The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been in a wide variety of adaptations, from video games to cartoons to TV shows. One of the most popular adaptations is the first live-action TMNT film which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Today Comic-Con@Home held a panel to discuss the history of the film. The panel’s guest included TMNT producer Kim Dawson and screenwriter Bobby Herbeck. The Old Turtle Den’s Chris Castenada served as a moderator.
Dawson recalled how he became involved with the project. He had previously served as a producer for several Showtime television shows. Gary Propper, one of Dawson’s fellow producer, discovered the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman; Propper was insistent that the comic could be the next big film. Dawson remembered asking Propper “What are you smoking?” However, Dawson read the comic and warmed up to the idea.
Dawson then met with Mark Freeman, who had signed a merchandising deal with Laird and Eastman. After “protracted negotiation” a deal was signed for the film rights. Dawson had learned of Herbeck’s comedy writing and decided he would be a perfect fit for the film. “This is a timing story,” Herbeck said. “Kim’s timing, Gary’s timing, everyone’s timing was perfect.” Herbeck was writing a script for the Golden Harvest production company; Golden Harvest worked on several Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films.
Dawson then began pitching TMNT to studios. His first call was to Peter Chernin, who told him “Are you guys out of your minds?” Tom Gray, the then-head of Golden Harvest production, had a similar reaction. At the time, Howard the Duck had come out to a critical drubbing. Nobody in Hollywood wanted to make a comic book film, a prospect that seems unimaginable at this point.
Herbeck said that what tipped the scales in TMNT‘s favor was the 1987 animated series, which younger viewers were engaged in viewing. Gray, who had two children, was convinced to finally support the film. However, there was a matter of budget. Golden Harvest was looking to cut costs, so the Turtles were portrayed by stuntmen.
Another selling point was the 1988 New York Toy Fair, which showcased the Turtle costumes and action figures. “It created a huge storm of publicity,” Dawson said. Herbeck and Dawson finally met Laird and Eastman who told them “Go for it.” Laird and Eastman had multiple meetings over Herbeck’s treatment for the film; ultimately they settled on an acceptable story.
TMNT was directed by Steve Barron, who also helmed Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video and The Dark Crystal. In the summer of 1988, a deal was closed and Herbeck went to England with Barron to work on the film.
Dawson was still looking for a studio to distribute the film. He even reached out to 20th Century Fox, but that fell through when the studio switched heads. He also recalls future Quibi head Jeffery Katzenberg saying “It’ll never work” when seeing the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles poster. Ultimately New Line Cinema would act as the U.S. distributor.
Castenada recalled his first memory of watching the film when he was young. “I was about three years old when it came out,” he said. “Summers and vacations with cousins and friends years after…that movie went in the VHS players, parents ordered pizza, it was just non stop memories.”
The movie was a smashing success when it premiered, scoring a $25 million opening weekend. “None of us thought that thirty years later that we would be celebrating, let alone still be here to talk about it thirty years later!” Herbeck exclaimed. “This thing is still as strong as ever…it’s just gone to the next generation. Thank God. It’s a blessing.”
“Things like this happen for a reason. For me, it’s back to when Gary got that comic because without that we wouldn’t have even known about it.” Dawson added. “It’s like Bobby said, it’s all an issue of timing. Everything fell in place just the right way.”
The panel then concluded with a round of fan questions. Dawson and Herbeck discussed their favorite scene in the movie, their favorite Turtle, and addressed the idea of a reboot of the original film.
You can watch the full panel here.
Collier “CJ” Jennings is a freelance reporter and film critic living in Seattle. He uses his love of comics and film/TV to craft reviews and essays on genre projects. He is also a host on Into the Spider-Cast.