So you set out to make a documentary called Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where do you begin? For director Randall Lobb and a small film crew from rural Ontario, it was a phone call to the CEO of Mirage and a five year journey to get from the idea to make a doc about the history of TMNT to releasing it. Now, in time for both the 30th anniversary of the franchise and the recently released film from producer Michael Bay, Lobb and Co.’s five year odyssey through Ninja Turtles lore is ready to be seen. Recently, Nerd Bastards got the chance to talk with Lobb about how they tracked down all the players, how it all came together, and why even people who aren’t Turtle fans will find something to love in the documentary.
Nerd Bastards: On the website, where you talked about how the project began, you sounded like you were the most skeptical in terms of making a film about the history of the Ninja Turtles, at what point was your mind changed?
Randall Lobb: Yeah, well it didn’t last very long. We had just worked on some projects that were linked to social issues, and the first idea that [co-producer, editor] Mark Hussey and I had came from this podcast that I had a listened to where somebody said that if you had a thousand people in your audience, if you had a thousand fans, then you’d have audience enough to create things, either sell to them or get support in some way.
We were trying to transfer over to something that was more like a niche, so when you’re working on something about the Cambodian Landmine Museum and someone says “How about we do something on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” your first thought is “I can’t even wrap my mind around that.” So my first response was no, with rights issues [for example] I just saw all the problems lining up. That’s the joke within our group, I’m the naysayer. Any friend group I’m in, I’m the naysayer. But I knew it was exactly what we wanted, so I got past my knee-jerk reaction literally within minutes.
Nerd Bastards: It seemed like quite the daunting task to not just recount the history, but to track down everyone involved, where do you even begin?
Lobb: We had some real bonuses working for us. [Co-producer, cinematographer] Isaac Elliot-Fisher, who approached Mark and I with the idea, was a huge Turtles fan, so the research and the whole world of the Turtles was very clear; he knew all the iterations, the parties involved, you know, from the gross perspective. He sent an e-mail to Gary Richardson, the CEO of Mirage Studios, which would have come off as fan mail (though not through any fault of his own) so I called because I’m an older guy, and I’m not as likely to go into “Turtle talk.”
We ended up starting with some of the writers and artist who’ve worked on the Turtles over the years. Isaac then went to New York Comic Con and met Peter [Laird, TMNT co-creator] and some of the guys from Mirage, and then he met Kevin [Eastman, TMNT co-creator]. We then cold-called the Henson Company, and got a hold of press relations there, and we managed to jump through those hoops and interview Brian Henson. Isaac had then reached out through different means to Townsend Coleman, Rob Paulsen, and some of the voice cast from the Fred Wolf animated series, but once he got a hold of Pat Fraley, Pat was really excited about the possibility of getting the voice cast back together and he chipped in and was contacting people. Once you get a few people in your pool who believe in you, then you can use the new networks you’ve created to keep widening the net.
Nerd Bastards: It almost seems like that this was a story everyone wanted to tell their portion of.
Lobb: Yeah, once they trust you, and once they realize you’re good people and you’re not going to do anything to make them look bad, or that you don’t want to tell a negative story, everybody’s willing to say, “Okay, let’s talk.” And they get proud, and I don’t say proud in a bad way, they’re happy to share a story about what they’ve done. Some of them are getting older too, and you want your kids or grandkids to know what you did, so this is your chance to get that out.
Nerd Bastards: Was there an interview you got that came as a surprise to you or the other guys, as in you couldn’t believe that “this person” agreed to the interview?
Lobb: Totally. Let’s start with Brian Henson, and by the way that was within the first few months of making this in March 2009. It was amazing because we were on the Henson lot with Sesame Street and the Muppets, and it’s Charlie Caplin’s former studio, and I’m big into film history, I teach it in high school, and there I was in Charlie Caplin’s office, so it was all fairly exciting. But that wasn’t the craziest interview for me. That was Michael Ian Black and Robert Ben Garant. I’m a big comedy nerd, and to find out that those two guys who were in The State, through a fluke, were in the Turtles live show, I thought, this is insane. So we interviewed them and they were nice enough to let us talk to them in their homes.
Nerd Bastards: Is there anyone you wanted to get, but couldn’t?
Lobb: I would have liked to have gotten Seth Green, he’s got Turtle ties and has a great audience of people who likes what he does. There was a three or four year period where we tried going through his PR people and for one reason or another he wasn’t real keen. He wanted to focus on Robot Chicken. I wanted to talk to Kevin Smith. He had a Turtle tie, and also I think he’s a great commenter on pop culture from the perspective of being involved in comics and he’s always got something to say. We were hoping that it would be the kind of thing where he would come in and have some thoughts that would tie things together, like [TV producer] Mark Askwith does in the documentary now. So those were two, but there were tons of people we wanted to get but couldn’t. I could make a list for the next hour.
Nerd Bastards: Turtle Power is coming out a few days after the release of the new TMNT movie, so was it important for cross-promotional purposes to get this out now, or is this when it all came together?
Lobb: No, this wasn’t just random for sure. What happened was, and again I’m speculating, the people at the studio looked at what we had, and once they realized it was good, that it was of high-enough quality that it wasn’t embarrassing or ridiculous, and they accelerated their thinking about it. It only makes sense synergistically, but they didn’t necessarily know that last October. After the New Year, we were poking along, not going about this very quickly, and then, all of a sudden, there was a little bit of acceleration. It’s hard to prepare for something like the end delivery of a documentary to a big film studio, the learning curve is unbelievable. Let’s just say, the learning curve was steep, and we were carrying all our equipment up that hill.
Nerd Bastards: How did you come to the attention of the studio?
Lobb: Well we were very fortunate, because there were a number of things that lined up strangely. Before Peter Laird sold the franchise to Viacom, he was working with guy named Galen Walker, and his partner at this time was Scott Mednick and they put together a structure to get a new Turtles feature going. Galen Walker produced the 2007 animated feature TMNT and said that it was time to get this going again, he believes in this franchise, and he’s a great friend and supporter to Peter Laird. So there all now involved in the Viacom structure and Galen contacted me and said, “Oh boy, you’re not going to believe what’s going on. This is all happening. I know you’re making this doc. There’s lots of possibility here.”
So we were on each others radar, very friendly and with lots of back and forth, and just over time, they did their best to get us in positions to show the people at the studio what we had, and they were very skeptical. They want to have control, and these three guys from rural Ontario making a documentary about the entirety of the franchise, they’re probably thinking “that’s great, they probably have Handy Cams,” you know? They were very skeptical, but after a while we had more and more to show them and they were very impressed.
Nerd Bastards: Some people are probably curious as to why this took five years to get done. You guys all have day jobs too, but in terms of putting all this together, what did those five years look like?
Lobb: The five years looked like us making a fan doc at first, that is it would be appealing to fans and be sort of about fans, and then as we got more and more content, we realized that we were getting access to more interesting areas. Every time a comic con would show up in the summer, something would benefit us, a new piece information, and that would get us a new ecosystem of interviews let’s say. So once you get that new ecosystem, you think “now we’re including this,” or “this will replace that.” You end up cutting in your head on the fly.
For example, one of the things we had to pull out was all the 4Kids stuff we shot in 2009. At the time we thought, we have so much stuff, and the 4Kids portion is about another TV show, and we have some stuff on the first TV show so it becomes sort of redundant. Well, not redundant, but similar, and we wanted to make [the film] about firsts: first TV show, first comics, first movie, because that was a neat way of encapsulating what I call the iterations.
The timer just wasn’t crucial. I mean, I knew the movie was going to come out, so my strategy all along was when the movie’s ready, this piece is going to be super valuable, and if something new pops up, and the movie’s not in a position to go yet, then guess what, we’ll shoot it. That’s how we ended up at the reunion of Peter and Kevin in May of this year. We would have missed that.
Nerd Bastards: If there’s a lot of unused footage there, and because the doc kind of covers everything up to the release of the first film, does that mean there might be a sequel?
Lobb: It’s not our decision to make. I’m sure that if this documentary is well-received and is successful, people are more likely to advocate for it, and then I’ll go back to pitch it to the same people I pitched before and they’ll be in a better position to say yes or no. But if I were to pitch to them right now, they’ll say, “Let’s see how this one does first,” and I understand that. We’re interested in doing that for sure.
Nerd Bastards: What was one piece of Ninja Turtles trivia or information that you learned that you didn’t know before?
Lobb: For me it was every piece. (Laughs) In 1984 when the comic first came out, I saw it at the Silver Snail and I got into a discussion about it, and I thought it was a weird mix-up. At the time there was no mash-up culture, and when you see something as forward thinking as this is, a mash-up of Frank Miller, Jack Kirby and what I thought was sort of kids stuff, it was all a weird mélange to me. I was 25 years old when the 1990 movie came out, so it wasn’t relevant to me at the time. Everything that I learned was sort of new.
But if you want to ask what the most incredible thing was, it was how amazing everybody was. They’re nice people, and they didn’t have to be, and they were kind and generous, and easy to get along with, so I think we came away with some friendships we hadn’t made before. And the other thing is that they took a leap of faith that was unbelievable. Here’s a thing I don’t have: the ability to look at something and have a feeling that it’s going to work, like a gut feeling that something’s going to work. I don’t get that. So when Mark Freedman [of Surge Licensing who sold the first licenses of the Turtles] sees the Turtles and has the feeling that they’re going to be big, that’s foreign to me. When someone at Playmates sees it, and thinks it’s going to be big and puts all kinds of care, and money, and passion into it, that blows my mind!
Nerd Bastards: You’re the naysayer…
Lobb: I’m the naysayer. And how about this, it didn’t take long before we saw the metaphor for what we’re doing. We’re doing the exact same thing! We’re small town guys from the Northeastern United States and Canada, and we’re trying to make something other people say is crazy, and there aren’t very many of us, and we don’t follow the rules… We are them, they are us, and we’ve had some success. Nothing like the kind of success they had, but out of proportion of what had been expected…
Nerd Bastards: Let’s wrap up with this: comic nerds, or nerds in general, tend to be a fairly belligerent bunch when it comes to something they know very well, so for anyone who might say that they know everything about the Ninja Turtles, and you can’t possibly tell them anything new, why should they check out Turtle Power?
Lobb: Well, there are a million reasons why. It’s true. There’s lots of stuff in there you haven’t seen, there’s lots of stuff in there you’d be surprised to see, but what makes it work is that we put it all in a context where there’s heart at the base of it.
Everybody who sees this documentary says it has a lot of heart because what we did is show the feelings of the people who created the franchise’s different iterations. You might think Fred Wolf was just a guy that made a kids show and all he cared about was money, but when you hear him talk you can feel that he cared about this and it was meaningful to him. When you hear Peter and Kevin talk about it, or when you hear Tom Gray talk about the 1990 movie, when you hear about John Handy and Karl Aaronian pitching these toys to Playmates and having the negative response that they had, it’s all about people doing things based on passion and belief, and that is always appealing.
If you sat and watched the documentary and you didn’t know anything about the Turtles, or you didn’t care about the Turtles, you can still find it interesting, because you see these people doing things that are completely relatable. They want to make a statement, they want to put something out in the world that’s creative and that they believe in. And that’s very powerful for me, and I think for anyone.
Turtle Power is available on DVD and iTunes tomorrow. The doc is also available to stream on Netflix. You can learn more about the film from its website here.