Jeff Rowe thanks you — and pretty much everyone else — for your low expectations.
“I think what happens a lot is people are like, ‘That’s actually good,’” the director of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem laughs in a new interview with Yahoo Entertainment. “Which I think for some people might be insulting, but I’m like, ‘Yeah, exactly right.’”
Indeed, the stylistically animated adventure pitting teen turtle vigilantes Donatello, Michaelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael against a gang of nefarious mutants has left many a viewer (and critic) shellshocked over how totally tubular it is. No disrespect to the those favorites from the early ’90s, but maybe our collective low bar has to do with the fact that we’re not used to Turtles movies being great. The seventh movie based on the Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird-created comics — after the early ’90s live-action trilogy, there was 2007’s animated TMNT followed by two Michael Bay-produced, Megan Fox co-starring CGI fests in 2014 and 2016 — Mutant Mayhem is the first to score a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an impressive 96% approval rating to boot.
Fans loved it, too. Mutant Mayhem has a 90% audience score, and was a veritable box-office hit, grossing $180 million on a budget of $70 million. There is even legit Oscar buzz for a potential nod in the Best Animated Feature category, certainly the first Turtles movie to be in that conversation.
So how did Rowe (The Mitchells vs. the Machines) and company pull it off? The director sheds some light on how Mutant Mayhem became a monster success.
Hire Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg as co-writers and producers to make it super funny
Want to make your film hilarious? Hiring the minds behind Superbad, Pineapple Express, Sausage Party and Good Boys is a good start.
“They are devastatingly funny,” the director says of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who entered the project early as producers and received screenplay credit with Rowe, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit. “It's frustrating just how readily or quickly they can say something that’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard. … [They] just exude comedy all the time.”
It was also Rogen’s idea to hire actual teenagers for once as the Turtles, tapping the quick-witted but relatively unknown young actors Micah Abbey (Donatello), Shamon Brown Jr. (Michaelangelo), Nicolas Cantu (Leonardo) and Brady Noon (Raphael), and encouraging them to riff together in the sound booth as normal teens would.
“Seth would come to all of the recordings with the kids and we would just rewrite things live in the room,” Rowe says. “So if one of the kids would do an impersonation of a New Yorker, then Seth would be like, ‘That’s funny, everybody do an impersonation of a New Yorker.’ And then they all just start talking about bacon, egg and cheeses, and we just watch them riff for two minutes and we’re like, ‘OK, that’s got to go in the film. Why edit that?’ We would find bits in the room or funny lines to feed the turtles, and it was very on our feet and improvisational.”
Rewrite until it’s right
Rowe says early versions of the script looked drastically different.
“In the very first draft of the film, the turtles got to high school on page 30 of the script, and the last two-thirds of the movie was like them in high school dealing with high school problems,” he says, noting that mad scientist Baxter Stockman (Giancarlo Esposito) was originally “a teacher who was trying to get their blood to make ooze work.”
The central plot, though, was essentially TMNT meets Superbad. “It was just like turtles in high school. That’s what the movie was sold as. That’s what Paramount bought. That’s what we were all signing up to do.
“The whole thing was the turtles wanted to go to high school and be normal, and then they basically got exactly what they wanted way too early in the movie. So way too late in the process, we realized this is a fundamental flaw that’s going to break the movie. We have to change this. And we essentially had to rewrite the script in 48 hours to not blow our deadline, our release date. And that’s when we kind of got into the shape of what we have now. And then we kept rewriting it after that. But that was the big pivot point.”
What they ended up with was the turtles meeting April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), reimagined as a fellow teen, after taking out a gang of criminals who have stolen her moped, and being drawn into a plot led by their mastermind Superfly (Ice Cube) to mutate every animal in the world and dominate the human race. It’s not until the final minutes that the turtles finally do get their wish and enroll in April’s high school.
Recruit a star-studded cast — and agree to Paul Rudd’s hilarious demand
The film’s all-star voice cast included Jackie Chan (Splinter), Maya Rudolph (Cynthia Utrom), John Cena (Rocksteady), Rogen (Bebop), Rose Byrne (Leatherhead), Hannibal Buress (Genghis Frog), Post Malone (Ray Fillet), David Faustino (Normal Nate), and the aforementioned Cube and Esposito.
“Everyone really, really was so funny and so collaborative and so improvisational and it was a delight to work with everyone,” says Rowe, who noted they had to reel in Cube from constantly cursing while ad-libbing the PG-rated movie.
“It’s an honor. I think he’s really going places,” Rowe cracks about the 54-year-old Ant-Man and Anchorman star. “I think I got my eye on him. People are going to be knowing who he is in a few years.”
So how did the gag come about? “That was a demand from him,” Rowe says genuinely. "That was him trolling us the way he trolls Conan O’Brien with Mac and Me clips. He is a bit of a prankster and it’s very funny.
“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that, but yes. That was his joke stipulation in the contract.”
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" director Jeff Rowe says Paul Rudd made it a contractual demand that his credit read "Introducing Paul Rudd."#MutantMayhem @TMNTMovie pic.twitter.com/TDSPla354x
— Kevin Polowy (@djkevlar) November 7, 2023
Give it a fresh animation style that you could call “intentionally flawed”
“We kind of based it on teenage drawings, like what you do in the margins of a notebook when you’re supposed to be paying attention in class, and all the built-in flaws that come with that,” Rowe says of the film’s distinctive look, which the director wanted to appear more like concept art than sleek computer animation.
“Where it’s like you don’t really know how to draw shapes, so things are misshapen and asymmetrical. And sometimes you're like, ‘I’m going to draw a cityscape, but, whoa, that’s so many buildings.’ So you get really lazy about drawing the ones in the background. So depth of field in our film, instead of being photographic bokeh, is drawings just get worse the further away from camera that they get, which is a unique approach. So it’s all kind of based on the mistakes you make drawing as a human. It’s like human fallibility is the style.”
Enhance the film with a throwback ’90s hip-hop soundtrack
It also felt like Mutant Mayhem was part of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary celebration with a series of head-nodding needle drops that included M.O.P., De Le Soul, Blackstreet, Ol Dirty Bastard and A Tribe Called Quest.
“I just love ’90s hip-hop,” Rowe says. “I think the movie had to be contemporary. It had to be set in the 2020s, but the franchise lives in my mind as a late-’80s, early-’90s thing, and it was a chance to evoke the nostalgia of ’90s New York without having to actually set the film there. And it just gave it this kind of tone and flavor that people have really responded to.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is currently streaming on Paramount+ and is available for rent and download from major digital providers. The film will be on sale Dec. 12 on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD.