This Movie Was Hell: 4 Ways ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Was A Nightmare In A Half Shell
We all know the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the loveable quartet of mutants who made every ‘90s kid want to learn martial arts and/or eat Domino’s pizza in a dank subterranean corridor surrounded by human feces. While you may fondly remember the Turtles from the original comics, the cartoon series, or their attempts to murder the medium of music, it’s doubtful that the characters would have endured to the same degree if not for their transition to movies. But bringing the Ninja Turtles to the big screen was about as smooth as Shredder’s shoulder pads, starting with how …
No Studio Wanted To Make The Movie (Because Of Howard The Duck)
The first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie began, not in some fancy studio boardroom, but with a “surfer dude” named Gary Propper who became “obsessed” with the idea of turning the cult comic books into a feature film. Unfortunately for Gary, he wasn’t the President of a major film studio, he was the road manager for this friggin’ guy:
Yup, Gallagher’s roadie was the one who came up with the idea to make a Ninja Turtles movie, presumably because cavorting with sewer mutants was a step-up from working with a deranged homophobe whose “act” consisted only of pointing out that sledgehammers are a thing. Propper, plus one of Gallagher’s producers, and another comedian, teamed up to pitch the project – but no studio wanted to touch it. Why? Because Howard the Duck had just come out and bombed, meaning that nobody was keen to invest any money in the “giant talking animal who has the hots for a human woman” genre.
Eventually they convinced Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest, known for its martial arts films, to pony up some money, after the head of production realized that the film could be made for “peanuts” with “four of our Chinese stuntmen in rubber suits.” But rather than throw together a handful of Halloween costumes, director Steve Barron gave the job to Jim “I made your childhood magical” Henson, after convincing the legendary puppeteer that it “wouldn’t damage his legacy.”
Adding Henson to the mix ballooned the film’s budget. They eventually cobbled together the funds from New Line Cinema and producer Raymond Chow less than 10 days before filming began. And speaking of those pricey turtle costumes …
The Turtle Suits Were Basically Rubber Torture Devices
While you might not guess it from the rotting monstrosities being auctioned off these days, the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costumes were positively state-of-the-art; the radio-controlled animatronic faces were powered by giant batteries hidden in the turtle shells, and manipulated by puppeteers wielding a vast array of controls, including an infrared sensor that would mimic their lips as they spoke.
While the suits looked amazing, they were a tad less fun for the actors. The suits were obviously heavy and claustrophobia-inducing – but on top of that, the production decided to shoot most of the film, not in New York City, but in North Carolina. According to Kenn Scott, one of the Raphael performers, this was because it was a “right-to-work” state, meaning that, unlike in L.A., they could “hire non-union workers at non-union rates.” As Judith Hoag, who played April O’Neil, recalled the produciton would routinely bring in non-union Hong Kong stuntmen and “as soon as they were injured, they were shipped out of there,” adding: “It was not the safest set to be on.”
So while the filmmakers may have saved some money through this labor relations loophole, making the movie in the South meant that it was very hot for the guys in giant rubber Turtle suits. Reportedly, the extreme heat caused the "experimental" tech in the turtle heads to “malfunction.” So cooling systems were installed – but even so, the “poorly air-conditioned” soundstage reached temperatures of around 105 degrees. Some performers claimed to have lost “about twenty pounds during the shoot.” Also sweat “broke down the rubber” requiring frequent repairs and limb changes. Cowabunga?
The Sequel’s Rushed Schedule Created Even More Problems
Worried that America might suddenly come to the realization that they didn’t want to invest any more money in watching the adventures of several enlarged hormonal reptiles, once Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a massive hit at the box office, producers crapped out a sequel as quickly as humanly possible. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze came out less than a year after the original.
The follow-up had some major changes; Hoag wasn’t brought back to reprise her role of April because, according to the actress, the producers found her “too demanding” after she pointed out that the film was a tad violent. But Hoag’s concerns were somewhat vindicated by the massive backlash from parents and medical professionals, who found the Turtles’ exploits to be too … “kinky”? Really?
According to producer Tom Gray, as a result of the “pressure” from parents – and also, perhaps more consequentially, the “toy company” – they pivoted to a lighter tone for the sequel. Which explains why the Turtles never actually use their weapons, and why Michelangelo is forced to MacGyver a pair of nunchucks out of deli meats.
The rushed schedule also meant that the filmmakers “cut corners,” and many of the problems from the first movie weren’t rectified; the costumes were still about as comfortable as a sandpaper jockstrap, and during one scene, the Turtles mouths couldn’t even work because the puppeteers were using the same radio frequency as a nearby airport – hopefully no planes crashed because someone kept trying to make Donatello shout “tubular.” Even Vanilla Ice allegedly didn’t learn the words to his stupid rap, holding up production until they could fully capture what would become, at the risk of hyperbole, the dumbest thing in the history of moving pictures – actually, second-dumbest, after that other Vanilla Ice movie.
And one of the most disappointing aspects of the film for kids at the time, was the fact that the two villainous mutants our heroes had to face off against weren’t Bebop and Rocksteady, who everybody knew from the toyline and the cartoon, but rather … Tokka and Rahzar?
Ninja Turtles co-creator Peter Laird has stated that this was because they found Bebop and Rocksteady to be “extremely annoying and silly” in the comic. But Gray claims that it was purely a “business decision” since creating new characters meant that the filmmakers “would get a piece of the royalty.” So they literally just “threw together” Tokka and Rahzar based on whatever the Henson Creature Shop was able to do – which perhaps explains why, instead of two wholly new animals, Tokka was just another goddamn turtle. And as for the next entry …
The Third Movie Ruined Itself For The Dumbest Reason
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III finds the gang traveling back in time to feudal Japan – which at least meant that there was virtually no way Vanilla Ice could pop by again. Why such a drastic change of setting? According to Gray, it was simply because they were “aiming something at the Japanese market” because it was “the number one market for foreign films.”
Unfortunately, the high production costs necessitated by the epic story is likely what contributed to the film’s worst decision: not re-hiring the Jim Henson Creature Shop to create the Turtle suits. Instead the job was handed to a (cheaper) company called All Effects, after their “low bid” couldn’t be matched by Henson’s company. Not surprisingly, the quality of the costumes is substantially worse.
This is probably because All Effects attempted to recreate what Henson’s company had done (for less money) by literally watching VHS tapes of the first two movies, and reading magazine articles about the making of the films. And after all that, the movie still wasn’t released in Japan …
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Thumbnail: New Line Cinema