By Aaron Couch
In 1988, comic book movies were considered box office poison. The stink of flop Howard The Duck was still pungent in the air, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace had just sentenced the Man of Steel to movie jail and Tim Burton's Batman was still a year away from revolutionizing the genre.
So it’s no surprise every major studio in Hollywood turned their noses at a movie about four talking turtles who do Ninjitsu, eat pizza and live in the sewers beneath New York.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles survived script fights, horrific-to-wear 70-pound costumes, and a major studio pulling out at the last moment. After opening 25 years ago on March 30, 1990, the $13.5 million film went on to break the record for the biggest independent film of all time, and for many fans, it remains the definitive big screen depiction of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello.
Its unlikely journey from page to $135 million blockbuster began when the underground comic books by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird caught the eye of Gary Propper, a surfer dude and road manager for watermelon smashing comic Gallagher. Propper became obsessed with the idea of making the movie, and teamed up with producer Kim Dawson, who handled Gallagher’s comedy specials at Showtime. The pair convinced Eastman and Laird to let them option the live action rights, and they brought comic-turned-screenwriter Bobby Herbeck on board to write the script.
It seemed like a slam dunk. Propper, Dawson and Herbeck began pitching the movie around Hollywood — to deaf ears.
'ARE YOU GUYS OUT OF YOUR MINDS?'
It’s 1988, and Ninja Turtles has recently become a successful Playmate toyline and an animated series, but nobody wants to make the movie. Herbeck has his eye on Golden Harvest, a Hong Kong-based studio known for releasing Enter the Dragon and other Bruce Lee martial arts films.
Kim Dawson, producer: Gary and I made the rounds to virtually every studio in Hollywood. I had worked at Showtime, and one of my first calls was to Peter Chernin, who went on to run Fox for a long time. But Peter goes, “Are you guys out of your minds?” Howard the Duck was just released. Nobody felt like a comic book could be converted into a live action character.
Bobby Herbeck, screenwriter: I’m writing a movie for Golden Harvest at the time and think they would be perfect for this, because we need martial arts guys. I go to [Golden Harvest exec] Tom Gray and we have drink after work and I pitch it to him.
Tom Gray, Golden Harvest head of production, 1984-1998: I said, “I don’ want anything to do with this. This is not going to work.” But Bobby persisted over three or four months. Finally, he said, “Just do me a favor will you? Kim is coming in from Orlando. He wants to meet with you. Just have a lunch with him.”
Dawson: We had lunch together. Bobby, myself and Tom, somewhere in Westwood. Tom had gotten up from the table, basically saying, “You guys are crazy.” Then it kind of clicked.
Gray: I said in a light bulb moment, “Wait a minute. This is nothing more than four of our Chinese stuntmen in rubber suits. We can make this movie for peanuts in Hong Kong.”
'DIDN'T THINK MUCH OF ME AS A WRITER'
On June 13, 1988, Gray sends a memo to Golden Harvest owner Raymond Chow, who greenlights the project at $3 million. Herbeck flies to Northhampton, Mass. to get the Turtles’ creators blessing on the script treatment.
Herbeck: I thought I’m there for a month, max. Right? I was wrong. It was six or eight weeks. Never saw two guys who disagreed so much. It got to the point to where when I met with them, I could tell by their body language and their eyes. If Peter was looking down at the floor, I would just go right into, “What didn’t you like Peter?” Peter, from the beginning, he didn’t think much of me as a writer. I was a “Hollywood type” infringing on his artistic chops and characters. The boys finally signed off on the story and off I went to England to write the script, where director Steve Barron was based, as was Jim Henson and the Creature shop.
Gray: I always thought it would be interesting to have someone who was coming out of MTV videos to amp this up visually. To make it a little bit younger. Director Steve Barron was suggested to us. We looked at his reel. He had done all this great stuff with A-ha. He had done “Billie Jean” with Michael Jackson. He had a very good visual style.
Steve Barron, director: I didn’t want to do something that was bloody. I didn’t want to watch that film. Funnily enough, Batman came out at the same time. It was that sort of tone I was already aiming for. The films that I loved, there was a sense of humor but a sense of peril as well. Of real peril, of grounded peril. Like something that had repercussions for what you did but had a wonderful sense of fun with it. I was a big fan of Ghostbusters.
Kevin Eastman, co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: We had our doubts until we met Steve Barron. He came in and had gone through the comic books, and picked out scenes from no. 1 or no. 10 and said, “Here’s the movie.” Steve Barron was such a fan of the comic book series, and he was aware of the animated series. He said, “We need to make a hybrid.” I think most of the themes from the first movie were pulled from the original comic books — from the retreat out to the countryside to some of the fight sequences at April’s apartment to the origin story.
Simon Fields, producer: Bobby Herbeck was a comic and we were not sold on the tone of his script. It had too many quips and one liners. We brought in Todd Langen, who worked on adapting it for several months.
'WE CAN'T AFFORD JIM HENSON, FOR GOD'S SAKE!'
Steve Barron has worked with Jim Henson previously, and wants him for TMNT. The $3 million budget Tom Gray pitched to Golden Harvest owner Raymond Chow is beginning to rise to $6 million-plus.
Gray: Steve and Simon said, “Who’s going to do all of the animatronics?” and asked, “What about going to Jim Henson?” I said, “Oh my God, we can’t afford Jim Henson, for God’s sake!” Steve said, “Let me see what I can work out.”
Barron: I was on the mission to talk Jim into it, because he wasn’t sure. I showed him the comic book, and it was very violent. It had a lot of blood on the page. He wasn’t sure whether he’d have the Creature Shop involved. In the end, he very sweetly agreed to do it, because I’d convinced him that the tone was going to come from a good place, and that it wouldn’t damage his legacy.
Fields: Steve had been directing some of the series called StoryTeller for Jim Henson. We had done some videos for David Bowie for the movie Labyrinth. Henson loved Steve. The Creature Shop had never lent their name to an outside project, and I don’t think they did again.
Barron: We were on the edge of new technology. Jim Henson said “on each show, I figure we’re going to have to invent one new technology to make the show work. On Turtles, I’ve got to invent nine.”
Gray: It had never been done before at that scale. We needed these things to be able to move without wires because of their Kung Foo fighting. The first turtles that came out, their heads were as big as television sets.
Dawson: There were two sets of turtle costumes. The “action turtles” had no electronics in them. The ones that had all the facial expressions and what not had all of the little radio controlled motors in them that controlled the eye movements and the mouth and the eyebrows. Henson had created them and stuck them in the back of the turtle shell, along with all of the cooling devices.
THE TURTLES ASSEMBLE
By early 1989, New York actors Josh Pais, Leif Tilden and Michelan Sisti, and U.K. actor/stuntman Brian Foreman have been cast as the turtles. Their grueling journey has just begun.
Michelan Sisti, Michelangelo: For the audition, I came up with my full-tilt bozo version of martial arts, because I had no idea what martial arts was. Steve Barron was in a tiny office, and the audition ended when I gave my then-version of a roundhouse kick. I put my foot through the wall. So there I was with my foot stuck in the wall, and Steve laughed, which is the best thing that could have happened. He said, “Anyone who would put that much energy and go to that extreme for an audition deserves to be one of my turtles.”
Josh Pais, Raphael: They flew me to London to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and I was body casted from head to toe, every inch of me except for two straws in my nose. It was super intense. They told us afterwards that they kept us in that plaster longer than they needed to, just to see if we would freak out.
Leif Tilden, Donatello: I go in and Falcor’s head from Never Ending Story is right there. I’m like “Oh my God!” There’s Yoda in the corner. I’m just geeking out. These guys were craftsmen. It was like NASA of the puppeteering world.
Michelan Sisti, Michelangelo: Then we had several months of intense training in New York with a sensei. That was specialized training for the discipline and also for specific training in our individual weapons.
Pais: Then we went to North Carolina, and then we rehearsed the movie almost like a play. Each of us had somebody that was going to operate our face. It was a very close relationship, because he was basically watching what I would do in these rehearsals, and then seeing how we could make something similar animatronically with this turtle head.
'WE DIDN'T HAVE THE MONEY'
As the July 1, 1989 start date approaches, no studio has agreed to distribute the film — and Golden Harvest doesn’t have the cash to finance it without outside help.
Barron: Even ten days before we started shooting the film, we didn’t have the money to do it. We had a couple million dollars. We were about to be shut down at any moment as we were entering the film, because no studio wanted to take it. We had a deal with Fox that had been thrown off the table because the head of distribution changed.
Gray: I had to wake up my boss in Hong Kong. I told him a pending deal had collapsed. He said, “How is that possible? We don’t have that kind of money.” Simultaneously, I had been talking to New Line. I called [New Line founder] Bob Shaye, and I said, “I need $6 million to make the movie.” He said, “You have nowhere else to go. We’ll give you X”, and they gave me a lot less. Then Raymond Chow came up with the difference.
Dawson: New Line did a really good job. They had the audience. It’s hard to speculate what it would have been like if Fox had released it, but when New Line did, it went off. They poured a lot of resources into it.
With financing secured, shooting begins in July 1989 in Wilmington, North Carolina. The turtle actors must contend with seventy-pound costumes, sweltering heat — and claustrophobia.
Pais: It was an intense relationship between me and the suit. We would suit up from toe up to neck. Then the head would go on. Then they would glue the head to the body so that it was all seamless. Then you were in there. While we were shooting it was never a problem. But then they’d yell cut, and maybe one of the turtle’s heads wasn’t working, so then it could be an hour to fix it and get it up again. From morning to lunch break, we would each lose at least five pounds.
Sisti: You learn very quickly if you have any claustrophobic tendencies.
Barron: Josh Pais, who played Raphael, had a sort of mild claustrophobia himself. He was also playing a character who had mental issues. On top of that, he had this thing where it’d get to a point where he was in there too long and he had to get out and that head had to come off.
Pais: We would just freak out and you would hear one of us go, “Take the head off! F—king take the head off! Take it off!” You’re blood was literally boiling and then they would shoot compressed air in our faces and eventually they made a little air conditioned bubble that we would go into.
Tilden: The first scene I did with Michelangelo, when we’re waiting for the pizza in the sewer — that’s all we did that day. It was us just sitting there and putting together all of that choreography — head movements, eye contact and taking a breath. Each turtle has two puppeteers — one moving the eyes, one moving the mouth, and you’re timing everything together. Six people trying to make this very subtle, delicate scene work and look believable.
Pais: The first thing we shot might have been when you first see the turtles walking through the sewer and coming into where they live. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. There was water on the ground and we realized the latex was very slippery. We’d be going along, and one of us would wipe out. That opening sequence took about eight or nine hours. Things would break down. Those frustrations helped me to really find a way to physicalize Raphael’s anger — his fury. The whole situation, I just used it to create this guy.
Eastman: When we went to the set for the first time in Wilmington, North Carolina, we came around the corner and there were the four turtles. We’d seen the clay sculptures, and all the development stages when we approved them. When we saw a guy in a full on turtle suit stretching and doing basic martial arts movements and Michelangelo in a sombrero hat — we stopped dead in our tracks and couldn’t believe it.
Fields: We went to New York for the last five days, where we did the signature stuff. No one knew what the comic book at all and nobody gave a damn. We were shooting outside, the part where Raphael runs across the road and roles over the cab. Tony Scott came out, and he was going out of dinner. He said hello, and asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,”and he was like “Oh, Ok.” and walked off!
THE VOICE TALENT COMES IN
Production wraps in September 1989. With the exception of Pais, the Turtles’ voices —which the actors performed on set — are replaced with voice actors. Corey Feldman (Donatello), Robbie Rist (Michelangelo) and Brian Tochi (Leonardo) record their work over several weeks.
Barron: All the actors inside the costumes wanted to play the voice, and it wasn’t fair to not give them a chance to be the voices. Although in hindsight I think it was obvious it was going to change. But we didn’t know as we were making the film. We had no volunteers or stars saying, “We’ll do the voice.”
Pias: Raphael’s New York accent was my decision. They went along with it. I was actually the only actor that it’s my voice and I’m in the body. I think it was because this physical way of moving, they just said it was so connected to the voice that we can’t see anyone else doing it. I brought that to it. It wasn’t in the script.
Brian Tochi, Leonardo (voice): I was told they’d hired somebody for Leonardo and then they fired him. And then they hired another guy and then they fired him, too. So they said, “We’re still looking for this guy to do the turtle.” I thought, “What the hell does a turtle sound like?” It came down that they are looking for something that was kind of surfer dudey. I said, “ah, that I know!”
Robbie Rist, Michelangelo (voice): Basically the Michelangelo character for me was not necessarily acting. I was doing an impression of all the guys I went to high school with. I’m part of the graduating class of 1982, and that was the year that “Valley Girl"came out. Surf speak had been around for a while at that point, but it really sort of came to a head during that year. It seemed like everybody who went to Taft High School was saying words like "gnarly" and "dude."
Tochi: Getting over the fact that Corey [Feldman] was late a lot of the time — other than that, everyone got along fine.
Tilden: Corey Feldman did my voice. I went up to him at the premiere and said, “Hey, I play the character you did the voice to” and he just totally dissed me. He didn’t want to want to deal with me whatsoever. It was around the time he got busted for cocaine in the back seat of his convertible or something. All I remember was walking by him surrounded by cameras professing his innocence to cocaine right outside the Ninja Turtles premiere. Kids are walking by.
'LINES AROUND THE BLOCK'
TMNT holds a test screening in Las Vegas, where the kids in the audience go bananas. The film opens on March 30, 1990 and it is an instant hit.
Gray: I ran into a certain Paramount executive at a basketball game at UCLA and they had just opened and broke the record for non-holiday release with Hunt for Red October with $17 million. I said congratulations. He said, “We’re going to own the spring” and I kind of smiled knowing we would be opening the following week. We opened at $25 million and smashed the record.
Barron: We thought it’d be a big hit if it had a $7 million opening weekend.
Fields: I was in L.A. when my then-sister in law called me from New York and said, “You’re movie seems really popular. There are lines around the block.”
Gray: It was the brilliance of [New Line distribution exec] Mitch Goldman and New Line to get that date. The theory was if we opened on a non-holiday, we ‘d have a big opening. We’d get the fans on the first weekend and on the second weekend — and we’d have almost no dropout midweek as the fans went out in droves. It proved to be absolutely the key, and that momentum carried into the $135 million.
Eastman: For an independent film, it was beyond our wildest hopes. We liked the final movie and we hoped people would like it and because it did as well as it did was fantastic. Of all the versions of turtles that have been optioned over the past 30 years now — and certainly in the entertainment arena — the first movie stands out as our hands down favorite version.
Pais: I was the lead in this enormous movie and at that time, but they really didn’t want much publicity on who the turtles were, because they didn’t want to ruin the illusion. That summer, Leif Tilden and I were on the beach somewhere and there was a kid running around and he had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles towel wrapped around him like it was a cape, and he was doing ninja turtle kicks and everything. He came in the vicinity of where Leif and I were hanging out. I said, “hey, I was Raphael and he was Donatello in the movie.” The kid just kind of stopped and stared at us for a minute, and then his face crumpled and he just started crying and he ran to his mother.