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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – The 30th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “I Love Being A Turtle!”. A 30th anniversary celebration of the big screen adaptation of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. What started as a black and white independent comic to becoming a successful toy line and animated series. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” had overcome budgetary, studio distribution, script and costume problems to being one of the highest grossing films of the 90’s and becoming one of pop cultures biggest phenomenons. With a brilliant direction, cinematography and costumes by the legendary Jim Henson studios. It’s an excellent adaptation of the iconic comic book series. It’s raucous, fun, dark, funny and brutally entertaining action fantasy that embraces the source material. 

Mirage Studios in November 1983, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were hard at work on the latest chapter of their “Fugitoid” when Eastman, struck by some unknown inspiration, drew a masked, nunchuck-wielding “ninja turtle.” He showed it to Laird, and the two of them shared a laugh at the sheer goofiness of the premise.

“Pete drew a cooler one,” remembers Eastman. “Then, of course, I had to top his sketch, so I drew four of them standing in a dramatic pose. That was in pencil, but Pete inked it, and added ‘teenage mutant’ to the ‘ninja turtle’ part. We were just pissing our pants that night, to be honest. This is the dumbest thing ever”.

With their work on the first Fugitoid story coming to an end, the pair decided to make the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” their next comic book project. They published the first TMNT comic book in 1984, in black and white and financed it by a tax refund and a family loan. Drawing inspiration from some of their favorite contemporary comics, including Marvel Comics’ “Daredevil” along with their mutual love of Jack Kirby, they set out to work developing the Turtles universe.

“The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” origin story paid homage to the first issue of “Daredevil” from 1963, in which young Matt Murdock is blinded by a radioactive isotope while pushing an old blind man from the path of an oncoming truck. Eastman and Laird extrapolated that after the canister containing that isotope struck Murdock, it collided with a bystander who was carrying a fishbowl containing his pets…four baby turtles. The turtles and the canister, which bore the initials T.C.R.I., fell down a grate into the sewer below, where they were discovered by an inquisitive rat, Splinter. Splinter had been the pet of the exiled ninja warrior Hamato Yoshi, who was slain along with his lover, Tang Shen, by the treacherous Oroku Saki, who blamed Yoshi for the death of his brother, Oroku Nagi.

“Splinter’s name was a tip of the hat to the Daredevil supporting character Stick”,  recalls Laird, discussing the ninja master created by Miller who provided young Matt Murdock with the skills he would require to fight crime as Daredevil. “I think we chose a rat because as we began working out the story for the first issue of TMNT, we knew a lot of it would be set in the storm drains and sewers and back alleys of the city, and we figured that a common denizen of those places was the humble rat”. 

Since The Hand menaced Daredevil during Miller’s tenure, it was only natural that the Turtles would find themselves in conflict with The Foot, a clan of ninjas whose leader, the Shredder, was none other than Oroku Saki. The Shredder took his design inspiration from a metal cheese grater that struck Eastman as a potential weapon in the hands of the wrong person.

Eastman and Laird thought of giving the turtles Japanese names, but as Laird explained, “we couldn’t think of authentic-sounding Japanese names”. Instead they used Laird’s copy of Janson’s History of Art for inspiration. The pair chose names for the Turtles from four of their favorite Renaissance artists, as the four Turtles were virtually identical in appearance, particularly as the book was to be published in black and white, Eastman and Laird differentiated the four through their choice of weapons

“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was published by Mirage Studios, in a 30 year run from 1984 to 2014. Conceived by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the characters were initially intended as a one-off, but due to its popularity it became an ongoing series. The comic inspired a franchise of five television series, six feature films, numerous video games and an extensive wide range of toys and merchandise. 

*QUICK NOTE: For a full Ninja Turtles history, visit Maui’s comic master Alika owner of Maui Comics and Collectibles inside Request Music at 10 N Market Street in Wailuku. Pick up comics from him and while you’re there ask him about the history of the Turtles. You won’t find anyone more knowledgeable.

Tell him A-Ron sent you!

In 1990 the Turtles got their first big screen movie from New Line Cinema with help from Jim Henson studios who created the Turtles for the film. Unfortunately it was one of Henson’s last projects before his death shortly after the premiere of the film. 

The script is based mainly on the early “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” comics, including the stories of the turtles’ origins, rooftop battle, hiding out to the farmhouse after being outnumbered and the battle with Shredder. Elements were also taken from the popular 1980’s animated series, such as the Turtles’ colored bandanas, love of pizza, elements of Michelangelo’s character, and April O’Neil working as a television reporter instead of a lab assistant.

In the late 80’s comic book movies were being considered box-office poison. The stink of flop “Howard the Duck” was still fresh in movie goers minds, “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” was complete trash and had sentenced the Man of Steel to movie jail. While Tim Burton’s “Batman” was still a year away from completely revolutionizing the genre.

So it was no surprise that every major studio in Hollywood, including: Walt Disney Pictures, Columbia Pictures, MGM, Orion Pictures and Warner Bros had turned up their noses at a movie about four talking turtles who do Ninjitsu, eat pizza and live in the sewers beneath New York. Although in 2009 Paramounts parent company Viacom would acquire the “TMNT” property. The studios were worried that despite the popularity of the cartoon and the toy line, the film could potentially be a box office disappointment much like “Masters Of The Universe” was just a couple years prior. 

The “TMNT” comic caught the eye of Gary Propper, a surfer and road manager for stand-up comic Gallagher. Propper had become obsessed with the idea of making the movie, and teamed up with producer Kim Dawson, who handled Gallagher’s comedy specials at Showtime. The pair had convinced Eastman and Laird to let them option the live-action rights, where they had brought the comic to screenwriter Bobby Herbeck who was on board to write the script.

Even with the Ninja Turtles as a successful Playmate toy line and animated series, nobody wanted to make the movie. Screenwriter Herbeck had his eye on Golden Harvest, a Hong Kong-based studio known for releasing “Enter the Dragon” and other Bruce Lee martial arts films.

Kim Dawson a producer of the Ninja Turtles film said: “Gary Propper and I made the rounds to virtually every studio in Hollywood. I had worked at Showtime, and one of my first calls was to Peter Chernin, who went on to run Fox for a long time. But Peter goes, “Are you guys out of your minds?”, “Howard the Duck” was just released. Nobody felt like a comic book could be converted into a live-action character after that film failed”. 

Screenwriter Bobby Herbeck thinks Golden Harvest would be perfect for this, because we needed martial arts guys. Herbeck has a drinks with the Golden Harvest executive Tom Gray and and pitches the film to him. Gray had said, “I don’t want anything to do with this. This is not going to work”. But Herbeck persisted over the next three to four months. Finally, he told Gray: “Just do me a favor will you? Our producer Kim is coming in from Orlando. He wants to meet with you. Just have a lunch with him”. 

But then Golden Harvest executive Gray has got a lightbulb moment and thought to himself: “Wait a minute. This is nothing more than four of our Chinese stuntmen in rubber suits. We can make this movie for peanuts in Hong Kong”. On June 13, 1988, Gray sends a memo to Golden Harvest owner Raymond Chow, who greenlights the project at $3 million. Herbeck then flies to Northhampton, Massachusetts to get Eastman and Laird, the Turtles creators’ blessing on the script treatment he had worked up.

Herbeck had said: “I thought, I’d be there for a month, max. Right? I was wrong. It was six or eight weeks. I never saw two guys who disagreed so much. It got to the point where I could tell by their body language and their eyes that there was something they liked or disliked”. The creators finally signed off on the story and Herbeck went off to England to finish writing the script, where director Steve Barron was based, as was Jim Henson and his Creature Shop. Bobby Herbeck was a stand-up comic, and they were not completely sold on the tone of his script. They felt it had too many quips and one liners. They had brought in writer Todd Langen, who worked on adapting Herbeck’s script for several months.

In the the first pitch to Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird for a film treatment was from schlockmeister Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. The idea was to have the Turtles played by four comedians who were popular at the time: Gallagher, Sam Kinison, Bobcat Goldthwait and Billy Crystal. The actors would be dressed in turtle shells and have their arms and legs painted green. Another treatment received at the time took the Turtles into R-rated territory and included a scene with partially nude nuns on roller skates fighting the heroes.

Golden Harvest executive Gray had always thought it would be interesting to have someone who was coming out of MTV generation of music videos to direct the film and amp it up visually. To make it appeal to a bit younger crowd. Irish filmmaker Steve Barron was the top choice suggested to the producers. They had looked at his reel of past work and had a few music videos under his belt including work with A-ha on their groundbreaking video “Take On Me” and he had done “Billie Jean” with Michael Jackson. The producers have said that Barron had a very good visual style. Barron would go on to direct only one other studio film in 1993, the “SNL” movie version of “Coneheads”. 

Steve Barron said in a past interview: “I didn’t want to do something that was bloody. I didn’t want to watch that film. Funnily enough, “Batman” came out at the same time. It was that sort of tone I was already aiming for. The films that I loved, there was a sense of humor but a sense of peril as well. Of real peril, of grounded peril. Like something that had repercussions for what you did but had a wonderful sense of fun with it, much like “Ghostbusters” which I was a big fan of”.

Kevin Eastman, co-creator of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” said: “We had our doubts until we met Steve Barron. He came in and had gone through the comic books, and picked out scenes from [issue] number one or number 10 and said, “Here’s the movie.” Steve Barron was such a fan of the comic book series, and he was aware of the animated series. He said, “We need to make a hybrid.” I think most of the themes from the first movie were pulled from the original comic books, from the retreat out to the countryside to some of the fight sequences at April’s apartment to the origin story”.

Things were starting to unravel, except for the biggest necessity in any Hollywood movie, the budget. It was 10 days before they started shooting the film and they didn’t have enough money to do it. Having only a couple million dollars, they were about to be shut down at any moment, and not having a major studio to back it, wasn’t helping either. They did at one point have a deal with Fox, that had been thrown off the table because the head of distribution had changed.

So they called New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye, and asked for $6 million to make the movie. Shaye knew they had nowhere else to go. So he gave them an undisclosed amount of money, which was a lot less than they had asked for. Golden Harvest owner Raymond Chow has come up with the difference for the production. Overall the movie’s budget was just over 13 million, roughly one-third of what Tim Burton’s “Batman” had cost.

With New Line Cinema founder Bob Shaye on board, they finally had a distribution company to release it. New Line who at the time was a small and independent production company, that had been known for distributing low budget B movies and art house fare. 

The next thing to take care of was finding who was going to do all of the animatronics for the turtle suits? That’s where Jim Henson was suggested, although they knew they wouldn’t be able to afford him and that’s when Barron stepped in and said: “Let me see what I can work out”. He felt he had a good chance of asking Jim Henson himself, since he had worked with Henson before. 

“I was on the mission to talk Jim into it, because he wasn’t sure about it. I showed him the comic book, and it was very violent. It had a lot of blood on the page. He wasn’t sure whether he’d have the Creature Shop involved. In the end, he very sweetly agreed to do it, because I’d convinced him that the tone was going to come from a good place, and that it wouldn’t damage his legacy”, Barron said in an interview. “We were on the edge of new technology”, Jim Henson said. “On each show I had done, I figure we we’re going to have to invent one new technology to make that certain show work. On Turtles, I knew I’d have to invent nine”. 

Something on this scale hadn’t never been done before. They needed the suits to be able to move without wires because of their kung fu fighting. The first turtles that came out, their heads were as big as television sets.

Henson has to construct two sets of turtle costumes. The “action turtles”, which had no electronics in them. Then there were the ones that had all the facial expressions and had all of the little radio controlled motors in them that controlled the eye movements and the mouth and the eyebrows. Henson had created them and stuck them in the back of the turtle shell, along with all of the cooling devices.

By early 1989, New York actors Josh Pais, Leif Tilden, Michelan Sisti, and U.K. actor and stuntman Brian Foreman had been cast as the Turtles.

Michelan Sisti, who played Michelangelo actually had no idea what martial arts was, so he came up with his own version of it in his audition. Director Steve Barron was present as the audition was held in a tiny office and when Sisti gave his version of a roundhouse kick he had accidentally put his foot through the wall. There Sisti was with his foot stuck in the wall, as director Steve Barron laughed and said, “Anyone who would put that much energy and go to that extreme for an audition deserves to be one of my Turtles”. 

The actors had to contend with 70 pound costumes, sweltering heat and claustrophobia within the suits. Josh Pais (Raphael) said: “It was an intense relationship between me and the suit. We would suit up from the toes up to our neck. Then the turtle head would go on and they would have to glue the head to the body so it was all seamless. Then you were in there. While we were shooting it wasn’t really a problem. But if the Turtle’s heads wasn’t working, it could have taken up to an hour to fix it and get it up again. From morning to lunch break, we would each lose at least 5 pounds”. Pais also had mild claustrophobia in the suit. Michelan Sisti (Michelangelo) added: “You learn very quickly if you have any claustrophobic tendencies.

Pais said: “We would just freak out, and you would hear one of us go, “Take the head off! F—ing take the head off! Take it off!”. Your blood was literally boiling, and then they would shoot compressed air in our faces. Eventually they made a little air conditioned bubble that we could go into”.

With only the exception of Josh Pais, who was the only actor who was used for both voice and in the body suit. The turtles voices which the actors in the suits performed on set, were replaced by voice actors. “License To Drive” and “Lost Boys” star Corey Feldman voiced Donatello, Robbie Rist (Michelangelo) and Brian Tochi (Leonardo) had recorded their work over several weeks.

Brian Tochi who voiced Leonardo had first thought, “What the hell does a turtle sound like?. What they were looking for was something that was kind of a surfer dude and I thought that I know!”. According to Robbie Rist, voicing Michelangelo he just done an impression of all the guys he had went to high school with. “I’m part of the graduating class of 1982, and the next year “Valley Girl” has come out. Where surf speak had been around for a while at that point”. 

While everyone got along fine, they did have to deal with Corey Feldman who was late a lot of the time. In one situation, Leif Tilden who played Donatello in the suit, said: “Corey Feldman who did my voice. I went up to him at the premiere and said, “Hey, I play the character you did the voice to”, and he just totally dissed me. He didn’t want to want to deal with me whatsoever. It was around the time he got busted for cocaine in the back seat of his convertible or something. All I remember was walking by him surrounded by cameras professing his innocence to cocaine right outside the Ninja Turtles premiere”. 

For the actors not portraying the Turtles, were Elias Koteas who plays Casey Jones is a vigilante, who was created as a parody of other vigilante characters that were in comics. Casey usually has long dark hair, wears a hockey mask, cut-off biking gloves, and carries his weapons in a golf bag over his shoulder. The Casey Jones character has lead roles in four of the six “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”films. 

He is referred to by Michelangelo as “Wayne Gretzky on steroids”. Johnny Depp, Keanu Reeves, Christian Slater, Lou Diamond Phillips, Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, Brian Austin Green, Alex Winter, Gary Daniels, & River Phoenix were considered for the role of Casey Jones.

Casey Jones also falls in love with April in the process, who was played by Judith Hoag. April who was a television reporter working for Channel 3 news under Charles “Chuck” Pennington, doing an investigative series on mysterious thefts in New York City whose culprits vanished without a trace. Judith Hoag was not asked to reprise her role as April in the film’s sequels due to her own personal complaining, of particularly the six-day shooting schedule and the amount of violence in the movie. 

Robin Williams, who was a big fan of the Ninja Turtles, provided Judith Hoag with information regarding her character through his comic book collection; the two were co-starring in “Cadillac Man” when the Turtles film went into production. Jennifer Beals, Marisa Tomei, Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman, Melanie Griffith, Sean Young, Lorraine Bracco, Winona Ryder, & Brooke Shields were all considered for the role of April O’Neil.

According to Jim Henson’s son Brian Henson, the film was finished in post production largely without Barron. Editor Sally Menke, who made her feature film debut on Ninja Turtles later edited the films of Quentin Tarantino, was removed as production company Golden Harvest did not like her work. The film turned out to be a huge success at the box office, so much so that lines at the theater went around the block. It made a worldwide total of over $200 million, making it the ninth highest-grossing film of 1990.

Pizza Hut had engaged in a $20 million marketing campaign tied into the film (despite the fact that Dominos was used as product placement in the film itself). Items included advertising in print, radio and television, and several rebate coupons.

Following the success of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” at the box office, only a year later “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret Of The Ooze” was released in theaters, and was also a commercial success. In 1993, the third film in the series was released to a smaller box office take. After a 14-year absence from theaters, a fourth film made in animation form titled “TMNT” was released in 2007. Seven years later, a reboot produced by action maestro Michael Bay that was also titled “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” released in 2014 and a sequel that followed in 2016, both starring Megan Fox. 

Who would have thought that we would get a great martial arts movie from martial artists wearing turtle costumes? It’s an excellent adaptation of the iconic comic book series, raucous, fun, dark, funny and brutally entertaining action fantasy that embraces the source material. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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