Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 25 years later: From comic book to movie

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Dec 8, 2015

In 2015, it’s not hard to imagine a film inspired by a comic book becoming widely successful at the box office and with audiences. These days, a comic-book film seems to be premiering every few months, with many achieving blockbuster success. Back in the ‘80s, however, this was hardly the case. By the late ‘80s, the two films that people probably thought of most when thinking of new comic-book movies were very different entries in the genre: 1986’s odd and not widely successful Howard the Duck and 1989’s gritty triumph Batman. These two films created an interesting landscape for another comic-book film to try and break out of its pages and onto the big screen: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Twenty-five years ago, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film arrived in theaters. Considering the two movies it was following, it could have served as another example of why comic books—at least featuring non-humans— wouldn’t work in movies or could pave the way for comic-book films by continuing what Batman started. While the turtles had already made the jump from comics to television, the property moving to theaters would be far from easy.

From Sewer To Hollywood

Thomas Gray, the executive in charge of production for the original film, first heard of the comic created by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman from writer Bobby Herbeck. At the time, Gray was working in Los Angeles as head of production for renowned Hong Kong film studio Golden Harvest, which was known for its movies featuring stars Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. While working with Herbeck on a project, the writer kept bringing up the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Kim Dawson, who was working in television and had been told by comedian Gallagher’s road manager Gary Propper about the series, brought it to Herbeck’s attention. For months, Herbeck told Gray he had to look at the Turtles, telling him they were succeeding on television and the toys were starting to sell.

Gray, however, felt he could not bring it to his people in Hong Kong. Eventually, Herbeck told Gray that Dawson was in town and wanted to meet, which Gray agreed to.

“During the meeting, I was really not focusing at all, and Kim was really pitching very hard and so was Bobby, telling me it’s really going to be great and everything. I wasn’t buying it,” Gray said. “Then, I was kind of leaving and getting out of the booth, and I picked up one of the magazines and I had that preverbal moment where you say, ‘I got it! I see it!’ And what I saw was we have the best Kung Fu people in the world at Golden Harvest and it’s a ninja movie, so it’s not that much stress.”

Gray laid out his plan to Chow. He explained the idea and how it could be made for about $3.5 million, with little risk attached.

Building a Green Machine Movie Team

Todd Langen, a writer from The Wonder Years, was brought on to work on Herbeck’s script, “adding a lot of flavor to it,” according to Gray. For the director, Gray went with Steve Barron, who, by the time they were introduced, was well known for his work in the music industry. Barron had already directed a number of music videos for iconic songs, including Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” Bryan Adam’s “Summer of ’69” and A-ha’s “Take on Me.”

“I said ‘yea, that’s the kind of guy that can take the comic book and really get it going’ so we had a meeting with Steve and his partner at that time, [producer] Simon Fields, and we all agreed that we could make this movie, but we really needed the technology and the creativity of someone like Jim Henson ...” Gray explained. “They had a very good relationship with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, based in London. I said, ‘Guys, we’re not going to be able to make this movie for $3.5 million. No way.’ They said, ‘Well, I think Jim might be interested in doing this at a reduced price because it’s kind of a departure from the Muppets and everything else, so let’s see.’”

In the documentary Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Barron says that Jim Henson almost didn’t do the movie “because he was really not happy with early on the violence in it in relation to his Muppets and his fanbase. It was something very risky for him to put his name to.” However the Creature Shop agreed to work on the film. Now the budget was getting closer to $8 million, a figure that was not exactly welcome to Gray’s people in Hong Kong. Whether the movie would be made came down to whether Gray could raise the money. He went to every studio, but nobody was interested.

“They wouldn’t even touch it because Howard the Duck had just been released by the mighty George Lucas and conventional wisdom was it was a comic book. If the mighty George Lucas can’t make money in this genre, how can you? You’re nobody. And I said, ‘Well, here’s the difference. Howard the Duck was not on television. It didn’t have a growing popularity in merchandising, and I have Jim Henson,’ so with all of that pitch, everybody said, ‘No, no, no, I’m not putting my name on the next Howard the Duck.’ So, everybody passed,” Gray said.

"If the mighty George Lucas can’t make money in this genre, how can you?"

According to Gray, Fox ended up making a deal to provide the money to make the film, but a change within Fox ultimately resulted in them pulling out. At this point, the movie had already started production in London to work on the animatronics and get the turtles working without any wires. With a start date of July 1989, Gray had to tell Chow the bad news and that, if they didn’t come up with the money, they would get sued. When asked how well he thought the film would do, Gray said he thought they would at least make their money back. As a result, Chow said he would find the money for the film and he did, allowing it to move forward. Eventually, New Line Cinema would also step up.

“[New Line Cinema] lowballed me on the price, but nevertheless agreed to go and release it, and there were a couple heroes at New Line that really believed in it, Sara Risher and Mitch Goldman, who really saw that this film could do well,” Gray said.

Casting Mutant Turtles and Reporters

Actors David Forman (Leonardo), Leif Tilden (Donatello), Michelan Sisti (Michelangelo), and Josh Pais (Raphael) would end up portraying the heroes in a half shell. Only Pais would also voice his character however. The others would have their voices replaced by Brian Tochi (Leonardo), Corey Feldman (Donatello), and Robbie Rist (Michelangelo).

Pais told Blastr that, when his agent originally told him he had an audition for the lead turtle, he couldn’t wrap his mind around the unique title of the film. He did, however, think the script was great when he read it. For the role, he drew on his experience growing up in the East Village, Alphabet City part of New York City, where he had seen people try to make themselves physically bigger to appear as tough as possible.

“I had this notion that that would be great for Raphael, and so I kind of experimented with a way that he moved and the whole physicality and I went in and auditioned for it and brought all that New York energy into it, and then I got the part,” Pais said.

The fact that he also voiced Raphael was tied to this element he brought to the role.

“They felt that what I had created was so comprehensive that they just couldn’t imagine anybody else doing the voice, because the voice was so connected to the physicality I had created and I was speaking while we were shooting. All the turtles were. We were all speaking but because we were inside the suit the sound was unusable, just too muffled,” he explained.

Pais flew to the Creature Shop in London to be body casted in plaster for his costume. During the process they just left two straws in his nostrils for him to breathe through, and he was kept in longer than necessary to see how he would react to being confined in such a way. The process behind the suit’s creation was as intense as wearing it.

"For Raphael, that character and my perception of that character just working through so much stuff, he had so much inner angst and frustration and anger, and so in a sense the suit was very helpful because it generated all those sensations in me"

“It weighed 70 pounds. From morning to the lunch break we would each lose at least five pounds and you know, it’s a great way to get ripped getting sealed in latex with a computer on your back and then running around,” Pais said. “On some level for Raphael, that character and my perception of that character just working through so much stuff, he had so much inner angst and frustration and anger, and so in a sense the suit was very helpful because it generated all those sensations in me and I just had to put the suit on and just be really truthful.”

Pais said that everything was basically alright while they were shooting, but that changed once they stopped, especially if it was after a physical sequence that required energy. Sometimes, if something technical went wrong with the suits or they broke down, they could be stopped for a half hour to an hour between takes.

“A turtle’s face would just stop moving, for example, so then we would just be in these suits sitting around and that’s when at one point or another each of us had our own freak out, because you felt like your blood was boiling. A lot of the shoots, we had to do blind, because we literally could not see, or if we could see, it was through the tiniest slits under the turtle’s eyes, so the hard part was when we were in costume and not shooting,” Pais said. “Eventually, they built these kind of benches for us that we could sit on and they would start shooting compressed air in our faces just to keep us going. They created like a little air conditioned room for us so that made things better.”

The trial of the suits is one well remembered by actress Judith Hoag, who portrayed April O’Neil in the movie. She told Blastr that it was easy to be in a scene with the turtles because the suits were well made and the actors inhabited the characters well, but the challenge came when they had to be removed from a scene if there were problems.

“You’d be acting by yourself, and that part was kind of hard sometimes, but you know you just use your imagination and you play. It was a total joy working with that level of creativity and the newness of the technology was just exciting,” she said.

As with Pais, the title made an impression on Hoag when she first saw the script in her agent’s Times Square office. She was working on the film Cadillac Man at the time, but went in to audition for the part of April despite the weird title, since it had a good script. While at first, it looked like she wouldn’t be able to do the film after receiving the role due to conflicting dates with Cadillac Man, it eventually worked out and Hoag would travel between New York and North Carolina to work on the two films at the same time.

While Hoag was excited to work with everyone on the movie and was learning more about the turtles, she still didn’t feel that it was exactly a cool film to be working on. A conversation with the late Robin Williams, who was also in Cadillac Man, changed that. When asked on Cadillac Man where she was running off to from the set, she would say she was doing a movie with a kind of weird name and mumble the title.

“Robin said ‘What?’ And I said ‘it’s called the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,’ and he went, ‘You’re kidding? They’re making the movie?’ and I said, ‘yeah.’ He said ‘I have the first comic book. Are you April?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he was like, ‘That is so cool’ and he was really excited about it and it sort of gave me my street cred,” Hoag said. “Then, when the movie premiered, he flew his family in from San Francisco and they came to the premiere.”

Success Leads to More Films

The film debuted in theaters March 30 and became a huge success. It broke records when it made around $25 million its opening weekend and would go on to make about $135 million domestically.

“When we were shooting, people said this is going to be a phenomenon, but, you know, I’ve heard that before,” Pais said. “So, I always go along like, yeah. I’m always optimistic, but I didn’t expect the level that this would be that we’re talking about it 25 years later. That I don’t think anyone expected, that level of appreciation and popularity.”

Gray may have been hesitant about the Turtles in the beginning, but he told Blastr that, by the time of the movie’s release, he was not surprised it would do well after seeing how the Turtles had grown and how well the toys sold the Christmas before. It all came together at the right time for the film, according to Gray. It was the culmination in a way of a chain of events that started with Surge Licensing founder Mark Freedman reaching out to Laird and Eastman about the comics and bringing the turtles to Playmates Toys, which led to producer Fred Wolf creating the successful animated series that would help sell the toys leading to those impressive Christmas sales right before the movie.

"Everybody that passed on the picture called me Monday morning and said, ‘My god, why didn’t we see this? We should have taken the movie. Can we have the sequel?’" 

“I had a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking. Everybody that passed on the picture called me Monday morning and said, ‘My god, why didn’t we see this? We should have taken the movie. Can we have the sequel?’ And I said, ‘No, no, no I’m staying with New Line’ and we did two more of these,” Gray said.

Gray said they crammed everything they could, including Vanilla Ice, into the second film that premiered just a year later to try and keep the franchise going before waiting a year and then returning with the third. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II would be released in 1991, making about $78 million domestically, while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III would make $42 million domestically when released in 1993. Seeing their profits going in the opposite direction of their increasing budgets, they decided to end at three.

However, the Turtles remained popular in pop culture and, 17 years after the original film, the franchise would return to the big screen in 2007 with the CGI TMNT produced by Imagi Animation Studios. Gray had joined the Hong Kong-based company a few years before and said that they saw the Turtles on his resume and asked him about doing an animated film, to which he said sure. The film would end up grossing around $54 million domestically.

That film’s director, Kevin Munroe, was already a fan of the Turtles when he came to the project. He told Blastr that, about a year after the comic book was created, he bought a copy of the first issue and began collecting them. He remembers seeing the original film in theaters and said the fun, grittiness of the film — which was a relatively new vibe at that time — drew him to the movie. When he was working at Imagi and heard they were trying to make the animated film, the filmmaker and Turtle fan was hungry to try and get the first film off the ground so he began pitching ideas. He eventually met Laird and the two spent a day discussing everything from life to the movie.

“I actually brought that issue one that I got to him, because I figured, if I don’t get the job, at least I could get Peter to sign it, because I had Kevin sign it before. So, he signed it for me and then during the drive back to the airport, I opened it up and looked at the comic and there was a drawing of Raphael and Peter had written, ‘Make a good movie or else’ and that was how I found out I got the job,” he said.

Munroe said he thinks TMNT was really kind of intended to be a continuation of the world seen in the 1990 film, since they didn’t want to do a reboot and Laird did not want to retell the origin story. The film was thought of more as their continuing adventures after those events. This can be seen in various nods the film makes to the original, from the trophy room to the background design.

“We watched Steve’s movie a couple of times just because it was a good thing to sort of see where’d they’d been. The film is still the strongest out of all those three. So we would actually take dialogue clips from the first movie and do dialogue tests, taking the dialogue from the first movie but with our Turtle models,” Munroe said.

After Munroe’s film the Turtles would reappear in a live-action setting in 2014 with Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which would make $191 million domestically. The movie acted as a reboot and any connections to the original are harder to see. However, in its 2016 sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, fans will see a familiar face when Hoag appears in a cameo. She told Blastr being a part of the upcoming film was a lot of fun and they were excited for her to be there.

“It is a fun part and it was a really lovely sort of full circle experience because I was literally shooting across the street from my agent’s office where I was when I got that [1990] job, and to be standing shooting in Times Square 25 years later still connected to this movie was just a lovely experience,” she said. “It’s like, wow, this was just a job. You had no idea going into it it would have the kind of life that it has had.”

The Turtle Power Continues For Fans

Beyond the impact the original film has had in the Turtle’s continued film franchise, it has also left a legacy outside the Turtle world we see on screen when it comes to the passion it ignited in fans. Years after its release, the original film continues to have a dedicated fanbase, which Munroe witnessed in action when TMNT was released.

When we opened up our movie on Friday, it was halfway through the day and Warner Bros. was a little disappointed because they thought it might open up at number three or number four for the weekend, because it wasn’t really doing crazy daytime business on the Friday it was released,” he said. “What was funny was, as soon as five o’clock hit on the east coast, all of the numbers started to spike, because it was everybody who grew up watching the very first time, who were getting off of work now because they were adults and that was the thing that pushed that movie to number one for that weekend, was actually, you could see that it was the fanbase. That movie just endures.”

Pais thinks part of what sparked fan’s passion for the film was how kids were being immersed in a world that might have been a little scary due to its dark elements, but never became too scary in part because of the comedic aspects balancing it out.

"This was just these funny guys, these turtles that wanted to have a good time, and they got into these situations where they were being threatened, but the overall goodness of the turtles, I think, captured something.”

“It was like a very perfect balance which so many movies I think attempt to do but rarely accomplish. Usually a lot of movies that try to do that, sometimes when it gets to the comedic section it just feels so manipulated and in a sense inorganic to the story, whereas this was just these funny guys, these turtles that wanted to have a good time, and they got into these situations where they were being threatened, but the overall goodness of the turtles, I think, captured something,” he said.

Hoag has witnessed the passion fans have for the movie firsthand.

“I have to say that the Ninja Turtle fans are super cool, incredibly devoted. I’ll get, like, three generations. I’ll get, like, Dad started watching, turned his kid on, and now the grandchild is watching which makes me feel really old but it’s really lovely,” Hoag said. “I’ve been working for so long and I have a pretty long resume and I do a movie, I do a television show, and then I just move on to the next thing, and I appreciate some people like them, but it’s rare that something that you do has this kind of staying power. That part is really neat and I think that I just continue to be shocked by the whole thing. Pleasantly surprised over and over and over again.”

Fans are often not shy about expressing their love for the movie and its characters. Hoag has started going to conventions, where she’ll have fans tell her she was their first crush, an idea she said she finds sweet. Seeing kids love the movie as much as the adults is something she also loves.  

“It just seems to have this staying power that’s cool. It’s like you know, how many times can you watch Star Wars? I can watch it over and over and over again. I love that movie. So, people have that same experience with this and I feel really blessed and grateful that I got to be a part of it,” she said.

Twenty-five years may have passed since the turtles made their big screen debut, but that film’s impact is continuing to be felt to this day. If it hadn’t been a success and instead followed the path of Howard the Duck, perhaps comic book movies wouldn’t be as prevalent today. Who knows if we ever would have seen another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film? That’s a world fans will never have to know of course. It’s safe to say that in some form at least, the movie industry will probably always keep bringing the turtles to theaters and fans have the original film to thank for that.