‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’ Director Jeff Rowe on Rejecting the “Grounded” Trend and That ‘Avengers’ Reference

‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem’ Director Jeff Rowe on Rejecting the “Grounded” Trend and That ‘Avengers’ Reference

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem director Jeff Rowe has pulled off an increasingly rare feat, as his latest entry in the Turtles franchise has been extremely well-received by both critics and audiences.

Rowe was the co-director on Mike Rianda’s Oscar-nominated The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller highly recommended him to Mutant Mayhem producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg before Mitchells was even released. Rowe and Rogen quickly bonded over films such as Jurassic Park (1993), and so they were off and running on the three-year project.

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Naturally, in a post-Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) world, comparisons between the two New York City films were inevitable, but Rowe sees it less from a stylistic standpoint and more from a spiritual one. Spider-Verse gave Mutant Mayhem license to take more chances, opting for a more rough-around-the-edges look.

“The first Spider-Verse really opened a lot of doors,” Rowe tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It really made it okay for studios to take chances on a film looking unique and maybe having a little bit more sophistication and emotional maturity in its storytelling. And it was such a seismic shift that it became expected. Suddenly, making movies that look like the style of CG animation over the past 30 years felt dated.”

Initially, Rowe and his collaborators thought of taking a more grounded approach to this new iteration of Ninja Turtles, but they ultimately decided to embrace the franchise for what it’s always been.

“There’s been a little bit of a trend with superhero films, and it probably really kicked off with Batman Begins, but it’s to take the preposterous elements of the franchise and the lore and make them black and tactical and grounded and whatever the realistic version is,” Rowe says. “And so we had thought about that early on, like, ‘Okay, how would you actually strap a sword to yourself and do these things?’ And we were like, ‘That’s just not the Ninja Turtles. They’re wacky. The designs are silly. That playfulness is what I loved about it as a kid, so let’s embrace that.’”

In the new film, the Turtles have grown tired of living in the shadowy sewers of New York City, as they desperately want to lead a typical teenage existence in high school. So they hatch a plan to save the city from Superfly’s (Ice Cube) evil plan in hopes that their authentic selves will be welcomed into the human world. The teenagers developed this belief through pop culture, namely Avengers: Endgame, as The Hulk’s heroic deeds have made the Green Monster more approachable on the street.

If their justification sounds oddly specific, it’s because it’s the same reasoning that Rowe, Rogen and their collaborators came up with when trying to explain why the Turtles would ever believe they’d be accepted by human beings.

“Seth was like, ‘Oh, I’m sure they’ve  seen Avengers,’” Rowe says. “And for them, it’s like, ‘The Hulk saves the world (in Avengers: Endgame), so no one’s scared of him, and he can take selfies with people in a diner.’ And then when it came time to record the kids debating this decision, we were like, ‘We should just have them use the exact argument that we’re using in our story discussions. Let’s have the kids say that.’”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Rowe also discusses the great lengths that he and Rogen went to in order to retain the services of composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. 

So how did it feel to take center stage at Comic-Con? It was all on your shoulders.

Awful. (Laughs.) Horrible. Terrifying. People like me become animators to not be in the spotlight and to not have attention on them. So it was nerve-wracking, but it was a really good room with a lot of really dedicated fans. This franchise means so much to them, and it’s really exciting to share this with them. Hopefully, they approve it. Hopefully, we’ve done right by them, and they like it. But to be met with that kind of response (at Comic-Con) was really exciting and validating after a three-year filmmaking process.

DONNIE, LEO, RAPH and MIKEY in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES MUTANT MAYHEM

DONNIE, LEO, RAPH and MIKEY in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

Courtesy of PARAMOUNT PICTURES and NICKELODEON MOVIES

So Phil Lord and Chris Miller recommended you for this on the heels of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, but apparently, you felt like you bombed both your meetings. In hindsight, do you think you were just getting in your own head about it? 

Oh, a million percent. I live in my own head. The Mitchells vs. the Machines wasn’t out yet, and in a lot of those meetings, I would talk to James Weaver, one of the (Point Grey) producers on the film. And he’d be like, “Hi, nice to meet you …” And then he’d look at the name and say, “Jeff.” (Laughs.) And then I’d hear him start to play The Mitchells vs. the Machines trailer in the background, and it was clear that he had no idea who I was or what I had worked on. But thankfully, (Mitchells) had a good trailer, and people were like, “Okay, this guy seems like he’s not a turkey.”

And then they just kept moving me along until I met with Seth (Rogen) and Evan (Goldberg). We really connected about wanting the same things out of the film and caring about naturalism and character and emotion, first and foremost. Seth and I have very similar taste in film, so it was always easy to relate to him or be like, “We need to try something like this.” He was always very receptive, and I left that final meeting thinking, “That might have gone well.” And it did.

Phil and Chris also produced Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). Did that film give you guys some added confidence that you could get weird and take even more risks? 

100 percent. The first Spider-Verse really opened a lot of doors. It really made it okay for studios to take chances on a film looking unique and maybe having a little bit more sophistication and emotional maturity in its storytelling. And it was such a seismic shift that it became expected. Suddenly, making movies that look like the style of CG animation over the past 30 years felt dated. And so they really paved the way for what will hopefully be a huge generation of new filmmakers with very unique expressions.

Looking back, I appreciate the fact that the kids’ movies I watched growing up had a bit of darkness. Who Framed Roger Rabbit had Judge Doom. Back to the Future Part II had Old Biff, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) had plenty of that with Shredder. So I’m glad your film has a splash of darkness as well. How deep did these conversations go as far as having a healthy amount of darkness?

We weren’t like, “Let’s make the film dark,” but we would always operate from a place of story. We were always trying to tell a story that felt true and emotionally honest, and in the opening of the film, there isn’t a joke in the first five minutes. So it’s just a compelling scene, and that felt narratively right. It felt like the right way to execute that was to not cram it full of jokes. We even had a couple jokes in there at one point and we were like, “We actually have to cut these out because they’re ruining the tone.” 

Seth and I would talk about how much we loved Jurassic Park as kids, and we saw it when we were probably too young to see it. And the opening of that film is terrifying to a five-year-old, but it imprinted on me. It’s still one of my favorite films, and it’s because it took those chances. It’s because it felt like I was getting away with something as a kid by seeing it, and Seth said, “The great thing about Jurassic Park is that it’s a monster movie for kids. This should be a monster movie for kids.” And then we started leaning into that more and not shying away from it. 

When you guys eventually broke the news to the studio that Shredder would not be the villain of this film, did you cite cases like Chris Nolan saving the Joker for The Dark Knight?

That was our whole argument. We were like, “Look, if we do it here, then the next movie can make a billion dollars. Don’t we all want a billion dollars?” (Laughs.) The sales-y argument and the story argument was that Shredder is a big character when he’s on screen. He demands a lot of presence, and he takes up so much space in the story. So it was too much space in a movie where we’re also trying to reintroduce a new generation of Turtles and get audiences on board with this iteration. And having them meet not the ultimate villain, but a villain that’s more on their level, it really made a lot of story pieces come together. It helped us make the film that we ended up making. 

Was the Avengers reference a tough sell to the studio as well?

No, that was fine. It was just funny. There’s so many of those things that we would just do, like the cold open. We would just do it and then we would show them that it worked in the execution. And then it was like, “Well, we can’t say no to that. It’s working, it’s getting a laugh in this test screening.” But that Avengers reference, we were talking about this story point, like, “Why do the Turtles think that this will be successful?” And I think Seth was like, “Oh, I’m sure they’ve  seen Avengers.” And for them, it’s like, “The Hulk saves the world (in Avengers: Endgame), so no one’s scared of him, and he can take selfies with people in a diner.” And then when it came time to record the kids debating this decision, we were like, “We should just have them use the exact argument that we’re using in our story discussions. Let’s have the kids say that.”

Did Paramount feel even better about the Avengers reference once you told them the manner in which you’d present your choice for “Best Chris”? (Writer’s Note: Chris Pine, in standee form as Paramount’s Captain Kirk, was named the “Best Chris” by Splinter.)

(Laughs.) Those were so unrelated, but then they came together, yeah. 

When Seth worked on The Lion King, he learned the difference that recording with your scene partners can make, so he told me that you guys followed suit as often as possible. Is that your preferred way to do it now, versus merging separate sessions together?

I can’t go back. I love John Cassavetes and Robert Altman’s films, and I love when a lot of people are talking at once. It feels so much like real life. And going into animation, I was like, “Well, that’s a thing we’ll never be able to do.” But now, with this film, we recorded like that, and it has that natural feeling. It feels improvised. It feels like friends hanging out, and everything else feels rigid by comparison. So, going forward, I can’t ever imagine not doing a film this way.

SUPERFLY in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES MUTANT MAYHEM

SUPERFLY in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

Courtesy of PARAMOUNT PICTURES and NICKELODEON MOVIES

Your villain is Superfly and he’s voiced by Ice Cube. Did Cube have a laugh when you asked him to quote Ice-T’s “​​6 ‘n the Mornin’”?

No, that was his pitch! We had some dumb line. There was something silly in the script. He ripped open the door and was like, “It’s fly time!” or whatever. And I was just like, “This is stupid. Can you try something here?” And then he offered that. It was his improv. We were like, “Great, let’s go legally clear it, but that’s so funny and it needs to be in the movie.”

You also dropped 4 Non Blondes “What’s Up,” and it made for a really incredible moment, especially the gag that’s timed to the chorus lyric by way of a windshield. For the gag, did somebody have a eureka moment well after you decided to use the song? 

No, the gag came first. Originally, we knew they had to drive and that we were gonna jettison them. I don’t know if we even had a singalong, but we were recording Paul Rudd and we were like, “What if they’re all singing a song together? Let’s try something. Can you sing the Dawson’s Creek theme song?” And we did that, so we had a version of it that was the Dawson’s Creek theme song. And then we were like, “I don’t know if that’s right. Let’s try other songs. Paul, what songs do you know?” And  then Seth pitched “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes, and then Paul really took to that and really started singing it. And we were like, “This is really funny. Let’s get John Cena and the kids to do it, too.” And then we eventually got all of the actors to do a version of that, but it was half-found through improvisation.

Pop culture is a key part of this film, and you included moments of live-action footage from various movies and shows. Is live-action to this world what animation is to us? Is live-action their version of animation?

That’s a good question, and I never thought about that. That’s a good explanation that I think I’m gonna lean into now. If I answer that question honestly with what I’ve always assumed in my brain, it is an insane answer, but in the world of the film, when they look at live-action, I think they see their own animated version of it. And I don’t know why I think that, and I don’t even know if that makes sense.

When I was kid, you were nobody if you didn’t have the Turtle Blimp. Do you think there’s a way to incorporate the Turtle Blimp into your world? Or is it too over the top? 

There’s been a little bit of a trend with superhero films, and it probably really kicked off with Batman Begins, but it’s to take the preposterous elements of the franchise and the lore and make them black and tactical and grounded and whatever the realistic version is. And so we had thought about that early on, like, “Okay, how would you actually strap a sword to yourself and do these things?” And we were like, “That’s just not the Ninja Turtles. They’re wacky. The designs are silly. That playfulness is what I loved about it as a kid, so let’s embrace that. Let’s be really grounded with New York, and then in an environment like TCRI, let’s make it look like the Technodrome.” It’s a dated, aging technology environment anyway, so it kind of makes sense. And if we found a way to make the Pizza Van make sense, then there’s definitely room to make a Turtle Blimp make sense within our own internal logic. 

LEO, MIKEY, RAPH and DONNIE in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES MUTANT MAYHEM

Leo, Mike, Raph and Donnie in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

Courtesy of PARAMOUNT PICTURES and NICKELODEON MOVIES

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, are they secret fans of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? 

(Laughs.) They love it so much. They were like, “Don’t tell anyone in the press,” but it’s their favorite thing. No, I think they had no interest in Ninja Turtles, but they were fans of The Mitchells vs. the Machines, and they’re fans of Seth’s movies. Our music supervisor, Gabe Hilfer, knows their manager and was able to get us a meeting with them, and I think they took it just based on being fans of our previous work. So we showed them a lot of concept artwork and just talked about what we were trying to do with it, artistically. And they were like, “Okay, cool. Let’s see a script or a version of the movie or something.” And we were like, “Yep, yep, we’ll send it to you any minute.” And then Seth and I were like, “We have to rewrite this. We have to make this better. If our favorite composers are going to read this, then now is the time to change anything that we have doubts about in the story. Let’s really try to make it bulletproof and put our best foot forward.” So we did a whole round of rewriting just based on them potentially composing it. 

Is the voice behind Scumbug still a secret?

No, I believe Scumbug is credited as Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls, but sometimes, it’s me doing it. It’s a blend of different voices, and our sound designer, Mark Mangini, also added some digital stuff. So it’s heavily processed, but it’s really Alex’s performance. He brought so much to the character.

I appreciated the ‘90s rap soundtrack, and that’s something that Paramount’s latest Transformers movie also leaned into for its 90s-set movie. Was there ever any overlap? Did anyone have to say, “Sorry, guys, Rise of the Beasts just used this”?

There was one. We had LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” in one screening of the movie at one point, and they were like, “Ah, maybe don’t use that. Transformers is using that in a prominent way.” I haven’t seen it yet, so I don’t know if they did end up using that or not. 

They did.

Well, that was pretty much it. The film had to take place in 2023, but it feels like a ‘90s property to me. So the soundtrack was a way to evoke those feelings of nostalgia without making the movie a period piece, if that makes sense.

Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing about the making of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, what day will you likely recall first? 

Oh man, there’s so many. The first record with Ice Cube was so exciting. It was one of those days where the movie really came alive and it felt like it could be something. He came in and he was kind of quiet and cautious, and we’re like, “Does he want to be doing this? Did he just say, ‘Why am I here?’” He almost seemed like he was low energy or something, and we were like, “What’s going on?” And then he got on the microphone, and the first line that he delivered was so funny and intense and energetic. I felt how people probably felt watching Robin Williams do Genie for Aladdin. It was so exciting. We were all looking at each other, saying, “Are you hearing this? This is incredible.” And it was. 

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.