Seth Rogen: 'We're putting the 'teen' back into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'
As iconic comic heroes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles return to the big screen in Mutant Mayhem, Rachael Davis finds out more from writer-producer Seth Rogen and director Jeff Rowe...
SINCE their invention in 1983, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) have captured the hearts of generations of comic book and animation fans.
The goofy quartet of fighting reptiles – Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael – was actually created by accident, the result of comic book authors Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird messing around sketching in their 'studio', aka the living room of their shared apartment.
Little did they know that with that sketch they had spawned an enormously successful and beloved franchise about the sewer-dwelling Ninja Turtles, with comics, TV shows and films inspiring action figures, toys, and merchandise found in the bedrooms of children across the world.
One Turtles fan is Canadian comedian, actor and filmmaker Seth Rogen (41).
"The animated series came out in 1987, when I was five. The first movie came out in 1990, when I was eight," says the Freaks And Geeks, Pineapple Express and The Interview star.
"It was perfectly geared toward someone my age and I loved it. They were funny. They were referential. I started taking karate probably because of the Turtles. I was just kind of obsessed."
Rogen loved the Ninja Turtles so much that when he was approached to create a brand new film about the Turtles – who were turned into mutants after contact with a strange neon "ooze" – he jumped at the chance.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, the latest instalment in the franchise, sees Rogen work alongside co-writers Jeff Rowe, Evan Goldberg, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit, with Rowe also directing, giving a new dimension to the story that focuses less on the "mutant ninja" part, and more on the teenagers beneath the shells – kids who "just want to be normal teenagers and do normal teenage things", Rogen says.
"It's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," says Rogen. "Of all those words, the teenage part was the most under-explored, and the most interesting to me."
"My first thing I did was teenage, the TV show Freaks And Geeks," he adds, the cult high school show which was praised for the way it portrayed kids that both acted and sounded real.
"And then we wrote Superbad. I think a lot of my career has been intrinsically linked to the high school, teenage genre.
"I always thought it would be interesting to explore the Turtles in that way."
When we meet them in Mutant Mayhem, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael have been living their lives confined to the sewers of New York City because their adoptive father, the mutant rat Splinter – played in this film by martial arts legend Jackie Chan – believes humans will never accept them.
But the turtles have had enough, and they just want to experience the outside world like normal teenagers.
They decide on a quest for acceptance, hoping to win over the people of the Big Apple through acts of heroism.
When they meet wannabe reporter April O'Neil, voiced by The Bear star Ayo Edebiri, who is trying to bring down the criminal mutant Superfly, played by rap legend Ice Cube, they see their chance to rid the city of crime.
But the real trouble starts when an army of mutants is unleashed upon them.
"I think as a film-maker, I'm always looking for the emotional hook," explains director Jeff Rowe.
"Seth's vision for this was: they need to look and feel like authentic teenagers. And I'm like, that's wonderful. That's such a relatable, confusing, emotional time in your life.
"And all four years of high school feel radically different from each other, because you're experiencing so much change, and so much up and down socially, emotionally, mentally.
"Trying to capture that honestly and authentically was like a really exciting challenge, I think, as film-makers, because I haven't really seen that done. I definitely haven't seen that done in the Ninja Turtles, and I haven't really seen that done a lot in animation. It just felt like a chance to do something new."
By casting actual teenagers in the leading voice roles, Rowe, Rogen and their team hoped the film would feel authentically teenage.
Supported by a star-studded cast including the likes of Rose Byrne, John Cena, Jackie Chan, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph and Rogen himself, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael are played by teenagers Nicolas Cantu, Micah Abbey, Shamon Brown Jr and Brady Noon respectively.
"We recorded the actors together in a room, which never happens in animation, because it's so hard to schedule and it's so difficult from a sound perspective," says Rowe.
"But we really wanted to capture the naturalistic chemistry of them, talking over each other, quipping at each other's responses and making fun of each other. We just had these really alive, natural recording sessions."
The anarchic teenage tone of this iteration of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was also helped by the animation style – "an art style that hopefully evokes the drawings of teenagers and feels like an unfinished work in progress, like you may feel like you are when you're a teenager," says Rowe.
Inspired by the likes of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, the animation in Rowe's film incorporates different drawing styles for a sketch-like feel – just like the doodles of a teenager in the margins of their school book.
"I think a lot of movies have come out in the past few years like Spider-Verse, Puss In Boots, The Bad Guys, like there's more risks being taken in the style of these big budget studio, animated films," says the director.
"I don't know, it suddenly feels old to be making something the way that films have been done the last 30 years, like you're working in that style and it goes out there and it immediately feels out of date.
"I think the marketplace is rewarding taking chances and big swings, and we wanted to make something bold and exciting to people."
:: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is in cinemas now.