Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles interview: Ciro Nieli ‘I feel like it will come back someday’

Ciro Nieli tells us about his TMNT cartoon, Jason Biggs' departure, and new book The Art Of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

“It was crazy making that book. I had finished making the whole show, barely got a breath. I had not realised at the time what I was embarking on. But I walked through, not just every stage of production again from beginning to end, but I hit all the emotional ups and downs.”

I’m talking to Ciro Nieli, the executive producer of Nickelodeon’s 2012 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV series, about his upcoming book. In pulling together the behind-the-scenes designs and sketches for The Art Of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Nieli found himself doing more than curating a collection of images; he found himself reliving eight years of his life.

“If you include the book, it was close to nine,” he says.

Nieli’s show is the best take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in over 20 years, breathing life into the characters that hadn’t been there since the 1990 live action movie. His youthful iteration, filtered through horror movies, Star Wars and an authentic understanding of being an outsider, is electric. It’s thrilling, funny and sweet.

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It made the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stand out again.

“I think what was weird was, it’s always held the same place in my heart, and when I started working on it I realised it was nowhere to be seen. Like, Turtles really didn’t exist currently. I thought that was really shocking.”

Launching a new take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a property just purchased by Viacom from co-creator Peter Laird’s Mirage Publishing, meant that Nieli would have to balance his own vision with the commercial requirements of what was expected to be a major franchise.

Even his original pitch was subject to reworking. His idea was to start the show with the Turtles leaving the sewers for the first time following the death of their father, Splinter.

“I just think there was a certain amount of morbidity that Nickelodeon attached to that pitch. I think they were afraid of that.”

I’m talking to Nieli over the phone. He’s in California and I’m representing Den of Geek from my spare room/makeshift office about an hour outside London. He sounds calm and friendly, gentle and mischievous.

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“It would have been very close, though. I think the stories would have been very similar. And to their credit, they might have been right.”

We talk about working with Nickelodeon and it soon becomes clear how someone like Nieli can thrive in the world of network television. It’s easy to imagine a combative relationship between interfering network executives and the people that make our favourite shows, although here that just doesn’t seem to be the case.

“I mean, you question it. I don’t think combative is the right word, because that almost seems caustic or negative. We had really good executives throughout the season. We ended up with Megan (Casey) for the majority of it and there was never a situation where she would dictate to us and we would keep our mouths shut, it was always a pretty amiable conversation. She would come around a lot to some of our weirder ideas and not even question them, especially towards the end. She was very cool about all of it.”

In fact, Nieli explains that he finds this type of collaboration positive.

“I like an executive that’s kind of strong because for me creatively, I like to blue sky. I don’t want to have any limits, I generally will do everything I wanna do and put it out there and it’s the network’s job to say ‘hey, we’re gonna pull you back a bit’. I think that’s the best way. You want someone that’s assertive enough to help pull you back, but also gives you the freedom to feel like I can do whatever I want and when I overstep, they’ll just tell me.”

“When I look back, my memory of Turtles from a network standpoint was really kind of great. I’ve had shows where there were issues with management and it wasn’t Turtles for sure. Turtles was a great experience.”

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It’s the reality of being a working creative. Ultimately, it is still his show.

“As far as my initial pitch being changed, they’re all just shots in the dark. When I throw an idea out, they would say ‘we like this, this and this, maybe you should think about losing that’. That early on you’re so excited to be in the conversation that you’re not gonna argue it. You kind of have to have the attitude that everything is sacrificeable. You need to just roll with it and be organic and kind of make everyone happy and make the best thing you can as a group.”

So no evil corporate suits then? Nieli laughs.

“The hardest part about making a show like Turtles wasn’t that they were dictating to us. It was understood that there was a certain amount of roll-out towards products that you needed to be attentive to. So even before a season was begun it was keeping in mind, there’s gonna be this many mutants and this many figures and new outfits for the Turtles.”

“But it was never ‘you guys can’t do that! How dare you! You’d better stop!’”

With the full push of the network behind them, Nieli and his crew soon found themselves in the thick of Turtlemania 2.0. There was merchandise everywhere, from LEGO sets to kitchenware. Paramount teamed up with producer Michael Bay for a Turtles blockbuster movie.

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Driving this new wave of Ninja Turtles popularity was Ciro Nieli’s show. Or at least, so I think.

“I don’t think of it that way. I don’t think that the show was the thing that made Turtles big. I guess if anyone had made the show Turtles would have been big all the same because there was a giant machine, Nickelodeon worked so hard to make it have that presence. So I don’t know if it’s something I can take credit for.”

This is surprising to hear.

“I know we have diehard fans but I wouldn’t be surprised, in a little bit, if people don’t even remember my show. But I think that’s media nowadays.”

This is even more surprising to hear.

“I was glad I could do what I did. I really loved Kevin (Eastman) and I wanted to do it for him and for Peter, because I owed them, I felt. So it was really just a labour of love. I don’t think I really looked at the big picture, ever. I guess it would have slowed me down if I thought about it that much, you know?”

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I disagree with his assessment. This show will stick around. It sits with the original comic book and the original movie as one of the three best versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He concedes some ground.

“I heard that because it’s on Hulu now, people are watching it and they’re literally reacting to the likes of ‘what is this? When did this happen and why is it so awesome?’ There’s a lot of that kind of reaction happening right now.”

“It’s hard for me to think about what it was like being in the middle of it looking out. I just try not to take it too personal that the franchise is moving on because I understand the business of it and that these things need to be refreshed every decade or so, or every five years for big franchises. I think just tried to keep a level head while I was the shepherd of it, do the best that I could, and also not get too attached, because it can be really heart-breaking.”

As the popularity of the franchise increased it became subject to scrutiny, and scrutiny would lead to a rare instance of someone stepping in and making a significant change in the show over Nieli’s head.

During their second season Jason Biggs, who had been brilliant as the voice of Leonardo, disappeared from the show. Dominic Catrambone stepped in briefly before Seth Green took over the role from season three onwards. It’s only recently that Biggs has referenced having lost the role due to controversial and obscene tweets he’d been writing. I ask Nieli what that was like from the inside.

“It was horrible.”

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“We all loved Jason. He was one of the brothers. When we started the show there was a real tight-knit group bond between us all, the Turtles (Biggs, along with Rob Paulsen, Sean Astin and Greg Cipes) and Mae (Whitman) and Splinter (Hoon Lee) and myself, because in the beginning we had an exorbitant amount of press junkets that was not common in animation. He was kind of the class clown. It helped us all bond. He was an important part of the group.”

“I was aware that he was doing stuff and occasionally he was reprimanded, I think once or twice, but that’s not my jurisdiction, you know?”

“It had come from very, very high up, it wasn’t even in the Nickelodeon ranks. I wasn’t given any place to remark, I was just informed and told to shut up,” he says with a laugh. “The thing is that none of those people are around anymore, which is probably the only reason that I’m talking about it.”

“It’s one of those situations that’s hard on every side. I can’t really take a side, all I can say is that it was very sad. I did not want to see Jason go. But I understood it from a management standpoint.”

We continue our conversation with no further controversies to cover.

I quickly discover that Nieli loves to talk up his crew. While fans will be aware of the importance of Brandon Auman, who executive produced the show alongside Nieli from season two and served as head writer, it turns out that there are many more people that saved the day on Turtles.

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There’s art director Nadia Mori, who would create textures and colours that bring realism to the look of the show. There’s Ant Ward, currently a showrunner on his own Turtles cartoon, Mac Middleton (line producer and schedule wrangler), Patrick Krebs (supervising producer and CG wizard) and Alan Wan (director and co-conspirator).

“There was a million people. It’s hard, I feel like I’m leaving people out. Assistants and production co-ordinators, everyone was so helpful. I’ve worked on shows where you felt very alone, you know? Turtles wasn’t like that. It was really more of a class.”

Given how ambitious the show is, it’s a credit to Nieli that he was never subject to a mutiny. This was a CG cartoon producing 23 episodes a year. Yet, there were always new characters, new locations, thrilling action sequences. Half of season four was set in space, each episode on a new planet. He asked a lot of his crew. Were they not furious with him?

“No, they were stoked.”

“You’ve got to understand, these are all grown men and women, they’re probably in the CG field or drawing designs because they love video games and live action films. So for me to present a challenge to them, like remaking Mad Max with anthropomorphic monsters, they were just over the moon about it.”

“It’s giving them a form to challenge themselves and it’s feeding their experience and portfolio for them to pursue what they really want to do, which isn’t necessarily making shows for three-to-five year olds, which when you look around the landscape of televised animation, that’s probably 90% of the work.”

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“I would present stuff to them and they would exceed my expectations, and while I was driving them, they in turn would try to drive me to feed them more. There were a lot of really talented guys at the end, especially the CG modellers, for both the sets and the characters. They made it possible.”

The push to produce something more than just a Saturday morning cartoon resulted in the show having a cinematic feel. When the two-part series opener Rise Of The Turtles was first broadcast back in 2012 it was a little runtime short of being the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie since 1990. Double length episodes mark the end of each season, each expanding on the last in scope. Finally, the fifth season, rebranded as Tales Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, is made up of a series of standalone, multi-episode mini-movies.

“With the writing on the wall that we were coming to a close, I had hoped that it would serve as an example that the team that was involved could make anything. ‘Cause they (Nickelodeon) don’t have a straight-to-video feature format, like Warner Brothers where they put out maybe four movies a year, so my thing was let’s use the Turtles as an example, as proof of concept; we can make anything. We can keep making stuff because everybody was so talented and ambitious.”

“Of course, in the end that didn’t happen, but what did happen was, we made some really intense shows and we got exhausted.”

Since the resolution of Nieli’s show, Nickelodeon announced a straight-to-Netflix Rise Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie and Warner Brothers released a DTV Batman Vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Nieli’s message was heard, if perhaps not quite in time.

That’s unfortunate, because it just so happens that he had an idea that he liked.

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“I had pitched a feature not unlike the one that has been announced now for Netflix, that was a standalone story about the return of Kraang.”

He still sounds excited about this idea.

“I wanted to tell something that was quiet and creepy and slow, like a Bodysnatchers story or The Blob. Taking the tropes of all these great 80s horror films, like John Carpenter ones. I really wanted to do a sci-fi horror film starring the Turtles as they were older. But that never happened.”

There are other stories that they never got to tell, with some season five episodes, such as a Raphael and Casey Jones team up and a return of Den of Geek favourites the Dream Beavers, nixed before production.

“That was a 20-episode season, so it was a little short. If we had a full 26, there probably, definitely would have been a two-part Dream Beavers episode in that season. Now that I’m saying it out loud again, it’s kind of sad.”

While it’s clear that he still feels a strong connection to his show, it’s also clear that when it wrapped up it was time to move on. At the time of our interview Nieli hopes that the status of his next show, which is based at Nickelodeon, will be confirmed imminently. This comes after another project that popped up right after Turtles.

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“Immediately after Turtles I was asked to start working on a Usagi series with Dark Horse. It never ended up fully happening, but I went from literally finishing Turtles without skipping a beat and I read probably 33 of those Dark Horse collected volumes in a row and made intensive notes. I remember at the time feeling cheated a little bit, because I really wanted to do nothing.”

We wonder whether he’d ever return to the Turtles in the future.

“Yeah, definitely. I think a few years is crucial and the right opportunity sounds like the clincher. It’s not that I don’t want to work on Turtles, it’s just I’ve given it my all and I think I needed headspace.”

“Because they asked me early on if I had wanted to work on a new Turtles series while I was still on. It was a question that would come up every season; ‘the season’s about to end, do you want to do your own thing or do want to continue making the next season of Turtles?’ I think that season it was like, ‘look, we’re gonna make a new show, do you want to be involved in it?’ I had passed because I think I needed a break at that time.”

“There was a lot of personal stuff in the DNA of that iteration of Turtles for me, there was a lot of personal stories and earmarks from my childhood that were included in that show, so it was really hard for me to conceive of another series of the Turtles where I wiped the other one away.”

“The idea of replacing the cast, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t see the Turtles with other voices, so I decided I didn’t want to be a part of any of that. But, looking forward to the future, if they asked, even a few months ago, to make the Turtles movie that’s on Netflix, but if it was an original iteration, a whole new rethink of the Turtles universe just as a one shot idea, I would’ve probably done it.”

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Now Nieli anticipates that he’ll be tied to his new show for a few years, pushing a potential return to Turtles back for the time being. But, there might be a way he’d make an exception.

“I would, if I could, the story that I told you about, the return of the Kraang, and it would have been my original cast aged up, I would probably make that in the midst of other stuff. I just think that would be a fun opportunity. And I think people will miss those Turtles a little bit, you know?”

We do. We miss his pensive, likeable take on Leonardo. His rough and tumble Raphael and his over-zealous, love-struck Donatello. We miss his heartbreakingly sweet Michelangelo. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of them.

“I feel like it will come back someday. If it does I would have to play some part in it. I would probably be like 70 years old, though. See what happens. I might need a job then.”

In the meantime, The Art Of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will allow us to revisit his Turtles one more time.

“To have a book on my library shelves that just encapsulates all of that is kind of a treasure,” Nieli tells us. “Hopefully the fans will get a kick out of it, too.”

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The Art Of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be published by Dark Horse Books on 11th June.