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Director Jeff Rowe speaks on putting the youthful energy back inside ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’

The ‘Mutant Mayhem’ writer/director speaks about working with Seth Rogan on a modern TMNT story, the empathy that exists within the mutants, and more.

Paramount Pictures

I had various entry points concerning my long-standing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fandom. There was, of course, the 1990 live-action film, the Saturday morning cartoon with the infectious opening song, and the Nintendo and arcade games. We’ve been through decades of Ninja Rap, reboots and remakes, and larger-than-life costumes. With a beloved franchise such as this, it’s a formidable challenge to approach it without leaning on the things we already know.

That’s where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem comes in. Films like the Spider-Verse series that animation can be the fertile ground for innovative artistic endeavors and engaging stories simultaneously. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael have the personalities and familiarity of the characters you’ve known in the past. However, writer/director Jeff Rowe, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and others devised the novel approach of leaning into the teen aspect.

These turtles talk like young people you would know, molded by the sights and sounds of New York City, and exist with a friendship that makes it seem like the cast has been friends for years. It gives a fresh and vibrant feel to a story fans young and old know through decades. That’s coupled with a story of wanting to belong, figuring out your place within the world, and why fitting in feels better when you do it for the right reasons.

I spoke with Rowe about his approach to this classic property and the youthful exuberance Mutant Mayhem brings.

DraftKings Network: One of the prominent things that stood out to me when I watched Mutant Mayhem is how the turtles felt like teenagers. It’s in how they look and interact with each other. In past stories, there’s a suspension of disbelief because even when we’re told they are teenagers, the early 90s films had these life-like suits that resembled grown-ups. How did you arrive at doing this different approach?

Jeff Rowe: That was the thing that got me excited about the project. Seth Rogan’s big idea was, “We have to cast real teenagers,” I said, “That’s crazy. Kids can’t act, right?” That’s the old Hollywood adage – never work with kids or animals. But then I thought about it for 30 seconds and said, “No, that’s great.” So much of what Seth and Evan [Goldberg0 have done has always relied on authenticity

If you look at Superbad, Jonah Hill, and Michael Cera did not look the glamorous cast of a CW TV show about teenagers. They felt relatable – like real people you knew and went to high school with. That’s such a refreshing take on the Turtles, who have always been played by grown men and sounded adult. We did this huge casting search, and I watched hundreds and hundreds of auditions. Then we found Micah [Abbey], Brady [Noon], Nick [Cantu], and Shamon [Brown Jr.]. They’re so funny and likable, and their chemistry together is so appealing.

It became immediately apparent that was the movie. We have to write specifically to their voices and who they are as teenagers. We have to record them all simultaneously to catch them talking to each other, sharing YouTube videos, and just being teens with each other. The movie almost took on a documentary-style approach to filmmaking. It’s so different from what’s done and the majority of animation.

In all my years of watching the many iterations of the Ninja Turtles, it always feels like they have a complete grasp of their various fighting styles. With Mutant Mayhem, we see them go through the training with Splinter, but with the fight in the garage, they have to stumble into their gifts to figure out what they are working with. There’s a difference between fighting in the sewer and actual hand-to-hand combat.

It’s more fun, I feel, as an audience member, to watch a character figure it out. We enjoy seeing Luke Skywalker learn how to become a Jedi. Part of the journey for the moviegoer is, “Oh, if they can get there, I can get there, too.” It helps you imagine a world where you can work through problems and get better at things. And it’s fun to watch. Part of that came from looking at many Jackie Chan movies as references for the fight sequences and how we would choreograph them and make them funny.

Jackie Chan is an amazing martial artist. He could kill me with his bare hands, but he’s so nice, he never would. Even though he’s so good in all of his movies, he’s constantly taking hits or at a disadvantage. He’s messing up as much as he is succeeding. It makes it so likable and funny, and I think we just wanted to give the turtles that level of reliability.

It could have been an easy slam dunk to place Shredder as the main villain, but the film takes a different turn. Superfly and his fellow band of mutants have been just as ostracized as the turtles and Splinter have. They share a father-figure bond but go about their anger in opposite directions.

With that going on, the shadowy figure of TCRI is looking to swoop in for other nefarious reasons. How did you balance all those elements and not elect a conventional antagonist?

The closest thing to like a real true villain in the film is probably Cynthia Utrom. It’s the corporation. It’s the system. If watching every season of The Wire multiple times taught me anything, it’s looking at the systems and the power structures as the villains – not the like street-level criminals who are just as much victims of that system as the turtles are.

Superfly is a victim because he experienced trauma and had a tough upbringing. He gets a little too extreme and takes it too far at the end, but t it was essential to us to have him be a sympathetic character in some ways. Also, in another way, have that connection to Splinter and help him grow and see himself differently.

I’ve discussed it in other interviews, but the movie's first draft was Shredder. We said, “Oh, we’ll do the turtles thing. We’ll make it a film about shredder.” However, having a villain who was also a mutant that could relate to the Turtles, and had a similar tragic backstory was much more valuable and emotional. It makes sense for the Turtles to think, “I don’t know, he’s kind of cool. Should we listen to him to have them not be wrong about everything?” That makes for the most interesting villains.

Paramount Pictures

Another big key in how Mutant Mayhem presents itself is the revamp of the April O’Neil character. Here, she’s just a teen in New York who wishes to become a reporter and crack a story to get her high school prom back. She has a situation she must overcome, and it was a fresh take on the character – mainly from what we’ve known her.

The most important thing was that she needed to be a teen like them and be like “the fifth turtle” April needed to be able to give them shit as much as they were giving her shit. They all need to talk over each other and laugh at one another, and it needs to feel like she’s part of the unit.

It makes sense for April to be like a typical New York teenager, have teenage problems, and have things she’s embarrassed about. She wants to be accepted and find friends who are like her. Those are universally relatable things that meshed with what the turtles were going for. Ayo is so funny and brings such warmth to the character and intelligence. I love this version of April.

With the animation style, it toes the line between beauty and being rough around the edges. You can see it in the differences when characters go to Time Square and down to the sewer. There’s a very New York quality to things that go along with this origin story that makes the art and characters grow alongside each other.

We decided we would make a teenage movie, and teenagers are rough around the edges. You’re going through puberty, your body’s changing, and you’re figuring out who your friends are, what you like, and who you are as a person.

You don’t have it all figured out and often rough around the edges. The art style needs to support that and feel passionate and energetic. Those days when you’re so excited about sketching, it’s like you can’t keep the color inside the lines. But you’re also not doing a good job because you’re 16 and have no formal art training.

The process of that was encouraging the highly skilled, talented artists in the art team to be looser, sketchier, and more experimental. Many even worked on Spider-Verse and can do that slick, polished, cleaned-up style. The team took to it and enjoyed it because we were all making art like we did when we were teenagers again.