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SHERMAN OAKS, Calif. -- The Turtles are back, like you've never seen them.

On March 23, Warner Bros. is teaming up with Weinstein Company and Imagi Animation for TMNT, a CGI-animated film that brings the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back to the big screen for the first time in 14 years.

Recently, The Continuum was part of a press event at Imagi's offices that included a 10-minute preview of the film and a roundtable interview with director Kevin Munroe and producer Tom Gray.

Following is an edited transcription of that interview.

Question: How have things been going since Comic-Con? What are the latest adventures?

Munroe: Latest adventures? Less and less sleep everyday.

Gray: Well, the worst thing that happened to us would be the Taiwan earthquake that knocked out our T3 line going back and forth, so that means, that when we get our information everyday, we have to send couriers back and forth hand carrying files everyday.

Question: So the film is traveling on people's laps?

Gray: Yeah. Technology is a wonderful thing, it's all front end here and then you ship it overnight to Hong Kong, but when the whole earthquake knocked out all the Trans-Pacific cable, which our T3 line is connected to, then that is something we have to deal with on a manually basis. It won't effect the release date, but it certainly effected the production, approvals from Kevin and the process. Just when you think you can see the delivery date looming, something comes in...

Question: How far did you guys intraspectively go back into the TMNT franchise?

Gray: I go back to 1988 when I first bought the rights, when I was head of production at Golden Harvest. That's how far I go back with the franchise. I think Kevin goes to being a fan back in the early '80's.

Munroe: I found it like a year after i's released. I found the first issue in a used comics bin and just found issue one and just loved it and that was great. I actually brought that issue one with me, to Peter [Laird], when we first met.Thinking, worst case if I don't get the gig I'll at least get an autograph.

So after we spent the day together and I slid the comic across the table and he signed it and said, "Oh cool number 1." As we were driving back to the airport I opened it up and there was a picture of Raph saying, "Kevin, make a good picture or else!" I was like, that's awesome!

Question: What are you hoping that people are going to get out of this? They are going to have the familiarity, but what's new about it that is going to make them happy?

Munroe: I think, as a movie, it's deeper. I think it runs just a little more believeable. I'm not going to say realistic because I don't believe we are striving for reality but I think we're going for believable reality. I think the first movie does it really well in the sense that it's a very encompassing movie, you get in there and you are submerged in that world and it just feels like they just actually lived in the sewers to me, well at least that's the memory of it.

But in this one I think it's especially important for us to concentrate on family. They are a family, but you never get a really strong family dynamic, like real tension between brothers and the way brothers fight and the way brothers make up and stuff. So, it's kind of nice to approach them as a family instead of just character archetypes, you know, the funny one, the smart one, the leader, all this other stuff and just go a shade deeper. So I think, you know, for the older fans, you get that excitement that you remember, you know when you watch the old series and it doesn't hold up the same way that you thought it did, by the idea this is just trying to tap in to what you still remember in your head in terms of level of excitement, and then going a little bit further. We're trying to go a bit beyond the in-jokes for adults, the little wink-nudge to the mom and dad. There's just really no reason for it. There's a level of fun to this movie that will hopefully bring in the older audience to this film.

Question: Was there a thought to do another live action film before you settled on CG?

Gray: No, I think going back to being involved with the first three movies, there was an escalation of budgets going up shooting live and the box office was going in the other direction. So it was one of these, you know, it gets more expensive and everything else. And today, I think, if you were making a live-action Turtle movie, with all the bells and whistles to compete with all the CG and special effects out there, this film would be more than around 150 million dollars to do it, to make it stand up on its own.

The company, when we started looking at it, we said, you know, through CG, we can do all of that at a greatly reduced price and still have the big scope of it that we couldn't possible afford. As our company is a small Hong Kong-listed company, we couldn't afford a big 150-million dollar budget. So, as CG, because of our labor rates in Hong Kong are greatly reduced than are here, it made a lot more sense for us to push it as far as we could to give a big, big look to the film without having to go into the live-action thing. So, I think that was the total motivation. Plus, we're a CG house, so that was the obvious answer, let's go do it CG.

Question: Can you talk about the casting of Sarah Michelle Geller, Kevin Smith, Chris Evans and all these people? And who are the voices of the Turtles?

Gray: What we wanted to start off with is the concept, first of all, we didn't want to touch the Turtles in so far as... remember we had Corey Feldman way back in the day? And that was, kind of, the only person that was somewhat known. And we always felt that the Turtle don't require getting Adam Brody or someone like that to play Leonardo or whatever you wanted to do. If we could hold back the Turtles, then we could say, OK, if you require going with April or Casey or Max Winters in this case, then we would be amenble to go out and look at actors. Although, we didn't really want to do that, we wanted to get just really great voices because our theory is, this is the kind of movie where we're not drawing those characters to look like they are. Sarah Michelle doesn't look April.

But we were somewhat encouraged by the studios to say, we need to get a little more firepower out there so let's go get some so-called names to play the supporting actors in it. We said, alright, as long as we don't touch the Turtles. And of course we had Mako to play Splinter, who, unfortunately passed away. But we got, pretty much, 90 percent of his voice in there.

And I think that, certainly, Kevin can elaborate on this, it just didn't seem to feel that we were trying to make a movie that was based on star power because we felt that the Turtles transcend all of that. The Turtles are the Turtles. They are types and they are voices. So, I think that was the whole concentration, staying close to what people will perceive them as sounding back in the '90s.

Question: So who is voicing the Turtles?

Gray: Sarah Michelle Geller plays April, Chris Evans plays Casey, Max Winters is Patrick Stewart, Zhang Ziyi is Karai, who's a new character from the former ones.

We have a cameo from Kevin Smith who, just, really wanted to get into it. He came one day and stayed the whole day and laid there on the floor and said, "I want to do this!" We're having narration from Larry Fishburne, Lawrence Fishburne, as well.

It's not a huge cast but it is a good cast and it seems to work for this film. You go overseas and it doesn't matter, we are going to dub in over 17 languages so it's all about domestic. Again, do these people go on Oprah and talk about it? I don't think so. To me it's almost gilding that lily, you really don't need it. There are so many voices in this business that are perfect. But, then again, you are always in the position of, well, if these people can go and help market the film, why not? It doesn't pull back, you see, as long as the Turtles are unknown.

Question: How long did it take you guys to figure out what the look of the movie was going to be in terms of making sure that it was faithful to the comic book or to the original, deciding between that and a photo realism that is now achievable?

Munroe: It wa certainly planned from the beginining. You head down a certain path of what you want it to look like. Our production designer comes from live-action, a guy called Simon Murton, and he's worked on the past two Matrix films, Judge Dredd, he art-directed The Crow and he's got a pedigree in that, sort of that genre, cool, gritty realism. And we sort of knew from the start, it was funny to read web traffic and stuff when we first announced the Turtles and everybody sort of assumed they knew what it was going to look like. The whole idea was to have it not look like what people were going to assume right out of the gate.

So, I mentioned it again at Comic-Con, I'm trying not to repeat myself, but we lit most of the film in black and white before we even added a stitch of color, which was really something. We went back to really some high contrast movies instead of just going and copying like a Frank Miller look, like going back to when black and white film was such a great art form. So, it just sort of grew from there. We shot ourselves in the foot because, in a good way, like when we started adding stuff like wet downs and specularity and little highlights and all these little details and you realize why they are not in every little CG film because it's really hard to do. Especially, when we've got one sequence working really great with it, it really stuck out and we had to make the rest of the film look like it.

It was little bito f an evolution, but the final look is pretty much we intended from the start. I just didn't realize it was gonna look quite so, that we were gonna be able to follow through quite so much. We've got a lot of production keys, just hundred of them and it always seems to me that's it's the 100 percent that you aim for and you have to realize you're gonna hit 75 and you'll just have to make it work, but,Hong Kong is just amazing with how they can actually implement and that they can actually implement whatever direction you give them. We wound up really close. We were color timing last night until 3:30 in the morning and we were looking at the fillm and there are so many shots that look just like the paintings that we did, so we ended up pretty close, so it's cool.

Question: How much of the film is already completed?

Munroe: Well, we're done animation. We're basically about 90 percent completed. We're doing color timing right now, just on the visuals, and doing just some last-minute renders and some effects tweaking, so, that's the stuff that's coming across on people's laps across the Pacific. From there we still have to color time it and we're still doing sound effects. We're in the thick of post right now.

Question: How long did it take you from start to finish, your involvement?

Munroe: I was involved in October 2004. I started on the story and the treatment process. We worked with close with Peter Laird, and just that alone took quite a few months. Just to get the story down and working on how to implement it all. We started actual design just a couple of months after that. Even just the couple of us that were wroking on the story, we had sketchbooks and we we're starting as we were talking about the story, just gave us something to do with our hands.

Question: Is this a PG-13 movie or PG?

Munroe: It's close, it's gonna be PG. It's tight and you guys know because you've seen it now but our biggest enemy is intesity. I mean, it's not because we want to be graphic with any of the language, but you want to feel real peril, like the Spider-Mans and Batman. It makes you feel like those characters are gonna die. How can you push that without pushing too far? So, you push until you get hit and then you pull it back and we never intended it to be a sort of G friendly sort of movie so you know, we knew we'd go too far for that.

Gray: We would love to do it rated PG-13. but you can't really. You know when we first started setting this up and we went to the studio they said, there's no way you can do PG-13 beause everybody lives in the quandrants, the 7 to 11 and then the older one. So we tried to get a compromise where we could shove it up a little bit and get close to it without getting a PG-13. We had to pull back on several items that are really taboo, which are the throwing stars, the shurikens, to a certain degree nunchucks -- certainly in the UK and Scandanavia -- are forbidden. And those are the toys of the Turtles.

But, you know, it's one of those things we would love to graduate, maybe, if this thing is successful, take it to another level of PG-13. Because personally, for me, I aways thought when we got involved in this and had an early discussion and I said, "I don't care about the little kids, I want to satisfy the alums." Which were with us back in the day in the '90s. If we can make them happy, I don't care. The little ones are gonna get it off the television and they run around and they're lookin' at the toys. But, those alumni that really made this happen in the beginning, those are the ones you really gotta...

Question: The comic book was much more adult.

Gray: Exactly. Exactly. For me it was one of these travels. When I bought it in June of 1988, I wasn't completely sold on the concept myself. I was coming from a company that made all the Kung Fu movies in Hong Kong -- Jackie Chan and Jet Li and Bruce Lee. I said if we could take the Ninja Turtles and throw them in some suits and put out stunt guys into it and throw Phoebe Cates into it, we could get our money back in Japan. I have that letter at home that I wrote saying that we could make this from out studio for 3 million bucks in our studio in Hong Kong. If we make any money outside of that, terrific. That became the origin of why we originally decided to green-light the project.

...I always thought it would make money. I never thought it would be as big as it was.

This time coming around it wasn't easy to set up again. The wisdom was, there's X-Men, there's Spiderman, there's other superheroes now and the Turtles really don't have any fantastic things that they do, they don't fly or do any of those things. And it was out of the belief from Warner Bros. and The Weinstein Company. I remember Harvey (Weinstein) was in Hong Kong and we showed him a trailer and he came out of his chair and said, "I missed it the first time, I gotta have this now." And he said, I want this movie.

So, there's never, it's not an easy project because says, it was post-Howard the Duck in the beginning, when everybody said, if George Lucas can't make money on a comic book how can you? And I said, well, George Lucas never had toys and he was never on syndication, so it's often time what happens in this business. People that are in the business, don't see it for whatever it is. But, they don't listen to their research departments, who could tell you that this thing was really sitting on the shelf.

When Kevin and I were schlepping around town trying to make a presentation, what really sold the people was that he cut a really phenomenal trailer, which was very crude in the beginning but once they could see how these Turtles would look, then it started to become a reality. And the price that we were making this film at, everybody said, how bad could it be? You know, these things are, I don't know, I've lived large off of this for a long time and I think it's not so much me, it was the fact that I always felt there was an audience that was with us, is still going to be with us and then we have the new group. So, if we execute in a halfway decent fashion, we should make some money.

Question: So far as the nunchuks, they aren't in the movie at all?

GrayNunchuks are OK in the UK if they are in the belt or you don't see somebody get whacked with it because what happens is, and also the throwing stars, kids were going into metal shop in the UK and they were making these things and they were going to football matches and launching them into Manchester United, so they outlawed these things. And then, you get into the Scandanavian countries where violence is totally taboo and they don't want to know about it. Bruce Lee was banned for years and years in Scandanavia. There's levels around the world of censorship. But we are kind of victimized by the fact that we have three pictures out here, so the Motion Pictures Association said to us, "Well, you're rather special because the parents will say, 'Oh the Turtles are benign, they're not gonna be bad.'" And some of the action that we have in it is pretty strong and they said you guys are walking on a tightrope here, pull back a little bit. I think, when we're pulling back we'll do it more with effects and music, it won't be as dramatic. But, it will still have power.

Kevin and I were just scratching our heads and looking at Narnia and some of the movies out there that are far more violent, but we come with that preconceived idea that parents will take their kids .

Question: Why do you think we are bringing back all these properties from the '80s, Transformers, Turtles? Is it nostalgia?

Munroe: We had a couple of designers working with us who are working on Speed Racer now, and stuff like that is fun to me, I know it comes out as corny to a few people but I think as long as it's inspired and it feels cool, if it taps into that energy of what it felt like back then. I'm not gonna pimp Gotchaman, but it's the same with that. When you sit back and look at it now, it just doesn't hold up. But, when you sit back and remember how fun it was to build those ships with the Legos. I think there's a lot there. You can't just update suits and stick to a generic story, so to me, it a lot about how you recreate a vibe. We talk about that with the Turtles too, there's a lot of stuff that happens between panels that you don't see, but for some reason as you're reading the comic book you get the idea that all that action that happens. And that's what this is about, that sort of energy matched with the energy the alumni had watching it the first time through. I think that is the intention, that makes these movies more inspired than half the ones in development around town that just sort of get born out of A + B = C.

Gray: I also think that the mindset of the studios is so play it safe. You know, Superman was around 30, 40 years before they made a picture. Today, I was on Rocky 1 when I was at United Artists and now it's Rocky 6! You know, you're taking Dukes of Hazzard and putting new stars in them and we'll jack it up and make it for 150 million and people will buy and we'll just blow it out there on a 75-million dollar marketing campaign and everybody will show up. And we're going 6,500 prints and we'll get our money back and we'll flip it on the DVD and we've got our pay cable in there, they flash it through the formula, it comes out. Profit. Green light.

I think this is why we are seeing in this cinema business, so many of these recent, and Turtles included, that are not 40 years old or something like that. It's truncating in because the ideas are more, you're in a revenue stream, you aren't in the film business anymore. We have seven decisions to make decisions, guys that head that revenue stream have an input into your movie-making process. Merchandising, pay cable, foreign, every one of these things are entering into the decision-making process.

I'm not sure if that's the way to go. I think that's why we have, the company, has gone the other way by not taking American projects, but we're gonna make Astro Boy, we're gonna make Gatchaman, because these are that were overseas and all culture, it's coming out of two experiences, out of the Asian/Japanese.Korean paradigm and out of the black culture and to a certain degree, the latino culture, because it's different, it's unusual. So our company, this was just the beginning of what we wanted to do and the only connection is, when I joined this company, I happened to produce the first three, so if I never was involved in it, we would have never made this movie, but, it's the way you go. And then, our owner, who is 29 years old, grew up with Gatchaman and Astro Boy. And artists like Kevin who've had a great appreciation for this said, you know what, let's not do the happy talking pictures anymore. Cat Tail was a picture about happy talking cats and dogs and we said, "Next!" We had 10 million in the movie, but we put in the shelf because there are too many of them. So we thought, with the superhero, if we really execute well, we have a better chance at success.

Question: So when are we gonna see El Zombo or something?

Munroe: It's funny, it always pops us every four months, somebody will call up and say, oh this so and so producer saw it and just loves it. So you chase it. It's Dark Horse so they're never gonna let it die, which is cool. We're actually talking about trying to do another series of it, going back to it, which is fun, it's cool. I did that and I did Olympus Heights after that and it was like a fun comic book run right before coming here. There's actually video of me on my first day anad I look so tired. I had just finished the run on El Zombo and we'd just been up for like, two days in a row, trying to get everything finished. It's not a fun job, but it's cool. Who knows? El Zombo would be fun to do.

Question: This is not a reboot, the existing movies exist in this storyline right? So does the animated series?

Munroe: I'd say, if you had to place it someplace, it'd be with the movies rather than the animated series. We acknowledge the adventures that they've been on. I think, if you just look at the three movies, knowing they've been on those adventures, that pretty much encompasses anything that the animated series could do when you go from mutant, the whole TCR stuff to the traveling in time. It's a pretty broad spectrum.

It's a reworked story, we didn't have much interest in doing a reboot story and retelling the origin story, everybody knows it. That's the same reason why Shredder isn't in it, in this first one, at least. The idea now is that they've been through all these adventures and Splinter as a worried father is concerned that having a common foe is the only thing that binds them together as a family. That's not the right thing to bind you together as family.

So, the family is sort of falling apart at the beginning of the movie and its about coming together as a team and as a family, so at the end you sort of end with this world that you want to go back to and you want to revisit and it doesn't feel like we're treading in the same water all over again.

Question: You just said, Shredder's not in the first movie, do you have stories set up for more?

Munroe: We're just talking about it. Ask us March 26.

Gray: Sure, I think that March 26 comes and it's not a turkey then sure, I think we have to look at it.

Question: You talked about bringing it back to PG. Will there be a longer or more aggressive cut on the DVD?

Gray: I think that would be up to the studios, you know, their DVD department, if they wanted to push it a little bit. I'm not sure that that would be constructive. It might offset some people saying, "Woah, these guys really cut this back." And we didn't really cut it back, to be honest. If that cut that we really wanted to make was it, we'd be PG-13. So we pulled back some of the things that were pointed out to us, the sharpness, some of the monsters were too over the top, we pulled back in the effects and the music, so, it's not gonna's not that dramatic.

Again, if thign does work, I don't know if the studio would allow us to do a 13 again. I certainly would like to do it, grow the franchise in that direction. But I'm not sure they would look at it economically and say, well, you're gonna cut out a huge sector of our audience so don't do it.

Question: Are we also gonna see a new comic book or new series to go along with the film?

Munroe: I think Mirage is doing, they're doing like five prequels. It's funny because when we developed the story we had a lot of, sort of, origin stories of where everybody had been leading up to the events in the film, so they actually took some of those ideas that we talked about, like, April was at when the film starts, where Raph was. They are actually doing prequel comics. I forget when they are releasing, it's pretty soon. I thnk there's one per character plus April. I thnk they also have a comic book version of the movie. It's more Mirage's call than ours, but there's definitley stuff there to play with.

Question: Besides getting this made, what has been your biggest challenge?

Munroe: I think setting up the studio in Hong Kong, that was a really big challenge. Other than getting it made, that's the first thing that comes to mind. We have, like, 400 people in Hong Kong and half of them this is like there first job so it was half art-school half movie production so it was a lot of communication and a lot of back and forth.

I an constantly surprised by stuff, like there are 80 animators over there and only a handful speak English and the idea that there is so much subtext to a lot of the animation and a lot of the acting and it's just being interpreted by our Hong Kong-born animation director, who just goes there and acts it out. Same with the action. They push their desks aside and it looks like Fight Club. There's 20 Chinese guys just beating each other.

They grew up with a pedigree of Hong Kong cinema and that kind of background, so this comes naturally. And over half of them have trained in martial arts too so it was really neat, we set up the camera here and just go nuts. We talked about needing a choreograher for the beginning, and while it looks cool for the DVD to show us doing this, it's really just a side step.

Question: Can you talk more about the work flow?

Munroe: It's a very high-end TV model. All the front end and back end is here in the sense that we have a director, art director, storyboards and all the lighting keys are done out here. All the pre-vis is here. We basically shoot the movie in 3D before we send it over. And then in Hong Kong, they handle the modeling, the lightning and the physical production of the thing. We just go back and forth every day with Hong Kong, a lot of communication. It's not nearly as cool as having 400 hundred people just down the hall from you, but it's pretty close.

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