Last night, I had the pleasure of talking with TMNT director Kevin Munroe while he was halfway around the world gearing up for the film's Hong Kong premiere. Though it was crazy early in the morning (for Kevin), the guy still managed to unload a mouthful of goodies; we talked everything from working with two production teams (one in the States and one in Hong Kong), to creating a tone and story for TMNT that remains faithful to the comics, but still manages to reach out to people of all ages. During our talk, Kevin opened up about whether or not he'll be involved in a TMNT sequel, what we should expect from Gatchaman, and what he thinks about the Justice League movie. Could it be done? Would he direct it? Read on to find out ...
Cinematical: So, what's the vibe over there in Hong Kong? Are they big Turtles fans there?
Kevin Munroe: You know it's funny, I think the property is much bigger now. I sat down for dinner the first night we got here, and this bus stopped in front of this window behind me, and my wife pointed out that there was this huge TMNT poster plastered across the side of the bus. There's a lot of posters everywhere, it's pretty cool. Tonight is the premiere, so we're gonna go to that. And then there's a crew screening after that, because it was Hong Kong based production, and we'll go to that too.
Cinematical: Talk about working with the crew in Hong Kong. I know there was a 300-person creative team assigned to this film -- some based in California and some in Hong Kong. What was that experience like? Was it hard keeping everyone on the same page, what with the language barrier and everything?
KM: Yeah, you hit the nail right on the head there. It's like an exaggerated, very expensive TV animation model. You have the Los Angeles-based production crew -- that's me, my production designer, storyboard artists, editor -- all the front end kind of stuff. And that was about thirty people or so; that's where we worked with the DP and created all this really specific camera stuff. Then we ship everything over here [Hong Kong], and there was about 350-400 people over here. In the beginning, it was this insane communication challenge. For example, during the monster hunt montage, we wanted to decorate it with wooden pallets in the background. So I told them I wanted pallets, and they kept sending me reference photos of people with open mouths. I didn't understand what they were doing. And then I realized they were thinking the palate of your mouth.
There's that, and then there's also the other challenge. If I'm in LA and I'm looking at someone's design -- and I know most of the crew, these were people I brought with me that I sort of met along the way from working on other projects -- so I would be like, "That's really cool, great." And they know what that means. But then in Hong Kong, it's such a black and white society in terms of that stuff, so I would say stuff like, "That's really cool," but realized after two months that I was really pissing them off because I would never say anything was approved. I would say 'That's great' or 'That's cool,' but they would reply, "So does that mean it's approved." Yeah, so it was like me getting used to what they were used to and vice versa. At the end of the day, their work ethic is insane. So many people talk about outsourcing, but it's not the case -- this is a Hong Kong-based production company. The offices here are nicer than Disney's in Burbank. And the Hong Kong people are really proud that this is the first real big Hong Kong production facility. It's really cool stuff.
Cinematical: Now, what about the tone of the film? Was tone one of the first things discussed, because the comics are different in tone from the live-action films, which are different from the animated series -- so when you walk in, do you establish tone right away? What came first for you?
KM: When I first met with Peter Laird, the first thing was story before tone. The first thing I told him -- and this sort of fed into it -- was that I knew everyone was going in there pitching big action flicks, dark and brooding Turtles. But I told him I just wanted to do a movie about a family. I always got the sense of family from the comics, but never really got it from the movies ... or the animated series. I never felt sort of entrenched in a really nice family story, that treats the Turtles more than just caricatures. I just wanted to get the sense of a real family who have been together for, what, 18 or 19 years.
As far as tone goes, the past movies for me were always fun adventure movies with a little bit of action. I wanted this movie to be an action-adventure film with little pieces of comedy. They both have the same elements, but they're presented in a different way. To me, that mix that was in the comics -- that sort of action and comedy -- is such a hard thing to pull off. A lot of films try, but if you tip it too much in one direction, you just throw the whole balance off. I think movies that get it right are, like, Ghostbusters and Pirates of the Caribbean are probably the best examples of those kinds of things. Not that Turtles is on the level of those two films, but those are the movies I associate with a really great combination of a fun thrill ride with really hard action, but at the end of the day you find yourself watching it with a smile on your face the whole time. Some of my best memories are watching those kinds of films with my parents.
Cinematical: I feel the exact same way, definitely. And your story is pretty complex as well. At one point do you decide you don't want to re-imagine the franchise and you don't want to include The Shredder?
KM: Yeah, well on day one -- the first meeting with Peter Laird. Ya know, Peter has his own ideas on what he wants and doesn't want in the films. And right from the start, he said he didn't want Shredder to be the villain. And as a fan, I kind of respect that. He was never meant to be the Darth Vader of the series, it was the TV series that was kind of doing that. So we really wanted to do a unique villain. And I was the one who really pushed for Karai -- in the comics, Karai was one of my favorite characters. And for the fans, I love the not-so-subtle set up to Returns to New York at the end which was my favorite, sort of, series of books. Yeah, so it first started with Peter, and what he wanted to do with the franchise. And the me just sort of embracing it. Pete loves monsters, I love monsters -- so it was one of those things that just grew from there. Pete loves those big epic ... if he could do a whole Lord of the Rings trilogy with the Turtles, he would. He loves that kind of stuff.
Cinematical: And how does he feel about the finished product?
KM: I think he's happy. He was blown away by the visuals. That was really the first thing he eased up and really started to get -- I kept coming and showing what I wanted to do with it. And I think it by far surpassed anything he hoped it was gonna be.
Cinematical: Yeah, one of the other writers from this site told me that he thought TMNT was the first non-Pixar film that really kicked ass. I know I was blown away by the visuals, especially scenes like the one with Leo and Raph on the rooftop in the rain.
KM: That's really cool man. It's funny, because there's no way this movie could've been done at a "legit studio." I think it's the way the industry has sort of gone. Places like Pixar, they're still untouchable. But the idea that they have that niche -- they have it down pat -- and they do it so well; everyone else just looks like imitators. So kudos really go to the company Imagi. They said screw it, we're just gonna go and make a really great action movie. And to me, I've always ranted that CGI was more than talking animal movies, so it was a good opportunity to sort of push the boundaries with it.
Cinematical: How important was casting?
KM: Yeah, the one thing we were really adamant about from day one was that the Turtles had to be really good voice actors. It wasn't an easy battle, but everyone sort of got it once they saw it up on the big screen. Ya know, when James Arnold Taylor does the voice of Leonardo, I really hear Leonardo -- I don't hear, like, Johnny Depp doing the voice of Leonardo. And that sort of freed us up to do more of celebrity casting with the other voices. And even those voices, I feel like they fit really well. It doesn't feel anywhere like we stuck a voice in because we got a celebrity voice. Kevin Smith wanted to do it because he's a huge fan and wanted to do a cameo. But it's a really cool genre cast -- I mean, we've got Buffy, we've got Johnny Storm, we've got the girl from Crouching Tiger, we've got Captain Picard or Professor X ...
Cinematical. Exactly, it's pretty cool. Now, were you a really big comic book fan growing up? Were you nutty for the Turtles?
KM: Yeah, I actually own issue #1 from back in 1985. I got it a year and a half after it came out. It was just in some used bin, so I got it and fell in love with it. I collected the books, I watched the TV series -- I wasn't put off by the TV series, I just knew it was a different sort of take on it. And I was too old for the toys, but I was blown away by the first movie. I'm just a huge Jim Henson freak. So the morning I went to meet with Peter, I actually brought that issue #1to his house in North Hampton, Mass. I don't believe in just reading comics; I buy them, I collect them, I read them. And so I brought the issue # 1 thinking worse case scenario, if I don't get the job, at least I can get Peter to sign it. Luckily, I got it signed and I got the job.
Cinematical: Ha, that's awesome man. Ya know, the big talk this week has surrounded this Justice League movie. Some folks feel like it shouldn't be done -- that it could mess with the existing Superman and Batman franchises. Do you feel like a Justice League movie could work, even with those franchises already established?
KM: I think it could totally work. Ya know, I love Gatchaman -- it's probably going to be the next movie we do. To me, if there was ever one comic book I could ever do as a movie, it would be Kingdom Come. To me -- and that's basically all of the Justice League grown up -- I think that could totally work. I love the idea that it becomes, character-wise, it's The Dirty Dozen. But I think it could work really well, though it has to be treated very carefully. And I don't think a studio should be so precious about it. Especially with an idea like Kingdom Come; they'd all be older. I think fans are smart enough to sort of buy different worlds of these characters. I know people are really worried -- what if Christian Bale is Batman in this one. But it doesn't matter, it's Justice League Batman!
Cinematical: Exactly, that's the big thing right now. Nolan has worked hard to create his own universe for Batman, and fans get scared if they see Batman somewhere else, directed by someone else -- that it would somehow take away from what Nolan's been trying to accomplish.
KM: I don't know man, I think you just have to take the comic book route with it. It never freaks fans out when you do that.
Cinematical: Is it something you'd be interested in directing?
KM: JLA? Jesus, yeah of course! I mean, hey -- it's nice to be realistic too. That would be really fun. And you know what, another interesting way to look at it would be -- let's do a Justice League movie or a Kingdom Come movie, but do it all CGI. Not even CGI like the Turtles. I mean, we're even pushing the envelope with Gatchaman, but something that looks like an Alex Ross comic book. Then BAM! -- there's your problem solver. No one is going to freak out that it's not the same actors, or what have you, because it already looks different.
Cinematical: Now you've got me stoked for Gatchaman. Talk about that one, what's going on with it?
KM: Yeah, we're in really early pre-production on that right now. We're in the middle of the script right now, looking to do a really gritty, sci-fi epic sort of story. I was a huge fan growing up, and so was the owner of the company -- we're going it as a PG-13, really hardcore ... so Turtles was a big step, but this is going to be gigantic. Nothing against Turtles, but this fits Gatchaman really well. Hopefully it will have a really cool 3D anime vibe to it. It's gonna be fun.
Cinematical: That's pretty sweet. Would you ever be interested in going the live action route? Or are you staying in the animation world?
KM: Ya know, whatever makes a good story. It doesn't really matter. It would be neat to sort of take the aesthetics that I love in CG, and try to push them into live action. I was doing a junket with Zack Snyder, and we were talking about the hybrid kind of stuff too. Even that world is so much closer -- we can really start to cross over between the two. I don't know, it could be fun; depends on what the project is.
Cinematical: Assuming TMNTdoes really well, what about the sequel? Are you interested in that? Are there already plans for one?
KM: Yeah, ya know I can't lie and say that we've never spoken about it. I've got a deal to write it, and -- I don't know -- we'll see. I think it will be largely dependent on this weekend, and then overall domestic gross. But I think there are a lot more stories to tell with this universe. I think there are a lot more places to go. And a lot more characters to flesh out.
Cinematical: So a sequel does happen -- do you bring back Shredder? Because you allude to it at the end of TMNT ...
KM: [laughs] I'll put it like this: as a fan, I would love to see it happen ...