Jeff Rowe Interview | Making Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

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Ahead of its home release, we chat to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem director Jeff Rowe about all things heroic and half-shelled.

It seemed like nothing was ever going to get close to the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, right?

The independently produced live-action feature is a unique blend of grainy, dark cinematography with a crackling script and Henson-produced character puppet/costume hybrids that infuse the movie with genuine magic. The sequels weren’t up to that first movie, though, and while the Michael Bay produced movies are fine versions of what they are, it’s hard not to view them as a mismatch between style and source material.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is the seventh theatrically released Turtles movie. A film produced within the studio franchise machine that is this alive, this funny, this full of humanity and joy, seems unlikely. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem may be even better than the 1990 original.

I met Rowe in a posh London hotel a few months after the film’s theatrical release. I was really keen to get an idea of his personal experience pulling this version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles through the studio system.

Read more: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem review: youthful and fun animation

“I am a huge Ninja Turtles fan, so there’s this pressure,” Rowe says. “It’s a thing that is beloved and means a lot to a lot of people so there’s a lot of pressure to not mess it up. But also, as an artist and a storyteller, I think I recognise there’re things that we’re going to have to change and there’re things that we’re going to have to do; we can’t make everyone happy. So, to move forward and not lose your mind in the process, I think you just have to try to make yourself happy and then hopefully other people will be happy. Trust your own fandom, I guess.”

Teenage mutant ninja turtles mutant mayhem
Credit: Paramount Pictures

It’s hard to imagine any discussion about Mutant Mayhem not touching on its attention grabbing visual style.

“If I did like a word cluster of the things that’re showing up, a lot of people love the ‘No Diggity’ sequence,” Rowe says, in reference to one of the movie’s most exciting and visually inventive action sequences. “I think that’s probably everyone’s favourite scene in the film, or the one that’s most being talked about, which makes sense. It’s such a well-done sequence. Credit to story artist John Jackson, who storyboarded that and figured that all out. Really great stuff. I’m so proud of what he did with that.”

Comparisons to the Spider-Verse movies are probably inevitable (and hardly surprising given that Rowe’s previous movie, The Mitchells Vs The Machines, was produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller at the same time as Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse). While Mutant Mayhem certainly warrants praise for its striking visuals and use of colour, its look is, by design, scrappier and looser than the Spider-Verse movies. Characters look misshapen, asymmetrical and unconventional, bearing the influence of impassioned but unpolished sketches from a teenager’s notebook.

It’s quite common for modern animated movies to have an art book published to coincide with their theatrical release. These books are usually filled with colourful design pieces, where artists are able to infuse a lot more style into their work than will end up in the finished movie.

The Art Of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem by Jim Sorenson features work from the development of the movie, with pieces from character designer Woodrow White and production designer Yashar Kassia (alongside many more artists than I could name), and looks a lot closer to the finished movie than you might expect. Curiously, though, director Rowe contributes just a single piece of art; a drawing of Ghengis Frog, his sole drawing for the film.

“There’s all sorts of directors in animation,” Rowe explains. “Some people are artists, like vis-dev artists, and then become production designers and then become directors. Other people come at it through storyboarding and people come at it through art paths. I came at it from writing. I draw, I went to school for animation, but I don’t really know how to draw or feel comfortable designing art for a feature film because everyone on the team is a million times better than I am.”

“But with Ghengis Frog specifically, I had a very clear vision in my head of what I wanted this character to look like. Well, I’m just going to draw this myself and then give it to the art team. They’re like, this is great. We’re going to use 80 percent of this and have Woodrow White, our character designer, modify the face to make it look more frog like. But I don’t draw, typically.”

Teenage mutant ninja turtles mutant mayhem
Credit: Paramount Pictures

It was a Mitchells collaborator who pointed him in the direction of artist Woodrow White. White’s work on Mutant Mayhem is often cited as the key to its wonderfully odd character designs.

“Mike Rianda, director of The Mitchells Vs. The Machines, hipped me to him. He’s like, ‘Oh, this guy’s cool’. I looked him up because I’d never heard of him and I was like, this guy is amazing. What a unique and singular talent. That’s cool.”

“But I met him as a fine artist who was doing paintings and not really working in the industry. He was the first person that I hired, and I emailed him very timidly like ‘Hey, I know you’re like a serious artist who probably doesn’t want like a corporate studio job working on a Ninja Turtles movie, but would you consider that?’ And he was very open and receptive to it. He was like ‘Please. I would love a job with, like, a steady paycheque. Let me be a part of this’. That was one of the best decisions I made on the film, hiring him.”

While Woodrow White was a find, many of the other names involved in Mutant Mayhem are very well known. The cast features Jackie Chan, Ice Cube, John Cena and Paul Rudd, while Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg produce and co-write. At one point prior to the movies release, pro-skateboarding legend Tony Hawk accidentally leaked who would be scoring the film.

I ask Rowe whether things like this register as surreal to him. Does having worked your way into the position take away how strange a combination of people he’s leading in making this Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film?

“There’s a kind of messed up expression; how do you boil a frog? You do it very slowly so that they don’t jump out of the pot. My life has been so slowly working towards that that; by the time that’s happening, I’m like ‘Oh, cool. Yeah, that’s a funny thing that happened today’. But if I had a time machine and you went back and could tell me as a 15-year-old that Tony Hawk is leaking information about Trent Reznor doing the music for the Seth Rogen film that I’m directing, my brain would have exploded in its skull. I wouldn’t have been able to process that as a reality. It’s really remarkable, but now I’m old and jaded and used to it.”

Teenage mutant ninja turtles mutant mayhem
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Of all his unexpected collaborators on Mutant Mayhem, it’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that are the most unlikely. While the pair have worked in animation before, winning an Oscar (along with John Batiste) for their score to the Pixar movie Soul, they’re best known as score composers for their work on movies by the likes of David Fincher and Luca Guadagnino. They’re hardly likely candidates for franchise fare.

All of this, of course, is an aside to Reznor being the driving force behind Nine Inch Nails. He would seem like the last person who would make music for a Ninja Turtles movie, and a hugely intimidating figure to collaborate with.

“It’s hugely, hugely intimidating. But apparently, they were fans of Mitchells and that’s kind of why they took the meeting. They didn’t necessarily have any interest in doing a Ninja Turtles film. But Seth and I went to their studio and we talked about the film and what we were going for. The meeting seemed to go good and they’re like ‘Cool, send us a script’. We’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll do that…’”

“So then we had to rewrite the movie to be like 10 times better! Seth and I rewrote the movie in, I don’t know, 72 hours to make it worthy of our music heroes.”

“Their stage presence is kind of austere and intimidating but, I hope I’m not the demystifying their rock and roll personas, I found them to be very warm, collaborative, creatively engaged people who were such good partners in making the music for the film.”

“They would mostly just send Seth and I tracks and we’d get them at 11pm, one in the morning. I would just listen to them and scream at the top of my lungs in my apartment building like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe this is real. This is so good. What is this?’ And then just texting them, all caps swearing, like ‘WHAT THE FUCK! THIS IS AMAZING!’”

“I don’t think I ever really gave them notes. There were a couple of tracks that I’m like ‘this thing you tried is great but I think we actually need to tell a little bit of a different story here than what the music is doing. Can you try something different?’ And they were always game to give us options. But really, we just kind of talked concept and they gave us these like beautifully fully-formed pieces of music.”

Teenage mutant ninja turtles mutant mayhem
Credit: Paramount Pictures

While the combo might have been an unlikely one, it’s just one example of Rowe making unexpected choices and producing hugely positive results. Reznor and Ross’ score is one of Mutant Mayhem’s most important assets, powering its action sequences and tightening the tension in its more dramatic moments.

For Rowe, experimentation is how he works. The look, the characterisations, the influences (one sequence is an homage to Michael Mann’s Heat, another references Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy); none of it is quite what you’d expect. As a filmmaker, it must be hugely enjoyable to get to play in this way. But despite the experimentation, the result could still make or break Rowe’s career; while contextually economical, the movie still cost $70m. It strikes me as a process that must be fraught with anxiety.

“There’s definitely personal anxiety. It’s very frightening. Somehow, when people are putting millions of dollars into a film, on paper it should be high stakes. But I think you just have to, in your day-to-day, just insulate yourself from that and know that these things cost money, they’re going to cost a lot of money, but there’s going to be a lot of value at the end.” 

“I think at some point we put on a screening where it’s like ‘Oh, this film should actually be really good. Great, we’re not wasting anyone’s money then’. It relieves a lot of the stress and now, if anything, we just have to make sure we’re delivering on its potential value.”

“But, I think at the end of the day it was me and the team of artists, we just tried to make ourselves happy. When you think about everything, when you think about the entire world and you think about all the forces riding on it and everything going into it, they have to make toys and they’re about to turn on the toy making machine in China right now and marketing needs this in three months and all of these things are happening, it’s overwhelming. But when you just sit down with a couple of artists and you’re just drawing and you’re like, is this funny? Yeah, this is funny. Or is this charming? Is this doing what we want? If you make your world really small and just take one little step at a time, that’s the only way I know how to get through it.”

Teenage mutant ninja turtles mutant mayhem
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Of course, experimentation can mean producing things that don’t always work. The trick with this style of filmmaking for Rowe, it would seem, is to be open but to be honest about what’s working and what isn’t, and to have faith that the process will eventually take the team to where they need to be. That’s the plan going into the sequel.

“That’s the mistake that I want to make sure I don’t make, which is being confident. The first one is a movie born out of curiosity and a bunch of people – who haven’t really done this before – with some ideas about what would make a cool animated film that maybe aren’t conventional or what a studio would normally agree to. But we’re young and rebellious and have a head of steam about this, so we’re going to try these things and we don’t know if they’re going to work, but we’re going to be curious and we’re just going to keep trying. That led to this.”

“The potential pitfall is you don’t do that a second time. But I think the path to success is back to basics, back to square one. Pretending like we don’t know anything and just trying to be really open and curious still.”

It’s difficult to align the process that brought Rowe’s interpretation of the Turtles to the big screen with the process that typically comes along with making a film tied to a corporate franchise-milking machine (more on milking later). With an extensive line of toys and a spin-off TV series attached to his movie, Rowe is, to some degree, beholden to those commitments.

“There were requests from consumer products and sometimes we’re like ‘Oh, okay, yeah, that works’. I mean, obviously you would like to make toys of vehicles. Well, we happened to have some vehicles in the film, so this works out and we’re able to fulfil the requests. And other times we would just have to be like ‘No, it doesn’t really work for the story’. We have to focus on making the best movie that that we can.”

“With Mitchells Vs The Machines, Mike and I were the supreme authorities on those characters and what they would do, what they would say and how they would act. We could get notes, but at the end of the day they’re our characters. We know that. These aren’t my characters. They’re my interpretation of them. They’re our version of them; me and Seth and the actors. It’s highly collaborative. It’s a lot of people’s versions of the of these characters. But also, they’re beloved characters and everyone knows them. There is more conversation with the studio about that.”

“Nickelodeon and Paramount, to their credit, 95 percent of the time, just let us do whatever we wanted to. They put a lot of trust in us and really supported us and I’m insanely grateful for that.”

Mutant Mayhem is a film that packs plenty of surprises, but there are few things I expected less than a joke about milking the Ninja Turtles. While it’s not necessarily an inappropriate joke, it strikes me as exactly the sort of thing I would expect to get squeezed out by some nervous cog in the machine.

“I think somebody once was like ‘Can we do this?’ And then we did a test screening and it was like the biggest laugh in the movie. ‘Okay, I guess we’re milking the turtles.’”

As we start to wind the interview down, I take the opportunity to quiz Rowe about the impact of his ‘play to the whistle’ approach to filmmaking. With the film being tinkered with until the last possible moment, and the theatrical release of Mutant Mayhem just a couple of months behind us, I ask if he’s found himself able to go back to the movie yet.

Teenage mutant ninja turtles mutant mayhem
Credit: Paramount Pictures

“Not really. I think it’s going to be a minute before I can watch it.”

“I watched it a couple of times in theatres with an audience, which was nice and a good reset for me. But I don’t think I’ve watched it since then and I don’t know when I’m emotionally going to be able to watch it again. I’m really proud of the work and I’m really proud of the team and I’m really proud of what we did. But also, that was my life for three years and it was a lot of work and I’m just so inside it. I don’t know how to look at it objectively anymore. I’ve taken a lot of space, so maybe sometime soon I’ll be able to see it with fresh eyes again. But I’m not there yet.”

Of course, Rowe hardly has time to look back. The future is calling. Specifically, the sequel to Mutant Mayhem, which I reason must be approaching to the top of his ‘to do’ list.

“Yes. It’s begun.” 

To move from one big movie straight onto the sequel is a concoction of exciting, scary, wearing and wonderful. Rowe seems energised and keen to push his interpretation of the Turtles further into unexplored and unexpected territory. And he won’t be going it alone.

“I’m really proud of the team that I assembled to make the first film and I’m really proud of the art style, filmmaking style, editing style. All of the things that we put into that first film. I think there’s more to be done with it. I still have things that like, scratch at me and that I want to work on, so in that way I’m really excited to engage with all of these elements again.”

“On some level it’s like, ‘oh boy’. It’s a lot. But I think we have a chance to make a really big film. I think, based on people’s warm reaction to this movie, which I think will grow over the next few years, by the time the sequel is coming out, if we do a good job with it, I think that could be a huge film box office wise and a great film, storytelling and filmmaking wise.”

“I don’t know how we’re going to get it there yet, but I’m confident that we have the team that can do it.”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is now available on digital to Download & Keep and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD from the 20th November and 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray SteelBook from the 4th December from Paramount Home Entertainment.

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