Jeff Rowe talks Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem


Jeff Rowe spoke with Solzy at the Movies in late December about the critically acclaimed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is a very different kind of TMNT film. Unlike most films and series, the filmmakers went above and beyond in casting teenagers for the film. It wasn’t a surprise that I enjoyed this film upon watching it last year especially since Rowe co-directed the 2021 Solzy Award-winning animated feature, The Mitchells vs. The Machines. Anyway, we meet our favorite Ninja Turtles at a very different time than a number of other films and series in the franchise. There’s no Shredder and their relationship with April O’Neil is at a different place.

My apologies for not getting this interview up in time before or during Annie Awards voting. Unfortunately, the film just missed out on an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe. Courtesy of Paramount.

It’s so nice to meet you today. How are doing?

Jeff Rowe: I’m good. How are you? So nice to meet you.

I’m doing well.

Jeff Rowe: Nice.

Before diving into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, I have to say that The Mitchells vs. The Machines was my favorite animated features in 2021, let alone one of the best films that year.

Jeff Rowe: Oh, thank you so much. That’s really kind.

It’s my understanding that Phil Lord and Chris Miller played a key role in your landing the directing job?

Jeff Rowe: Yeah, I guess. After I did the interview with the final boss battle to get the job with Seth and Evan, it went really well. And then, I think Evan called Phil and was like, Is this guy turkey? Can we trust him with a film? Phil was very kind and spoke very positively about me and so, thank you.

How involved were Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver and the rest of the Point Grey team during the production process?

Jeff Rowe: Very involved. I know Chris and Phil are very hands on. I wasn’t sure if Seth and Evan would be the same but they were there every step of the way, rolling their sleeves up, getting in, looking at stuff, giving meaningful feedback. They were really, I would say, heavily involved, which was a wonderful experience because they’re so creative, funny and think about story in the same way that I do. It all just kind of comes down to character and making sure people are making realistic, interesting decisions. Yeah, I feel like I really learned a lot working with them.

Yeah. Point Grey tends to be behind a lot of R-rated projects. How different was it to be working on a project that’s probably more geared towards families?

Jeff Rowe: I think our philosophy was like, we don’t necessarily need to make a film for families, we want to make a film for everyone. When I was a kid, a lot of my favorite films—I remember seeing Jurassic Park when I was five and it was a little old for me. It was a little bit much but I think it also shaped my tastes and helped me grow as an artist. I think the goal was to just make a quality film and if we don’t necessarily try to dumb it down or simplify it for a family audience—if we try to make something sophisticated, the general audiences will follow but the goal was to make something high quality. For all of us, this film, I think it was PG 13 for a while. There’s a lot of, how much can we get away with. What crazy things that Ice Cube said can we actually use? What’s the count of swear words we can have in the film and which ones are actually forbidden? We really tried to push the limits of what we could do, not to be provocative or not to be edgy but I think just to make something that felt honest and true to life and true to the teenage protagonists.

Yeah. It’s funny you mentioned Jurassic Park because I’m not doing what I do without that film.

Jeff Rowe: Oh, yeah. I feel like that’s our generation’s Star Wars. It just activated a sleeper cell of creative kids who wanted to go on and work in film. Wonderful film.

Did you have a favorite Turtle growing up?

Jeff Rowe: Growing up, I was a Donatello, who wanted to be a Michelangelo, but was not funny enough to be one.

Yeah. Has that changed throughout the process of making the film?

Jeff Rowe: I think it has. I think I see myself more—I mean, Donnie is the one that’s most based on me as a teenager. This kind of anime-loving internet—most of his world is shaped by just being on the internet. I guess I feel more like a Leo now. I am the least talented person of everyone on the team and around me and I’m just just struggling to keep it together.

One of the things I enjoyed so much about the film is that Mutant Mayhem sets its self apart from so many TMNT films and series that came before is how you all cast actual teenagers as the Turtles.

Jeff Rowe: Yeah. It’s wild that that hasn’t been done more but that was a big cornerstone philosophy coming in. That was kind of Seth and Evan’s pitch when they first talked to Nickelodeon and Paramount about about doing this. It just made so much sense. I think I was maybe a little scared at first because there’s that old Hollywood adage, like, don’t work with kids or animals. We did an extensive casting search and we found these four kids who really, really felt like the characters and had great chemistry together. We modified our writing and recording process to best showcase them and that chemistry. We went very improv heavy. We would throw away a lot of script pages and just kind of invite the kids to say things in a way that felt natural to them. We also would record them all at the same time, which is not done very often in animation. It’s an audio nightmare—people talk over each other. It’s really hard to get clean takes but we did that and then we just let the tape roll in between takes. Much of what’s in the film is not even stuff that was necessarily scripted but just things that they were talking about that felt like real authentic team banter. We kind of used that to build out the scenes in this kind of Robert Altman ADR-heavy, lot of cross-talking dialogue sort of way.

Yeah. I was talking with Greg Levitan in early December. He had brought up the whole recording them together in the same room and the challenges that that provides in editing the film.

Jeff Rowe: Yeah, so much of our work was put in the edit room. Huge long days just combing through these eight hour record sessions trying to find the one or two nuggets that we could then build out the characters with it. It was a lot of work.

He had also mentioned how that first rough cut was substantially different from the final product.

Jeff Rowe: Yeah, it was all set in high school. It was a lot more about feelings and interpersonal drama and very much a teen movie, but it was kind of low stakes. It didn’t have the Ninja Turtles really being the Ninja Turtles very much. Seth, at some point, pointed out that, doesn’t seem like a problem that the Turtles get exactly what they want on page 30 of the script. When he said that, it was terrifying because that meant a big change but it was also this huge relief because it’s like, oh, okay, someone’s diagnosed the problem, now we can fix it, now we can do everything we need to to make the movie better.

What challenges did the pandemic add to the production?

Jeff Rowe: Honestly, there were some early recording issues and that just getting people together in a room and parts of the process that I think benefit from being done in person. As a director, I like to be in the room with the actor. Early on, we didn’t get opportunities to do that but as far as building out the art team, working with the team, I honestly think it was really freeing. We were able to hire a lot of people from across the globe—the need for someone to be physically in a studio in Burbank wasn’t there. I it’s like, we love this artist in Scotland, let’s hire him. One of our best storyboard artists. Hannah Cho, worked from South Korea the entire time. It just gave us an opportunity to hire a really good team regardless of geographical boundaries.

Is that something you think should be kept going forward in animation as opposed to everyone in the same room?

Jeff Rowe: Yeah. I’m pro whatever helps the artists do a good job. If they would prefer to not be in an office and they’re more productive working at home or if they’re more productive showing up for a couple of meetings during the day, and then they like to work from 6 PM to midnight—whatever their process is that that yields good artwork that they’re proud of is what I want to support as a director. I fully support whatever business model enables the artists to do their best work.

I only say that because animation was the one thing that really kept going as far as production during the pandemic.

Jeff Rowe: Yeah. It held on and was able to keep doing things. As animators, our lifetimes of spending our lives alone in our rooms finally paid off and we got to keep working.

Of course, there were the late shows but that was really only after they got the tactical stuff set up.

Jeff Rowe: Yeah, yeah.

Other than the pandemic, what was the most challenging aspect of the production?

Jeff Rowe: I think anytime you do something new, it’s really hard. Something that breaks so far from animation conventions, like this film, like the record process, getting people on board with that, figuring out the technical hurdles. Making people feel comfortable with the movie being kind of visually dark. It’s a movie that mostly takes place at night, which can be considered an animation faux pas. The last 30 years of CG animation favor bright blue skies and green fields and color and so much color. We just tried to be really artistically daring and taking those kinds of swings—it’s a vulnerable position for a studio to be in because they they put a lot of money behind these films. It costs a lot of money to make an animated movie at this scale. There’s a fear that taking risks won’t pay off but I’m just so proud of how the film fared both commercially and critically. I think the risks paid off.

Was laughter ever a problem during the recording?

Jeff Rowe: Oh, yeah. There’s people laughing over each other. Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s so many takes that we’re great and then you just hear me or Seth laughing halfway through, and it’s like, we’re blowing the takes. Which is always—it feels so much nicer to blame one of the actors, like hey, oh, they laughed on the take. But when I have to listen to my own voice ruining a take, it’s a nightmare.

You never thought to be at a different room so that didn’t happen?

Jeff Rowe: No. I think there’s value there’s something so cold about being in the booth and pressing the button to talk and give direction. I like to be in the room with the actor to just communicate more effectively my enthusiasm for what they’re doing and make it a comfortable and playful environment because I think this kind of film, with these kinds of performances, just requires people feeling safe and feeling okay to say whatever they want and improv and whatever they want to and take swings at jokes. I think being in the room helps with that.

I know that a sequel and at least a two-season series is on the way. Is there anything you can say about the sequel at the moment?

Jeff Rowe: No. (Laughs) It’s strictly strictly NDA and trying to figure out how to make it 10 times better than the first movie and we’ve got a good team to do it. Can’t wait.

I had to ask.

Jeff Rowe: Yeah, no. (Laughs)

It’s always fun going to these comic cons. You have someone from Marvel or something there and someone’s always trying to ask the question about that next thing coming out.

Jeff Rowe: Yeah. It’s like the answer is always the same. It’s always can’t talk about.

Thank you so much. It was nice getting to chat with you this afternoon.

Jeff Rowe: Yeah, thank you so much. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

I will. Bye.

Jeff Rowe: Bye.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem is available on home video.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.