Set Visit: TMNT (1/2)

To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect on my set visit to TMNT. For those of you that are unfamiliar with what those letters stand for, that would be TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. No, not the live action film that came out back in 1990, nor is it the two sequels that followed. The Turtles are back in a CGI animated full-length feature film that has the Turtles battling a few beasties and each other.

When I arrived at IMAGI Studios, all the journalists gathered in a room waiting for the “reveal” to begin. You see, usually a set visit requires a “set” and we were certainly not on what you would normally call a set. But the Turtles were all over and it included a pretty cool vinyl poster hanging from the wall.

On our way to a “secret location” (screening room), we were treated to some amazing art work revealing images of what could be an amazing film. There were many drawings with the new look of the Turtles, and some of the other characters from the film. They surrounded us as we all glimpsed at what is up and coming for those pizza loving turtles in a half shell… Ninja Power!

We were then led into the screening room and we each found ourselves a seat. What we were in for was a 20-minute (give or take) preview of what to expect with TMNT. And frankly, it looks like fun times for old fans and new. The voices for the film include Sarah Michelle Gellar as April, Chris Evans as Casey, and Patrick Stewart as Max Winters. As for the turtles themselves, well let’s just say, who needs stars when you’ve got the Turtles.

It included scenes of the half shell duders skateboarding through the sewers to get to their secret hideaway, a hilarious battle between Turtle and monster, some of which you see in the trailer, and a pretty cool sequence with a monster climbing up a roof to do kick some arse. And we also get a glimpse at some bad blood between Turtles.  It seems the family is facing a few battles amongst themselves. And although the film looks to be PG, it still looks like the old fans will be treated to a highly entertaining hour and a half of TMNT.

After taking a look at the movie, we got a chance to hang with Tom Gray, the producer of the film who previously worked on the live action films. Tom along with director Kevin Munroe talked in detail about the problems they faced while making the picture which was not complete at the time we met. And they also talked about the casting of the film, yet did not mention who the voices of the Turtles are going to be. It looks to be unknowns taking on Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello and Michelangelo. Truthfully, if you are a fan, it looks like you may be in for a treat. Check out the film's official site HERE.

How have things been going since Comic-Con? What have been the latest adventures?

Tom Gray:  Latest adventures?

Kevin Munroe:  Less and less sleep everyday.

TG:  Well, the worst thing that happened to us would the Taiwan earthquake that knocked out our T3 line going back and forth, so that means, that when we get our information everyday, we have to send couriers back and forth hand carrying files in everyday.

So the film is traveling on people's laps?

TG:  Yeah. Technology is a wonderful thing, it's all front end here and then you ship it overnight to Hong Kong, but when the whole earthquake knocked out all the Trans-Pacific cable, which our T3 line is connected to, then that is something we have to deal with on a manually basis. It won't effect the release date, but it certainly effected the production, approval from Kevin and the process.

KM:  Just when you think…

TG:  Just when you see the delivery date looming something comes in.

How far did you guys introspectively go back into the TMNT franchise?

TG:  I go back to 1988 when I first bought the rights, when I was head of production at Golden Harvest. That's how far I go back with the project. I think Kevin goes to being a fan back in the early '80's.

KM:  I found it like a year after it released. I found the first issue in a used comics bin and just found issue one and just loved it and that was great. I actually brought that issue one with me, to Peter [Laird], when we first met.  Thinking in worst case if I don't get the gig I'll at least get an autograph. So after we spent the day together and I slid the comic across the table and he signed it and said, ‘oh cool number 1.’ As we were driving back to the airport in the rental car I opened it up and there was a picture of Raf [Raphael] saying, "Kevin, make a good movie or else!" I was like, that's awesome! 

What are you hoping that people [in their early twenties now maybe] are going to get out of this? They are going to have the familiarity, but what's new about it that is going to make them happy and give them something new to watch?

KM:  I think, as a movie, it's deeper. I think it runs just a little more believable. I'm not going to say realistic because I don't believe we are striving for reality but I think we're going for believable reality. The idea that… I think the first movie does it really well in the sense that it's a very encompassing movie, you get in there and you are submerged in that world and it just feels like they just actually lived in the sewers to me, well at least that's the memory of it.

But in this one especially important for us to concentrate on family I think. They are a family, but you never get a really strong family dynamic, like real tension between brothers and the way brother’s fight and the way brothers make up and stuff. So, it's kind of nice to approach them as a family instead of just character archetypes, you know, the funny one, the smart one, the leader, all this other stuff and just go a shade deeper.

So I think, you know, for the older fans, you get that excitement that you remember, you know when you may watch the old series and it doesn't hold up the same way that you thought it did, by the idea this is just trying to tap in to what you still remember in your head in terms of level of excitement, and then going a little bit further. We're trying to go a bit beyond the sort of in-jokes for adults, the little wink-nudge to the mom and dad. There's just really no reason for it. There's a level of fun to this movie that will sort of hopefully bring in the older audience to this film.

Was there a thought to do another live action film before you settled on CG?

TG:  No, I think going back to being involved with the first three movies, I think that what we saw was, there was an escalation of budgets going up shooting live and the box office was going in the other direction. So it was one of these, you know, it gets more expensive and everything else. And today, I think if you were making a live-action Turtle movie, with all the bells and whistles to compete with all of the CG and special effects out there, this film would be more than around 150 million dollars to do it, to make it stand up on its own.

And I think that when we started, the company started looking at it, we said, you know, through CG, we can do all of that at a greatly reduced price and still have the big scope of it that we couldn't possible afford. As our company is a small Hong Kong-listed company, we couldn't afford a 150-million dollar budget. So, as CG, because of our labor rates in Hong Kong are so much greatly reduced than are here, it made a lot more sense for us to push it as far as we could to give a big, big look to the film without having to go into the live-action thing. So, I think that was the total motivation. Plus, we're a CG house, so that was the obvious answer, let's go do it CG.

Could we talk about the casting of Sarah Michelle Geller, Kevin Smith, Chris Evans and all these people? And who are the voices of the Turtles?

TG:  I think what we wanted to start off with is the concept; first of all, we didn't want to touch the Turtles as far as... I remember we had Corey Feldman way back in the day?  And that was, kind of, the only person that was somewhat known.  And we always felt that the Turtle don't require getting Adam Brody or someone like that to play Leonardo or whatever you wanted to do. If we could hold back the Turtles, then we would say, OK, if you require going with April or Casey or Max Winters in this case, then we would be amenable to go out and look at actors.

Although, we didn't really want to do that, we wanted to get just really great voices because our theory is, this is the kind of a movie where we're not drawing those characters to look like they are. Sarah Michelle doesn't look April. But we were somewhat encouraged by the studios to say, we need to get a little more firepower out there so let's go get some so-called names to play the supporting actors in it. We said, alright, as long as we don't touch the Turtles. And of course we had Mako to play Splinter, who, unfortunately passed away. But we got, pretty much, 90 percent of his voice in there.

And I think that, certainly, Kevin can elaborate on this, it just didn't seem to feel that we were trying to make a movie that was based on star power because we thought that the Turtles transcend all of that. The Turtles are the Turtles. They are types and they are voices. So, I think that was the whole concentration, staying close to what people will perceive they sounded like back in the '90s.

So who is voicing the Turtles?

TG:  Sarah Michelle Geller plays April, Chris Evans plays Casey, Max Winters is Patrick Stewart, and Zhang Ziyi is Karai, who's a new character from the former ones. We have a cameo from Kevin Smith who, just, really wanted to get into it. He came one day and just stayed the whole day and laid there on the floor and said, "I want to do this!"  And we have a narration from Larry Fishburne, Laurence Fishburne, as well. It's not a huge cast but it is a good cast and it seems to work for this film.

You go overseas and it doesn't matter, we are going to dub in over 17 languages so it's all about domestic. Again, do these people go on Oprah and talk about it? I don't think so. To me it's almost gilding that lily, you really don't need it. There are so many voices in this business that are perfect. But, then again, you are always in the position of, well, if these people can go and help market the film, why not? It doesn't pull back, you see, as long as the Turtles… the Turtles are unknown. 

How long did it take you guys to figure out what the look of the movie was going to be in terms of making sure that it was faithful to the comic book or the original design of them, deciding between that and a photo realism that is now achievable in CGI?

KM:  It was certainly planned from the beginning. You head down a certain path of what you want it to look like. Our production designer comes from live-action, a guy called Simon Murton, and he's worked on the past two Matrix films, JUDGE DREDD, he art-directed THE CROW and he's got a pedigree in that, sort of that genre, cool, gritty realism. And we sort of knew from the start, it was funny to read web traffic and stuff when we first announced the Turtles and everybody sort of assumed they knew what it was going to look like. The whole idea was to have it make it not look like what people were going to assume right out of the gate.

So, I mentioned it again at Comic-Con, I'm trying not to repeat myself, but we lit most of the film in black and white before we even added a stitch of color, which was really something. We sort of went back to like  THE THIRD MAN and  really good high contrast movies instead of just going and copying like a Frank Miller look, like going back to when black and white film was a real great art form. So, it just sort of grew from there. We shot ourselves in the foot because, in a good way, like when we started adding stuff like wet downs and specularity and little highlights and all these little details and you realize why they are not in every little CG film because it's really hard to do. Especially, once we've got one sequence working really great with it, it really stuck out and we had to make the rest of the film look like it. It was little bit of an evolution, but the final look is pretty much we intended from the start.

I just didn't realize it was gonna look quite so, that we were gonna be able to follow through quite so much. We've got a lot of production keys, just hundred of them and it always seems to me that's it's the 100 percent that you aim for and you always have to sort of realize that you're gonna hit 75 and you'll just have to make it work, but, Hong Kong is just amazing with how they can actually implement and how they can actually implement whatever direction you give them. We wound up really close. We were color timing last night until 3:30 in the morning and we were looking at the film and there are so many shots where you’re like, that looks just like the painting that we did, so we ended up pretty close, so it's cool.

How much of the film is already completed?

KM:  Well, we're done animation. We're basically about 90 percent completed I’d say. We're doing color timing right now, just on the visuals, and doing just some last-minute renders and some more effects tweaking, so, that's the stuff that's coming across on people's laps across the Pacific. And then from there we still have to color time it and we're still doing sound effects. We're in the thick of post right now.

How long did it take you from start to finish, in your involvement?

KM:  I was involved in October 2004. I started on the story and the treatment process. We worked really closely with Peter Laird, and just that alone took quite a few months. Just to get the story down and working on how to implement it all. We started actual design just a couple of months after that. Even just the couple of us that were working on the story, we had sketchbooks and we we're starting as we were talking about the story, just gave us something to do with our hands.

Is this a PG-13 movie or PG?

KM:  Its close, it's gonna be PG. It's tight and you guys know because you've seen it now but our biggest enemy is intensity. I mean, it's not because we want to be graphic with any of the violence, blood or language, it’s just sort of that feeling that you want to feel real peril, and that’s sort of the benefit of Spider-Man or Batman. It actually feels like those characters are gonna die. How can you push that without pushing too far? So, you push until you get hit and then you pull it back and we never intended it to be a sort of a very G friendly sort of movie so you know, we knew we'd go too far for that.

TG:  We would love to do it rated PG-13. But you can't really. You know when we first started setting this up and we went to the studio they said, no way you can do PG-13 because everybody lives in the quadrants, the 7 to 11 and then the older one. So we tried to get a compromise where we could shove it up a little bit and get close to it without getting a PG-13. We had to pull back on several items that are really taboo, which are the throwing stars, the shurikens; to a certain degree nun chucks -- certainly in the UK and Scandinavia -- are forbidden. And those are the toys of the Turtles.

But, you know, it's one of those things we would love to graduate, maybe, if this thing is successful; take it to another level of PG-13. Because personally, for me, I always thought when we got involved in this and had an early discussion and I said, "I don't care about the little kids; I want to satisfy the alums." Which were with us back in the day in the '90s. And I said, ‘If we can make them happy, I don't care.’ The little ones are gonna get it off the television and they run around and they're lookin' at the toys. But, those alumni that really made this thing happen in the beginning, those are the ones you really gotta...

The comic book was much more adult.

TG:  Exactly. Exactly. For me it was one of these travels that when I bought it in June of 1988, I wasn't completely sold on the concept myself. I was coming from a company that made all the Kung Fu movies in Hong Kong -- Jackie Chan and Jet Li and earlier Bruce Lee. I said if we could take the Ninja Turtles and throw them in some suits and put out stunt guys into it and put Phoebe Cates into it, we could get our money back in Japan. I have that letter saying that we could make this for 3 million bucks in our studio in Hong Kong, if we make any money outside of that… terrific. And that became the origin of why we originally decided to green-light the project.

And as we started bringing in elements like Steve Barrett who was coming in off some very hot music videos, he suggested we bring in the Henson’s.  And Brian Henson became the second unit photographer.  A creature shop out of the UK brought in all of the build and this thing kind of escalated from three upwards to nine and of course, it’s legendary here, I don’t have any money to make this movie, I had to go find the money and make it and nobody wanted it in town and finally New Line [Cinema] stepped up and really, the rest became history so it was not easy to get this film set up. And admittedly, I always thought it would make money. I never thought it would be as big as it was. This time coming around it wasn't easy to set up again.

Because the wisdom was, there's X-Men, there's Spiderman, there's other superheroes now and the Turtles really don't have any fantastic things that they do, they don't fly or do other stuff. And it was out of the belief from Warner Bros. and The Weinstein Company. I remember Harvey [Weinstein] was in Hong Kong and we showed him a trailer and he came out of his chair and said, "I missed it the first time, I gotta have this now." And he said, ‘I want this movie.’ So, there's never, it's not an easy project because says, it was post HOWARD THE DUCK in the beginning, when everybody said, if George Lucas can't make money on a comic book how can you or nobody? And I said, well, George Lucas never had toys and he never was on syndication, so it's often time what happens in this business. People that are in the business don't see it for whatever it is.

But, they don't go and employ their research departments; they don’t listen to their research departments, who could tell you that this thing was really selling on the shelf. When Kevin and I were schlepping around town trying to make presentation, what really sold the people was that he cut a really phenomenal trailer, which was very crude in the beginning but once they could see how these Turtles would look, then it started to become a reality. And the price that we were making this film at, everybody said, how bad could it be? You know, these things are, I don't know, I've lived large off of this for a long time and I think it's not so much me, it was the fact that I always felt there was an audience that is… was with us, is still going to be with us and then we have the new group. So, if we execute in a halfway decent fashion, we should make some money. 

So as far as the nun chucks, they aren't in the movie at all?

TG:  No, they are in the movie, you know, nun chucks are OK in the UK if they are in the belt or you don't see somebody get whacked with it because what happened, and also the throwing stars, kids were going into metal shop in the UK and they were making these things and they were going to football matches and launching them into Manchester United, so they outlawed these things. And then, you get into the Scandinavian countries where violence is totally taboo and they don't want to know about it. Bruce Lee was banned for years and years in Scandinavia.

There are levels around the world of censorship. But we are kind of victimized by the fact that we have three pictures out here, so the Motion Pictures Association had said to us, "Well, you're rather special because the parents will say, 'Oh the Turtles are benign, they're not gonna be bad.'" And some of the action that we have in it is pretty strong and they said you guys are walking on a little bit of tightrope here, pull back a little bit. I think, when we're pulling back we'll do it more with effects and music, it won't be as dramatic and everything else. So, it will still have power. Kevin and I were just scratching our heads and saying you go look at [THE CHRONICLES OF] NARNIA and some of the movies out there that are far more violent, but we come with that preconceived idea that parents will take their kids.

Let me know what you think. Send questions and comments to [email protected].

Stay tuned for part 2...

Source: JoBlo.com



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