Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: making a sequel

We headed to the set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows to find out more about the approach to the upcoming sequel...

In 1991, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret Of The Ooze was released in cinemas. It came out just a year after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, an attempt to capitalize quickly on the surprising success of that film. Where the first live action Turtle adventure had taken $135m at the US box office, Secret Of The Ooze would return nearer to $80m, roughly adhering to the old 65% rule of sequel returns.

Secret Of The Ooze was quite different to its predecessor. It was sillier, adopting a lighter tone more in line with the popular cartoon series of the time, where the first showed a greater influence of the comic book source material.

The team behind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows, this year’s Turtles sequel, find themselves producing a follow on with similar changes, even calling back to the same cartoon iteration, albeit for different reasons.

Secret Of The Ooze was softened following complaints against the level of violence in its predecessor. Where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) had featured a more serious tone and impressive martial arts sequences, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret Of The Ooze was daft and the fight scenes toothless. The 1990 film saw Raphael struggling to recover from a serious beating from the villainous Foot Clan. In the 1991 sequel the Turtles weren’t shown using their weapons. A conscious effort was made to make the film more “kid friendly”, as director Michael Pressman explains on the film’s DVD commentary track.

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That’s not to say that the silly follow on is without its charm. It features some fun jokes, a few notable new characters and the widely remembered Vanilla Ice dance sequence. The Turtles even had a favourite pizza place which, unlike in other movies where corporate tie-ins with Pizza Hut and Dominos have seen the boys favouring a brand, was Roy’s Pizza (actually Ray’s Pizza, but changed to Roy’s for legal reasons) in New York City.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows, then, is going in the same direction but for a different set of reasons. Den of Geek visited the set in June 2015. Producer Andrew Form explains that their experiences making the first film made them realise they had to change things up a bit. “It’s very easy to take it seriously and go right down that road. You can’t forget we’ve got four huge, talking, walking Turtles. You can’t forget that.”

Perhaps that’s a difficulty inherent in the motion capture technology, used extensively by both of the recent Turtles films. After all, the previous series of live action movies featured men performing in giant Turtles suits (provided by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop), a good reminder of what the audience would end up seeing. Not having that visual prompt may take some getting used to. Pablo Helman, the head of VFX on both movies, explains “The first movie was a movie in which we kind of discovered the characters as we went along and in this movie we already know who the characters are.”

Perhaps it’s producer Michael Bay, not present for our set visit, who best explains the difficulties that troubled the production of the first film. The Transformers director told the Hollywood Reporter: “After I saw it… 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.”

While Secret Of The Ooze was an attempt to fix problems that existed outside of the film, Out Of The Shadows will be an attempt to apply the fixes learned on the first movie to produce a better, not softer, film.

“The tone of the movie was the biggest challenge, which has truly helped us through movie two, because we learned from movie one” producer Form acknowledges. A group of journalists, seventeen in total including Den of Geek, gather around him as he lays out what they’ve been doing differently this time around. Form pops up throughout our visit, but there’s always someone in need of his attention. An apparent leader on set, Form shows no sign of feeling the pressure of such a large production. He carries a laid back manner and appears to be enjoying the experience.

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“It’s really fun” Form tells us. Later in the day, Form’s wife and infant child visit the set. He shows them around the impressive Turtle lair set as three bells sounded from across the building, over by the van set where filming was taking place. Three bells indicate that a take is imminent. Everyone fell deadly silent, with the exception of Form Junior, who proceeds to coo with little respect for film set etiquette. The bell rings again to denote that filming has stopped. “Let’s see if you’ve ruined a take” Form Senior says with a laugh.

There’s no sign on set of the panic that seemed to follow the first movie. They’re a way into production and Form seems pleased. “The shoot is broken up into a number of units. The entire movie is being filmed in maybe close to 90 days, without anything that we do with ILM up in San Francisco. Those are additional days that we do that are going to need motion capture, volume work with the CG characters. But it’s 90 days of principal photography on set with these actors. We’ve got about 20 days of that left.”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows comes with more than just a new tone and newfound confidence; it comes with a new director, too. Out goes Jonathan Liebesman; in comes David Green, who directed 2014 family adventure film Earth To Echo. It was that film, Form tells us, that drew him to the Turtles team’s attention. “Earth To Echo was a great, small movie where he understood his characters really well, and when he came in and pitched us his take on our movie, it was a natural for us. Now that I’ve shot three quarters of the movie with him, I couldn’t be happier.”

“This film has been incredibly collaborative” actor Stephen Amell tells us. “Working with Dave, Josh Appelbaum (screenwriter) has been on set a bunch, Andre Nemec (screenwriter) is on set. Andrew Form is coming in with a lot of suggestions in terms of what they refer to as franchise management. I’m actually shooting next week on second unit, with an entirely different director, of a big action piece that’s going to happen while main unit is filming this. So, I’m getting a lot of input from a lot of different people. It’s really collaborative.”

Of director Green, he says “He’s just very quiet. Very precise.”

Amell himself is a new addition to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line-up. He’s playing Casey Jones, the hockey-mask wearing vigilante who’s known for his love of misusing spots equipment and for being ever so slightly unhinged.

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“My character in this movie is Casey Jones at, I think, an earlier stage than we’ve seen him in previous live action iterations of the Turtles.” Says Amell, suggesting that perhaps this isn’t going to be the same version of Casey Jones that Turtles fans are familiar with. At least, not at first. “He has those same impulses lurking somewhere.”

“I mean, that’s the thing about Casey Jones, is he’s a little crazy” Amell tells us.

Other new characters, particularly the villains, reveal the influence of the 1987 cartoon series. Fan favourite villains Bebop and Rocksteady will be appearing in the film as the mutant sidekicks of heavily bladed baddie Shredder (this time played by Brian Tee, taking over the role from Tohoru Masamune). With Shredder, Karai, Bebop, Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman and Kraang, screenwriter Josh Appelbaum jokes with us that the film has its own Sinister Six. Of those villains, three were created specifically for that old cartoon series.

Bebop and Rocksteady in particular are exciting additions. They were planned for the 1991 sequel but Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman objected to the idea. Some 25 years later fans will finally get a chance to see the two baddies on the big screen. Best of all, we can expect them to be the same hulking dimwits we’ve long known them as.

“We have not changed that at all.” Form reassures us. “They are not the smartest guys in the world. I would say in a fight they’re brawlers: they will throw big haymaker punches, nothing calculated, and if they hit you it’s gonna hurt, but easy to duck. They’re the comic relief in the movie in a big way and they play very well off Shredder. We call them The Knuckleheads. They’re very funny and a little slow.”

When we sat down with the actors playing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Den of Geek couldn’t help but think of the recent comic book storyline that saw Bebop and Rocksteady bash Donatello into a near death state.

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“That’s not happening in this one. The guys are gonna be around for a while.” Jeremy Howard, who plays Donatello, reassures us.

“He hasn’t gotten those pages yet.” Leonardo actor Pete Ploszec jokingly interjects.

This is how the actors playing the Turtles interact. The four sit together, joking, teasing one another and each taking a turn to answer every question, attempting to build on the previous answer or joke. Howard is the quietest of the three, but gives the most thoughtful answers. Ploszec is warm and friendly throughout, and gives enthused, excited answers when he’s not playing and joking with his co-stars.

“It’ll be the last day on set” adds Noel Fisher, who is the mischievous Michelangelo through and through.

“We’re pushing for it.” Ploszec smiles.

“It’s like Game Of Thrones, you find out on the day” finishes Alan Ritchson. Ritchson is the least like his character, at least going by the first film. He’s far more playful and fun than grumpy and gruff Raphael.

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The four have a well-practiced camaraderie, this being their second go around together. They’re more used to the process of shooting motion capture, they tell us, and have a better understanding of what works for the characters. “Those moments that we saw in the first movie, that I think a lot of people saw and said “That really works”, let’s find more opportunities for that” Pete tells us, excited that there will be more character work and down time with the Turtles in this sequel.

Noel Fisher is lively and silly throughout, which isn’t much of a surprise as his playful take on Michelangelo was a highlight of the first movie. “I kill Donnie” he tells us with a big smile, pretending to spoil the movie but failing to convince. Later, he explains that while the character may have appeal to fans, he might not be a favourite amongst his brothers. “Mikey’s not necessarily the most reliable teammate” he says. “He has focus problems”

If he can’t rely on his brothers for support, he can at least find an ally in April O’Neil. “My favourite Turtle? Mikey, cause he’s the funny one” Megan Fox says.

There’s a buzz amongst many of the journalists in attendance about meeting Megan Fox. Fox is a big name movie star. Undeniably charismatic, Fox is lively and approachable, excited to talk about astrology and her character.

“I mean, you’re always gonna have that little bit the ‘Wendy and the lost boys’ element” she tells us of April’s relationship with the Turtles. “Just because it’s one female surrounded by four very silly boys. But they’re more helpful to April in this movie.”

In making Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows, Andrew Form, Josh Appelbaum and their cast will be attempting to do what the team behind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret Of The Ooze couldn’t 25 years ago. That’s make a sequel that improves upon its predecessor. Their approach sees them looking back to what’s worked before, both for them and others who have contributed toward Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ rich history.

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“This film is much more vibrant and alive and celebratory towards the franchise” screenwriter Appelbaum tells us.

And if all goes to plan and this movie is a big success?

“Hopefully we’re making, like, five more of these movies!” he says.

As the day ran its course, Den of Geek were taken away from the set so that the team could carry on with the shoot. We decided that there was only one place to go from there and head out for a walk in Manhattan, up to Roy’s Pizza for a slice.

Oh well. Perhaps a different pizza will taste even better. We ducked into the nearest subway station and headed uptown in search of a slice.

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