Director Jonathan Liebesman on the Origins of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Heroes and Villains

The Sherry Lansing Theater on the Paramount Pictures lot was host this week to a special preview of footage from director Jonathan Liebesman’s upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot. Two major scenes were showcased, the first emphasizing Megan Fox’s April O’Neil as the central protagonist (the turtles, it seems, are already in operation when the film begins) and the second offering some ninja action in a snowy mountain setting (a massive chase that involves Foot Soldiers, an 18-wheeler and turtles using their shells to luge). Since both scenes (totaling roughly eight minutes of footage) are set to be shown during the studio’s Comic-Con panel on Thursday, July 24, we’re going to go light on footage details. We did, however, get the chance to chat with Liebesman and producer Andrew Form just after the screening and got quite a few details about what fans can expect from the August 8 release as well as potential future entries in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise.

“[The tone] was the hardest thing about the movie,” says Form. “…That’s why we picked these pieces to show… It’s amazing how well the personalities come through in these characters.”

“I think for me, the touchstones were April O’Neil, Shredder, the Turtles and Splinter,” says Liebesman, who grew up watching the original cartoon series in South Africa. “Make sure we see how they become turtles. Make sure they’re mutants. Make sure there’s pizza.”

Although the new looks for the heroes in the half-shell have already created a bit of a divide amongst the fandom, Liebesman wants audiences to rest assured that these are still the turtles they know and love. Both scenes were littered with quippy one-liners tied to each of the turtles’ personalities, lightly updated for present day. Donatello, for instance, is quite a big fan of the internet (and cat videos!) and has designed a technology rig on the back of his shell that gives him New York’s most powerful mobile internet connection in New York City.

“I think he’s just your typical teenager,” says Liebesman of the purple-masked hero. “Well, maybe not typical. But he’s still a massive geek who lives in his basement and has the most powerful internet connection in all of New York City. You can’t tell in what you saw, but he has these Nintendo keypads that he’s rigged into this little miniature holographic thing. He’s totally geeked out and invented his own equipment. In my head, he’s got these solar powered sort of ninja outfit. It’s solar powered so it can power all the gear on his back. He has a whole bunch of stuff.”

Even though there are only four reptilian stars, the film actually has six major CGI characters when you include Splinter and Shredder.

“William Fichtner isn’t Shredder,” Liebesman teases. “[Fichtner] is Eric Sachs. Shredder is played by another actor. He’s not all CG. You see him without his armor on. When he’s in the armor, there’s an actor, but he’s been augmented. Like in ‘Iron Man,’ it’s CGI.”

“He’s maybe wearing the shoulder pads and then we extend the suit everywhere,” adds Form. “There was a helmet that could be worn, but most of it is done in the computer.”

And, of course, there will be pizza.

“I was online and saw someone asking, ‘Is pizza in the movie?'” laughs Form. “You’ll see the world’s most operatic pizza scene committed to CGI.”

Although fans have been worried that the turtles’ origins would be radically altered for the new film, Liebesman says that the alterations we will see on the big screen will be slight.

“They do become mutants because of Mutagen,” says Liebesman (who says that the film will not include the exact “Daredevil”-inspired origin from the comic). “For me, as a fan, it’s a very satisfying origin. We discussed, ‘Should we do the exact Eastman thing?’ The problem is, it becomes very complicated. People who aren’t fans will just be like, ‘What the f– is going on?’ There’s already so much complication in terms of Splinter being formed because he was Shredder’s nemesis who stole his girlfriend. It’s just that then you start opening a whole bunch of doors that became very complex to explore in this film.”

The expanded worlds and characters of the franchise are being eyed, too, although it may take a sequel before we get to see certain characters realized on the big screen.

“[T]he thing there is that we had a very ambitious first draft,” Liebesman explains when asked if there might be any hint of the expanded Turtles multiverse (which has, in the past, actually crossed over characters between franchise reboots). “If we get to explore things further, there’s a lot of what I think you’re talking about.”

“There are also lot of characters in the canon that we would really, really love to work with,” adds Form. “…We wanted more. When we were doing concept art for the characters, obviously, we can’t afford every character in the first thing. But we definitely have drawings of them all!”

The pair also said that the film will run just under 100 minutes and promised that we “might even hear” some of the original cartoon’s theme song in some manner. The end credits, too, will offer a “very, very fun song.” Mostly, though, their primary goal is to capture the overall tone of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and deliver it in a manner that will palatable for new audiences.

“When you come to the movie,” Form says, “you don’t need to know anything about the Ninja Turtles and when you leave, you’ll know everything.”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hits the big screen August 8. You can check out two new TV spots below.