We sat down with TMNT director Jonathan Liebesman and producers Brad Fuller and Andrew Form to talk turtles, and uncovered a whole lot—just a ton—about pizza product placement, baby turtles and which non-turtle mutants are in the film. Plus, find out what TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman himself contributed to the new film.
Why is right now the right time to bring back the Ninja Turtles?
Jonathan Liebesman: The technology of movie making, right now, has taken sort of a quantum leap forward with motion capture. I think there's a massive scope in action that is also possible now that wasn't possible before. I think that technology plus that has given the movie a reason to be made. And when you have universal characters like the Ninja Turtles who are these unbelievable, fun archetypes that have been reinvented over the last 30 years over and over, it's just great to be able to tell their story with this new technology.
When you first pitched this, what was the initial response?
Brad Fuller: Actually, we worked to get this job. We didn't pitch it. Paramount and Viacom owned the rights to it, and Drew and I were big fans. It was something that we always loved. And so we pursued it for about six months before they even gave it to us. So that's six months of begging.
Did you come in with what we're basically going to see on the screens in the theaters?
Fuller: No. But we did do a presentation of what we thought it was. We presented some marketing ideas. We shot some stuff to show what the fighting would look like. We went all out. For Platinum Dunes, this was the most important opportunity of our 14-year career.
It's probably the only movie too where the product placement is already so ingrained into the mythos of the characters and beloved. Of course they're going to have Pizza Hut! Didn't they have Pizza Hut in the '80s? Who gets to call Pizza Hut and tell them they're making a Turtles movie?
Fuller: That's Paramount. Paramount has departments that take care of that, it was always Pizza Hut. Right?
Andrew Form: This movie was always going to be Pizza Hut.
Aren't they legally locked together?
All Three: No it was Dominoes in the '90s movies.
Was it? Oh shoot, sorry.
Liebesman: Listen, either way it was big-brand pizza.
Form: Either way, the Turtles were eating pizza in this movie.
One thing I noticed that was different in this film, especially from your past films, how nice it was to see something that had been toned down on the violence. There weren't a ton of guns or bullets, was that intentional? Did you have to scale yourself back?
Liebesman: I was intentionally scaled back.
Form: By who?
Liebesman: By my producers. [Laughs] In the oeuvre of the Liebology of moviemaking [laughs]… No, it was definitely a way more fun movie for me. It's the most fun movie to watch that I've done in front of an audience. People are really enjoying it and I'm glad the action was toned down. It has exactly the right amount of violence versus fun. In the snow scene there's precariousness, but there are these character moments, which are funny. And that's stuff I haven't done before. It's great, it was awesome to put that stuff in, audiences really enjoy that stuff and I will now do that forever. Because I really enjoyed that tone of filmmaking.
Form: So this movie has truly effected the oeuvre of... what?
Liebesman: Of the Liebology. Wasn't there like a Steven Seagal-ology? Or something?
Form: The Liebology, moving forward, has been forever altered as a result of this film.
Liebesman: Yes. Both my fans need to know that. My mother and my father.
When you're going into this huge world, it's massively built out in the comics, massively built out in the cartoons, what do you take with you, and what do you hold for next time?
Liebesman: There were favorite things. Like, the fact that they're mutants, the fact that they eat pizza, and the fact that there's Cowabunga were the things we knew we wanted, as fans. I wasn't familiar with all the comic, so Kevin Eastman had camped out at these guys' office, and when you see all the comics and stuff, what was really cool was there were stories (because the Ninja Turtles have been reinvented so many different times). There was somewhere that April named the turtles. And that was really cool, that she was an integral of their creation. I thought that was awesome.
Form: But not everybody who comes to this movie understands that.
Liebesman: Well, if you come thinking this is a remake of the 1990 movie, you'll be disappointed. But if you know everything there is to know about the Ninja Turtles, and if you're a humungous Ninja Turtle fan that knows every different mythology, it will be incredibly satisfying. There are so many different easter eggs for people who really know Ninja Turtles.
Bouncing off that, could you maybe tease a few easter eggs we should be looking for?
Liebesman: Baxter Stockman, T.C.R.I., Turtle Soup. Those are the three headline ones.
Fuller: Baxter Stockman is in the movie. He's in the movie.
I thought there was a really nice nod in the opening titles to the original turtles. They certainly looked like the original turtle designs.
Liebesman: Kevin Eastman actually drew some of those frames himself, the creator himself.
Well that makes sense because they look so similar.
Form: He worked with us on that opening.
It basically tells their entire life story. How early was [Eastman] involved in the title work?
Liebesman: Do you want to know the truth? That title sequence went back and forth so many times. He was was involved from the start, but really it solidified right at the end. The last thing done in the movie. But we always knew that we wanted Kevin Eastman to be integral. That's the thing, Kevin Eastman was sitting in their office from the beginning. That was the most important thing, was to honor as much of the Ninja Turtles as possible from all the different mediums.
Form: A lot of care and thought went into making this movie.
Liebesman: There's a lot of shit that comes our way, and the truth is we sat in the room with the creator. We took nothing lightly, didn't create anything for the sake of creating something. In fact we thought, well I thought, it would be really cool to take stuff from all different places.
Fuller: If you just take it from one place, then it's a reboot.
Liebesman: I think the movie gets a lot of shit when people say, "Oh, I can't believe that happened. Oh, that's convenient." No. We did our research. We did what you fans wanted us to do and went and looked through every fuckin' creation story and picked what we thought was really great in some of them. With the permission of the creator.
How many times did you have to re-do Splinter until he wasn't horrifying? He comes out kind of cute in this, but I can only imagine early stages he may have been terrifying.
Liebesman: He never actually was horrifying. It's just sometimes in early designs it's hard because he looks like a wolf. He's more like scraggily there [in the '90s movie]. ...There are a lot of '80s influences in this movie.
Liebesman: Shooting a lot in Chinatown, graffiti. A lot comes from that era when the Turtles were created. I'm going through the scenes in my head. I was watching a lot of '80s cinematography. It's subtle stuff like in the '80s there was a shit load of smoke. If you watch the Spielberg movies of the '80s, the DPs were just pumping the smoke, which we did on this film. It was a subtle nod to the things that were being created in that era.
Was it important to show the baby turtles? They were really cute, why?
Liebesman: Yes. I really wanted to know how they became Ninja Turtles. That was hugely important. I had something, which was way too expensive. I had a a whole half and hour that I would have liked to do, but it was use way too expensive. It would have gone way off topic.
Would it have been bouncing off the idea that they had to learn to defend themselves [this is the reason they learned to be Ninjas]? That seemed important.
Liebesman: Exactly. A whole bunch of stuff that would unfortunately, I think, would take the movie off topic if you. But I don't know maybe if there's another. I had a whole thing on how they pick their weapons. Why each is a different color, all from Eastman, just a whole bunch of stuff. We just wanted to do what we could do well. And not spread ourselves too thin.
What are all the things that Donatello is carrying on his back?
Liebesman: I'll tell you what I designed, but I don't think you're allowed the product placement. There is a Nintendo controller on his arm. A vacuum cleaner on the back. A solar panel on his back to power all his stuff. I originally wanted an Xbox on his back to sort of be the CPU that powers everything. A lot of boards with RAM, all the memory for his internet connection. And then he's got this hologram thing [points to his wrist]. It spins around and emits particles that it can then project onto. So you can see this little thing spinning around really fast... His samurai things are solar powers. He's constantly being powered.
Doesn't one of them have a sweatshirt tied around his waist?
Liebesman: Mikey has a sweatshirt tied around his waist... Leo is more of the traditional guy. He has materials he's designed in a ninja samurai way. And Raph is almost a warrior. There's no technology just things to protect his legs and give him the silhouette of, like, a samurai.