In the last few hours before Henson was to fly out to Carolina and begin production, Gray received a call from New Line Cinemas who offered him a deal. “New Line Cinema came up to me and said, ‘we know you struck out everywhere in town, we know you don’t have a deal, we’re you’re last hope’,” he recalls. “I said, ‘yeah, I need six million’. And they said, ‘we’ll give you two’. And I said, ‘I can’t make the film for two million’.” With no other options, Gray waited until it was 6am in Hong Kong to call Golden Harvest founder Raymond Chow to tell him the bad news. “I said, ‘we don’t have the money’,” he says of the phone call. “He said, ‘what are we going to do?’ and I said, ‘okay you’ve got two choices. You can give me the money to make the film, or we’re going to get sued because we’ve got pay or play with Henson which will cost us four million.’ He asked what I thought, and I said, ‘I only will promise you one thing: you will get your money back. I’m not saying it will work, I believe that if we execute this the way it’s going we’ll get our money back’. And he tells me he’ll get the money. I call Carolina and I told my producer and told him to get on the phone to London and tell them to let the boats go because we’re going. That’s how close it got to being shut down.”
Production took place in Wilmington, North Carolina in very testing circumstances. “It was extremely difficult to shoot because the technology in those days was new technology,” Gray recalls. “We couldn’t keep these guys in rubber suits in North Carolina because it’s like 95 degrees and 98% humidity. They were passing out and there was a lot of panic.” However it wasn’t just the humidity causing issues. “The other problem was they had to be able to use servo motors and radio waves because we could not show high kicking kung fu if they were hot-wired,” Gray adds. “When we started shooting, we had so many problems because we were shooting next to an airport. Every time a plane would come in, all the Turtles would start to react differently because the radio waves. So we had to go to military frequency.” Eastman adds: “The first thing I thought about watching Steve Barron as director – standing there surrounded by a hundred different people from lighting, actors, extras – the first thing I thought was, ‘it’s amazing any film comes out good, ever.’
Tilden recalls that the atmosphere on set was “electric”, and adds the suits weren’t as bad once you were inside them. “The suits were crafted on our body casts,” he says. “We were very connected to ‘the skin’ of the Turtles. They were not cumbersome but extremely hot. The shell housed the computer which moved the facial expressions in the head which a puppeteer moved from a remote control. It wasn’t that tough except for the heat.” He does however add that the shoot improved significantly very early on. “The first day doing thirty-six takes for the opening sequence was like being in Vietnam trying to survive the heat because we were in costume the entire time without a break,” he recalls. “Everyone realised after that we needed to come up for air.”
With the movie finished, Golden Harvest and New Line Cinemas took Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Show West, a convention held in Las Vegas where all the major studios show their films. “We went up against The Hunt for Red October,” Gray recalls. “Everybody that had gone out to see Hunt for Red October didn’t go, they came to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was the first time that we knew we had a smash. We had filled up the auditorium with kids, and we had all these old, jaded distributors come in from all over America – and the kids were going nuts. It was pandemonium.” Eastman adds: “When we finally sat down in the theatre to watch it with all the sound, music and editing and how it all came together was just mind-blowing. It felt like our comic books had come to life faithfully and truthfully. It was riveting.” Leif Tilden adds, “I liked it for the most part. I thought the production value was sketchy at times because I thought it should have been all practical locations. I wasn’t impressed with the sets except the sewer.”
Released on March 30th 1990, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles knocked Pretty Woman from the top of the box office charts but received very mixed reviews from critics. While Dave Kehr of Chicago Tribune noted, “The results are lively and funny enough to keep adults enthralled as well as kids,” and Desson Thomas of Washington Post wrote, “amid the kiddie pollution available on Saturday morning TV, the Turtles rank slightly better than the rest,” many critics took issue with its tone. Jay Boyar of Orlando Sentinel said, “What troubles me about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that it’s basically an exploitation movie aimed at young children,” and Janet Maslin of New York Times called it a, “a contentious, unsightly hybrid of martial-arts exploitation film and live-action cartoon.” Among the bad reviews, with Entertainment Weekly calling it a “dismal, tedious affair,” Gray took issue with Siskel and Ebert’s negative views. “I happened to be scouting locations for another movie and I saw them in this café,” he jokingly recalls. “I was so pissed that Ebert had crapped all over Ninja Turtles and called it terrible and a waste of celluloid and all that stuff. I went over to him and said, ‘Mr. Ebert, I respect you as a film critic but you have no sense how this business works’. And he looked up at me like, ‘who the fuck are you?’ So I said, ‘I made Ninja Turtles’. And he says, ‘you’ve ruined my dinner’. We had this little argument but it was all in fun. You can’t make these movies with the critics in mind.”
One person who was happy with the film was Kevin Eastman. “That first movie will always be my favourite version of all things entertainment for the Turtles,” he says. “A few years ago at Tribeca, they did a screening of the movie for fans. I was hanging out with Steve Baron and we introduced the film and then I watched it, and it was the first time I’d seen it in fifteen years. And I sat there and thought, ‘this held up pretty good in the end’. It was so much better than I ever could have imagined. Thanks to Steve Barron and Jim Henson who made that all happen – and the poor guys who had to wear the eighty-pound suits.”
Though it may have divided critics, there was no arguing the movie’s success at the box office. “Hunt for Red October opened a week before us,” Gray recalls [Note: it actually opened five weeks before]. “And I ran into the guy from Paramount who turned me down several times at a basketball game and I said, ‘congratulations – it looks like it opened well.’ It opened with $18 million which was a record for non-holiday. And he said, ‘yeah we’re going to own this spring.’ And I just smiled. I knew the Turtles were going to open big. We opened to $25 million, so we smashed every record.”
New Line Cinema decided to open Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a week before the school holidays, which meant on its second week it got kids all over again, dropping just 25% to $18 million. “Which is unprecedented in this business,” Gray notes. “Everybody who passed on the movie called me up on the Monday and said, ‘God – how did we miss this?’ And I simply said, ‘you didn’t believe in it’. So they said, ‘okay – we believe in its sequel.’”
My thanks to Tom Gray, Leif Tilden and Kevin Eastman for their time contributing to this article. Steve Barron’s quotes are taken from this interview I conducted with him in 2014.
Next week, Luke Owen sits down with Tom Gray and Kevin Eastman to discuss Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of The Ooze…
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth and the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and Scooperhero News. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen and read his weekly feature The Week in Star Wars.