In 1990, producer Kim Dawson and writer Bobby Herbeck put Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles onto the big screen. The live-action film took the No. 1 spot on its opening weekend and since then has become a beloved modern classic among comic fans and the now-grown kids who saw it in theaters in ’90 and are showing their children. As the cast and crew celebrate the 30th anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Herbeck and Dawson talked to Scoop about the movie, recounting behind the scenes events that brought the Ninja Turtles to life.
Scoop: Let’s start with how each of you got involved in this movie.
Kim Dawson (KD): In the summer of 1986, I got a call from my partner [producer] Gary Propper that he was in Detroit and had found a comic book that was the first issue of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the black and white. He was a talent manager, managing a comedian named Gallagher playing at the Fox Theatre. He got so excited when he found this comic because he felt it could be the first movie that we made. We did a lot of television projects together, but the first movie we made that could be a live-action picture. He sent me the comic and then the next day I called Mirage Studios, who had just signed a deal with Surge Licensing for treatment and then with the two of them it took us a couple of months to negotiate the deal and we finally put it together. Actually, I misspoke, it was the summer of ’87, so by the fall of ’87 we had a deal in place and that’s when I introduced the project to Bobby.
Bobby Herbeck (BH): I was working for Golden Harvest, I was writing a movie for them, they’re out of Hong Kong, they did the Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. Kim told them “Bobby’s over there working with Golden Harvest, that’s a perfect fit to make the Ninja Turtles.” Which took some time to get my boss to put the dots together. He kept telling me, “Write the movie I’m paying you for and quit bugging me with the pinjin, ninjin turtles.” He gave it a different title, which someday maybe we’ll do the Pinjin Ninjin Turtles. A couple of months maybe, it was going around Hollywood.
KD: It was longer than that because by December that year we had prototype toys from Playmates, and there was a graphic novel by that point, and there was now going to be a cartoon series promoting the toy line. The toy line launched at Toy Fair in February of ’88. Bobby and I and Gary Propper went out to Hollywood and talked to everybody we knew and basically pitched our hearts out. We had the toys, we had the press kit, we had what we thought was a viable package and people weren’t buying at that point. Nobody was interested.
BH: I was literally laughed out of some pitch meetings and after one of the pitch meetings, they called my agent and said, “Who’s the guy smoking pot that came in with this turtles thing?” They thought this was just some stoner trying to sell a movie. It didn’t happen easy, but I kept going back to Tom Gray, my boss at Golden Harvest. Finally, one night we had a drink and it donned on me, he had a 12 year-old kid at home and I said, “Hey Tom…” and he said “Don’t go there.” I said, “Just one more time, you go home tonight and ask your kid about the Turtles because now they’re on TV, building an audience.” By the time I got back to Long Beach that night he’d left me a message to call him and get Kim and meet him for breakfast in the morning. We had a meeting and he was leaving the booth, he calls it he had one butt cheek off the booth when Kim reeled him back in with “You have the best martial arts guys in the world. You just put them in the costumes and dub the voices.” Then he slid back in and the ball started rolling. It took, maybe three months.
Scoop: You said it was a tough sell and I was wondering if you saw any reluctance because of Howard the Duck since that was around the same time.
BH: You are so right my dear. This was Tom Gray’s biggest fear: that it was Howard the Duck. [both laugh]
KD: And there was another comic book that had been a live-action picture called Garbage Pail Kids that had also tanked badly. Howard the Duck was obviously George Lucas, and Lucas was…I think everyone at Universal was stunned that the movie didn’t do better.
BH: And again, this wasn’t what Golden Harvest did. They did these action kick butt martial arts movies; they didn’t do kids movies. They didn’t have a clue at the beginning and I’m sure Raymond Chow, the man that owned the company was like “What are you talking about?” I don’t think he had a clue how you make that movie. As time evolved with the help of Kim and Gary Propper, rest his soul, the other producer we lost last year, really the force behind finding the book and then coming to me, and then working with Tom and putting it in his brain, really – this is how you do this movie. It just started evolving. Everything I tell people, Kim and I – it was all timing. It’s like catching a wave, our timing was perfect. Kids had only had TVs then, they didn’t have iPads and Xboxes and stuff, they got their entertainment on TV. Pong was the game.
Scoop: You mentioned that part of the pitch was getting martial arts actors and putting them in the suits, then dubbing the voices. Did you have any voice or suit actors in mind when you started?
KD: No, here’s how it went down when Golden Harvest made the deal for the rights, they sent Bobby to Massachusetts to work with Kevin [Eastman] and Peter [Laird], they were looking for the right director to do it. We focused in on Steve Barron who had been doing a lot of Michael Jackson videos, he did “Billie Jean” and a few others. I think he was the production designer/art director on Dark Crystal. He just had a real look that they liked, and I felt that would probably be to our advantage. So, when Steve came on board, he was good friends with Brian Henson and together, they convinced Jim [Henson] that the Creature Shop should be the ones to make the costumes. Brian felt that in order to do the movie properly, that the actor inside the costume had to be enough of a stuntman to do a backflip and drop through a simulated manhole cover. So, they had trampolines in the Creature Shop, so they were building suits to make those work, so it was really focused around the puppeteers and the actors that he brought together. The voice actors were an after thought later on. We didn’t replace those voices until well after the movie had been finished.
Scoop: I wanted to ask about the costumes. We’re at the 30-year mark and the costumes still look great. I was curious about the process of getting Jim Henson’s Creature Shop involved. It sounds like they put a lot of thought into mobility as well as the look.
BH: A lot.
KD: It had to be. There were actually two sets of turtle costumes: you had the stunt turtles, the guys who did all the fighting and running, that sort of stuff, then you had the talking turtles, that were the acting turtles. The acting turtles had, under their shells, extensive electronics that were the servo motors that were used to move the facial features. I think what you’re driving at, a key point of the success of the film, is between the puppeteers who used joysticks and also remote control gloves called waldos and the actor inside the suit. There had to be a rapport. Brian was very careful in casting those parts so that those guys could behave the way the characters are written, because Bobby wrote these deep characters that were all differentiated in their words and that had to manifest itself in how they behaved inside the costume with their facial features and everything. So, it was a complex dance, if you will.
Steve Barron was at the heart of it because even as they cast all these characters, he had to be thinking about how they would interact. I think it was that chemistry between the puppeteers, the actors inside the costumes, Steve Barron, and Brian, even the script supervisor, because they were all wired up – could hear one another, talk to one another. So, aside from the fact that the costumes were operating at 110 degrees of non-air conditioned studios, the sweat that built up in the costumes kind of shut them down. It kind of fried those electronics on a regular basis. It took longer to make it than it should have, probably.
Scoop: What story points or background from the comics did you want to include in the movie?
BH: That was all by design. Once Tom Gray said he was in, we were going to go for it. We flew to Northampton to meet Peter and Kevin, to convince them. My job was to convince them that Golden Harvest was the company to make the movie – which we did. I got back, not home two days and was told, “Pack up, you need to go back and sit with Peter and Kevin. They need to sign off on the story for the movie.” That was not a short and easy process, it took some time for them both. I’d do a treatment and give it to them, we’d meet a few days later and I could tell by their body language that one liked it and one didn’t. That went on for a while. I finally said one morning, “How did you guys ever get a comic book done? You can’t agree on anything.” So, they finally agreed and I came back. I’m getting to answer your question, a lot of it came from the graphic comic book, obviously, the characters and then to just delineate them a bit more on screen and some of the story points, plot points were from the comic book. I added Tatsu to the mix.
KD: You added comedy to it and rapport. The original comics are pretty anxious. It’s much darker. I think that we knew we had to make a movie that was PG-13 or PG. We couldn’t make a movie that was dark and an R. We knew that there was an audience of comic fans out there, but Tom Gray was interested in the more youthful audience, which is where New Line felt that they could bring it to the theaters and attract an audience that was kind of bifurcated. We had a youth audience in the afternoon and in the evenings and then later at night we had the cult comic book collectors.
BH: Two things here, first of all, Kim’s the one that brought this up a while ago, Tom didn’t really give two beans about the story as much as the action, because they were an action company. So, it was not always easy with him and writing it, as to what they wanted and didn’t want. Once I was assigned to it, Steve took me to London to write this – which was great to be away from Hollywood with Steve and do this. I looked at Star Wars, the first one, I wanted to count the number of battles and I wanted to see the motivation from Lucas as a writer. I realized each battle had a reason, a theme. It wasn’t just “Hey we need a battle scene here.” But that is part of a template.
So, every time in that movie when the Turtles go up against the Foot, there’s a reason for it. It’s very important in the writing that Splinter says, I’m paraphrasing this “You never start the fight, you only defend.” That was the message. I’m a message guy. I love the scene where he talks to the boys and tells them he loves them and will always be there. My friends, adults who took the kids to the movie back then, one big rugby player guy starts crying and says “Oh, man I took my son to see the movie.” And I asked “What are you crying about?” and he said “My son looked up and said, ‘Are you my friend daddy?’ and I said ‘Yes’ and he said ‘I love you daddy.’ I started crying and said, ‘I love you.’” He’s telling me “You piece of s---, you made me cry in front of my son at the movie theater.” [both laugh]
For Kim and I, this has all been wonderful for us because we’ve been kind of in this bubble. I know when I’m out in the world and someone says, “This guy wrote the Ninja Turtles movie” the reaction I get. We are just blown away by the love and devotion of the fans and how many there are. We had no idea, after all these years. And the second generation. It’s a blessing.
Scoop: What are each of your favorite parts of the movie?
BH: I have several, I like the whole thing because it was a success. I love the opening because kids are at the edge of their seats to see the Turtles like this. Seeing Raphael lifting the manhole cover and knocking the light out and you finally see his face from the cop’s bubble light and the next shot is in the sewer and you see them in silhouette. I get goosebumps every time. I think that was a brilliant thing. The beginning for me.
KD: One of my favorite parts of the movie is the farmhouse. When they go to the farmhouse and the things that happen there. The dialogue between Donny and Casey and certainly the repertoire between Casey and April, I love. The Kodak moment when Raphael wakes up and Leonardo is there is my favorite moment in the movie because it’s like what brothers would do. “Get a grip. What’s the matter with you?”
BH: Two of my favorites scenes are that Kodak moment and the one when they bring April down to the den and she’s passed out and they look at Splinter and say, “Can we keep her?” that had all kinds of connotations to me. I just love that.
Scoop: Did you have any pushback from the studio or censors regarding the fighting in the movie?
KD: It’s interesting. Particularly in certain territories around the world, there was a fair bit of pushback. Norway, I think they changed the name to Hero Turtles. I don’t think it got nearly the traction it could have or should have in Japan or Korea where martial arts are a big thing because they felt it was –
BH: A mockery.
KD: Right. Whereas the guys who played the characters, the stunt Turtles, Pat Johnson was the choreographer and he did all the Three Ninja movies, he was brilliant. He was an amazing fight choreographer. You just can’t say enough. Oddly enough, the second and third film don’t have quite as much violence in them. This was back in a time when violence wasn’t tolerated as much as in today’s world, when you compare movies where they’re blowing the crap out of stuff. There was pushback. We did get some from whatever organization in Washington, DC pushes back on kids’ violence. The truth is, when you look at it, these fights do have a message and all that. The movie’s an allegory for things that are going on in life that are much deeper and richer than a 7 or 8-year-old can understand, I think. There’s a lot of double entendre in the film and that’s all due to Bobby and [co-screenplay writer Todd Langen] and the words that they wrote and built the characters and certainly the direction. But, there was some pushback.
Scoop: The movie has built a legacy. It was No. 1 on its opening weekend, a lot of people consider it among their favorite movies, and the kids who saw it in 1990 are showing their kids now. As the movie is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, what are you feeling as you reflect back on it?
KD: Oh, how blessed we were to be involved. I swear. In life you have those moments where you can go left or right, it’s that Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Traveled” it feels like we arrived in that moment at the right time in our lives. It’s been that sort of thing. It kind of launched a whole new career for me, because I was a television producer up until that time and I’ve been able to produce films since then and I’ve made amazing relationships with people.
So, as I start to build from 30 years ago the things I’ve been able to do as a result of that particular picture, it’s a blessing. When the movie was first released, I’d moved to Orlando to produce The Mickey Mouse Club for Disney Channel. I was out of the Hollywood mix and I’ve been able to stay in Florida as a result of the film because we did three in a row. Two up in North Carolina where it was easy to get to and the third film was made out in Oregon. For me, it was just that seminal moment that broke open a new pathway in what was now a long career. I started in the mid-‘70s in the film and television business. For me, it was just that opportunity where you got to take a path that you never even anticipated. I owe that to GP, Gary Propper was my partner, like I said, he was the manager of Gallagher at the time. We made a dozen specials for Showtime and I’d done a lot of work in entertainment and sports prior to that. Once we started down the path of Turtles, it kind of gave me a new perspective of what the world was about because it was frivolous and it was lightning in a bottle. No doubt about it.
[Editor’s Note: Kim Dawson had to end his portion of the interview at this point for another engagement.]
Scoop: Bobby, do you want to comment on getting pushback from the studio or censors regarding the fighting in the movie?
BH: Like Kim said, we did get that, you always get it, but to go a step further on what Kim was saying about the Asian market, according to Tom Gray who was running the company at the time, he told me a couple of year ago – I was shocked – this movie didn’t really play in Asia at all. They didn’t want it. It played everywhere else in the world. I think he told me there was no Asian market, therefore the foreign numbers weren’t very good, box office-wise. Now, once it was a hit, they started buying into it because it became a phenomena around the world. It just brought awareness to it – this little graphic book that was in a store in Detroit. It just put it on the map and Peter and Kevin.
The other thing, when I was writing the delicate balance I always felt was not to write down to the kids on this movie and to write straight across and keep the parents in mind because you had the teenagers and then you had the younger kids. Like Kim said, there were two groups that went to the movie. I always say that part of the success of the movie is that it was written such that the parents – and I know for a fact because I’ve had parents tell me – they took the kid to see it, kind of begrudgingly, and come home and call their sister or brother or friend and say, “It was really a cute movie. It’s really good, go see it, you’ll enjoy it too.” So that helped.
In the business, they’re making big money on these movies, these tentpole movies, because people are going back to see them again. I’m not a math person, but someday I’m going to ask somebody what they think the box office would’ve been today at today’s price of a ticket, because you remember, tickets were a heck of a lot cheaper in 1990. I’d be curious what that number would’ve been today.
Tom Gray and I had made a bet. We were going to lunch the week before it opened, and he was nervous as hell. He said, “Herbs, I think we’ve got Howard the Duck on our hands.” I said, “No, we have an audience. Howard the Duck fell out of the sky. We have an audience already waiting to see this.” He said, “What do you think it’s going to do opening weekend?” I said, “My money is on $20 million-plus.” And he goes, “From your mouth to God’s ears. If that movie opens to $20 million the first weekend, Golden Harvest will buy you anything you want.” I didn’t go for the house. So, we’re in his car going to lunch in Santa Monica and Wilshire Boulevard where they cross and this beautiful black convertible two-seater Mercedes pulls up and I said, “I want one of those.” And I was about to get married to boot. And he said, “You got it Herbs. If the movie does $23, $25 million the first weekend.” To this day, 30 years later, no I never got the car.
And I say, that is typical Hollywood. They love you at the time and then…next… They didn’t let me write the sequel. I didn’t have a sequel to write. They didn’t let Judith [Hoag] come back for the sequel either to play April. That’s all Raymond Chow because he’s very tight. When you write a movie, if you write the sequel, it’s called your quote – what you got paid to write the first one, they have to up the ante on the second one. He didn’t want to do that. He didn’t let me have the sequel. I was not happy at all. I said to Tom, how can you let this happen, I’m the one that brought you the movie? He said, “Well, my hands are tied.” I did not leave with very good feelings there. Tom was very upset when we won the People’s Choice Award on national TV and Kim and I are on stage thanking everybody and Tom, to this day, has not gotten over that we didn’t thank him.
There’s just so many things to the story. We’re doing a documentary series on this whole history from the beginning of Peter and Kevin to how this movie got made and subsequently what happened during and what’s happened over the years after and the lawsuits and the this and that. The latest chapter after this is the coronavirus. We were all set, 30th anniversary. The virus couldn’t have hit on the 29th or the 31st anniversary – on the 30th the virus hits. We were supposed to do WonderCon and Comic-Con, we were supposed to do a series of autograph shows and other cons. But everything’s shut down.
But, we found a workaround with social media. We’re doing a pizza party on the 23rd of May on our YouTube channel at 8 at night Eastern, 5 Pacific. Judith, bless her, has rounded up not only the cast, but she got Steve Barron, Brian Henson, Kim and I are going to be on it. It’s just a thank you to the fans. No money involved here. This is just a thank you to everybody and our way of showing some appreciation. It’s the first time we will have all been together in all these years.
Scoop: You have the documentary and the pizza party. Are you working on anything else for the anniversary?
BH: We’re going to do a book. We just talked to Neca who had some ideas, because they think it should be a coffee table book with pictures and stuff. They’re going to join forces with us. This guy Randy [Falk] is amazing, the guy that runs that company and his partner, the guy who designs stuff, Trevor [Zammit]. I thought, “this will be a half-hour conversation [referencing a call from earlier in the day], we’ll get to Amanda in no problem.” This thing went on and on. They’re doing a whole line of 30th anniversary toys that are going to be in Walmart and Target in June. When it comes to the Turtles, they do a lot of other action figure stuff, but when it comes to the Turtles, all they are interested in are the early Turtles. Not today’s, they just want ones from our time. They think they’re the original, and I agree.
I’m not a big Michael Bay fan and what he did to the Turtles. I get asked that in a lot of interviews. Frank’s TV interviewed me last year and asked, “What do you think of the Michael Bay Turtles?” and I said, “Not much.” They didn’t change Superman and Spider-Man and Wonder Woman and how Batman looked. Maybe a subtle change, but not a change like that, to a point where there… My grandson jumped in my lap, he was 6 when he first saw the first Michael Bay one and he said “Pop-Pop, why’d you make them so scary?” I said, “I had nothing to do with it.” They are! They’re just not the sweet, fun looking little Turtles.
Scoop: One of the things I like about this movie is that April O’Neil isn’t just a damsel. Raphael does save her, but she has gumption and attitude. Was it important to you to write her that way?
BH: Absolutely. I asked [Judith] what was the hardest scene in the movie, I knew what it was, it was waking up and discovering Splinter and the Turtles and she has to scream and jump up on the couch. She said that was the scene and I said I thought that was the hardest to do. That scene I didn’t like that much, not her fault. I didn’t want her to look like some screeching little… I had a thing in my comedy act that when you look at older movies, the woman when she always fell down. How come the men don’t fall down? I fall down all the time. You see a woman running and she falls, you go “C’mon, with the falling. Stop falling.”
I wanted her to have just a little edge to her because that’s what the ‘90s was, you know. Women were raising a little hell about the glass ceiling and I thought she should not be the atypical woman that they put on the screen. She could carry her own and in real life, she is that way. She’s a tough broad. I love her. I mean it, she’s been a godsend for us, putting this thing together. I said, “You’re our superstar, you’re going to get the Oscar for this – I’m not sure what we’ll call it. Best supporting, that’s for sure.”
Scoop: Before Kim got off the phone, I asked how he’s feeling as he reflects on how popular the movie is and the fact that people who saw it in 1990 are showing their kids now. With the 30th anniversary this year, how are you feeling?
BH: I’m a weepy guy. I’m very sensitive and I cannot tell you…I’m touched. I’m almost going to cry. I’m touched by it all, I’m overwhelmed. When my wife and I go to a public function… I’ll give you a couple quick examples. I go to a wedding last year and there’s people in their 30s, mainly, at this wedding. Someone mentioned, “See the guy over there, he wrote Ninja Turtles, the movie.” So, when I’m leaving, I was stormed by about eight guys going out the door, saying, “Dude, you can’t go” and when they say “dude,” I know they know. “Dude, can we get a picture with you?”
It’s happened again and again to almost the point of embarrassment. I’ve been invited to celebrity events and I used to be a judge at the Pepperdine Songfest that the students put on every year. The first year I went, I was sitting next to Ben Stein and some other faces. Ben was introduced and he got a nice ovation and they go “Bobby Herbeck” and I’m standing up and they say, “The man who wrote the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie” and as I’m standing up – my wife will tell you – the kids jumped up and were screaming like I was Elvis. I shot back down in the seat. This was an auditorium full of kids.
At the intermission, someone came in the green room and asked, “Are you here for the second part of the show?” and I said, “Yes, I’m judging.” They said, “Oh man, you aren’t going to believe this.” There were all kinds of students putting on productions, song and dance. The second number, these four guys come out – they didn’t know I was going to be there – they come out on stage dressed as Ninja Turtles. They’re singing a number and pointing out at me. I look at Tami [his wife] and I got tears, and said, “Can you believe this?” That’s why the kids wanted to know if I was going to stay. And I was mobbed afterwards when the show was over.
I’m just saying, it’s there, it’s been there and now I’m realizing it’s bigger. When we talked to TMNT Minute podcast, I said, “So what do you think, we have several thousand fans?” And they said, “No dude, it’s in the millions.” I said, “You’re kidding me.” And that’s what the Neca guys are saying. That’s what Randy was saying today. I’m just blown away, you know? In my business… First of all, to get a hit like this and it lasts this long, and still has a gravity pull? You just can’t be more blessed than that. I’m serious. We got so lucky. I’ve tried to get another one all along the way, but lightning only strikes once. Now, George Lucas is a different cat, but we’ll take this. The second one did okay, but everybody loves the first movie. I’m blessed. And people like you, I can’t thank you enough for wanting to take your time and hear what we have to say, but beyond that being a fan. That’s why we’re doing this.
For more information on convention appearances for Bobby Herbeck and Kim Dawson, contact their booking agent at Eva Ink Artist Group/Pros & Cons Celebrity Booking at firstname.lastname@example.org.