The night before I visited the set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows I found myself sat in a hotel room in New York City. This was it.
I’ve written for Den of Geek since 2007. I was a new writer and had my first article published just a couple of months after the site was launched. A couple of years in, after writing a particularly mean spirited article about an unnamed robotic blockbuster, I wasn’t sure I was on the right track. I was having to try so hard and was being overly cynical. I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to contribute. Since then, I’ve felt like me when I’m writing.
My new approach didn’t mean I’d only write nice things about films. It meant that I’d try things, that I’d try to find something to like, and if I couldn’t, I’d try to make reading about it fun. It meant that I’d be excited. Another thing I’d decided to do was to take more time to celebrate the things that I love. When I thought about what that would mean, I decided it meant that I was going to have to immerse myself in my geek passion; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Embracing the positivity is a brilliant, energising thing to do, and for me, it’s lead to some of the best experiences of my life. Sat in this hotel room, I reflected on that decision, and on all of the things I’d been able to do because of it. In the morning I was going to the set of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. What a ridiculous, improbable and magnificent situation I found myself in. It was surreal and wonderful and I made a mental note to appreciate every single second of it. It was like receiving an amazing overly-generous birthday gift, not least because it was, by odd coincidence, actually my birthday.
Of course, there was only so much time for sitting in a quiet room patting myself on the back like some kind of awestruck egomaniac. I’d only received the schedule for the visit when I’d checked into the hotel. With a list of probable interview subjects, I had prep to do. It was an early start, too, and I was already feeling the effects of a long day of travel.
The following morning I staggered out into the streets of New York in search of coffee. Successful, I made it back to the hotel where they herded all of us writers onto a bus. The drive to the set took the best part of an hour. I tried to take in the view of the city while I jigged restlessly in my seat.
They were shooting in an armoury in Brooklyn; imagine two warehouses joined together. The first, where we entered, was a functioning workshop. People with proper jobs, all working on the film, sawed, sanded and welded, as us flappy writers waddled past on our way to the set section of the building.
(This image is from the Innovation Workshop Instagram feed)
We were led over towards the Turtles’ truck, but it was impossible not to be distracted by the three-floors-high wooden walls of some kind of structure in the middle of the hall. I caught a peek through a walkway and gasped – it was the lair!
In the previous film, 2014s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Shredder and the Foot Clan demolished the Turtles’ lair, requiring a new home to be built for this follow on. It’s a stunningly elaborate set and would prove to be the focus of our visit. We’ll come to it in a bit, though, as this early in the day I was only able to glimpse little sections of it. Some scrolls, cushions and bonsai trees in what turned out to be Splinter’s alcove, all seen on tiptoes over lights and flight cases.
But first, vehicles. In the first movie, we got a brief look inside the Turtles’ van. In this one, we’ll get to spend some time in the Turtles’ truck.
There are actually two trucks; one used for external shots and one for filming inside. We were gathered around the latter. It had no windscreen and the surface of the wing mirrors was covered in a blue material.
It was here that I spotted a detail, the kind of detail I kept finding all day. There was a piece of wood leaning against the outside of the van, likely a prop yet to be applied somewhere, with ‘Foot Stinks!’ painted on it. The Turtles’ Party Wagon toy van from the 1980s, based on the van from the 1987 cartoon, had a ‘Foot Stinks’ sticker on it. What a lovely a touch, one that will be missed or foreign to much of the audience, but will elicit a warm response from some fans, like it did me that day on set.
“They’re very stealth-like, but while they’re ninja-ing around the rooftops they also had to have a vehicle that would disguise them on the ground, so we had to go through vehicles they could possibly use, and the one that stuck out the most was a trash truck,” Martin Laing, the production designer, told us about the vehicle. “The interior was really fun. It’s almost like Doctor Who’s TARDIS. You look at the outside of it and it’s something nondescript you see throughout London, and then you go to the inside and it’s got that ‘wow’ factor. That’s what we tried to achieve inside the Turtle van.”
Inside the van is a cramped, colourful, overloaded space, all neon excitement and youthful hyperactivity. There’s a rack on the wall for Leonardo’s swords, Michelangelo has a special seat where can control van-arms with nunchuks, and there’s a surf board on the ceiling with a speed bag hanging from it. There’s a drink vending machine (the Turtles are into Crush soft drinks in this movie universe, which is, er, totally a character point and not product placement) and an arcade game. Brilliantly, the top scores page on the arcade machine is full, with Michelangelo in 15th place and Donatello in 1st to 14th. I could see that being the case.
There’s a big screen TV on one wall and a sofa opposite where they can play a variety of games consoles. There are manuals for Sega CD games, a Guitar Hero instrument controller and even a light gun for the NES. Can the Turtles get their fingers into the loopy bit to use the trigger? Are they any good at Duck Hunt? What on Earth was I doing here with all these professional journalists? Anyway, for bragging rights I sat on the sofa in the Turtle truck. No big deal, but when you watch the film, if you see the sofa in the Turtle truck, I totally sat on it for a second.
Unrelated to my rebellious act of sitting down, we were ushered out of the van and brought onto the sewer lair set, the greatest place I have ever been.
The sewer lair is an imposing structure, two-and-a-half-months in the making and equal parts a convincing subterranean environment and cartoonish fever dream. The cold looking grey walls and grimy pipes are the subdued backdrop against which the multi-coloured lives of the Turtles are laid out. The Turtles’ sleeping area, unsurprisingly, features a good deal of colour coding. The water that flows through the lairs grey concrete moat is an eye-catchingly bright blue.
That water leads us around the lair. It flows in from one end, landing at Splinter’s alcove and past Donatello’s work station, under the stairs that lead to the kitchen and sleeping area, and away past the record collection (Den of Geek can confirm that the Turtles have a Hall and Oates album). The water’s warm (I dipped my fingers in as I had basically lost all control). It plummets into the lair via what is affectionately referred to as a waterslide, a giant round opening in the wall that looks like, well, a waterslide. It’s not turned on during dialogue shots as it rumbles at an incredible volume when water crashes out of it. It’s powerful enough to take a person off their feet, we’re told and not shown. Everyone wants to go down the water slide.
“We’ve got plans when this is all said and done to get in there” Pete Ploszek, who plays Leonardo, would tell us later in the day. I do hope they were able to.
As is the way of some set visits, much of the day is spent waiting for interviews. Here, thanks to shooting going on elsewhere (we actually didn’t get to see any filming), we spent our waiting time in the Turtles’ lair, and were invited to investigate. The set was big and so thoughtfully populated with decoration that it took a good portion of the day to dig through it all anyway. In the interviews, everyone spoke of the sewer lair set with an awed enthusiasm.
“It’s a perfect analogy for this film.” Alan Ritchson, who plays Raphael, explained in an interview session that included all four Turtles actors, leaving me as star struck as I have ever been (I burned red when I exchanged hellos with Ritchson in the lair as he strolled around in his motion capture suit, complete with turtle shell). “The lair in the first film, it was great. It could fit in one half of the lair that we have now. The scope has grown so much, you can see it in the lair, the size and detail; it’s all just so much bigger. The entire film is doing that.”
“I mean, if I was April I would live in the Turtle lair” said Megan Fox, returning to play April O’Neil. “I don’t know why she would want to live anywhere else.” Megan Fox or not, I quite fancied staying there, too.
“It was about a 12-week build” Martin Laing told us. “But we ended up doing it in 10 due to scheduling and moving things around. It’s not just the building of the set but the engineering that’s involved. When you’re building a swimming pool and a tank you have to figure out getting the water in, and then the lighting guys want us to cut holes in the swimming pool and it has to not leak. It all starts with the swipe of a pen on a tablet; I do all my designs on a computer. Then it’s getting all that approved by Michael Bay at his amazing house in Hollywood, in Bel-Air.”
As the day wore on, hours passed between brief chats with the cast and crew, and we continued to nose around the set. Our exploration of the space led us to the kitchen. At the table, everyone’s chair is personalized with marker pen. Donnie’s has its weight load capacity worked out, Splinter’s is a stool with his name and a crown drawn on it, Leo’s says ‘Ninja Power’, Raph’s is all drawings and Mikey’s say ‘Surf’s up’. The front of the fridge is decorated with family photos, some of which are recognisable as stills from the first movie.
We then moved into the bedroom area. Each of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a sleeping area. Leo’s bed has a wheel of swords over it. The most endearing design detail on the whole set is that Raphael and Michelangelo share bunk beds (made from police barricades). Rage case Raphael gets the top bunk, obviously, and there’s an American flag draped over his bed. Next to little brother Mikey’s bottom bunk is a small collection of musical instruments.
The most impressive sleeping area, though, is Donatello’s. Martin Laing took particular pleasure in describing it to us. “His space is a nerdy, techy wonderland. He’s got that wonderful round structure which we’re saying is an old pipe entrance and he’s just filled it in with all these beautiful pieces of technology.” As well as gadgets, Donatello also has a dancing hula girl toy.
There were two other key nooks in the lair; Donnie’s work nook, where you could find computers and test tubes and such, and the weapons nook, where you could find swords, nun-chucks and a Den of Geek writer.
The weapons nook was literally wall-to-wall weapons racks, each colour-coded to match it to the appropriate turtle (blue sword handles for Leonardo, etc.). Goodness me, I wanted to play with the weapons. I somehow managed to restrain myself. To a degree, at least. Please don’t tell Paramount, but I touched one of Raphael’s sai. Alright, I touched one of each weapon. Seriously though, guys; snitches get stitches.
Out of the weapons nook, past Donatello’s work area and to your left was a small set of steps that took you down to the garage. It had lots of wrenches and car tools (I’m a daft internet writer, I have no idea). The Turtles’ truck, the one used for external shots, was parked up in the middle of it. The hulking green beast, as glossy a bin van as I’ve ever seen, was emblazoned with a logo for ‘Tartaruga Bros’, a company logo as a cover but with a hint as to who might be inside (tartarugas is Portuguese for turtles).
Before long I found myself taking a final walk around the set, as the time to depart approached. The interviews were conducted, the sets inspected and the hospitality of the folks who invited us stretched to breaking point. I made a few last scribbles, including a note reminding myself to mention the big pipe in my write up. I suppose I’d better get to that.
Right, there was this giant pipe. It’s weird. In person, the pipe was amazing. It was so huge and detailed and it’s crazy that people built this thing for set dressing. However, I’m writing this paragraph and reading it over and thinking to myself ‘You’ve got to stop talking about this big pretend pipe that people can’t see. What’s making you think it’s interesting?’ Just keep an eye out for this big pipe in the Turtles’ lair in the new movie. It’s a dead good fake pipe.
On the bus back to the hotel, I considered what this write up was going to be. There is an element of futility to it. Especially the pipe bit. I feel like I’m trying to tell you about a really good adventure playground, in that you can’t match the fun of being on an adventure playground in telling someone about it.
What I can tell you is that the sewer lair set in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows is amazing. So is the new van. They’re utterly brilliant. If such interest in character and colour is also present in the film, if the enthusiasm we met on set translates, then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows will be a tremendous amount of fun.
As for me, I got back to the hotel and got straight onto video chat to excitedly tell my wife all about it. It had been an exhausting day, but it had been a good day.
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