Director/co-writer Jeff Rowe delivers a banner reboot of beloved characters with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, which uses stunning CGI animation to tell an action-packed and humorous origin story. The turtles, now voiced by young actors, are outcasts trying to find a sense of normalcy and belonging in vibrant New York City. They ignore warnings from their concerned adopted father, the mutant rat Splinter (Jackie Chan), and decide to fight a surging crime wave. Who doesn’t love a hero? They encounter an intrepid high school journalist, April O’Neil (Ayo Edebiri), and battle Superfly (Ice Cube), who’s hellbent on destroying humanity.
Rowe described the eye-popping visuals as “passionately imperfect.” The filmmakers wanted to “commit and take these big swings towards ideas that are flawed.” They “ignore the formal principal of art” to “emulate” the way teenagers “think and draw before they’ve been taught.” Rowe tells a “coming-of-age story” with “dynamic” and “more exciting angles.” He credited Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who co-wrote the script and produced, for “investing in the characters” and making them “real” and “logical.” He confirmed the successful duo are “good observers,” adding that it was “incredible” to “collaborate with them and pitch ideas.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is an urban film that embraces a diverse New York City. A killer hip-hop fueled soundtrack from Oscar-winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is joined by a major change to an integral character. April O’Neil becomes a Black teen and not a “weird mom” character. She is “one of the kids” and “able to relate with them. Rowe is “wholly unconcerned” if people don’t like her for ugly reasons. He comments that potential haters need to “investigate their own thoughts.”
Our interview took place shortly after the SAG-AFTRA union went on strike. He “100% supports” the actors and writers fighting for fair compensation, and declares “the inconvenience of doing [press] alone is a small price to pay for better conditions.” Read on for our full interview with Jeff Rowe.
Four Brothers Coming-Of-Age
MovieWeb: I was blown away by the animation. How would you describe the way the film looks?
Jeff Rowe: I stumbled on a phrase earlier that I think I’m going to run with — passionately imperfect. We really commit and take these big swings towards ideas that are misshapen, flawed, and ignore the formal principles of art. It’s trying to emulate teenagers, the way they think, draw, and make art before they’ve been taught to make better art. It’s just raw, unfiltered expression.
MW: The turtles, when they’re together, look like claymation. But when they have these awesome fight scenes, especially when facing Superfly, they’re bigger than life and really fluid. Speaking to a layman, how is that process? Is that something that’s been done before, or new state-of-the-art technology?
Jeff Rowe: Part of it is the camerawork. When they’re just hanging out, we’re shaky-cam, experiential, you’re just kind of a fly on the wall hanging out with these four people. When they switch into action mode, when they’re doing a good job, the filmmaking is improving in conjunction with them. We get more dynamic with the angles and try to get more exciting. I think all the techniques, both in the visual look and editing, are just there to support the story of these four brothers coming-of-age, and trying to find their place in the world.
MW: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are so funny. Talk about them as producers and working together to write the script. TMNT fans are going to be surprised. This is radically different from anything we’ve seen before.
Jeff Rowe: It was such a dream come true. I’m such a fan of their work. You’re right, they’re so funny. [Rogen’s] a comedian. You know, no one’s perfect, but he is funny all the time. He’s just the funniest person. He often plays an everyman, a normal dude. But he is so smart and sharp about story. His notes and thoughts would always steer towards, ‘How do I make this more logical? How do I make the characters feels more real?’ They weren’t comedy notes like ‘Make it funnier, make it punch here.’ They invest more in character.
Jeff Rowe: When you look at their body of work, I think that’s what makes it really stand out. Superbad was a popular film because it was funny. But it’s an enduring film because they feel like real teenagers. It says something about the human experience. Seth and Evan are good observers, and good at writing that back into what they do. They were just so nice, for you to be able to collaborate with them, watch them pitch ideas, and pitch ideas with them. It was incredible.
A Different Take on April O’Neil
MW: TMNT Mutant Mayhem is unabashedly urban. The Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtrack, it’s got hip hop, it’s got rap music, and April O’Neil is a young Black female character. That represents New York City in a very realistic way. Two questions, was that something that you guys decided to do early on, and what do you say to people who are against that?
Jeff Rowe: I’m wholly unconcerned with those people who don’t like it. I would ask them to investigate their own thoughts about why they don’t like it. You hit the nail on the head — it’s a New York film. It needs to feel like New York. April needs to feel like a real teenager in New York. Historically, that character has been like a weird mom, friend, or love interest. We’re like, no, April is one of the kids. She’s a teen like them. She needs to be able to relate to them. She needs to represent New York and what that means to the turtles. That was a thing that we decided early on. No one on the filmmaking side question that this is a great April. Go with it, the internet does what the internet does.
MW: Let’s go to the vocal performances I absolutely love. Jackie Chan’s Splinter and Ice Cube’s Superfly add so much to these characters. We’ve never heard Splinter sound like that. Talk about casting them and how you got those performances.
Jeff Rowe: The thing that’s always been interesting to me about Splinter, the angle that ever gets explored, is that he’s an adoptive father. He’s a single dad. He’s raising four kids. That’s an emotional story. They’re this non-traditional family that I don’t see reflected. I come from a similar non-traditional family. I don’t see that reflected in media. That has to be the direction on Splinter. We have to lean into that. If only there were a martial arts master, who is more affable, friendly and can play this loving father… Jackie Chan. We got him. He plays it like a concerned dad. Even when Jackie Chan is angry, he’s lovable and likable.
Jeff Rowe: Ice Cube is so funny. He improvised so much. It makes sense because he’s a writer. He’s written amazing films, and he’s also a master lyricist. He would watch Ninja Turtles with his kids when they were growing up. He came to me with a personal connection, and was really dedicated. It was so fun to work with them. They’re both really great.
MW: We’re having this interview during the SAG-AFTRA strike. What can you say as the director to support the voice actors and writers that made this film?
Jeff Rowe: I 100% support the actors and writers who are striking right now. The inconvenience of doing this alone is a small price to pay to support them. The business has changed a lot. It’s really important that the artists, making content that has never been better, are compensated fairly for the work they’re doing. I hope the people with the power to make decisions make a reasonable conclusion sooner than later. Because the quicker that is, we can all get back to making more great stuff under fair and better conditions.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem will have a theatrical release on August 2nd from Paramount Pictures.