Return of the Turtles: Jonathan Liebesman oversees the reboot of those high-kicking Mutant Ninjas
Thirty years ago, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird gave birth to four extraordinary terrapins. That's right, the pizza-loving, high-kicking Ninja Turtles aren't teenagers anymore: They're an entertainment juggernaut in its third decade of benevolent world domination, a multi-generational campaign that includes five feature films—including the current reboot, Paramount’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, directed by Jonathan Liebesman—two TV movies, four TV series and more than a dozen videogames. It even has a just-about-irresistible backstory: Two artists struggling to break into mainstream comic books bond over their mutual love of legendary comics creator Jack Kirby, found their own company, Mirage Studios (so named because the "studio" was a mirage; it was actually Laird's living room), and scrape together the money to self-publish a one-off comic book that taps into a fan base they had no idea existed, one that now includes the children of ’80s kids who grew up alongside the smart-mouthed, good-hearted Turtles.
The Turtle fan club includes Liebesman, who pegs their appeal to their unbreakable fraternal bond. They may not be related by blood (this is not the place to delve into the murky waters of Turtle mythos, a shambolic and often contradictory mess, especially when it comes to the Turtles' origins), but they're a band of brothers nonetheless. They squabble, show off, crack wise, fall out and piss off their surrogate dad—martial-arts master Splinter—but when the chips are down Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael have each other's backs.
"I think that's what makes them relatable," Liebesman says, "something more than just four crazy nouns put together. They're a dysfunctional family who have to come together to save the world and the absurd fact that they're teenage mutant ninja turtles and their dad is a rat makes you pay more attention to their [family] dynamics. That you can see similarities to your own world is what makes things funny."
The South African-born Liebesman, who came to the U.S. to visit a cousin and stayed to attend NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, wasn't an obvious choice to introduce a new generation of amiable, pizza-snarfing Turtles, given a horror-heavy resume that includes Darkness Falls (2003), which reimagines the benevolent tooth fairy as a murderous ghost; Rings (2005), a visually accomplished short designed as a bridge between the first and second U.S. Ring films, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006), plus a back-to-back pair of action movies, Battle: Los Angeles (2011) and Wrath of the Titans (2012). So how did he land the gig?
"I feel like the producers [Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller] could answer that question better than me… But you're right, there's nothing that suggests comedy on my resume. I'd done two films [Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans] where I handled big action set-pieces, which probably was part of it. I had worked with them on Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, so they knew me, and on a personal level we also cracked jokes.
"Maybe," he says, in flawless deadpan, "they just know that I'm hilarious in real life and thought if I could bring some of that quality to this movie, then it would be the full package."
And for him, the Turtles came first: "I grew up on the [animated turtles], both the TV cartoons and the movies. I was a fan as a kid, and as a fan I knew what I would want to see: I wanted pizza. I wanted cowabunga. They were mutants, but they were also fun. So the mission was to figure out how to do those touchstones in a way that took the sting off the fact that they came from another era."
It turned out that Liebesman was far from the only Turtle lover on set. "Megan Fox loved them," he says. "The second movie [1991's TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze] was her favorite film when she was a kid. A lot of the cast did—they're in the 25-30 age range, so they were the right age as kids when the cartoons and the movies were out."
And while Liebesman was excited about the chance to use cutting-edge motion-capture technology, what appealed to him was less the technology itself than the fact that it allowed the actors playing the Turtles (Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard and Pete Ploszek) to do scenes on location with the rest of the cast, rather than against a green screen in an isolated studio. "We wanted each actor to embody the essence of the character. I remember there were a few days [during casting] when we would mix and match something like 30 actors just trying to find the right combination."
His goal was to focus on performance, which might seem impossible when the actors’ faces are obscured by makeup and post-production effects animation. Actually," he demurs politely, "you can see a lot of their faces…if you met them in person, you'd recognize them. Once the roles were cast, we went up to Industrial Light & Magic and did several days of motion capture and facial scans so we could put their facial features into the turtles in order to integrate their acting as much as possible."
He continues, "There were some scenes in Turtles that I didn't know how we would pull off, and it came down to the actors doing a great job. There's a scene involving Will Arnett [playing Turtles BFF April O'Neil's sidekick] and a hat, and when I read it on the page I thought, 'I have no idea how this scene is going to work.' And somehow Arnett just pulls it off—it's all credit to him, because that was not directing. It was acting.
“There's another where William Fichtner [as the villainous Dr. Sacks] is talking to the turtles when they're trapped in cages, and I thought: Wow, this could be extremely corny. But when I saw Fichtner play the scene, he totally pulls it off. That's credit to him for sure. A great actor can ground anything and make you believe that it's real."
Liebesman's evident respect for actors—no Hitchcockian "They should be treated like cattle" here—seems at odds with the fact that Johnny Knoxville and Tony Shalhoub were brought in to voice Ploszek (Leonardo) and Danny Woodburn (Splinter), news that sent many Turtle devotees (already steamed by Bay's 2012 remark that the new Turtles were of "alien origin") into overdrive. But reshoots don't automatically indicate a troubled production, and diehard fans are a double-edged sword, as anyone who's ever undertaken a remake/reboot/reimagining of a favorite character/story quickly learns. Any deviation—rumored or actual—from the canon is greeted with equal parts enthusiasm and outrage. Just think every iteration of Batman, including Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, the irony being that it retrieved Batman from the graveyard of characters whose times had come and gone and casts a long shadow over every movie version since Tim Burton's Batman (1989). Twenty-five years later, Miller's heresy is the new canon.
In the end, Liebesman's big concern is "whether adults are brave enough to say in public that they liked a ninja turtles movie is another story. I remember seeing someone sitting next to me [at a screening] loving it and applauding. When we came out—I didn't say I was the director—I asked, 'What did you think of the movie?' and they went, 'Oh, it's okay.’” Time for some Turtle Power.