malleable in that way, and I think his voice naturally gives you a sense of leadership, but a sense of vulnerability that Leonardo has in this movie.
LYT: What’s up with the Friday the 13th reboot sequel? Is that coming along at all?
BF: You know what? We are working on a story. We have just have not found the exact script that we’re going to make, and frankly, Drew and I have been so committed to this movie that we’re very focused on Turtles, and then when this comes out, then we’ll probably have more time to really sit in a room and figure out…
AF: Brad, there was a rumor that…
BF: What was the rumor?
[all in unison] There was a rumor that Jason would not be in Friday the 13th Part Two.
BF: If Platinum Dunes is making Friday the 13th, Jason is going to be in it – I can tell you that for sure.
JL: Brad, there was a rumor that it would take place on a Wednesday. [laughter]
BF: Wednesday the 11th. That’s the double prequel.
Next: the writers!
Luke Y. Thompson: Which two of you worked together as collaborators?
Evan Daugherty: We made this complicated.
LYT: What was the process like? Do you all three talk to each other between drafts, or did the two of you do one then he did one?
Andre Nemec: That’s pretty much how it went.
ED: It was these guys, then me, and then these guys again. So it literally – that’s appropriate.
Josh Applebaum: The movie has everybody’s ideas in it…
JA:… in one way or the other. It really feels like a collaboration, in a great way.
ED: A good combo.
LYT: The script that infamously leaked online, where they were aliens from Dimension X and had the Technodrome and Colonel Schrader for Shredder, was that any of you guys? Was that ever a real thing?
JA: That was a real thing at one point.
AN: That was definitely part of the conversation at one point, for sure.
JA: And that conversation, just to say – I know we brought this up at Comic-Con – that was with Kevin Eastman. We were excited about the idea that Dimension X was a real thing. The idea that the ooze had come from this other sort of planet/dimension – so it was just playing around with the idea that what if the Turtles, they didn’t know that they were from this other place. They thought the story we all thought, that there was ooze in the sewers and that’s where they were raised, but they were to find out that they were from another place. But we think the movie ended up in a better place than we were at back then.
ED: In fairness, there is some small alien origin to…
JA: Yeah, no.
AN: There was an alien origin story that is legitimate to the canon. It’s just, again, movies go through development periods, and ideas are tried and worked out. But as Josh said, I think we ended up at the best version of this movie.
LYT: And it’s very lightly alluded to here, when she points to the ooze, there’s the TGRI logo and all of that. So you guys sort of have in mind where it’s going to go if this one does well? That seems like an obvious sort of hint as to the next direction.
ED: Absolutely. I know they wanted to have that element still in there, because I think that opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of storytelling, what you can do in subsequent. I have no idea what that might be, but it opens up a lot of.
AN: Yes, there are a lot of avenues we can charge down with another movie, for sure.
LYT: But also, with that older script, there was so much – it’s not just the other dimension. There’s the Technodrome and all of that. Did anyone just say, “Budget can’t handle this”?
JA: That was a big conversation, which was let’s save this stuff for the second movie, the third movie. It was really – there were so many ideas packed into that script. The feeling was, let’s keep this in New York, let’s meet April, let’s meet the Turtles, let’s bring Shredder into it, let’s kind of start in the most base place with this, and then build from there.
LYT: How much does the final movie represent what you guys wrote? Were there changes made afterwards?
AN: It’s a good mixture of all the stuff we did.
JA: A little bit of something from everyone.
LYT: There are so many iterations of the Turtles. How do you pick and choose what to use from each one? There’s 30 years or so of material, and obviously you’ve got a lot of fans who are going to want it to be exactly the same as what they know, but there are so many different iterations of what they actually know, how do you choose what to take from each one?
ED: I think we were talking about how we all have different touch stones in terms of what the Ninja Turtles mean to us. And obviously, everyone does. The tricky thing is that each person, if they’re really die-hard Turtle fans, think that’s the one that sort of belongs to them, and that’s the one they want to see a movie version of.
So for me, I was right at the age of being obsessed with the cartoon and the early live action movies. So that, to me, is what feels like a Ninja Turtles movie, and I tried to infuse as much of that as possible into it, but these guys, I think, have…
JA: Yeah, I was – the original Eastman and Laird comics and the movies were touchstones for me, and I think that as we were also talking about before, for as much as there have been different iterations of the Turtles, there has been, also, some common ground amongst all of them, which is the personalities of the Turtles, and pairing them up with April and having Shredder be the bad guy. So the decision was as long as we’re true to who the Turtles are as characters, then we’re in good shape.
AN: The actual physical representation of them is something that we wanted to do, again, our own version of it, and bring up to date. But as Josh was saying, the characters remain consistent.
LYT: How much of their new looks was described in the script, and how much of that was art department? Because they’re so much more individualized than in almost any incarnation, except maybe those Jim Lee action figures from way back.
AN: They were pretty well described in the script. One of the early versions, the idea was, really, to give them that feel and that look, and to sort of take a little bit of the ‘cute’ away from them, and sort of get them a little bit bigger, get them a little bit tougher, get them a little bit more rugged. That was definitely something that we wanted to lean into.
LYT: Did you actually describe “Michelangelo has a seashell necklace,” you know?
ED: I think that a lot of that was Jonathan and working with Michael Bay to really sort of hone in on that stuff. Certainly, when I came on board, they had the four maquettes.
ED: You probably saw – those were the guys, pretty much. And it was cool, because, as you were saying, the idea was to sort of toughen them up, or muscularize them a little bit. But it was fun, because that gave you the opportunity to have the Turtles – the way it informs the writing is you’re able to have the Turtles do a lot, sort of cooler things, bigger things. The original live action films, as much as I love them, it’s a lot…
AN: Kick, punch.
ED:…kick, punch, martial arts on a ground level. These Turtles enable you to have a kind of three-dimensional Ninja battles that take advantage of all these great spaces and locations.
LYT: How long was this in development? I sort of get the sense that maybe there could have been a process of waiting for technology to catch up with what you all actually wanted to do here. Was there a long period of that?
ED: I know it was in development for a long time. I read a draft of this in 2008, I think, that was other writers.
AN: Well before us.
ED: Which was a totally different story. Shows you how many directions you could go. In that version, there were thousands and thousands of mutants living in an underground city, which was interesting. But I don’t know. I don’t know if it was about the technology, necessarily.
JA: I think there was – I actually think there was a somewhat conscious decision of how and why do you bring them back? Knowing that now with this motion capture technology that you could be completely modern, a completely new way of looking at the Turtles, I think it felt like the right time, and the right place.
LYT: I think all of us have said at one point that someday there was going to be a Turtles movie where they’re all CGI.
LYT: That’s going to happen. For me, the biggest change is the character of Hamato Yoshi isn’t in this. Why the choice to elminate that?
ED: Good question. Splinter, in other words. Or his master.
LYT: Well, Splinter or his master, depending on which iteration. But the grudge between him and Shredder has always been a key thing.
ED: Good question.
AN: I think part of it was tying the origin story back into April’s world. I think that in doing that, it necessitated having to shift away from the origin story of Splinter and his master, and the conflict that his master had with his brother and the wife. I think all of that back story, again, we just needed to shift, in order to tell an origin story that was parallel with April’s origin story.
LYT: And Eric Sacks, the name pretty clearly sounds like an Americanization of Oroku Saki, but was he based on any other characters in the lore?
ED: Good question. I don’t know if he was based on any other characters. I think he was just a little bit of a sort of misdirect, I guess, in terms of someone that you think is the primary villain of the story, and who you discover over the course of the film may not be.
LYT: Although the film kind of plays it like it’s a surprise that he’s the bad guy, as well. The marketing says he’s the Shredder, but then the film says he’s a good guy, at first. It’s like a double bluff.
ED: Try to keep the audience on their toes, right?
JA: We wanted you to wonder if we were bluffing. It was only a bluff. [laughter]
LYT: I want to close with the nerdiest question you’ll probably get all day: Michelangelo, spelled correctly like the name of the artist, traditionally in Turtles his name has not been spelled correctly, it’s had the extra ‘a’. Conscious decision or no?
ED: Very good question, and I think that will be the nerdiest question!
AN: You’re correct.
LYT: Conscious decision?
AN: I think we did make a conscious decision when we were looking at it. I remember we, early on, we were talking, how exactly does he spell his name, versus the artist? So yeah – it was a conscious decision.