As a lifelong fan of the Ninja Turtles franchise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem writer-director Jeff Rowe knew that this film would be a gateway for a new generation of people. Along with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Rowe crafted a new look and story to connect with a new audience who may have never heard of the Ninja Turtles before.
The film follows the four teen Turtles – Leonardo (Nicolas Cantu), Raphael (Brady Noon), Michelangelo (Shamon Brown Jr.) and Donatello (Micah Abbey) – as they long to be a part of the human world. In an attempt to be accepted by the humans living above them, the Turtles, along with their human friend April (Ayo Edebiri), hunt for a mysterious crime syndicate but soon learn they aren’t the only mutants living in New York City.
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The key to making this film stand out from previous iterations of the Ninja Turtles was a true focus on the teen, coming-of-age aspect of the Turtles. This included not just the story, but the animation itself as the style replicates the “beautifully imperfect” drawings that would be done by a teenager with no formal training.
DEADLINE: The animation style of this film is so different in a great way. How did you arrive at that style?
JEFF ROWE: We were looking for kind of a governing principle. What is this movie going to look like? What’s its visual identity going to be? Do we make it look like the Turtle’s comics? Do we make it look like the animated TV series? Do we make it look like the live action versions? The Ninja Turtles have been so many things through so many generations, there is no definitive version. For me it’s the ’87 cartoon, that’s what I’m nostalgic for, but to Turtles fans writ large, there is no definitive version. So we just looked at the story and we’re like, “It’s about teenagers and we’re casting real teen actors and we’re making them talk and act and perform like real teenagers. What if we made the movie look like it was drawn by teenagers? What if we made it look like the art style of notebook doodles and sketches?”
And we started researching. There was a day where everyone on the art crew brought in drawings that they had done in high school, and we just reviewed them together and it was really fun analyzing what goes into a teenage drawing. And they’re this beautiful mix of passion where you just sit down and as a teenager you’re like, ‘I’m going to make the best drawing that has ever been made in the history of humankind.’ And then what comes out of that process? It looks wretched. It has no formal art training. It’s so beautifully imperfect, and we wanted to capture that beautiful imperfection in the show style. It took a lot of work to get a team of incredibly skilled and capable artists feeling comfortable drawing with mistakes and drawing as if they didn’t know how to draw yet. But it was really worth it and it gave us something in the end that I feel is very expressive and human and passionate, which really makes a lot of sense for the characters.
DEADLINE: Speaking of casting teenagers as the Turtles, how did you find those voice actors?
ROWE: It was a huge casting. We opened it up to non-actors because we didn’t necessarily want a polished Hollywood child actor, we just wanted people who were going to feel like real teenagers. So, we got hundreds of tapes and at some point we just started cutting voices to the character designs that we had at the time. And we’re just like, ‘What voice sounds the most interesting coming out of Leo? What’s going to be the most interesting contrast between the other voices?’ The first time we did a chemistry read with the four kids – Shamon, Micah, Nicolas and Brady – it was just electric. It was like, ‘these are the turtles, it has to be them.’
Initially we recorded them individually and it was just okay. The jokes were good sometimes, but it was a little bit stiff and rigid. Seth [Rogen] really pushed to record all four of them at the same time, and when we did it just changed everything. They talked over each other, they argued, they made fun of each other… It was just so alive and honest and real in a way that I don’t normally see in performances for animated films. And then we just had to start doing all the records like that and also throwing away the script to rewrite things that would support this process of improvisation.
It was a nightmare for the sound team and it was a lot to comb through, but I think sometimes people will approach animation with this mindset of ‘doing a voice’ and it’s like a caricature talking in a strange voice or accent, and I think it can feel artificial and performative. The filmmaking style of this was just really one of naturalism and trying to capture those real, truthful moments between actors.
DEADLINE: For this story you focused more on the teenage aspect of the Turtles, but what I found very interesting was how that affected Splinter’s character as well. He became more of a father than a sensei.
ROWE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the idea of a sensei father is somewhat ungrounded. I’m sure that there are kids who grew up with parents like that, but it’s not as common as having an overprotective dad or maybe a dad with some not great opinions about things that caused chaos for your life. It just felt really important to ground the story in family, make them not students of Splinter, but his children, and then write him to be a lovable overprotective father. Jackie [Chan] brought so much warmth to that performance because Splinter on paper could be highly unlikable. He’s kind of not super great to the turtles, but the way Jackie plays him and what he brings to that performance makes him lovable. And you sympathize with him and it’s totally understandable.
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