For Ninja Turtles fans of a certain age (including myself), subsequent movies never quite reached the same level of success as 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With this being the 30th anniversary of that first theatrical adventure, it was exciting to hear that some of the folks who made that movie a reality would be taking the time to look back on it for SDCC. This panel was moderated by The Old Turtle Den‘s Chris Castaneda and featured the original film’s producer Kim Dawson and co-writer Bobby Herbeck.
Check out the panel embedded below and check out some highlights in the recap after the jump!
Kim Dawson said that the early process of getting the film started was much more difficult than he expected. He managed to purchase the option to the film, but at the time, comic book movies were seen as a non-starter. Dawson mentioned that then-recent films like Howard the Duck and The Garbage Pail Kids were both massive flops.
Dawson attempted to use the comics as storyboards to show producers that the film was a viable property. Despite the enthusiasm between himself and Bobby Herbeck, Dawson says he was essentially “laughed out” of every meeting he took. This was before Tim Burton’s Batman, so comic book movies weren’t seen as big moneymakers.
The moment that got the ball rolling on the film being made was when Herbeck and Dawson encouraged Golden Harvest’s Thomas Gray to ask his children about the Ninja Turtles. Apparently they both expressed a huge amount of excitement about the project, which led to Gray calling Dawson that evening to tell him that he wanted to make the movie.
They had several meetings with Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird before both of them signed off on a story pitch. According to Bobby Herbeck, however, as soon as they had that locked in, everything else “happened fast.”
Director Steve Barron had recently worked on The Dark Crystal, so he immediately had this vision that the Jim Henson Creature Shop should be involved. He and Brian Henson immediately went to Jim Henson to sell him on the project. Kim Dawson described his first time seeing the Turtles’ costumes as “mind-blowing.”
Bobby Herbeck described going to England while he wrote the screenplay. According to Herbeck, he lived in what he believed to be a haunted house while he wrote it, which put him on edge throughout the early days of production. He joked that he almost scrapped his TMNT script in favor of writing a haunted house movie.
The movie ran into several hiccups over the course of production, particularly in terms of finding distribution. Golden Harvest had a distribution deal for the film locked in placed at 20th Century Fox, but this came to an end only about six weeks before filming began. Shake-ups at the top of 20th Century Fox led to the new head of distribution backing out of the film, which meant that Golden Harvest had to scramble during the film’s production to get a new distributor. After asking New Line Cinema’s Bob Shaye to similarly ask his kids if they were familiar with the Ninja Turtles, New Line snapped up the film.
Despite this, the film’s production was a difficult one. The servos in the Turtle costumes’ heads would go out nearly every day due to the heat in their filming location of Wilmington, North Carolina. There were also difficulties with long shooting hours and occasional stunt person injuries. Through it all, they described director Steve Barron as “unflappable.”
The week the film was set to premiere, Golden Harvest’s Thomas Gray was positive that the film would be a flop. Despite a rough treatment from critics, the film opened at $25 million and was a huge hit. A tie-in coupon with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles brand cereal brought tons of return business throughout the summer, as well. There were a lot of jokes about how TMNT and Pretty Woman essentially spent weeks trading the number one spot at the box office back and forth.
In discussing the film’s success and popularity to this day, Bobby Herbeck explained that he thinks the movie did well because it played to all ages and didn’t talk down to children. It was a movie that parents enjoyed taking their kids to, rather than feeling dragged to the theater. Both Herbeck and Dawson also felt that the practical effects used in making the movie stood the test of time much better than any CGI-heavy Turtles film would.
At the end of the day, both of them were glad to have been a part of that first film, with Herbeck mentioning that he had recently rewatched it and that “it still holds up.”