In the late ’80s and the early ’90s, no kids’ franchise was bigger than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Originally started as a joke from creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the TMNT became a hit comic book series. Then, Playmates Toys and the creators decided that the franchise would make for some great franchising opportunities. They pitched an animated TV series to go alongside their new action figure line, and the rest is history!
At the height of the Turtles’ popularity, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie was released into theaters. Though it was filled with some bad acting, lame jokes, and plot holes galore, fans ate it up! It made great money at the box office and spawned three sequels on top of the money made from numerous product tie-ins. Even though the movie is objectively not good, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie is looked upon by fans today with heavy rose-colored glasses. That said, the humor, action scenes, charming characters, and incredible production design at least put it in the category of “nostalgic guilty pleasure” for most.
Here’s the thing: there was a lot going on behind the scenes of the Heroes in a Half Shell’s first feature length film. The production was filled with drama, there were issues with the costumes, and there was even some controversy regarding parents; reactions to the movie (which made us kids love it all the more).
Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie.
15. It’s the most successful independent film of all time
It’s no secret that this movie made a metric ton of money. It was #1 at the box office when it opened in 1990 and went on to become one of the top ten money makers of the year; then there were all the tie-ins like toys, promotional materials, and VHS sales. This movie came out when TMNT-mania was in full swing, and it definitely shows!
Which is why it is so hard to fathom that the first TMNT movie is considered an independent film. When the movie was being shopped to different production companies, they were fearful that it was going to be a flop. The film finally found a home at then-independent New Line Cinema; the company invested just $13.5 million and got a return of $202 million plus merchandise sales. This profit made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie the most successful independent film of all time.
14. The costumes were made by the Jim Henson Company
Part of what makes the Turtles’ first movie so endearing to this day is the amazing production design of the costumes. The characters looked like they had been ripped straight out of the cartoon and updated to fit in with the real world. Not to mention, the animatronic technology in the heads of the outfits were some of the most sophisticated of their time.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the TMNT’s designs were done by the one and only Jim Henson Company. Though it had gotten his start with simple puppets on The Muppets and Sesame Street, Henson’s studio had upped their game with the amazingly life-like designs and animations of characters in movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. The costumes of the Turtles were no different; to get them to look so realistic, they had to put almost 60lbs of mechanisms into the suits!
13. Jim Henson was disgusted by the movie’s violence
Jim Henson and his company were involved in some of the most important children’s productions of all time. He was always pushing the boundaries of puppetry in a way that would entice the imaginations of the young ones and inspire them to learn, grow, and play. Properties like Sesame Street and Labyrinth were intentionally made to be accessible for all age groups.
This is probably why Jim Henson himself was disgusted with the level of violence in the first Turtles movie. He went on record saying that the amount of dark content in finished film was “…excessive, pointless, and not his style.” However, he allowed his company to work on the not-so family friendly project because he was good friends with the director, Steve Barron (who had directed Labyrinth and episodes of Henson’s The Storyteller).
12. The Splinter Puppet required 3 people to operate
The Turtle’s Sensei, Master Splinter, took front and center in their first big-screen adventure. After the Turtles are discovered by the Foot Clan, the villains raid their lair and kidnap their mentor. The rest of the film focuses on the heroes trying to rescue him from the Shredder.
Eagle-eyed fans will notice that Splinter is normally not shown from the waist down (with one or two exceptions). This is because, unlike the costumes of the four main characters, Splinter was actually an old-school puppet rather than an actor in a suit. However, he was arguably even more complex than the animatronics in the Turtles. It took three different puppeteers to operate Master Splinter: one for each hand and one for his head.
11. Fight scenes were filmed in slo-mo and then sped up
With a movie about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you expect high-flying, drop-kicking, kung-fu action from start to finish. The first film in the franchise did not disappoint! With the giant 60lb costumes the actors had to wear, you’re probably wondering how the characters could do all the death defying stunts and action scenes.
The answer is: they didn’t. At least, not the way it’s shown on your screen! Because the costumes were so heavy and bulky, all of their fight scenes were done super-slow (in real time) and then filmed at a higher speed so they would look like normal action movements. We don’t know about you, but the thought of seeing the guys in the Turtle costumes doing a reenactment of Kirk vs. the Gorn is hilarious!
10. The movie is an almost scene-by-scene adaptation of the original comic
The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book was created to be a parody of Marvel’s Daredevil series. The villains were a ripoff of the Hand (the Foot), their master had a wood-like name (Stick vs. Splinter), and the same chemical that blinded Matt Murdock was the compound that mutated the baby turtles. Over time, the comic developed into its own thing with more complex stories.
Fans of the Turtles were probably surprised that the movie was nothing like the ’80s cartoon. This is because, rather than retell the stories of the cartoon, the story is a direct adaptation of the darker, more mature comic book stories. In particular, the movie takes direct scene-for-scene inspirations from the first five issues of the series, as well as the now-legendary Return to New York story line.
9. The actor playing Raphael suffered severe claustrophobia
Raph is known as the “smart aleck” of the group as well as the one who has a temper. However, he has shown time and time again that he has what it takes to lead the Turtles when Leo is down and out. Some fans even argue that he should be promoted to full-time leader (as the newest Nick show Rise of the TMNT looks to do). In the first movie, Josh Pais was the only person to do both the voice acting and wear the costume for his character.
This was absolute torture for Pais, who suffered from severe claustrophobia. Being stuck inside a rubber suit with a bunch of moving mechanisms was so terrible for the actor that he would remove his “head” every single time the director yelled cut. Despite the setbacks, Pais claimed in his Reddit AMA that he still had “fun times” playing the character.
8. There is a visible hole in the Turtle costumes
You might be wondering, if these costumes really weighed 60 or 70 pounds and were filled with moving electronics, how did the actors not pass out in between takes? Nowadays the guys playing the Turtles laugh it off and say how they would “sweat off 5 pounds between breakfast and lunch” in their suits, but this was a real concern for the costume designers.
Their solution? Put a hole in the mouth of the Turtle costumes that couldn’t be seen by the camera. This allowed pumped-in air to get into the suit as well as helped the non-costumed characters understand their dialogue. If you’re able to freeze-frame certain parts of the film, you can clearly see that the Turtles have a human mouth inside of their own. It’s weird as all get-out and something you will never be able to unsee.
7. It gave Sam Rockwell one of his first roles
With Oscar season approaching, Sam Rockwell is being hyped up as a frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor with his incredible role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Even before this, the actor was known for his amazing performances in The Green Mile and Moon, not to mention his popular characters in Iron Man 2 and Galaxy Quest.
Before he was able to cut his teeth on these larger roles, Rockwell had to get his start somewhere. In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie, the future Oscar hopeful landed one of his first big gigs as “Head Thug.” Rockwell played one of the delinquent teens seen at the Foot’s headquarters; he’s the one who famously asks “Regular, or menthol?” when a young punk wants cigarettes, and tells the cops where to find the Foot Headquarters at the end of the movie.
6. Most of New York City wasn’t filmed in New York
New York City has to be the most over-used setting in movie history. Everybody recognizes the Big Apple, and everybody wants to experience it for themselves some day. For those of us who live out in the middle of nowhere or overseas, however, movies and TV shows are usually the closest we can come to the famed location. Like just about every other superhero, the Turtles live in Manhattan.
However, most of TMNT: The Movie wasn’t filmed in New York at all. The director was only in the city for establishing shots involving its most iconic locations; everything else was filmed in the state of North Carolina.
The Tar Heel State had the luxury of being able to shut down whole streets for filming, and gave the film a big break on production costs; it was a no-brainer! The only issue was that the radio waves from landing aircraft would make the Turtles’ faces go haywire…
5. Tatsu was supposed to be a murderer
Though everybody tends to forget his name, Tatsu is the right-hand man of the Shredder who you didn’t want to mess with. He trained most of the members of the Foot in the art of Ninjitsu and did the dirty work that Oroku Saki wouldn’t do himself. Despite getting his butt kicked by Casey Jones, he was a force to be reckoned with.
Originally, he was going to be a much darker character. Remember how he beat up that teenage Foot Soldier in a fit of rage after watching Splinter get tortured? In the script as well as the novelization of the story, Tatsu actually kills the kid. The studio felt that this was too far even for a “darker” version of the Turtles and changed it to just knocking him unconscious.
4. The original director was fired
If not for director Steve Barron, we wouldn’t have gotten the TMNT movie we all know and love today. Barron’s relationship with Jim Henson is the main reason the puppeteer’s company made the costumes, and the director’s decision to make the movie more serious yet fun – rather than a straight comedy – is something we can all appreciate as both children and adults. Especially after seeing how the third movie turned out…
Near the end of the movie’s production, New Line didn’t appreciate Barron’s work. During the post-production phase, Barron was removed from his role because the studio felt he was taking the franchise in too dark a direction. They completely changed things up in post to make it more lighthearted.
3. Corey Feldman was ridiculously underpaid for playing Donatello
Corey Feldman has to be the ultimate child star of the ’80s. He played a part in legendary classics like Stand by Me, Gremlins, The Goonies, and The Lost Boys. Though he has fallen out of the main spotlight in recent years, Feldman had been able to keep steady roles for the majority of his career. When the time came for New Line to cast the lovable dork Donatello, who else would be better?
Despite the film being a smash hit, Feldman was only given a meager $1,500 for his role as Donny. Remember, the vast majority of the film world felt that this was going to be a massive flop. The actor had just recently gotten sober, and figured he would just be making a little bit of extra cash doing voiceover work for a movie nobody was going to see.
2. Robin Williams helped coach April O’Neil
The late, great Robin Williams was one of those actors who was more than just a face on the screen. He always gave off this down-to-Earth, sweetheart vibe that made him the most beloved actor of his generation. Not to mention, he was a once in a lifetime talent; he could make you double over in laughter one minute and then bawl your eyes out the next. He was also a giant video game and comic book nerd (he named his daughter Zelda, after all).
As if we needed another reason to love the guy, Robin Williams was apparently a huge TMNT fan. While working with him on the movie Cadillac Man, April O’Neil actress Judith Hoag mentioned that she was playing the beloved sidekick. According to the actress, this made Williams ecstatic, and he offered to coach her on playing the character in between takes.
1. Roger Corman originally intended to produce the movie
Oh yes, we’re talking about the Roger Corman. who made the epically bad Fantastic Four movie from the ’90s. The infamous producer was a trailblazer of the independent film, producing properties that most studios wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Corman’s movies are often low-budget, ridiculous schlock-fests, and he almost had a hand in the TMNT movie.
When the filmmakers were struggling to find a company to fund and distribute their work, Corman was one of the first to step up to the plate. His version of the movie would have been much more “adult” than the one we got, with raunchy humor such as the Turtles entering the Red Light District and fighting a group of naked nuns on roller blades.
It also would have starred four comedians, including Billy Crystal and Gallagher, wearing plastic shells and in “greenface” as the titular brothers. Uh… Cowabunga?
Did we leave out any cool behind-the-scenes tidbits from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie? Let us know in the comments!
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