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How The Original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Became an Unexpected Independent Hit

How The Original 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Became an Unexpected Independent Hit

Lean, Green and On the Screen

“You don’t hear crickets in Manhattan, do you?”

Me and Simon are standing over a motionless Raphael. It’s actually an actor, Josh, inside a green latex suit. We’re trying to make him feel a little less claustrophobic inside his boiling hot prison.


He’s panting. This stressful panic is not his idea of movie magic. He’s resting on a purpose-made wooden frame, like a small horse, that cradles a Ninja Turtle in the only comfortable resting position possible between takes. His large latex mouth is wedged wide open like a lizard and a fan is blowing cold air through it and onto the actor’s sweltering face inside. I look around at all four Turtles perched, in this frozen, still-life state, on their resting horses. It’s like something you’d see in a MOMA exhibition – and it’s even more bizarre as the Manhattan street set is being accompanied by the deafening sound of North Carolina crickets in the heat of the night. If that’s not crazy enough, the reason we’re doing another take is because of interference from the local aircraft landing at Wilmington US Airforce base. It sends the radio-controlled animatronic servers in the faces of our Turtles wild. Eyes are blinking and smiles are creasing and jaws are freezing in remote mayhem. “Cut!”

Mercifully, we’ve got Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to make our characters. He said most projects they have to invent one new technology – on this one it’s six! And we’ve got $7 million dollars to shoot it. If people ever do show up to see this movie they will surely never imagine the moments in between.

God, it was so close to not happening at all, because until two weeks ago no one wanted it in the U.S. and we didn’t have enough money to go ahead. Luckily, New Line has stepped in with a couple of mill, or it would have been over.

“Okay, let’s get back in position, we’re set for another take,” says a voice from a megaphone. We’ve abandoned the idea of removing their 30lb heads to cool off between takes because it takes too long to patch them back on, defeating the purpose. Each of these brave performers has lost almost 30lb in weight themselves in the last two weeks. Mind you, no one said it was going to be easy. “Roll camera.”


A couple of weeks later we are tip-toeing back along those scary Disney corridors, with the next draft edit from Sally, those five reels of picture and five reels of sound, and I am really thinking hard about what my future might hold. People have been telling me that this film I’m carrying is too dark, and too scary for kids – and too juvenile for grown-ups. All that is ringing in my ears as I contemplate another American flop to add to my “Electric Dreams.” Perhaps another disaster in the dreams of a music video director trying to make films. Perhaps these reels in my hands will be stuck on a pile of last films, by directors that tried and failed. Films that were nearly, or might have been, then never were.

But dreams are funny things, aren’t they? I am thinking. Maybe, just maybe. I mean, you never know, do you? Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe next spring people will go bonkers for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the movie. Maybe I dare to believe that kids might possibly scream at their parents to take them. And dare I to dream that there might be queues right around the block to see my film? And that the kids might scream at their parents to take them again, and scream at their parents to take them again, and dare I even dare to dream that this film will open to a huge box office? So huge it will break the record for an independent movie?

No, that’s getting silly! But what if it did? What if it came out and shocked the film industry by grossing something completely crazy and unheard of like $135.5 million at the U.S. box office!!! I can dream, can’t I? I’ve dreamt before.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Steve Barron started in films as a camera assistant on epic productions such as Richard Donner’s “Superman,” Richard Attenborough’s “A Bridge Too Far” and Ridley Scott’s “The Duellists.” He began directing music videos in the early ’80s for The Jam, Human League and Adam & the Ants. In 1982, he conceived and directed the award-winning Billie-Jean, the first single from Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. His first film “Electric Dreams” (1984) was an immediate cult classic, while his second, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1990), stunned the industry by becoming the first independent feature to break the $100 million theatrical mark.  

Steve also directed other features including “Coneheads,” “Rat, Mike Bassett: England Manager” and TV network mega-series “Merlin,” “Arabian Nights,” “Dreamkeeper” and “Treasure Island,” all garnering him a slew of awards including 27 Emmy nominations, 5 Golden Globe nominations and a DGA nod. Find out more about the book here and order it here.

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