TMNT Studio Visit!

By ON

In the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” movie, simply titled TMNT, peculiar incidences are happening in New York City, but that’s not the only strange thing taking place. The Turtles are at odds after Leonardo leaves for a mission in South America and while he is gone, the brothers change and they begin to do things that go against what Splinter has taught them. The family is starting to fall apart and it’s up to Leonardo and Splinter to bring them back together.

ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! was invited to visit Imagi’s headquarters in Sherman Oaks where we got to see about 10 minutes of clips from the upcoming film. The first scene that we saw was of Splinter narrating the movie.

“‘A family is a bond that cannot be broken by war, by strife, by force or neglect. More importantly, you are brothers and brothers you shall remain despite time, argument and even distance’”

There were a lot of action and fighting scenes which included Leonardo and Raphael about to battle it out. There were a lot of monsters, ones that have not been seen in previous movies and the film has a darker tone than the others.

In addition to watching the clips, we talked to the writer/director Kevin Munroe and producer Tom Gray about the CG animated film.

CS/SHH!: Why remake this film?

Tom Gray: CG is the easy answer. You know if you go back and look at where we were going with the first three, we did $132 million, $84 million and $42 million. The budgets were going the other way. 11, 16, 21. They were going in the wrong direction. After the third picture, we got together with New Line. The next one would be $30 million and maybe it would make $25 million. So it was going in the wrong direction. We let the rights expire and that was with Golden Harvest. I left that company in ’98. A lot of people trying to put it together with I think John Woo at one point mentioned. It was a Korean company who tried to put it together on a tax deal that never got going. When I joined this animation company in 2004, the question became what about turtles in CG? Knowing how inexpensive it would be to do it verses live action, because live action would be a hundred and some odd million dollars today. So CG became something that was economically to do, plus we could do a lot more interesting things in CG that we couldn’t do in live action for budgetary restrictions. We didn’t have the money to make a $140 million picture. I guess that’s the real motivation to do it and we felt that there was enough interest out there that we could come back and keep it going.

CS/SHH!: It looks very mature for an animated film. Is it going to be PG-13?

Gray: Well I’ll start it and then I’ll hand it over to Kevin. We wanted to take care of our fan base first of all. Those were what we called the alums that were with us back in the ’90s. We wanted to make a movie that would satisfy them. Push it a little bit, but not get into the PG-13. I think we’re very much borderline right now. In fact, we’ve had to take a look at that on some of the action scenes. That core audience for us in that 7-11. The new generation that’s seen it on the television. Then of course most importantly to us are the fan base which is the 18-25 that were there years and years ago. Those are the two segments. Probably not a lot in between, but those segments are the ones we really aimed it at without trying to dumb it down to be too much cowabunga. I’ll hand it off to Kevin and it’s his inspiration, his vision. What this film would be like in today’s market.

Kevin Munroe: It’s a family film. It’s funny because it has such a negative connotation. It’s sort of my first thing I had to get over when we started this. This idea that family is not a bad word and that family does not equal cutesy talking animals. It just means I can go with my dad and he’s going to enjoy it just as much as I am. The Imagi guys have this really great sort of philosophy when it comes to the brand. They’ve tried this whole Venus de Milo and the female turtle and how can we bring the female audience in. They finally got to a place where they’re like it’s a boy’s property. $6 billion dollars later I don’t think you can complain about it too much. Just for the movie itself, it’s just the quintessential movie. It’s just big and fun. I think the one thing we really wanted to avoid with the movie was sort of those inside jokes purposely played for adults. It works for those sort of rollicking comedies. For this I think you bond across the board with all of these different age demographics just through a level of fun and just through a level of adventure. The characters themselves are just more ageless.

CS/SHH!: And what about the story of Leonardo and Raphael becoming the Night Watcher?

Munroe: When you meet with Pete (Laird) he’s got his sort of 10 Commandments of what the Turtles can and can’t do. There’s a few things that are grey areas. One of them was can one of them have an alter ego? They’ve had other alter egos before. I think Mike was actually a superhero in the new animated series and I think a couple other things they’ve done. It also comes from characters and the characters-based conflict and the idea that Leonardo wants to make the world a better place so he’s going out training and doing this. But, the idea that Raph is going after that same thing that Leo is, but he’s going after it in a completely different way and so how do you take all of that frustration and all of that desire to do good. So you just create a character out of that and he has this great alter ego that really becomes this personification of the sort of difference between Leonardo and Raph throughout the entire movie. Those were new creations specifically for the movie.

CS/SHH!: What about going to Latin America?

Munroe: I think they traveled in some comic book. It’s really funny because when we started the story process, we came up with the screwiest ideas. It was like turtles in space and at the end of it we came back to it just has to be in New York. The thing from the beginning with me is that it had to be about family. In a lot of the other incarnations, they touched on the idea that they’re brothers, but I wanted it to feel like they were actually brothers relating to each other and a family that’s sort of falling apart. We were trying to figure out just plot wise and the franchise has been everywhere. I mean you come up with the dumbest thing. They time travel to Aztec times and Pete is like yeah we did it in 1996. We can’t win and so we ended up with the night watcher and that’s where a lot of that stuff came from.

CS/SHH!: It seems like there are a lot more monsters instead of just Shredder and his guys.

Munroe: Pete was very big on the idea of having a new villain. He didn’t really demand it necessary. I think we all sort of felt that Shredder had been done to a good extent. “Batman Begins” just did it great when they did the kick off with the Joker. It’s a really good idea. Now when he comes back in the next one, that’s cool because now you know who this new Bruce Wayne is and you’ve got that whole set. To a lesser extent, I think it’s the same sort of thing for the Turtles. I think Shredder would make a much bigger impact in I think the second movie than he would in the first one because you’d sort of assume it for the first one which is kind of neat. Pete is a huge monster fan and we always talked about the tone of the movie and I truly loved the tone of “Ghost Busters.” I think it was one of the big things from it and one of the fields we wanted to go. Not necessarily chasing and hunting and all of that other stuff. But, just that level of fun and that level of imagination. It’s still sort of grounded that as long as we go back to the family, there’s something that’s tangible and doesn’t get too silly. That was something we were really sort of cognizant of too. Just making it feel not gritty, but believable.

CS/SHH!: You said it’s rated PG, but pushing PG-13?

Gray: Well contractually we have to deliver a PG. Again, we’ve had some preliminary talks with the rating board. You know it’s funny. You can go and see “Narnia” and it’s really violent. They have different standards for us than they do for “Narnia” or any other PG. They said you can’t really whap somebody with the nunchucks. Throwing stars are definitely out. I remember they were making them in the UK and they were throwing them at football matches. They would launch these things and there was a huge thing. So we had to be very careful. The turtles are something that parents are going to trust that this is not going to be too far out there. We wanted to go far out there. If we had our way, we’d probably be making R or PG-13, but the forces that be in the market place tell you that you’ve got to push it a little bit because times are different, but you can’t cross that line into PG-13. We pulled back. It’s still going to be pretty out there.

Munroe: The biggest enemy is going to be intensity. It’s not violence. It’s never really glorified. It’s always done with the sort of turtles spirit which is cool. It’s not language or blood. It’s sort of just intensity where those fun peaks and valleys come from when you’re telling the story.

CS/SHH!: So how does Michelangelo take out a bad guy?

Munroe: He uses his nunchucks. I think in “Turtles 2″ you guys didn’t use any weapons right?

Gray: Vanilla Ice.

Munroe: They still use their weapons, it’s just you’ve got to kinda cut around it. It’s the implication of a lot of stuff. For some reason, it’s a hot button topic with the nunchucks for some reason, but nobody’s really come down about the katanas. That sort of seems that’s so far out, that it’s not as graspable by kids. You work around it. You push it as much as you can. When you get nailed for it, you try to pull it back a little and still sort of try to maintain what you’re going for.

CS/SHH!: How hard is it to make a movie for a 25-year-old and the same movie for a seven-year-old?

Munroe: You know it’s funny because whenever we first started this, they did a quick survey to track the level of anticipation. The level of anticipation for a 6-11 year-old was the same for 18-25 or something. The idea that that excitement lives equally in both of them I think there is something to the idea that you sit back and remember something from your childhood. I think there’s a visceral quality to it that really isn’t there. When you go back to Speed Racer and it’s not the same as what it was originally. But, you sort of try to recreate that I think for the 25-year-old in a way that’s still going to appeal to him. Especially with today’s audiences, 10 and 11-year-olds are exposed to a lot these days. It’s that “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” intensity. If I was 10-12 and have “Spider-Man 3″ to look forward to I’d be freaking out. It’s sort of tapping into that energy I think. You think it’s hard cerebrally, but you just approach it with a certain aesthetic of fun and what the movie is about.

CS/SHH!: Do you have children in your own life and do you gauge some of this stuff off them if so?

Munroe: I have an eight-year-old and a four-year-old. The oldest one is a girl. The youngest one is a boy.

CS/SHH!: Is this going to pertain equally to them?

Munroe: I don’t know. I like to subscribe to Imagi’s theory that it’s a boy’s property. There’s no denying it. It’s boys. We really boosted April up quite a bit in this movie. I think the Turtles themselves are maybe not as sex specific. Except for maybe Raph who is obviously insanely male and very testosteroney. But, there’s a lot in there. You start accessing the female kid audience more through the humor and the characterization.

CS/SHH!: Do you bounce ideas off of them?

Munroe: I do, yeah. I try not to do it too much because they become so jaded. I’ve done it before on other projects and before it actually gets to color and they’ve seen the movie and grey scale animation, they don’t even care by the time it’s finished. So trying to figure out a way for them to see it on the big screen which is kind of cool. My four-year-old, in the teaser trailer when he falls in the dumpster is directly lifted from him. We’d be sitting in the kitchen and there’s this loud smash in the other room and there’s glass and you hear the cat screech and then there’s this two second pause and you hear “I’m okay.” He runs off and that’s where that came from. It’s fun to bounce stuff off them. The idea is that we didn’t want to tell an origin story all over again. The idea of it sort of being a rebirth story so the idea that they’ve been through all of these adventures. There’s such a mass knowledge in a lot of markets of what the turtles have been and who they’ve been with and so forth. We’re playing off of that, the idea that they’ve been through all of these adventures and now they’re questioning what brings them together as a family and is it only a common foe that binds them as a family. In that respect, yeah we sort of do play off the fact that they’ve had these adventures and they travel back in time and they’ve done all of this stuff. But, now Splinter is worried that his family is falling apart and can they come together without a common foe to sort of bind them. This movie sort of answers that and sort of rebirths them a bit for sort of a new franchise which is kind of fun.

CS/SHH!: Peter Laird is involved in the film?

Gray: Yeah

CS/SHH!: Does he get a credit?

Gray: He gets a credit. He had approvals over almost everything in the script. That was part of going in to obtaining the rights, that Mirage through Peter had to maintain the look, the design, the dialogue, the script, everything – it all had to be approved by Peter. And he gets a credit, a creative credit on screen.

CS/SHH!: Is Kevin Eastman no longer involved?

Gray: No.

CS/SHH!: Can you talk about the design being CG?

Munroe: Yeah, I really wanted to go after this look of just feeling like a comic book. Both in the design and in the rendering of the animation, I think there’s a lot that happens in between panels in the comic book that you fill in. In your mind of how this pose got from here to there, or what happened from there. The idea and the hope that this movie would feel like it’s everything that happens in between those panels. That sounds so stupid and cerebral, but after you get it in motion, hopefully you saw some of the stuff. It’s basically, as they are moving; you can freeze frame the movie. I was going to say 163 times and leak it into the internet, but you can freeze frame it and create a great comic book if you went through it, just the way it’s posed and framed. As far as the lighting of it, I think I said this at Comic-Con, we lit the whole movie in black and white before we added a stitch of color to it, which was really fun just going after that Frank Miller kind of very black and white comic vibe to it just in term of the lighting. In the re-design of the Turtles, I didn’t think we’d get away with Pete, but it was just one of those things where just making them feel like teenagers, just a family of teenagers sitting on the sofa arguing; and what’s in the TV series now works for the TV series, and it’s really great that 2D aspect. But it’s really weird that they’re just so big and buff, they don’t feel like teenagers to me; so when we approached Pete with it, he was all for it, and he was really great. So we just tried to work and make each of them different to match their characteristics and stuff; just really going after the graphic novel. It isn’t real, so there’s no reason to go after and replicate reality; but I just wanted to create a believable alternate reality. I think we did in the lighting and effects and the colors.

CS/SHH!: How hard was the rain?

Munroe: It was hard, yeah. Putting sheets of rain isn’t too hard, because that’s just a rain rig in live-action you’re just hanging from. But the interaction was really specific. We really wanted to have it dripping off the characters and having different reactions to their skin versus their bandanas versus the steel. If you want to analyze them, it’ll drive you crazy. But yeah, it was a lot of work; the guys, the people in Hong Kong really busted their tails on it, it’s a lot of work.

CS/SHH!: Do you have a running time yet?

Gray: I think we’re at 81 and change, and then probably five on getting out credits, the end credits. We’re toying now with some kind of visual at the end so it’s not just an endless 500 people endlessly crawling there. It’ll be music over that. We have a deal with Atlantic Records who are coming up with various groups to drop in. It won’t be when we had SBK, we had a lot of that techno sound, Ya Kid K, and all that, Vanilla Ice.

CS/SHH!: Have any groups come to you and say they want to do it?

Gray: A few, yeah, a few; they actually talked to Panic at the Disco. I don’t know if they’re going to end up in the thing, but there were a few that were big fans that wanted to come in and write something special; we are having some of the Atlantic artists write certain scenes now, and we’re listening to them, and we’re deciding whether that really works, or we’ll do score. But soundtrack albums aren’t what they used to be back in the day, so it’s hard.

CS/SHH!: 81 minutes feels like a good time for the story?

Gray: Well, yeah, but 81 can be two hours if it doesn’t work; but it’s the old story. This thing just takes off from the get go and goes; it’s just a race to the finish, so I think people are going to come out and say, “Wow, that was fulfilling.”

CS/SHH!: Kevin Smith has a cameo as a voice; are there other voices in there of people who were fans?

Munroe: I think Sarah Michelle (Gellar) was, but I don’t want to speak for her, but I heard she was, and I heard Chris (Evans) was as well.

Gray: We had this big debate with the studio about voices, which we lost. We were certainly of the opinion that the Turtles should not be known actors. We fought for that and outside of Corey Feldman, he’s the only one anyone ever knew. But they felt that if we could push it with Casey (Jones) and April (O’Neil) as Sarah Michelle and Chris Evans for Casey, and then we brought in Patrick Stewart, and Laurence Fishburne is doing some narration for us. We just didn’t want to go and do a DreamWorks movie really, where everyone is a famous player .

CS/SHH!: The cast is the movie.

Munroe: Yeah, the cast is bigger than the actual title of the movie.

Gray: I said, “Look, we’re going to dub it into thirteen different languages overseas, so it doesn’t matter.” Kids today don’t know the difference; adults don’t know things like this. But, they gave us great performances.

Munroe: Everyone fits their characters really well, and it’s good. And it’s a fun genre, too.

Gray: We really fought not to put anybody into the Turtle; they’re just really super voice actors played the part. Of course, Mako, unfortunately died and his voice still remains; but his is the only voice from Kevin Clash, who we used from Sesame Street the first time.

CS/SHH!: Did you have to cut around Mako at all?

Gray: No.

Munroe: There’s a pretty big library of stuff we had afterward. So it was good and his character pretty much stayed in tact as the process went on. We actually did a couple pick up sessions with him afterwards too and there was one a couple months before Comic-Con. And then at Comic-Con, I announced he was going to be the voice and then the next day somebody emailed me and I woke up. I was half asleep [and] someone said, “You probably want to check this out.” I was like, “Oh my God.” That’s so horrible, but they’re really good performances. He’s their dad. There’s just a warmth to his voice. It’s not caricature which is really fun because it’s Mako just being Mako, and he’s just a seasoned quality to his voice. He has a very wise-sounding voice and very warm, cause that’s what we were going after. It’s fun, too, ’cause we got to do a few Japanese interjections. He did sing a lullaby to the guys. He would hum to himself this Japanese song he remembered as a kid, being a kid. It was great because we were actually listening to his voice on the screen last week on the sound stage over at Warner Bros. and it was great, and it fills in very nicely.

CS/SHH!: Is it done, or are you still working on it?

Munroe: Still working on it, still working.

CS/SHH!: Are you going right up to the line?

Munroe: Yeah.

Gray: Feb. 12th we deliver.

Munroe: Yeah, we’re coming up with the scoring and we’re doing the sound effects, audio. We’re still doing final compositing, tonight at 10 o’clock or 10:30, we start color time where we go with Technicolor and we go up till 4 in the morning. There are comfortable chairs, which is good. And so that’s where you go in and address all your color levels and so there’s still stuff to be done. It’s almost a sanity check because you get tired of one aspect of it, it changes and becomes a little more exciting. When you can’t look at storyboards anymore, all of a sudden pre-vis starts, and you’re like, “Cool, it’s moving.” And then, if I look at one more action figure sliding across the screen, animation starts coming; and so luckily, we were at that point a month ago, and then sound started coming. And you watch some of these things with the full – the stuff you were watching, that wasn’t anywhere near the final sound, but listening to that in a big theater at Warner Brothers – Raph drops his chain and “boom,” you just feel it in your chest whenever he does it. It’s insane, but it’s set up so you don’t have to jump off a building, or anything before production finishes.

CS/SHH!: Would you say you’re 75% done?

Munroe: Feels like 90 to me.

Gray: It’s closer to 90. We’re there. We’re in the last days. I mean, you’re on this for 26-27 months. It is long. I don’t come from animation. I come from live action. We did “Ninja Turtles II” in one year from the day we opened. We wrote it and shot it and got it on the screen one year later and that’s probably why it wasn’t very good. But to spend 26-27 months doing a project, it’s a long process. We hope in the future projects, we’ll get it down under two years. Around 18 months would be really good.

CS/SHH!: Five years ago it was several years.

Gray: I think we’re all cutting it a little bit but I think the studios are still in almost a three year. We can go faster because we have different requirements in Hong Kong. We don’t have the unions. We can chain them literally to their desk. Not exploit them, of course, but there’s this work ethic in Hong Kong that just gets it done. Six day work weeks where here it’s five.

Munroe: And the studio system here, they’re very accustomed to dissecting a story. That’s also the benefit of why Pixar is so tight too because they take two years just to work on the story. That’s a great amount of time. I think it’s more of a live action approach that we have where you have your script, everybody signs off on it, everyone’s happy with it and you jump into production and you start making adjustments as you move along, realize what can work better. Basically the equivalent to being on set and making the adjustment is the same as being in the pre-vis room saying, “Look, we tried this” and just go and scratch track a dialogue kind of thing. It sort of has to operate at this scale here. The way that we do it here, I don’t think this process could survive in a bigger studio. It just works for this film.

CS/SHH!: What does this have to do to get a sequel?

Gray: Money-wise? Probably $100 and change. It will.

Munroe: So buy tickets.

CS/SHH!: Worldwide?

Gray: Domestic.

CS/SHH!: Do you have sequel ideas?

Munroe: We have ideas. You sort of set up a world like this and you spend 26-28 months on it, you can’t help but think, “Oh, it’d be cool if we went back and did this and that.” But nothing officially.

CS/SHH!: Could you do a TV show with this material/technology?

Gray: I doubt it. We did “Father of the Pride,” it was very expensive on NBC. It’s just too expensive to do it as a television show. And they have that already, they’re on the seventh season on 4Kids on Saturdays so I think if it does work, then I think we will sit back, go back to Peter and say, “Where do we take it next time?” Clearly we’d like to try to maybe move it up a little bit into the PG-13. That seems to be the traffic we’re getting on the web is, “Why can’t we see a PG-13?” and we would really like to do a PG-13.

CS/SHH!: How about a DVD version that’s PG-13?

Gray: Well, there will be so-called extended scenes that maybe will find its way back in that were cut out. That would be up to Warner Brothers to do that. We’ve done all kinds of behind-the-scenes stuff and maybe there’s some special DVD with an extended version. Maybe it’s a little bit longer, of the things that we probably had to tone down a little bit for the rating.

CS/SHH!: Put back those numchuck hits.

Gray: Yeah, well, nunchucks are absolutely illegal in the UK. You can’t even show them being whipped around. You could show them in a belt but you can’t show ‘em. And the throwing stars are totally illegal. You get into Germany and Scandanavia and they really say, “No way, that has to come out.” And you can only positive cut that stuff so it’s going to remain to be seen. We had to kind of work around that. It’s not going to be that apparent in the fights because there’s so much going on and your eyes are not even going to see it. But clearly we were told up front, don’t whack anybody over the head with a nunchuck because it’s going to come out.

CS/SHH!: Are you paying attention to the internet?

Gray: Yeah, I think clearly, I think you can go nuts if you do because then you’ll read great stuff, then you’ll read horrible stuff and you’ll start to get crazy.

Munroe: You somehow forget the good stuff when you read the bad stuff.

Gray: And I think to a certain degree what is more interesting to us is more or less the general overall feel about where, why, what is the relevance of bringing this back now. And I think we will say because CG allowed us to do it in a different thing but I don’t think we could do it animatronically. Certainly not economically we couldn’t do that. No way we would spend $140 million dollars making a live-action picture because no studio would pick it up. I think the beauty of this movie is that it’s always been an incredibly difficult picture to set up in this town. Nobody ever got it. The first time around, nobody wanted this movie. I could name you every single studio head who passed. And then the day we opened, they all called and said, “Gee, I’m sorry we missed it. Can we talk about the sequel.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to stay with New Line.” The Turtles are one of those kind of things that everybody said, “It’s a natural” but then nobody wanted to step up and make it. Because the wisdom was if George Lucas couldn’t make money out of a comic book with “Howard the Duck,” how could you with “Ninja Turtles”? And that’s one of the reasons it was very difficult to set up back in the day. And then when it was a huge phenomenon, everybody said, “Oh, Jesus, why not?” And you had all the knockoffs and going back out there again today, almost 14-15 years on, there was a big reluctance to get involved from the same people who passed and said, “I’m not gonna pass again” but ended up passing. So Warners and Weinstein really, they were the ones that really saw it and have been incredibly supportive of the film. I hope it really does work. We feel it will. And if they next day, our fans are saying, “Wow, that was worth waiting for,” because the little kids it doesn’t matter. But it’s those fans that are really for me the most important. That we didn’t just completely blow this. This wasn’t just to take a shot and throw it out.

CS/SHH!: Have Bob or Harvey been hands on?

Gray: They’re always hands on. Hands, feet, legs, arm, lock, wrestling. You know, when you work in this town and the studios, there’s not a movie made today that is not looked upon or talked about by every single aspect. I sometimes wonder we’re in the business of revenue streams. And all seven of those revenue streams have input into the filmmaking process. It’s just how it’s evolved. Most filmmakers today basically are, you’re getting comments back from pay television. “This won’t work in pay” or “We’ve gotta have this for the DVD.” It’s the system that we work within today. Certainly anybody putting money up for a film at the studio, and rightfully so. They’re putting their money up, they want to protect their investment. But it does become more difficult until you attain this exalted stature of final cut. But it’s collaborative. They have tremendous support for us and they gave us a lot of good suggestions that we have incorporated. So it’s give and take. Some we absolutely just didn’t want to do. But that’s part of the process. We know this film will not do anything unless the mighty Warner campaign gets behind it so that’s why we have to rely on it.

TMNT hits theaters on March 23.

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