Obviously, when given some time to chat to Jeff Rowe about his work directing the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, Mutant Mayhem, we had to ask about pizza. And, as it turns out, he ate even more of it during the production than four hungry, sewer-dwelling, humanoid reptiles.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been the subject of plenty of new movies over the years, as well as one of the best animated series from our childhoods. In the latest movie, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg alongside Rowe and Detective Pikachu duo Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit, the turtles really just want to be normal teens. It’s delightful.
Naturally, we chatted to Rowe about the unique visual style of one of the best animated movies of the year so far and the best teen movies that influenced him, as well as his decision to avoid including Shredder – one of the best movie villains in the Turtles franchise. We also spoke about pizza, of course, and now we just want to order one for lunch.
The Digital Fix: I wanted to start by asking, was it daunting for your first solo directorial feature to be a project that so many people have such affection for and have done for their whole lives?
Jeff Rowe: Absolutely, it’s terrifying. Don’t do it. Or do it, I don’t know. It speaks to how much people really love these turtles and these characters and this franchise. I would say to friends and family: ‘Hey, I’m doing this. I’m doing a Ninja Turtles film.’ And they’d be like ‘that’s so cool, don’t mess it up’, which was intimidating.
But I think it also gave me an advantage because I’m a fan and because I care so much about it. I think I have some idea of what the fans want and what they’re looking for out of this franchise, and I tried to deliver on that.
The visual style is so distinct and unique. It feels to me that a movie like Into the Spider-Verse kind of opened the door and gave people permission to make animated films that did not look like other American animated films. How important was something like Spider-Verse in what you’ve done?
When we came to the studio and we were like ‘we want to make this film look different’, they were like ‘cool’. You can just say in a meeting like executives now: ‘We’re gonna make it look different, like Spider-Verse’. It doesn’t have to look anything like Spider-Verse, but if you say that they’ll let you do it because they’re like: ‘That’s cool. I know that, that’s good. Go for it.’
Audiences really showed up for that film and the sequel and they’re saying they want things that are different, they don’t want the same thing over and over. That gave us a lot of confidence to be bold visually.
You worked a bit with Phil Lord and Chris Miller on The Mitchells vs. The Machines. What were the lessons you learned from that project that you’ve taken forward into this one?
Phil gave me a piece of advice that is one of the most influential pieces of advice that I think I’ve ever got. When talking about the filmmaking process, he just said to never squint. Never look at something and be like: ‘I guess this works. I guess that’s OK. I guess it’s kinda close to what I want.’ Don’t betray yourself.
If something isn’t what you know the story and film need it to be, don’t try to go past it. Deal with it, confront it, work with it, make it better, make the improvements, and make it something you can be proud of and never squint at.
That’s really fascinating. And you’re working with more brilliant people on this one, including Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. They’re astonishing writers, but I can’t recall many other examples of them doing family-friendly material. Was this an adjustment process for them?
There’s a scene in the movie where the turtles watch an outdoor screening of a film in a park in New York. We were like: ‘Wouldn’t that be cool if they were watching people watch Superbad?’ We could not find 15 usable seconds of Superbad to put in the movie. So it is an extreme departure from what they’ve done in terms of language and the things being talked about.
The other main characteristic of their work, and the reason I think Superbad is so enduring and lovable, is that they just really get human nature. They really know how to write people authentically and speak to their motivations, and that is so present in this film. I think the turtles are really relatable and I don’t think we would’ve got there without their influence.
I’ve just got this image of you in an editing room spooling through Superbad and cursing every Jonah Hill F-bomb when it comes out.
Yeah, it was like: ‘OK, wait, one, two, three… no’!
One of the interesting things you’ve done in this movie is that it’s one of the rare occasions where you’ve got actual young actors playing the turtles. Was that really important to you?
That was Seth’s line in the sand when we started. It must be actual teenagers, this needs to be a teenage movie. His history of making films with Superbad, Blockers, even when he was acting on Freaks and Geeks, they are so successful because they use relatively unknown actors. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera weren’t superstars back then. They had acting work, but the key thing is they looked and felt and talked like real teenagers.
We really wanted to bring that level of authenticity to this. It also informed the character designs and the way we shot the film. It required us doing a really difficult thing, which is recording four actors at once. It has terrible sound, it’s messy, and you have to edit so much to find the usable things. But it was really worth it and really brought those characters to life.
And with those young actors, of course, it makes us think about the great coming-of-age movies. Which of those movies were you watching and being inspired by while you were making this?
I think Lady Bird is one of the greatest coming-of-age stories ever. It’s that because it’s very honest about its characters and its relationships. Then Stand By Me is a story about friendship and I wanted the turtles to feel like that. We had a movie club on the film where we’d watch a movie every week that was tangentially related, and Attack the Block was one of the first ones we watched. It’s such a wonderful film.
Something that we took away from that is that there’s this scene where they’re like ‘we’re gonna kill some aliens’ and they’re just running down the staircase and bouncing off the rails and jumping around and touching each other. Teens are so physical, they have so much energy, and they’re just always doing things that probably aren’t what they’re supposed to be doing.
We needed the animation to feel alive like that, and touch is a really hard thing to do in animation because they’re not physical objects. Things just go through each other. But they needed to touch each other and grab onto each other and high-five each other.
Was it significant for you to be making a Turtles movie that doesn’t have Shredder as the main villain? It’s such an integral part of the turtles.
You’ve got to save the best thing for later, like Joker in The Dark Knight. We had Shredder as the villain early on and we pivoted away because he’s too much of a presence. He’s such an interesting character.
It’s so much nicer for an audience to meet the turtles, learn to love the turtles, watch them go on this whole journey, and then you could make like five movies about Shredder. He’s so interesting. Having him in the first movie took up all of the story, and we needed to focus on the turtles.
Presumably, now you’ve made a Turtles movie, you’re fearless when it comes to beloved properties. Is there another iconic franchise you want to make next?
I think I still have some miles ahead of me with Turtles to go. But if there’s anything in the Jurassic Park universe. The way filmmakers of Chris and Phil’s generation talk about Star Wars influencing them, Jurassic Park was my ‘I can’t believe movies can be this cool and you can create these big worlds that are compelling’. It really made me want to be a filmmaker.
And now, before I let you go, the final question and perhaps the most important question: making a Turtles movie, how much pizza did you get through?
Honestly, I wasn’t even trying. I was vegan when I started the movie, but then I transitioned back into vegetarian because I was like: ‘I’ve got to eat cheesy pizza again’. I’ll say that like five nights a week I was having pizza. It’s not a good habit. Don’t try that at home.
And if inventive animation is your bag, check out our Across the Spider-Verse review and find out about how Spider-Man’s most nightmarish variant nearly ended up in that movie. We’ve also looked ahead to the Spider-Verse 3 release date.