In the first of a three-part series, Luke Owen sits down with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Steve Barron, producer Tom Gray, Donatello suit actor Leif Tilden and co-creator Kevin Eastman to find out how the movie got made…
In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird self-published a comic book that would grow into a cultural phenomenon that lasted longer than anyone could have expected. The first issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sold out everywhere with several stores demanding more orders, and before they knew it Eastman and Laird were sat on one of the most successful comic book properties of the 1980s. “We always wanted to be Jack Kirby, and suddenly we were” Eastman jokes. “We weren’t as big or as talented as Jack Kirby though”.
Eastman and Laird were joined by Mark Freedman as a business partner, who began to strike deals with various companies to expand the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brand. He signed a deal with Playmates to release a line of action figures, and this was supported by a Saturday morning cartoon series that introduced more characters that could be sold as toys. The ratings for the show were huge, and the action figure line comfortably competed against former giants like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and current fads The Transformers and The Real Ghostbusters. It didn’t take long before Hollywood came knocking at the door.
Back in the late 1980s however, the idea of making a movie based on a comic book was not as a guaranteed success. Superman: The Motion Picture, released in 1978, was a financial and critical giant for Warner Bros., but its subsequent sequels and spin-offs couldn’t capture the original magic. Superman III, Supergirl and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace – though not released by Warner Bros. – were box office bombs and critical flops, and it looked as though comic books on the big screen was a sure-fire failure. This all changed in 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman starring Michael Keaton as The Dark Knight and Jack Nicholson as his arch-nemesis The Joker. The film had a modest budget of $35 million, but its clever marketing campaign and unanimous praising from fans and critics alike meant Batman was one of the highest grossing domestic movies of the year with $251 million. Suddenly it looked like the comic book boom was back.
One company that was interested in getting involved was Hong Kong based production team Golden Harvest, best known for kick-starting the careers of Bruce Lee with Enter the Dragon and Jackie Chan with The Big Brawl. However it wasn’t an instant attraction. “When I was living in London in the ‘70s working for Paramount, I got addicted to Are You Being Served? on British television, which is one of my favourite shows,” says Golden Harvest producer Tom Gray. “So when I came back to the United States, I wanted to somewhat draft an American version of it. I went out and hired Bobby Herbeck and we started writing a script about Are You Being Served? American style, and along the way he kept telling me about how he had a comic book from Gary Proper, who was Gallagher’s road manager, and he was reading these Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic books on the road. He said I should take a look. And I said, ‘that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard, I don’t want to take a look at this’. I said, ‘if I send this to Hong Kong I’m in big trouble’.”
For the next few months, Gray was propositioned further with the idea of bringing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the big screen and he kept turning it down. However during a meeting at a creole bar with Herbeck and producing partner Kim Dawson in West Hollywood, he had a change of heart. “I was sliding out of the booth and I had an epiphany,” he recalls. “I said, ‘wait a minute – this is nothing more than four Chinese stunt men from our studio in Hong Kong in rubber suits. We can knock this off in Hong Kong for a couple of million bucks and sell it to the Japanese, and away we go’.”
After securing the movie rights from Eastman and Laird, Tom Gray hired Herbeck, who had previously worked on shows like The Jeffersons, Small Wonder and Diff’rent Strokes, to start writing a first draft as he was the real driving force behind getting the deal. Part of the deal struck with Eastman and Laird was that they would have final sign off on the story but not the script itself, which meant Herbeck had to convince the duo he was the right man for the job. Herbeck presented several story ideas to Eastman and Laird which were all rejected, but the central idea of the Turtles battling Shredder and his Foot Clan army, who are recruiting runaway teenagers off the street, won them over. Sadly, his scripts didn’t match up to their expectations. “He presented some ideas that we weren’t happy with, and we seriously reconsidered not doing the first movie because we felt that someone who worked on The Jeffersons wasn’t the right writer,” Eastman recalls of his meetings with Herbeck. “That’s when we had some conference calls with Tom Gray and said we weren’t happy with Bobby. We like him as a person and he’s talented and we appreciated all his efforts, but he’s not right for the movie.”
Thankfully for Tom Gray and Golden Harvest, Eastman and Laird’s trepidation with the live action adaptation was short lived when they hired director Steve Barron, who in turn brought in screenwriter Todd Langen. “When Steven came in, he’d gone through the black and white comic books and post-marked scenes that he thought would work well as a whole movie and he brought in Tom Langen to do the writing,” Eastman adds. “And his experience from The Wonder Years brought some great emotion to the roles for these guys to bring to life.”