As the Executive Producers of Rise Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Andy Suriano and Ant Ward get to make Ninja Turtles cartoons all day long. Their relaunch is Nickelodeon’s second Turtles ‘toon and it just premiered this week.
Yet, they’re charged with following the beloved 2012 Turtles cartoon. Ciro Nieli’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ran on Nickelodeon channels from 2012 to 2017. It deftly remolded classic Ninja Turtles stories and characters to fit its own style. It’s a Den of Geek favorite, one that sits alongside the original Mirage comics and the 1990 movie as one of the very best versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Who wants to follow that?
Suriano and Ward’s take on the Turtles has a different spin on the material. The new series is bursting with energy, youth, and color. And then there are changes. Some big, some small, all with the potential to cause a very serious case of the internets.
With the show recently greenlit for a second season, we were incredibly appreciative to the pair for taking some time out to talk to us.
I’ve been looking forward to this. I like Ninja Turtles!
Ant Ward: We do too!
That’s good. Imagine if we all hated it. This would be awful.
When did you pitch your idea for Rise Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
Andy Suriano: What was it? Two years ago, Ant?
Ant Ward: Yeah, it was about that. It was July two years ago. So the network had been playing around with the next incarnation of the franchise a bit and as far as I’m aware, nothing was really sticking. So I was already on the last iteration as the supervising producer and Andy was very familiar with the network because he was doing all of the consumer products art for the last iteration. So the network gave me a call and asked if I wanted to throw my hat in, if I had any ideas for the next incarnation. I said I’d love to. I had some thoughts.
They were doing the same with Andy at around the same time. We knew each other socially but we’d never worked together before.
So a few days after, I assembled a pitch, went into the network. They really liked the pitch and they said great.
I had really wanted to work with Andy for a while and they said “hey, do you want to meet with Andy? He’s throwing a pitch together as well.” Little did we know that our pitch was virtually the same thing. Like, insanely the same thing. The rest is history.
We started working very quickly because our thoughts on what we wanted to do were so streamlined-in on the same wavelength. So there wasn’t a lot of exploring, we knew what we wanted to do straight off of the bat.
AS: We went right to work and in a matter of a few weeks we had a show.
So presumably you’ve had to keep this all secret for 18 months or so?
AS: Yeah, about that. Even our wives didn’t know.
AW: I had to tell my wife I worked for the CIA. It got weird.
I’ve only seen the first episode so far, but based on that and what I’ve seen from the information released, you guys are doing a lot of very new stuff with it. And the recent other versions that have been really successful, the comic books and the last Nick cartoon, they’ve reached backwards quite a lot. Was it a formal decision to break new ground and push forward?
AW: Yeah, very much so. I think, in a way, you might have answered your own question because, Ciro’s version was an incredible show that did a lot of reaching backward and playing with canon and pre-established stuff within the franchise. So coming in so close off of 2012 and wanting to give Ciro’s version the full respect it deserves we didn’t really want to retell those stories.
AS: Because they exist and they’re great.
AW: They were told fantastically. Off the bat, I wouldn’t be able to tell them any better. So why re-tread familiar territory to that degree? So we very much consciously decided it’s a reimagining rather than a reboot. It’s its own cool spin on everything. So there’ll be some very familiar things turning up and also some very unexpected things.
So I guess the change that you’re going to be asked most about, and I’ll get in on that too, what inspired you to make Raphael the leader? That feels like quite a significant change.
AS: There’s a few factors. I think no one could really answer who Leo was other than ‘the leader’ and we really wanted to explore his personality and give him some dimensionality.
As well as, wanting to tell really interesting stories. Even though these are kids’ shows and comedies, 11 minute comedies, we also wanted the storytelling to feel very organic and natural, and that would go into the voice casting as well. Once you’ve played with that leadership role, you immediately have a lot of stories right off the bat, and an interesting dynamic. We’re playing a lot with family dynamics and the Raph/Leo family dynamic has always been really interesting to us.
Especially growing up with older brothers, seeing how the natural leadership thing comes about. Whether or not the oldest brother is the best choice. Sort of like Brand from Goonies.
AW: That’s exactly it. We looked at it, almost for the show from a conceptual point of view, this is the brothers as they start their journey to become ninjas. So really we’re putting the teenager first. It’s the family dynamic at this stage is almost more emphasised than that they jump around with ninja skills and sneak around the place.
AS: Which they still do. We didn’t turn our backs on any of that. It’s just trying to add a little bit of dimensionality to the teenager aspect.
With reassuring people of what’s still there and introducing what’s new, how tough was the first episode?
AW: It wasn’t the first one we wrote or made. We waited 6 episodes or so before we started to crack that one. We knew what we wanted to do but we needed to get a rhythm with everything else before we started doing it. As soon as we started to get the banter and the relationship between the brothers really down, then we felt comfortable going into the pilot.
Some of the new characters you guys have, we have villains with the names Meat Sweats, Albearto, Hypnopotamus and Ghost Bear. Who do I have to thank for those names and what is going on over there?
AW: Those names are amazing, aren’t they Matt? I think it’s a group effort, right Andy?
AS: Yeah. You know, Ant and I are in the writers’ room. On our crew we celebrate ownership, making sure everyone has a stake in creating something great. So a lot of the stuff just comes out of people wanting to do the best work.
AW: We have fun with the names, to be completely honest with you Matt, and if it’s a silly pun or a silly play on words and it makes us smile and it’s a silly but fun mutant name and it sticks, then all the more. We have some more coming. That’s just the start. But for us, we’re being a bit playful.
Obviously I need the story of how you ended up with Johnny Rotten playing Meat Sweats.
AW: That was one of our writers, Russ Carney. He’s obviously a huge Sex Pistols fan and he presented the idea to us and I remembered from back when I was living in the UK, Johnny Rotten did a series of butter commercials, which were really fun and he has this really unexpected range and performance and we thought we’d give him a shot. And I think I speak for everybody when I say that we’re delighted with what he did. He’s amazing.
You’ve mentioned the character names coming from your writing room, and I’m interested in how the writers’ room works on a show like this, especially with it being such a visual show. Can you tell me a little about it? How many people are in there, how long it takes to break and then script an episode?
AW: We have five, well six now.
AS: We just got a story editor.
AW: We’ll generally be in there with the guys. We’ll break a premise. We break out, it’s 11 minute carts but we do have some 22-minute tent pole story arc episodes throughout the season. So we’ll break those, we’ll break where we want to go with everything, the story, the characters, and then we’ll go back in and fill out the 11 minute standalones with a really nice balance of giving all of our cast and everybody enough playtime throughout the season.
Then we go from there from outline to script. And it’s very much one team.
There have been so many versions of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles over the years, I wonder if you would tell me, other than Rise, your favorite incarnation of Turtles?
AS: I usually go back to the old black and white comics that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird did. But I really liked the 2K3 stuff, and you can probably see a little bit of that in the designs as well.
AW: And I think mine is probably the movie, that first movie. It’s got a special place in my heart.
Rise Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is now airing on Nickelodeon. Cowabunga!