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Sarah Michelle GellarSarah Michelle Gellar - "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" Movie - Scifi.com Interview
Thursday 22 March 2007, by Webmaster
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Patrick Stewart and company reinvent the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for an all-new animated adventure
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles- who started off as almost a comic-book joke and turned into a major franchise-are back on the big screen with only their initials, TMNT. This time they’re not live-action, as in their three previous films. Everything is in a high-action computer-generated form, so carefully created that the frames could almost form their own high-quality comic book. The story picks up after the Turtles have defeated their archenemy, the Shredder, but each of the Turtles has gone off in his own direction. Meanwhile, a new superhero is in town, the Nightwatcher, and he has picked up the slack in fighting crime while the Turtle brothers remain on hiatus. So the always-helpful archaeologist April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her bungling vigilante fiance, Casey (Chris Evans), have found a job in helping tech industrialist Maximillian J. Winters (Patrick Stewart) collect giant stone warriors from around the world, unaware that Winters has a nefarious plan in store. April and Casey lament what happened to the Turtles’ spirit and try to help reunite Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael.
SCI FI Weekly interviewed some of the crew involved in reviving the Turtles, including writer/director Kevin Munroe and producer Thomas K. Gray, who was involved with the first three movies. Other voices involved in the film are comic-book fan and director Kevin Smith, Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Laurence Fishburne (the Matrix movies) and classic actor Mako, who died during the production of this film. The film, by Warner Brothers Pictures, the Weinstein Company and Imagi Animation Studios Production, opens nationwide on March 23. Patrick Stewart, you’ve been Professor Charles Xavier in X-Men and captain of the Starship Enterprise. What made you want to do a voice in the Turtles movie?
Stewart: I was familiar with the Turtles franchise 20 years ago. My son was a fan. Now it will be introduced to my grandchildren. What does your character, Max, do in the movie?
Stewart: Max is not what he seems. ... He may look like a healthy, vigorous and modern individual, but, as his character unfolds, we see why he is such an anomaly in today’s world. Sarah Michelle Gellar, you’re playing an archaeologist named April, and you’ve also played superheroes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV and in the Scooby-Doo movies. How did you know about the Turtles?
Gellar: I’m a fan [since] the ’80s. I remember sitting at home, flipping through TV Guide when I saw a listing for a show called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. ... It’s a household name now, but when I first saw it, I thought it was the strangest combination of words. And I remember laughing and thinking, "This is great, I am definitely watching this!" Chris Evans, how does Casey in TMNT differ from Johnny Storm, the role you play in Fantastic Four?
Evans: Casey’s not a superhero, really. Casey is just a guy who misses the good old days of vigilante crime-fighting with the Turtles. In this film, Casey and April are now an item, but April doesn’t like the whole hockey-mask vigilante thing, so they’re at a crossroads and aren’t getting along the way they used to. Kevin Munroe, as the writer and director of this popular franchise, it must have been tough to figure out how to come up with the style and look of this new version.
Munroe: Stylistically, it’s more like the comics. The action’s more intense, and the threat to the world is more intense, as are the emotions of the main characters. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created in 1984 by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. Did you work closely with them on this?
Munroe: With Peter, yes. Kevin isn’t involved anymore. They did it to spoof the world of superhero characters. The original comic book was published in black and white, and only 3,000 copies were printed, which, much to everyone’s surprise, sold out right away. We had to stay in the confines of Peter’s imagination. He didn’t mind that they would look slightly different, but we had to get everything approved. ... We worried that Peter may X out all our changes, but he was open to it all. We wanted the feel of this movie to be like a comic book, but like Frank Miller’s black-and-white graphic novels with a stitch of color.
We also wanted the Turtles to have more of a realistic redesign. Whenever we had something, we ran to Peter with our sketchbook and he seemed to like most of it. ... Peter had his 10 commandments of what we could or couldn’t do with the Turtles. We were allowed to have an alter ego for the characters, so Leonardo comes back as the Nightwatcher and branches out [as his own new superhero]. We expanded some of their characters-Leonardo has a desire to do good, and this is a personification of his character in a new creation. How was it working long distance with animators in Hong Kong?
Munroe: It felt like the Hong Kong office was just a click away. Also, because of the time difference, we could work around the clock. When it’s 5 in the afternoon in L.A., it’s 9 in the morning in Hong Kong, so we could teleconference at the end of our day, while they were just starting theirs. ... It was interesting to work with so many of the artists in Hong Kong, because they have such a deep appreciation for martial arts, which complemented the style of the film. These are guys in their 20s who’ve been raised on kung-fu action flicks, and when I would say things like, "OK, I want you to make your own kung-fu movie in this scene," they’d just go nuts over it. You also did the writing. How did you come up with a new story?
Munroe: We didn’t want to go back and remake the original, so we decided to start a new chapter in the Turtles’ lives. We wanted to focus on each of the Turtles more by emphasizing their family relationship and how it’s evolved since the last time we saw them. ... Splinter has sent Leonardo away on a worldwide training mission, and he has become even more protective of the remaining Turtles by discouraging them from fighting crime without Leonardo. We’ve done everything possible in this film to fill it with wall-to-wall action and classic TMNT humor. At the end of the day, this is a story about a typical American family-smiles the director-that is, if your family lives underground and saves the world battling countless ninjas and big bad monsters! You also knew that it had to be a family film, too, and not too scary or violent, right?
Munroe: Yeah, I had to get over that being a family film is a bad word. I think this is a big family film that everyone can enjoy, and even I had to get over the negative connotation of that. This is the quintessential Turtle movie, big and fun, so a kid can enjoy it as much as his dad and vice versa. How did the untimely death of Mako, who voiced the role of Splinter, affect the project? [The 73-year-old actor died of esophageal cancer.] Munroe: We had done a couple of pickup sessions with him, we got what we needed, and he is still in it. I was really devastated when I found out. I had just announced the voice cast on July 20 [last year] at Comic-Con International in San Diego. It was very sad, I had just announced at Comic-Con that Mako was doing the voice, and the next day I found out he had passed. We just listened to his voice in the soundstage last week-he was doing a lullaby, a Japanese song, and his voice just filled the room. ... [He] would have been happy with the character. Not only is Splinter furry, but he wears a robe. So we fully rendered and animated the robe as well as his fur to show the effects of movement and outside elements. It seems like a lot of care went into the animation.
Munroe: It did. We thought everything out. A ninja would use shadows, rooftops and sewers to get around and remain undetected. To indicate Turtle safe zones, we made the sewers warmer-looking, with rich browns and reds, versus the surface streets, which are lit with bright neon signs that seem very alienating to the Turtles. The rooftops are also a safe zone for them, warmly lit by the night sky and the lights below. Like the sewers, it’s a quiet place for the Turtles to look at the world from extreme vantage points. We designed full-on muscle systems for the Turtles because they’re essentially wearing nothing but a sash and a half-shell. We also gave them unique characteristics. For example, on Raphael, he actually has veins that pop out whenever he flexes, and Michelangelo has freckles. And what about the 13 monsters?
Munroe: A few of Max’s monsters are based on those in popular folklore. We also created some monsters that are slightly off the beaten path, like a little guy we jokingly dubbed "the Jersey Devil Monster," which is a little crustacean-like creature who’s basically a freakishly strong koala bear with a bad temper. Thomas K. Gray, as the producer who was there from the beginning, doing all the three previous live-action films, why do a new film?
Gray: We wanted to take the Turtles to another level in film and do something we hadn’t done before. For more than 20 years, they have been one of the most popular toys sold in several parts of the U.S., as well as Europe, Australia and in some Asian-Pacific countries. With the syndicated cartoon series doing great and the comic book enjoying cult status, we wanted to give the fans something new. We wanted to stay true to the concept while taking the Turtles in a new direction. We went back to the original comic book, which is actually grittier than the previous films. We think this will be a fun experience for core fans and new fans alike. We heard that you had a difficult time keeping this to a PG rating?
Gray: We feel like we have a different standard than other movies. We will have far less violence than [The Chronicles of] Narnia. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe showed far more violence than we will have, but because our setting is more reality-based there is more of a higher standard put on us. The next one we will make PG-13, but we would prefer to make it R. And you can’t use nunchuku or metal stars as weapons, because they’re banned in Europe?
Gray: Right, people started using them and stars were thrown during soccer games in England. The film wouldn’t be able to be shown in parts of Europe if we had that kind of thing in the movie. You see them on their belt, but they don’t use them. We had to keep the characters familiar, but we also wanted to give them a bit of an update. Why bring the Turtles back at all? Gray: It’s the CG, that’s the reason why we’re remaking it. We can do so much more with the computer. The first live-action film we made $132 million, then $84 million, then $42 million on the third film. The budgets started off with $11 million, then $16 million, then $21 million. The studio said the next one would cost $30 million to make and would earn about $25 million, so we were going in the wrong direction. We realized we could do it much more economically-it wouldn’t cost $140 million to make the picture with the technology we had now, and that was the motivating factor. We also felt there was enough interest to go back to that audience. The voices are all going to be dubbed overseas anyway. Does it matter to have such big names in the voice cast?
Gray: Actually, no. We’re going to dub it in 13 languages overseas, so it doesn’t matter. People don’t know some of these. Adults don’t know who Chris Evans is. They all gave us good performances. We really fought not to have big names. They are super voice actors, and they all worked well for the characters. Paul Wang, as producer, did you notice any cultural differences that had to be explained between director and crew in Hong Kong?
Wang: [Laughs.] Yes, there were Americanisms. Kevin speaks with a lot of slang, so it took a few meetings for them to accept that when Kevin said "cool," he wasn’t referring to temperature, but that he meant, "It’s approved."