How Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014 became a surprise hit

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - the 2014 version - wasn't expected to hit big. Here's how it managed to do so...

2007’s animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, TMNT, received a lukewarm reception and, while it had returned $95m from around the world on a $34m budget, hadn’t seen enough success at the box office to convince anyone to pursue a sequel (one had been teased in the film).

Two years later, in July 2009, Paramount announced that they had hired John Fusco to write a new live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I know what you’re thinking; ‘John Fusco, the ALF guy?’, but that’s actually Paul Fusco. John Fusco had just written marital arts movie The Forbidden Kingdom and had previously penned both Young Guns films.

On his blog, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Peter Laird said of the announcement:

“I met John for the first time around the middle of last month – he drove down to Northampton, and Galen Walker and Scott Mednick flew out from California, to meet with me and Gary at the Mirage offices. I was impressed with John – he’s a cool guy with a lot of intelligence and energy… and he has good kung-fu!”

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Then, a few months later, it was announced that Laird had sold the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise to Viacom (Viacom owns both Paramount and Nickelodeon). Again on his blog, Laird remarked that the sale “could very well mean a brighter future for the TMNT property than was previously feasible” and said that he would be stepping away from the Turtles for a while.

The sale had implications for the film, of course, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what a change it would be for Ninja Turtles as a whole. In its way, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had always been a bit punk rock. It was created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who retained control over it for 25 years. All TV shows, films, toys and merchandise came back in some way to the two (obviously their control over the final products varied considerably, and Laird was in sole control for a good portion of that time). Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was homemade. Finally, after 25 years, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael had jobs. They’d gone corporate.

At the time of the sale it was announced that the movie would be released in 2012, just as a CG cartoon from Nickelodeon would hit television screens. Only the cartoon would stick to that schedule. Here at Den Of Geek, we love that cartoon very much.

The following year, in May 2010, Deadline revealed that Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes would make the new Turtles film. It was reported that Bay, Brad Fuller and Andrew Form would produce the movie alongside Galen Walker and Scott Mednick. The article also noted that they intended to meet with writers, which cast doubt over Fusco’s continued involvement in the film.

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In August 2010, The Wrap apparently sent a spy into Paramount to try to crack their AOL password. They, er, ‘obtained an email’ that updated them on some of Paramount productions (Paramount refuted its accuracy on some counts, but didn’t state which). The email seemed to confirm Fusco’s departure and is quoted as saying “Fusco draft not great. Looking for another writer to come on this quickly as it’s a huge Viacom property.”

Little is known of Fusco’s script. Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman is one of few to comment on it, describing it as “…this awesome, awesome, awesome Batman Begins kind of take on the first movie. It was really interesting, but it was maybe a little too edgy for what Paramount wanted.”

Den Of Geek would like to read that script.

The involvement of Michael Bay, who had directed two poorly received Transformers films that deviated from the source material, stirred discontent amongst fans. What followed, a four-year period of the team repeatedly tumbling over their own feet while circus music played in the background, did little to calm concerns.

Screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway were brought in to script the film. The pair, who had recently written Iron Man and Punisher: War Zone (credited alongside other screenwriters on both), were still working towards that 2012 release. Essentially nothing is known about their draft, other than that when the film was finally released their names weren’t to be found among the credits.

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With the project seemingly stalled, news came in June 2011 that Platinum Dunes had turned to the screenwriters of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec were an obvious choice for studio Paramount, who would have been hoping to recreate the impressive box office return and positive reviews their Mission Impossible film had achieved. I assume. It’s also possible that Appelbaum and Nemec are total pizza monsters and it just made sense to everyone. Who knows?

While Appelbaum and Nemec spent months eliciting clackety noises from their keyboards the production team set about finding a director. In February 2012, they announced that they’d settled on Jonathan Liebesman. If you tilt your head at the right angle, you can see how Liebesman would make sense. He directed both Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath Of The Titans and so had experience making slightly cheaper blockbusters, as Turtles would be.

Still, the selection of Liebesman was viewed by some as disheartening. Both Battle: Los Angeles and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, the director’s previous collaboration with Platinum Dunes, had been poorly received. There was little in the way of anticipation for the then upcoming Wrath Of The Titans, which was released to a critical mauling and a disappointing US box office return (boosted by significant takings from elsewhere around the world). Wrath, of course, justifies its existence with Liam Neeson’s incredible hair and beard.

While it might be unfair to outright dismiss Liebesman based on his track record, there was nothing on the director’s CV that you could point to as a reason to be excited for his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

A month after that, it all kicked off. Michael Bay spoke about the film. Bay’s track record of speaking about films isn’t top notch. He referred to the Turtles as aliens, suggesting a significantly altered backstory. While it was possible that he was referencing the alien ooze that mutated the Turtles, fans already fearing the worst were alarmed and, er, vocal. Very vocal. All-caps vocal. There was also a change of title, simplified to Ninja Turtles, which removed the word ‘mutant’ and compounded fears of alien creatures filling in for mutated turtles. The title would quietly change back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shortly before release.

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The film was delayed in June, pushed back by 10 weeks. But what’s 10 weeks between friends? Or enemies, in this instance. What’s ten weeks between furious enemies?

It was August of 2012 that Platinum Dunes lost their ‘chill out, we’re not doing that’ defence, which flapped away in a warm breeze as a script draft appeared on the internet. A good number of worst case scenarios were present; a Michael Bay-style military plotline (Shredder became Colonel Schrader), Turtles as aliens and our heroes side-lined as supporting characters for much of the film.

It should be highlighted that the script had no business being online. It was presented without context. To give you an idea of how inappropriate that is, sometimes when I get stuck writing an article I’ll break out into a poem just to keep moving. Then I’ll come back to the bit I got stuck at another day, or will rejig the entire article, fix it and take out the poem. The finished articles are never meant to contain poetry. It is hugely unfair to a writer for their work in progress to be published without their consent.

Bay dismissed the script as something that “saw the shredder a long time ago.” Not happy to finish on that terrific pun, he continued “This is tired, old news – wait for the movie!” The script was dated as being from January 2012, earlier that year, and the news was new news.

Bay regular Megan Fox was cast as April O’Neil in February 2013, which was odd (Fox seemed a strange fit for the character) and odd (Fox and Bay had beef). Fox’s casting caused further controversy in 2014 when she told people complaining about the film prior to its release to “fuck off”.

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We then entered a period of relative quiet, or bubbling anger depending on how you choose to get involved in your hobbies. A new writer, Evan Daugherty, was brought on to do some rewriting, but that was about it. There was nothing new to get shell-shocked about until mid-2013, when everyone found out what they were planning on doing to Shredder. Sorry I did the shell-shocked pun there.

Traditionally a Japanese character named Oroku Saki, Liebesman’s film would rename the character Eric Sacks. He’d be played by William Fichtner. This suggested further alterations to the Turtles’ origin and raised concerns of Hollywood ‘whitewashing’ of Asian roles. Changes to the film prior to release would see the characters of Shredder and Sacks separated, rendering at least the latter complaint moot.

Say what you will about the team behind the film, but it appears that they did respond to fan concerns in a number of instances.

The movie was then shot. The shoot was apparently difficult, but it sounds like there are enough stories to write a separate article about that. Maybe another time.

The movie would gear up for its August 2014 release date with a trailer at the end of March 2014. It was met, unsurprisingly, with scepticism (although some handsome chump wrote a fairly positive trailer breakdown for it here at Den Of Geek). The new designs of the Turtles, which gave them clothing and noses, was subject to derision and comparisons to DreamWorks ogre Shrek.

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It also brought the Teenage Mutant Ninja Noses meme to its logical conclusion.

Shortly after that trailer further behind the scenes difficulties became apparent. A couple of last minute voice recastings would see Tony Shalhoub announced as the new voice of Splinter. Danny Woodburn, who had originally been cast and had provided the performance for the motion capture, took to Twitter to express his surprise.

Johnny Knoxville also joined the cast as the voice of Leonardo. This recasting was stranger. The Turtles had been created for the film using motion capture, with the physical performers also providing the voices for Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo. Knoxville’s voice replaced that of physical performer Pete Ploszec. The addition of Knoxville was not followed by any further recasting.

And that was that. All that was left was for the film to come out, take in a predicted $200m-$300m worldwide (not a flop but not enough to justify a sequel) and then disappear. Strike softly and fade away.

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But that’s not what happened.

Released a week after Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would bring in $65m in the US on its opening weekend, far exceeding the $40-45m projections and securing the number one spot at the US box office, which many anticipated Guardians would retain. It would hold the spot for two weeks. Where it might have seemed likely that Turtles would get swept aside by the better received Marvel film, it appeared that the two kept each other up. For a film that was so poorly received, Turtles‘ box office drop-off was impressively slight; word of mouth seemed do the film no harm. It wound up finishing with just below $500m from around the world.

Paramount was so impressed with the opening weekend numbers that they greenlit a sequel. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would follow up its surprising box office success with a particularly lucrative home video release.

Signs of the troubled production can be spotted easily in the film. The character Shredder looks to have been clumsily separated from Fichtner’s Sacks late in the day. Shredder’s motivation is to rule the city, whatever that might mean in modern New York, while Sacks wants to be very, very rich. Please see pictures below of both Sacks’ house and Times’ Square skyscraper, both of which he already owns.

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There are hints of a better story in there, too. In one scene, Sacks tells April O’Neil a story about a 9th century Japanese warlord who poisoned the water supply, causing chaos, and a hero who developed a cure. It appears that the story would have run parallel to Sacks’ plans here, with a payoff about the hero and the warlord being the same person. Unfortunately, Sacks’ motivation changed and if the payoff ever existed, it no longer fit the film.

I have yet to put together any kind of explanation for the “My shell is tightening” line, though. Goodness, that line is awful.

It’s a different article, but I’d argue that for all the problems and missteps, there’s much to enjoy in the finished film.

Interviews since the release have offered insight into what went wrong. Talking to the Hollywood Reporter, Michael Bay explained his panic at seeing an early cut of the film, with the already severely delayed release date looming. “So we’re having a steak dinner, we have a martini each — and I’m texting Drew. Then he goes to the bathroom. I go to the bathroom. He’s at the urinal and [I say], “We are in so much f—ing trouble!” I write Paramount, “Guys, we have a serious problem. We need funny writers right now. Because the pipeline has to keep going.” We really had to get that tone right. It was dicey.”

Meanwhile, the actors playing the Turtles have spoken about the difficulties in making the first film, sadly failing to reference either steak dinners or urinals, in this great interview with ScreenRant. Alan Ritschon, who plays Raphael, said “there’s a whole other movie on the cutting room floor. A couple.”

A question about the difference between departed director Jonathan Liebesman and newcomer David Green prompts a particularly interesting response. Jeremy Howard, who plays Donatello responded with simply “kindness”. Ouch. As the discussion progresses, they do have more positive things to say about Liebesman.

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The success of the first film seems unlikely. It’s like, er, it’s…

There once was a Michael called Bay,Whose Turtles film turned out ok,The sequel looks better,His involvement looks lesser,But that’s coincidental, I’d say.

Alright, I don’t have an ending for this article. And sorry Michael Bay, I can’t think of anything that rhymes with Liebesman.

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