Back in September I came across something that pleasantly surprised me: a documentary was in the works for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Being a child of the late 80s I was a huge TMNT fan having watched the cartoon, seen the movies (even the crap 3rd one) and I even dressed up as Raphael for Halloween one year.
The documentary seems to cover everything TMNT fans are interested in as it includes interviews with TMNT creators Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird, the voice cast from the original cartoon and those who brought the turtles to life in the films such as Brian Henson. Of course the hardcore TMNT fans who live and breath the franchise are also included in the documentary.
I was able to chat with Director/Producer and huge TMNT fan Isaac Elliot Fisher along with Producer Randall Lobb to discuss the film and the TMNT franchise in general.
Ian - Was there any worry about how to portray the fans in the film? By that I mean not to show them in a way where people could make fun of them or easily be creeped out by like was the case at times in the Star Trek documentary Trekkies.
Randall - We weren't worried, because that's not the movie that we're making. It is easy to pull clips out of an interview to make people look crazy, or obsessed, about anything that they are enthusiastic about. And consider where we are when we see some of the fans, at San Diego Comic Con, or a signing with Kevin Eastman, or at the Toronto Fan Expo. We're in a place where going crazy with your fandom is the point, where they can let it all hang out, in a manner of speaking. Sure, we know that there are Turtle fans who are obsessive and a little bit more intense that the rest, and we could find the right clips to make that clear, but what would be the point? Trekkies was about the joke. Our doc is about the Turtle phenomenon.
When it came to contacting the voice actors and people involved with the making of the films was there anyone who was a bit hesitant to participate?
Randall - Isaac was all over that, and by getting Renae Jacobs and Pat Fraley on board right away, it was a lot easier to get the others to agree to hook up. Having a few people already in made it much more interesting for the rest to come to the reunion, as they hadn't seen each other in so long. And remember, we were shooing these interviews in Kevin Eastman's rental house up in the Hollywood Hills, in a really nice neighbourhood. It was a lot of fun for them to come to his place, and to come out to this particular house was a plus.
Having said that, I think that a couple of the cast came in a bit skeptical. I mean, who are we? We're just four guys from Canada, not a big crew, with no credits to brag about, no awesome craft service, no nothing, really. But that lasted for minutes. As soon as they saw their castmates, they got right into it, and we're nice guys, so that was just gravy. The only disappointment in terms of getting them together was that Cam Clarke couldn't make it until later that day, so we had to interview him on his own. Once again, he was a bit uncertain at first, but then we felt the positive vibe and got right into. They were all really great, friendly, kind and some of them didn't want to go home.
As the director how are you trying to make the film feel different compared to other documentaries that tackled the general fandom and appeal of a property?
Randall - I don't come in as a superfan, I'm coming into this project to tell an interesting story. The Turtles on their own weren't a huge draw for me at first. I remember the first day 25 years ago when I saw that first issue of the comic book and I was completely cynical about it. How wrong was I? So now, it's all about the people and their stories. The creators, the artists and writers, the toy designers, the people involved in the movies, everyone we've been involved with has been so great, so kind and so agreeable with us, that I focus in on them, on what they have to say.
I ask them questions and then follow their enthusiasm and the flow of their memories as they talk. My skill has to be to help them to open up and to get them remembering, to get them to play it out in their conversation. And then, coming to the art and so on now, I can totally appreciate the talent and skill that went into every aspect of this phenomenon, and as a director, I need to make sure that we are showing that all off in the best way that we can.
Isaac, with you being the huge fan of TMNT that you are where do you see the TMNT franchise in the next 10 years?
Isaac - With the new acquisition of the brand a whole new world has opened up for the Turtles. New and fresh ideas and minds are now approaching the table. I would be lying if I didn't say I am a little skeptical. That said I am extremely hopeful and feel that no matter what they do, if they don't stray too far from the source material they already have a winning franchise on their hands. Nickelodeon has announced a new cartoon to be released around the same time as the movie. There is no official word on the look or story arch of this new show, I am completely open to the possibilities and would be more than excited to see them go back to the old cartoon characters and story line, because it was a lot of fun. All in all I think we are in for a whole new re-birth of the Turtles, and if handled correctly they can be just as big as they were twenty years ago if not bigger and paint everything green again.
I know little is known about the planned live action TMNT film but what do you hope the film will be like? And do you think the movie is better off returning to the “roots” of live action with the rumored return of actors wearing practical turtle costumes assisted with CG faces ala “Where the Wild Things Are?”
Randall - We haven’t been able to say much about the TMNT movie, so we can’t give you much here, but I can say that the movie will be aimed at a hard core turtle fan as much as a new fan. They’re really wanting to push the action, and make it a little more exciting keeping some of the ideas of the original black and white comic books. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some new ideas in there, maybe some kind of new spin on this or that. I should point out that I don’t know this, and I’ve never been told this, but it’s my opinion that the new caretakers of the franchise will really want to make a statement with this movie, and that might be one way to do it. Look for a lot of live action and a careful, clever use of CGI. You’re probably right on the money looking at Wild Things as a model.
Isaac - I think Randal has hit the nail on the head with this statement. To add to it, I am a personal fan of the comics and have enjoyed the story lines carried there for many years. The comics are great source material with some very cool darker tones that many fans of the cartoon have never encountered. I think the modern movie goer will get a lot out of a story rooted in the Turtles deep history and source materials. It is also interesting to point out that in the early 90s when the cartoon was making it big and they released the first live action movie, it was dark for kids, especially by the standards of the day.
I think keeping in that spirit alongside a show aimed at the younger generations a darker movie to bridge the slightly older kids with the old school fans, Nickelodeon could have a winning combination that has seen success in the past on their hands. The fans of the old show are in some cases old enough and are having children of their own, there is an even bigger market for Turtle fandom now than there ever has been. In closing if it's not obvious, I am cheering for the darker action packed Turtle movie, with careful use of CG rooted in a good coming of age story, about four brothers trained as ninja assassins, avenging their father and surviving in the underbelly of the New York city streets.
What about TMNT do you think has made them survive this long? Is it a case of the characters being very endearing and likeable or is it perhaps just nostalgia to some extent?
Randall – I think it’s a combination of wacky originality with classical heroic elements, and something else that I could never have considered before I started working with Isaac and Mark (Hussey – our third partner) on this documentary, and that is the amazing people who have worked on it over the years. It would be no exaggeration to say that the people we’ve met in the TMNT world have been some of the nicest, kindest and most creative people we’ve met anywhere. With such a group of solid contributors, all working to make something special happen, something special is bound to happen. And it did. So I guess I’m saying that it is somewhat the result of all those great people.
Isaac - We have asked this question many times to fans and industry professionals alike. More often than not people attribute the franchise success to the characters of the four turtles themselves. Each Turtle is unique amongst their brothers, they all contain primal character archetypes that almost anyone can identify with. This is why you see so many people identifying with one Turtle in particular, there is something for everyone. In the end the positive family values and the fight for the common good combined with the likable characters create a perfect storm to latch on to, and the fact that they are Turtles makes them so adaptable, there is nothing you can't do with them.
The turtles had a huge impact in the 80's and 90's. What happened? It seems now in 2009 most fans of the franchise seem to rely on the original toys, cartoon and comics as their source of turtle power. Why do you think the new comics, cartoons, games and movies don’t have the same buzz around them?
Randall – I think that it would be fair to say that most long-term intellectual properties go through phases of ebb and flow in popularity. In the case of the Turtles, there was clearly a huge, maybe even irreproducibly huge, popularity that made their normal success look weak. If you assume that some kind of cyclical pattern is a natural part of the life span, and I have heard that this is the case (and that it is a twenty year pattern), then we are ripe for the next Turtle explosion.
Isaac - With the exception of the 2007 CG movie the Turtles of the 2000s have been geared to the slightly older fan. The cartoon produced by 4kids, although very well produced and perfectly acceptable for younger viewers was rooted closer to the comics. This changes the age of the target viewers slightly, and maybe had an effect on the wacky franchising opportunities that they had on hand with the old show. To echo what Randal said, I think we are approaching that magic distance when the old can become completely new again and accepted as a new phenomenon by younger fans.
After speaking with the voice actors from the original cartoon do you think there is any chance of another live action movie or retro style cartoon using them? Did getting them back together spark any discussion of this?
Randall - I don’t think it’s in the cards. They were part of a time and a place, and as much as they are associated with the title in many people’s minds, each new creator making their own Turtles shows and movies will want to make it their own, and that would involve casting the actors they prefer. Having said that, who knows what could happen in the future? Once you’ve met those original voice actors, you have to be amazed at their talent, and at the sheer number of recognizable voices they’ve done over the years, so they could well end up getting cast in parts once again.
As video game technology continues to improve and mirror cinema, do you think this is a likely medium to explore for the future of the franchise? If not, what's next for the turtles?
Randall - As long as there is strong brand awareness for the Turtles and a built in audience, there will be a company looking for a strong IP to work into a game (or vice versa). That is the nature of the business.
Isaac - I think if you look at the video game market now you can already see evidence of this with the Turtles. In the ebb and flow of the Turtle franchise there are years where the Turtles go into "hibernation" so to speak, when there isn't much for material on the market. We are in a moment like that now. The 4kids show has closed its doors after 8 years, and we are looking at new material in the coming 2 or 3 years. Even now there are brand new Turtle games hitting the market. Turtles "Smash Up" game for the Wii just came out this year and literally this week I believe there is a brand new game for the DS. The old school "Turtles in Time" arcade game was also re mastered for the new systems. Again there is so much you can do with these four green guys.
Lastly when can we expect the documentary to be released? Will it have a limited run in theaters or strictly a digital distribution/On Demand and DVD release? And will the film perhaps have a run at events like the New York and San Diego Comic Con prior to release?
Randall - I can’t say for sure when it will be released, and I can’t suggest where exactly it will end up, but I can say that it will hopefully be tied in some way to the movie, and will be a part of the resurgence of TMNT excitement. If things go well, we’ll hope to be released where the most people get a chance to see what we’ve been working on.
I would like to thank Isaac and Randall for taking time out of their busy schedules to discuss the project and how awesome the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are. You can keep track of the documentary by visiting their site here and if you haven't seen the trailer already then check it out below.