With "Out of the Shadows," the brains behind the new live-action "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" film franchise had one mission: make a movie that would out-turtle the 2014 "TMNT" film. Because of that, the sequel almost acts as a soft reboot of the 2014 reboot; whereas the previous film established a different origin story for the four ninja brothers and a new take on Shredder, its follow-up plays things very close to the original cartoon series.
Based on the indie comic by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the late-'80s cartoon gave Shredder a boss in the brain-like alien Krang, along with two bumbling mutant henchmen: Bebop and Rocksteady. "Out of the Shadows" brings all those characters into the movie fold, along with the hockey-masked vigilante Casey Jones and mad scientist Baxter Stockman, for a result that is purposefully in line with what "Turtles" fans love about the franchise. And, as screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec revealed in an interview with CBR, that's exactly what they wanted to do.
CBR News: In some ways, this is the kind of movie a lot of fans of the cartoon really wanted way back in 1990 when the first film was released. It has Krang and Bebop and Rocksteady and Baxter Stockman -- it has all these characters. It's kind of a reboot of the 2014 reboot, in a way.
Josh Appelbaum: It is.
How was the decision made to really veer into the things that Turtles fans have always wanted to see for this film?
Appelbaum: That's so much how we thought of it. The first movie was -- it's intimidating to reboot such a beloved franchise. I think there was a lot -- I think everybody involved would agree, there was a lot of fear going into making that movie, and there was a lot of second-guessing. Ultimately, I think that it was led by fear in a lot of ways, making that movie.
This one was all about love for the franchise, just embracing all these incredible characters, the spirit of what these movies should be, and it was incredible to just be able to open up the toy chest --
Appelbaum: Literally! And totally, just saying, "Who are all your favorite characters? Let's put them in here." Let's capture the tone that's both true to the original cartoon but has little touches of the Eastman and Laird [comics], and just make the movie -- I mean, this is the movie we all wanted to make from the beginning.
Andre Nemec: Really finding the heart in the movie was important, because I think it's something the Eastman and Laird comics, the early ones, they're obviously much darker and grittier. But the cartoon, the thing that we all really remember about them is a family story where there's a lot of heart at the center of it, and you're allowed to laugh, all the time, at these guys. I think the inclusion of Bebop and Rocksteady as sort of comic relief in the movie, and bringing Krang in and bringing Casey in, who's a bit of his own fucked-up version of vigilante -- I think giving ourselves the opportunity to laugh during this movie was really the key thing. It was the real lesson that we took away from the first movie. Every time we found ourselves laughing while looking at the first movie in its final iteration, we were like, "We should have made more of that." In the second movie we did.
As writers on "Alias" and "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol," you have a background in the spy genre. Between characters going undercover and sneaking into places, I noticed that there are a number of spy elements in this film. What was it like bringing the Turtles more into that genre?
Appelbaum: It's funny because one of the things that appealed to us, because we do love that spy genre obviously -- the truth is that with the Turtles, because they live in the shadows and have to weave through society in their own way, that's part and parcel with the spy genre as well. It was sort of a natural balance of, like, spies live in the shadows, the Turtles live in the shadows, so you kind of have to find a little bit of flavor in this movie, and a little bit of that middle ground.
It's funny, because the sequence of them breaking into the police headquarters that's now played to that Elvis Presley song with April, that whole fun sequence, it was originally a much longer sequence. It was a real "Mission: Impossible," stepped-out --
Nemec: Proper break-in.
Appelbaum: -- proper break-in sequence. We turned it into this fun montage. When it was originally conceived, we were like, "Let's literally do our 'Ninja Turtle'/'Ghost Protocol' sequence." But when we got to it, let's just put music to it and speed it up. But we love being able to sort of mash a little bit of that into the Turtles.
Nemec: Part of the fun is doing that with these guys, where you know that nothing is going to go according to plan. They are such characters in that way, that somebody is not going to perform properly in the moment, which is only going to cause more chaos.
You're dealing with characters that are four times as big, physically, as spies like Ethan Hunt or Sydney Bristow.
Appelbaum: [Laughs] That was the whole thing, like getting through the vent ducts and stuff. It was like, having Raphael get stuck in there whereas Tom [Cruise] would just be weaving through there. To have these big guys with shells trying to get through there seemed funny to us.
There's also a really mature theme of self-acceptance throughout the movie. You don't often associate the Turtles with really deep explorations of theme like that. And not only the Turtles go through it -- Will Arnett's Vern does too. How did you weave that into the story?
Appelbaum: It was a very conscious thing to make. We kept saying, the Turtle franchise is elementally about two things: one is brotherhood and family, and the other is the underdog and feeling like a freak and being able to accept that or pivot away. We kind of decided to make that theme resonate, and yeah, we spent a lot of time figuring out how Vern's story would be about that. Even in its own way, Bebop and Rocksteady are one thing now becoming something else; everybody's sort of dealing with --
Nemec: Everybody's sort of dealing with the acceptance of who they are while at the beginning questioning a little bit of who they are, and are they comfortable in their own skin. Eastman had said something to us a while back when we were doing the first movie. He said when they were coming up with the name Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he and Laird, they had this conversation about whether they should include mutant and teenager, because they were like, those two words are synonymous. [Laughs] We thought it was really fascinating, because it really is like -- mutant is really sort of the theme of it, and when you're a teenager, you are in that weird place of, "I don't know how I fit in." So again, as Josh said, that became the guiding principle for us in this movie, for all the characters.
Appelbaum: Andrew [Form] and Brad [Fuller], the producers, focused on wanting us to make sure that this movie went deeper than the other ones, but I think people would've accepted it if we didn't have this layer in it. But again, for us, this movie was about -- the first one worked as well as it needed to, but this is the one where we have to win it at every single level, including a story that has some resonance to it.
This sequel was greenlit during the opening weekend of the first one. How quick was the turnaround on this script? I imagine it was tight.
Appelbaum: To mount a movie of this size this quickly was crazy. Again, we've known each other since the third grade, and we've worked together for 20 years. We've worked with Brad and Andrew before, we've had a great relationship [with them]. We felt fortunate that the first movie got us a sequel, and just said, let's work round the clock and ask the smart questions, learn from whatever mistakes we made, and just embrace this from a positive place.
Nemec: And to everybody's credit, we really shot the first draft of the movie that we wrote. It was constantly getting tweaked, adjusted, worked on, sequences getting bigger and smaller -- but we knew what the core story was. So every time we were trying to figure out stuff -- can we afford this sequence, or are we really going to shoot that scene? We lost that location -- it was a lot of, let's just remember what the guiding principle and theme of the movie is.
Appelbaum: A lot of times what happens in these movies is, they keep throwing the whole script out and starting over, so it was huge to just never veer away from the foundation of the script, as he said, and always making it better. But not saying, "Maybe the movie's about this now, maybe the movie's about that." We held tight to the structure and to the scenes.
Nemec: I think we first wrote, it was probably a 16-page sort of story of like, this is what the movie is. It really truly never veered from what that was in terms of where it wanted to start, what we wanted to evolve in the middle and how we wanted to close it out. To everybody's credit, allowing that process to happen --
Appelbaum: And by the way, the key thing was that idea of the purple ooze. As soon as we knew that question [of the Turtles possibly becoming human] was coming into the movie somewhere, let's not mess with anything that could mess with that, or jeopardize that. We knew that if that was just in there, it would make the whole thing --
Nemec: [The ooze] creates family conflict between the brothers. That was a big [idea] and we discovered as we continued to develop the movie that being able to play two bothers against two brothers really started to live in true family dynamic. Anybody that has a sibling can understand what goes on in a house when people aren't seeing eye to eye.
Not to get political or anything, but this Turtles movie feels like it's right for this political climate. That's a very weird sentence that I just said. When the four of them are presented with this --
Appelbaum: If you want to call it the first anti-Trump Turtles movie, you're perfectly welcome to. [Laughs] By the way -- please!
[Laughs] When the four of them are presented with this ooze that can turn them human, Splinter says all four of the Turtles bring their different viewpoints to this team. I'm like, "I wish our country could get together like a team." That deepness is, surprisingly, there in a Turtle movie. It really surprises me. [Laughs]
Appelbaum: That's awesome. We felt like, again, let's dig as deep as possible on this one, because we're lucky to be here. But again, it is so baked into the franchise. You have these four brothers with different personalities that somehow all --
Nemec: Sort of make one whole person.
Appelbaum: But that doesn't mean they have to think in one way.
Yeah! I can't believe I'm saying I had a political revelation during "Turtles." [Laughs]
Appelbaum: [Laughs] We're comfortable with that, if you wanna go with that!
Since this movie embraces the '80s cartoon as much as it does, do you foresee future "Turtles" sequels possibly embracing the other iterations of the franchise -- like the other two cartoon series, or even the live-action one?
Appelbaum: Oh, "The Next Mutation!" I think what we've discussed is that this sets the foundation for where the other movies, with the baseline, should go. We absolutely acknowledge that there are so many great iterations of the Turtles, so to be able to pull in some darker elements, some zanier elements, all that would be super fun. It's what's great about the franchise. It's an endless toy chest of things to pull from.
That's great -- thanks for your time!
Nemec: Love the headline! Love the headline.
Both: "The first anti-Trump 'Turtles' movie." [Laughs]
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows" opens in theaters on June 3