It was a battle to end all battles - Raphael vs. Leonardo. Who is the stronger-willed Turtle?
That's the question to be answered in the new film, TMNT. It stands for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course. Recently, writer/director Kevin Munroe and Tom Gray, along with Warner Bros. Pictures invited MovieWeb and SuperheroFlix.com to check out a sneak peak at the new CG animated film, starring the voices of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Chris Evans, Kevin Smith, Ziyi Zhang, Patrick Stewart, and the late Mako as Master Splinter.
As a teen, I was a huge fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now that it's been 15 years since I took a look at my Michelangelo stuffed pillow, it turns out it's time to take that out of storage.
Mikey and the rest of his Turtle brothers are back in a new CG movie - TMNT. Unlike the previous three films, this one will be fully animated; Kevin Munroe wrote and directed the flick. Sarah Michelle Gellar is the voice of April O'Neil, while Chris Evans voices the rebel Casey Jones; also lending their voices to the cast are Ziyi Zhang as Karai, Patrick Stewart as Max Winters, Kevin Smith plays a Greasy Chef, and the late Mako voices Master Splinter.
As we watched the footage, there seemed to be more of a story developing from the last time we were shown clips. It seems Leonardo left the group and New York to travel to South America; he was there under the orders of their Master Splinter.
Upon his return to NYC, he noticed the Turtles weren't the same - something was different, something changed. The discipline wasn't there, Donatello, Raphael, and Mikey had different agendas; they weren't the 'Heroes in a Half-shell' anymore, they weren't the 'World's most fearsome fighting team.'
Raph had gone on to disguise himself as The Night Watcher; he turned on Splinter, he was evil. He put on cast-iron armor and robbed stores and robbed the dignity he was taught from day one when The Turtles were rescued.
But Leo wouldn't stand for it; he wanted to take action. Monsters were taking over the city again and the Turtles had to reform; they had to help the citizens of New York. The only person to stop Raph was Leo. On a rooftop, in the rain, Raph and Leo squared off, ready for battle - but against themselves, face to face, rain drops falling from their mouths. Leo armed with his katana, Raph strong-eyed with his sai swords. Mano y mano - it was time to take back the city and reclaim the integrity of the Turtles.
And that's where the footage stopped.
Of course, Mikey made his presence felt - his entrance to their sewer layer was perfect Mikey; skateboarding through the tunnels. But even he knew things had to change, he knew it wasn't right what had happened since Leo left.
We'll all just have to wait and see what happens; TMNT hits theaters March 23rd, rated PG.
After we saw the new clips, we sat down with Kevin and Tom to talk about the making of the film. Here's what they had to say:
Why did you want to remake this film?
It looks very mature for an animated film. Is it going to be PG-13?
Tom Gray: 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 90's. 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 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.'
Kevin Munroe: It's a family film; it's funny because it has such a negative connotation; it's 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 Mirage guys have this great 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, 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 those inside jokes purposely played for adults, those sort of double entendres and stuff like that. It works for those sort of rollicking comedies; for this, 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.
What's the deal with Leonardo and Raphael?
Kevin Munroe: When you meet with Pete (Laird), he's got his 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 Mikey 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 - so how do you take all of that frustration and all of that desire to do good. 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.
And what about going to Latin America?
Kevin Munroe: I think they traveled in some comic book; 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 with me; 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; 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.
It seems like there are a lot more monsters instead of just Shredder and his guys.
So it's rated PG, but pushing PG-13?
Tom Gray: Well, contractually we have to deliver a PG. Again, we've had some preliminary talks with the rating board - 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 an 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.
Kevin 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 Turtle's 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.
So how does Michelangelo take out a bad guy?
Kevin Munroe: He uses his nunchucks; they still use their weapons, 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 kitanas. That sort of seems that's so far out, that it's not as graspable by kids; 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.
So how hard is it to make a movie for a 25-year-old and the same movie for a seven-year-old?
Kevin Munroe: When 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 excitement lives equally in both of them; 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 of 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; it's hard cerebrally, but you just approach it with a certain aesthetic of fun and what the movie is about.
What do your children think about the Turtiles?
Do you bounce ideas off of them?
Kevin Munroe: I do; 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 [Mikey] 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.
Is there any continuity with a live action film?
Tom Gray: The continuity would be the basic New York City is the backdrop; I think we had to go a little bit different, a bigger story from the first movie. The second movie was pretty small within a neighborhood. This thing is taking on big proportions of extra terrestrial out there back in time so I think scope wise it's much bigger, but the essentials of the Turtles are still the same. You don't want to fool with that; Kevin certainly had to stay within the confines of Peter's imagination and every time he wanted to go out there, Peter would say, 'No they wouldn't do that.'
Kevin Munroe: 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, we 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.
So Peter Laird is involved in the film?
Tom Gray: Yeah
Kevin Munroe: Yeah
So he gets a credit?
Tom 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.
Is Kevin Eastman no longer involved?
Tom Gray: No.
Can you talk about the design being CG?
Did you start with the story or the design of the characters?
Kevin Munroe: I think it was pretty much at the same time, but at the beginning, there were just a couple of us going over the story with Peter; and then we were just doodling in sketch books as we were talking about story. So I think from the beginning, we knew we wanted to go after - that was sort of the first thing to bring to Peter, sheepishly present your sketch book, and say we're thinking about this, and expect the big red 'X' across. And so yeah, it was that and the story at the same time; they started intertwining quite a bit as we were going on.
Did Peter Jackson share his CGI New York with you?
Kevin Munroe: No, I wish; that would have made things a little bit easier, no we don't. It's funny to me, there's just so many cheats in terms of the environments and stuff; we've got - we really wanted to make it feel big. The biggest thing to notice the first teaser trailer that came out that everyone else saw; the camera's looking down, it's looking up, it's swooping around the buildings. But the one we went out with to set the movie up was sort of the lower end version of that because we had to bang it out real quickly and do it for a price mark. So, it's the same trailer, but it's basically all like this, cause there's basically nothing that exists below the roof tops, and it's the same Turtle repeated four times. So for the movie, it's just like any CG movie, you go in and repeat buildings, and you have generic blocks and you can travel for 20 blocks and not realize you're looking at the same six buildings cause we set dressed them all differently. It's insanely huge, the size of the production of this, of the sets. We've got a live-action production designer (Simon Murton) who came on; he's worked on The Crow, Judge Dredd, he worked on the last two Matrix movies. He just brought this aesthetic to it that we wanted, and the same thing with scope and scale; we started doing stuff like wet down and reflective services. And there's all kinds of little touches that you don't see in a lot of other CG films; and when we got into it, we realized why you don't see it, because it's a ton of work. When you start doing it, it looks really cool, you just get addictive to this look and feel, and you say you want more of it.
How hard was shooting the rain?
Kevin Munroe: It was hard, yeah; the rain - 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 that's on - 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.
What type of software packages did they use?
Kevin Munroe: It's basically Mia (Model in Action), but there's nothing really big and specific. 400 people in Hong Kong sitting down with Mia.
When did they actually start the animation?
Kevin Munroe: They started production in Hong Kong - I'm trying to remember when -
Tom Gray: I think back in 2004, the end of it back then. They use RenderMan also, and there's a lot of proprietary stuff they came up with; everyone has their own way of doing it.
Do you have a running time yet?
Kevin Munroe: Do we have an official time yet?
Tom Gray: I think we're at 81 and change, and then probably 5 on getting out, credits, the end credits; they'll be some - 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.
Have any groups come to you and say they want to do it?
Tom 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.
81 minutes feels like a good time for the story?
Tom Gray: Well, yeah, but 81 can be 2 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.'
Kevin Smith has a cameo as a voice; are there other voices in there of people who were fans?
Kevin 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.
Tom 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 -
The cast is the movie.
Kevin Munroe: Yeah, the cast is bigger than the actual title of the movie.
Tom 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.
Kevin Munroe: Everyone fits their characters really well, and it's good. And it's a fun genre, too.
Tom Gray: The Turtles, 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.
Did you have to cut around Mako at all?
Tom Gray: No.
Kevin 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 - someone said, 'You probably want to check this out.' I was like, 'Oh my G-d.' That's so horrible, but they're really good performances; he's their dad, and it's really great cause you just hear - 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's 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, and he'd sing a lullaby - 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.
What would you say was the hardest part about getting everything together?
Kevin Munroe: There's quite a few off-ramps where you could have taken it a little easier where it doesn't necessarily have to be quite this big in scope. And so there were those decisions to stay on that path, and it shot us in the foot and kept us here weekends, but it's cool. It looks really good, I believe so.
How does it work for communication to Hong Kong?
Kevin Munroe: It's a much higher end version of a TV dynamic, I think, because we have all the front and back of the development here - director, production designer, art director, story boards, that's all done here, all the design, character design. We do all the pre-vis here as well, so basically when a package leaves here, you can watch the entire movie with all the final camera moves all in grey scale like low action figure theater. And that goes back to Hong Kong, and they start working - and we do all the color comps, the lighting here as well; we tell them how to - we have the lighting keys, and then we send it to the studio in Hong Kong, and it's floors and floors of people who work tirelessly to make it happen. There's a lot of back and forth; every day, we sit here with a TV and a camera, much like this, just talk every day to the people in Hong Kong, and all the supervisors and then they start shipping things back, and we're doing all the back end - we're doing all the post here as well. It's really the best of all worlds, I think.
Is it done, or are you still working on it?
Kevin Munroe: Still working on it, still working.
Are you going right up to the line?
Kevin Munroe: Yeah.
Tom Gray: Feb. 12th we deliver.
Kevin Munroe: Yeah, we're doing, 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; but animation is set up to - 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 story boards 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.
Would you say you're 75% done?
Kevin Munroe: Feels like 90 to me.
Tom Gray: It's closer to 90; we're there, we're in the last days. 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, 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. 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.
Kevin 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 we do it here, I don't think this process could survive in a bigger studio. It just works for this film.
Was there something the Hong Kong guys did that really surprised you?
What does this have to do to get a sequel?
Tom Gray: Money-wise? Probably 100 and change domestic - it will.
Kevin Munroe: So buy tickets.
Do you have sequel ideas?
Kevin Munroe: We have ideas, but nothing is 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.
Could you do a TV show with this material and technology?
Tom 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. 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.
How about a DVD version that's PG-13?
Tom 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.
Put back those nunchuck hits.
Tom 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.
Are you paying attention to the internet?
Tom Gray: Yeah, I think clearly, I think you can go nuts if you do because then you're going to be just - you'll read great stuff, then you'll read horrible stuff and you'll start to get crazy.
Kevin Munroe: You somehow forget the good stuff when you read the bad stuff.
Have Bob or Harvey Weinstein been hands on?
Tom Gray: They're always hands on - hands, feet, legs, arm, lock, wrestling. 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. 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 suggestion 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.
What's next for Imagi?
Tom Gray: Gotchaman and Astroboy, and we just finished an anime Highlander with Kawajiri in Japan; our whole reason now too is expressed in superhero. Most of the Japanese inspired ones, which our owner, Francis Kao was the one that said, 'I don't want to do that kind of stuff. I don't want to do happy talking animals anymore; I want to do what I remember as a kid growing up in Asia, that it was Gotchaman and it was Astroboy and that's what I want to make.' And we've acquired those rights; Kevin is going on to do Gotchaman as his next project.
As reality based but in sci-fi world?
Tom Gray: Yeah, and this is one we're going PG-13 definitely. This is our - we put it on the pants on this one. This is going to be a very interesting film and even maybe pushing R.
How do you juggle the two films?
Kevin Munroe: I take a laptop with me to color timing; we're in the middle of the script and we're doing preproduction on Gotchaman. And it looks like it comes from the same people that brought you this but now are doing this sort of and the whole point of it is to up the bar from what Turtles is and it's a PG-13 and really allow that I think storytelling wise. It's just fun; it's a different movie completely so it's kind of fun although it has teenagers and ninjas. Other than that, it's completely different.
What can you do with Highlander in anime that they didn't cover in film and TV?
Is the story still the McLeods?
Tom Gray: Yeah, it's a time travel back; it has all the characteristics of the Highlander series but kind of wrapped up in Kawajiri's mind of how his interpretation of the Highlander would be - a lot of similarity between samurai and Highlander, the clans and the swords and everything else. It was really difficult because of translation and if we pull it off, we'll look at other projects that we want to do but the company wants to push it. We don't want to just turn out these cute talking animal movies; we wanted to push animation because we really believe it's just another way of telling a story. That's why we're moving up into the PG. Afro Samurai we had, and I fought like hell to get that movie, and we passed and it was picked up but I loved that concept when we saw it; we think of urban. There's a lot of things that can come and they will be R rated; we really want to go that way in the end.
TMNT hits theaters March 23rd; it's rated PG.