Interview: Kevin Munroe, director of TMNT

words by Karl Sukhia | image courtesy of Warner Bros.
| Monday, March 12th, 2007

tmntOriginally published in Verbicide issue #19

I recently had the opportunity to speak over the phone with Kevin Munroe, director for the new CGI Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles flick. Munroe was on a soundstage in Hollywood mixing the audio for the movie, while I was hiding in an unused office at my place of employment. He is passionate about his movie — a self-professed fan of the Turtles, he shows a true enthusiasm for the project, from start to finish.

When Imagi, the production company behind the new TMNT movie approached Munroe, he “told them exactly what I would do with the Turtles movie,” he says excitedly. “I spewed it out over lunch.” Before he knew it, he was en route to Northampton, Massachusetts to meet with Turtles co-creator Peter Laird, who gave him his blessing — and also signed Munroe’s tattered copy of the first issue of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book from the early ‘80s.

Like Munroe, I’m pretty sure the Turtles had a big affect on my psyche as a child, as well as my diet (and love of pizza). PG in rating, “gritty, but [with an ] unavoidable silly element to it,” according to Munroe, this is the Turtles for the 2000s, geared to now-grown up fans of the original show, as well as a new generation of youngsters. Although I haven’t seen anything of the Turtles in years, I would love for this flick to take me back to the good old days of coming home from elementary school to catch the Heroes on the Half Shell.

First off, I wanted to know how old were you when the original “Turtles” cartoon came out?
I think that was about 1986, ’87, and at the time I was about 14. I was a fan of the comics first. I wasn’t into it, like, the month it came out, but about a year later I found issue one in a used comic bin. I’m from eastern Canada and I found it in one of these old shops. That was 1985 when I saw the old comic book, and it was so cool — like a rip on that old Frank Miller stuff. There was something fun about it with the comedy and the action. The comics were campy, in the sense that you were watching a story about four teenaged turtles, but I think it was the animated series [and the movies that] really cemented that. But the original vibe, to me, was this silly premise that sort of took itself really seriously.

How did you find yourself involved in this particular project?
Well, it’s kind of weird. Following up to working on the Turtles with their production company, Imagi, I had been working around town doing scripts, and had directed a few pilots for Disney and Warner Brothers. [Imagi] hired me to do a comedy rewrite on a movie called Cat Tale, which has been summarily scrapped, but while I was doing that they mentioned they were looking to get into doing comic book movies — when they mentioned the Turtles I was like, “Oh my god, you’re kidding me,” and I told them exactly what I would do with the Turtles movie. I spewed it out over lunch; one lunch turned into another, and I eventually got the call to see if I wanted to meet with the creator in Northampton and see if I could direct it.

That’s pretty cool, it’s like you actually had a passion for it and just went for it.
Yeah, I actually took issue one with me when I went to meet [TMNT creator] Peter Laird; I thought at worst I would at least just get issue one signed. We walked around Northampton together and after about six hours of going around I asked him to sign the comic. So he signed it, and on the way back to the airport I opened the cover up, and on the inside was a drawing of Raphael and it said, “Dear Kevin, make a good movie, or else…”

Nice, that’s like getting the official signoff from the king. Well, I want to ask a little bit about the film itself. I saw the previews, and one thing that came to mind was the recent superhero movies that have come out — they have this trend to paint a darker view of the hero. Is this movie more dark and realistic, or is it more like the original cartoon, silly and campy?
If I had to pick one of the two, I would say it’s probably more towards a believable reality — it’s not necessarily “real,” but I want it to feel like these characters actually exist. It’s grittier in the sense that it’s a darker color palette. I wanted to light the movie like a black and white film before we even added any color so that all those elements sort of made it. One thing we wanted was this graphic novel look.

It’s almost like a comic book in that way — you’re inking it first, then coloring it.
Yeah, at the core of it we’re doing these scenes that are really dark and gritty and moody, and then the instant you stick a turtle in it…it’s like you’re constantly battling the silliness of what the Turtles are. It was only as we first got into it that we said, “well, just embrace it,” like in the comic books; just keep it real to the characters — they live underground, in the sewers of New York! And once we did that it just felt real, and it’s not campy, but it’s a fun movie, a big adventure, and it’s far from silly.

When I was about eight or nine, I grew up on the older “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoon show. Is this movie geared more towards those who grew up on the old show, or is it more for a new generation of fans?
I think it’s both. I think for fans of the original, this movie is tonally not like the first series. It’s more like the first movie, kind of gritty, but there is this unavoidable silly element to it. For example, I used to be a big fan of “Speed Racer,” and when you go and see that show again it’s like, “wow, why did I like this so much?” It’s slow and there’s this monkey in it. That’s what we had to work against in this movie. You should get the charge you got when you were nine with the adventure and action, but you sort of have to push it and tweak it a bit more for that older audience to enjoy it. For new fans, I think it’s cool because it’s the Turtles, it’s sort of a perennial feel to it, it’s bizarre and lots of people have ties to it. Like, their brother was into it or they were into it, or there are teachers at my kid’s school who remember growing up with it in their late teens or whatever.

It’s interesting because I feel like [for my generation] the Turtles took over from GI Joe; like everybody dropped their Joe dolls and picked up the Turtles.
Yep, and they came back again with the new series in 2003, which has had over 110 episodes now, and they took it and they’re totally starting it over again. They are picking up plot threads from the comic books and they changed the look, and again, it’s a huge success. Now, like six billion dollars later, it’s insane, it speaks to the way that so many have this connection to the Turtles.

You mentioned the first movie, and I remember one of the cool things about that movie was that the Turtles had some pretty serious undertones to their characters — they were dealing with some real stuff.
I really wanted to give a feeling of family to this movie. I think one of the biggest appeals is that it’s the story of this family and of a people who have this drama surrounding them — not just a team that comes together to fight crime. We really wanted to make them feel like brothers; I think the first movie does that the best. A lot of other incarnations, especially the new series, it just always felt that they were presented as very buff and very muscular, and we just wanted to bring it back, sort of make them feel like teenagers a little bit. These big, muscle-bound bodybuilder types arguing over, like, who changed the TV remote or something, it just doesn’t make sense.

Did Peter Laird actually have a hand in the art direction, or was he just generally overseeing the process?
He was really involved with the story; we spent four to six months working on the treatment alone. With the visuals, I had a specific idea of how I wanted it to look, and earlier on he was overseeing a little, but as soon as he saw it starting to work he just sort of signed off on the way that things were going. I can’t speak for him, but I think he was really happy with it. There was a trust to be developed at the beginning where I had to realize he wasn’t trying to co-direct the movie, and he saw I wasn’t trying to destroy his heritage. It’s nice, because even from a fan’s standpoint I’d like to know that the guy who created [the Turtles] approves of it. It’s not the movie that Peter’s making, but it’s a movie he can stand behind.

I understand April O’Neil and Casey Jones are in the movie.

I used to have a huge crush on April. I think she’s the reason why I have a thing for redheads to this day.
And women who wear all yellow?

Oh god yes, show me a yellow-suited redhead…forget about it.
Well, she’s a real strong character in this one. We’re taking her back to the comic book with her character, where she’s more cerebral. In the comics, she was like a lab research assistant and she lived above an antique store. She’s getting into starting her own business with Casey because they’re kind of an item in this movie, so it sort of progresses their relationship [in the TMNT lore]. And she’s voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar.

So…Casey is totally romancing my lady. Shit. (laughter)
You can have only have so many “A” stories in a movie, and theirs was one where I loved the idea that he [Casey] was trying to put down his vigilante ways, and they were having problems with their relationship. But then there’s the drama between Leo and Raph, and then [the storyline] following the main villain. Unfortunately, it’s not the April and Casey movie, so we had to cut a few sequences.

I also heard there’s no Shredder in the movie. What gives? He was like the Turtle’s Darth Vader.
Well, one, it was really important to Peter [Laird] not to have Shredder, and at the beginning I was like, how can you do that? He explained that Shredder was never supposed to be a “Darth Vader.” And if you read the comic book, they kill him in the first issue. Of course, he was so popular that they had to bring him back. He said there are so many other fantasy elements to the Turtles, and so many other villains that they fought. Peter was really up on trying to create a new villain for the Turtles franchise. In terms of the movie world, this adventure takes place after the first few movies, so they have already defeated the Shredder.

Now their enemy is this corporate villain.
He’s this tech-industrialist guy called Max Winters. In the beginning you see that he has this god complex, and he idolizes all these old warriors of the past, and it looks like he’s trying to emulate this complete badass old Hun guy who 3,000 years ago did some really bad things. And it looks like he’s amassing this army of monsters that are coming to the city. He also hooks up with the Foot Clan, because the Foot are basically guns for hire, now that Shredder is dead. We also meet Karai, the leader of the Japanese Foot Clan, and she’s come to town to take over the Foot.

The corporate/tech boss villain, is that an attempt to bring it more to the “real” world?
If you look back at the first Turtles movie, it was like Pinocchio. Shredder had all of these kids stealing purses and wallets and swinging off of fire escapes and stuff. He was a formidable bad guy? It was fun to bring up this very aggressive sort of [villain]; he’s not that one-dimensional.

You mentioned Sarah Michelle Gellar was involved — did you get a big celebrity cast for any of the other characters?
It was really important to us to make sure that we didn’t celebrity-cast the Turtle films. I fought for that from the beginning. But I think we just went with some seasoned and quite frankly phenomenal voice acting talent: Sarah Michelle Gellar as April, Chris Evans as Casey Jones, and we have Patrick Stewart as our villain Max Winters. Karai the Japanese Foot boss is played by Ziyi Zhang, from Memoirs of a Geisha. Splinter [was] voiced by Mako, who…I don’t know if you remember him from the Conan The Barbarian movies [he was the Wizard/narrator], he actually passed away before the end of the movie. It was his last role — he did such a phenomenal job. He brought such a warmth to [the character]. We tried out so many people to see who could be the voice of Splinter, but it all just sounded like a white guy doing an Asian voice. And Mako came in and just did such a genuine job of being stern but warm, it was so fatherly. I think he is the best Splinter to date.

We also have a small cameo from Kevin Smith. He saw the trailer and he really dug on it and came in; it was a real tiny cameo, he was a cook in one of the sequences. But it was really cool because he just came in and sat of the floor after he was done for like 20 minutes and was just like, “No, no I want to watch.”

That’s pretty cool. Kevin Smith a really big comic book guy…
Yeah, if you look at the whole cast it’s a genre ensemble cast. We’ve got “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Johnny Storm from The Fantastic Four, Professor X or Captain Picard, whichever you’re most into. We’ve got the girl from Crouching Tiger. Then you’ve got Mako, who is a huge art commodity in the martial arts genre and Hong Kong cinema.

Where do you stand on the role of realistic violence, in particular with this movie — is it part of the formula? Is it necessary? The first movie was pretty violent, and even in the cartoon they phased out Michelangelo’s nunchucks when some kid beat up another kid with a pair.
Well, yes, there’s a certain amount of action that has to go with the Turtles. It’s really weird, because we have to deliver a PG movie and we’ve had some initial screenings with the MPAA and were pushing PG-13. It’s not for blood, it’s not for somebody getting horribly hurt, it’s just for intensity. You want to have it feel that these characters are in danger, so the audience really gets involved with these pictures on the screen.

I was honestly hoping for a PG-13, because I was like, I know then its going to be a little bit more interesting.
I’ll tell you, when it gets to theaters we’re going to be half of a hair away from a PG-13. That’s sort of the world we live in now, you know? There were [problems] that we ran into in the beginning, where they were like, “What’s that, they have weapons? Well that’s PG-13.” Well, they’ve always had these weapons! They said there couldn’t be throwing stars in it, because in England they used to make their own throwing stars and throw them on the field at football matches. It’s just a shame that you’ve got to pay for other people’s stupidity. Take care of your kids, and raise kids that aren’t going to [beat each other up with] nunchucks. The entire world has to pay because some people are crappy parents — it just bothers me.

We really wanted to go after action over violence, but it’s action with intensity, like in Raiders of the Lost Arc. So I just wanted to have that same kind of vibe with it. The weapons are going to be hard for us, but I wanted them to use their weapons. If you remember, in the second movie, where they were only allowed to take their weapons out, like, once…

I remember that. I didn’t really like the second and third movies.
The first one is like the closest one to the source, and that’s the same demographic that we’re going after. It’s not a G movie, its PG; that means parents look out, this might not be for your five-year-old. Like The Incredibles, like they had Dash get punched in the face twice by a little girl, and they had bullets all over it. It’s too intense for my four-year-old, so I don’t take my four-year-old. Watch out for your own kids and watch out for your own family and we’ll all get entertained.

Well, I only have one more question, and that’s about the soundtrack. Is Vanilla Ice still available?
Actually, you know, he did “Ninja Rap 2,” he released it last year or something. It’s really weird. I don’t know if it was part of the movie…

Not officially sanctioned?
No, he’s not going to be involved. We’re actually are doing a deal with Atlantic Records to do some music on it. I don’t know if we have any deals in place yet.

Is there going to be a theme song for the film done by a band?
Well, we’re probably going to have the star single that will probably be played on the out credits done by a band. But I really want to have a score, like Danny Elfman’s Batman score. We have Klaus Badelt doing the score, and he just [wrote the music for] the second Pirates of the Caribbean film, Poseidon…he’s worked on a lot of really cool films.

Is it going to be more of a grandiose thing?
Its going to be close to the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack — it has that fun feel to it. Also, part of it was to save on the ratings, because if we would have had this real hardcore music [accompanying] the scenes it would have seemed more violent, so we just wanted to make it more adventurous.

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