Kim Dawson and Bobby Herbeck on the Original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” Movie 30 Years Later | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, November 23rd, 2020  

Kim Dawson and Bobby Herbeck on the Original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” Movie 30 Years Later

They’re All Different!

Nov 05, 2020 Web Exclusive
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For anyone who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, you likely crossed paths with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If, like me, you were rather obsessed with them, then you likely had dozens of figures and maybe even rode around on the large TMNT blimp like a horse (I regret nothing!). But one of the biggest highlights of Turtle fandom back then was the live action movie released in 1990, which was co-written by Bobby Herbeck and co-produced by Kim Dawson.

The movie, which featured costumes made by the famed Jim Henson, portrayed the Turtles’ story in a darkened, though humorous light. There were jokes about pizza for as much hand-to-hand combat. It was a great movie for fans and did big business in the box office, despite expectations and some critics’ opinions. Today, with the 30th anniversary of the movie’s release, fans can enjoy the special three-day appearance of the movie on movie theater screens nationwide from Nov. 5th through the 7th.

We caught up with Dawson and Herbeck (who dropped into the conversation a little later) to talk about their experiences making the movie, what its success taught them, and which is their favorite Turtle. 

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): Kim, I just want to let you know, watching the movie had me out in the street as a little kid trying to lift manhole covers to see the sewer underneath! 

Kim Dawson: Did you lose any fingers in that process?

I probably easily could have but thankfully did not.

Dawson: I’ve heard some stories about people doing that and, you know, they’re heavy! Goodness gracious. But what fun. When the Turtle toys first premiered in February of ’88 at ToyFare in New York City outside the Javits Center, they had rigged a manhole cover that blew off and the Turtles came out of the manhole, out of the sewer. And it really set off—there was a huge publicity event around it and all that. It really set the tone for the sales of those toys, which didn’t hit the self until June of that year. But by that time, it was iconic already.

I was one of the biggest buyers! I had the sewer set, the big dome, the blimp. I had all that stuff as a kid and very happily. 

Dawson: It’s a blessing, certainly. Lightening in a bottle for all of us. It was not something we had planned on, in terms o the success of it. We’d hoped it would be but there was no knowing.

There’s that great show on Netflix called The Toys That Made Us, which talks about the Turtles, too. So, let me ask, when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first hit the shelves and television screens, what stood out most to you about the concept?

Dawson: Well, I think the fact that they had—that everyone one of the turtles was different. They each had their own personalities, you know? While you could recognize them by the different colors, I think it was more about what they stood for, how they behaved towards one another, and all that. I grew up in a family with four brothers, so there were five of us altogether. And every one of us was a little bit different, so I could relate real easily to the way they were, particularly when we were teenagers and my poor mother had to put up with us. I think that’s the thing that was the coolest. There was a little bit of something for everybody, no matter who you were, how you behaved or whatever the case may be. And I think that diversity in terms of—because, usually, a superhero like Superman or Batman or the guys we’d grown up with were a singular character. You had to find your way into that character from a personal point of view. But with the Turtles you could kind of pick and choose. 

Kim, when the movie surpassed expectations, what did that make you think about or consider in a new way about the power of the Turtles or movies, in general? 

Dawson: I had worked in the television business primarily since the mid-’70s. So, I’m pretty old. I’m 72. At the time, everybody was aware of how poorly Howard the Duck had performed and how poorly The Garbage Pale Kids Movie had done. So, there was a lot of trepidation. I had moved to Orlando in the spring of ’88 to produce the Mickey Mouse Club for Disney, having been a longtime L.A. resident. I picked up and my family and I all moved here. I had two young kids at the time. So, I was engaged with kids’ programming, as a whole. The thing that surprised me was that—my boss at the Disney Channel, Patrick Davidson, saw the Turtles. He loved it and he said, “Let me take this to [Jeffrey] Katzenberg.” I remember at the time thinking, “Well that’s a great idea. Maybe we’ll just make this deal and it will fly.” And Katzenberg’s attitude was, “It’s the worst idea in the world. It will never work. It will never work.” 

Over the next year and a half, while I produced the Mouse Club, we would often have meetings in my office at MGM with [Michael] Eisner and Frank Wells, rest his soul. I had a poster of the Turtle toys on my wall and they all to a person went, “That won’t work. It’s just not going to happen.” Then when the toys came out and were such a smash hit, that still didn’t change people’s mind. Finally, we made a deal with Golden Harvest. But with all the toy success and all of that, people were very skeptical of live action pictures based on comic books. Except for the standard like Superman and Batman and all that. This is even before Stan Lee had made a lot of progress and had really impacted the marketplace with all the Marvel comics. So, there was still a lot of doubt about how well these things could perform.

When it did perform well, what did that do for you?

Dawson: I’ll be honest with you, I went to a screening of the picture in December of ’89. It released in March of ’90. So, about four months before it released, we did a test in Las Vegas and Gary Propper and I, my partner at the time, who was working out of Las Vegas, went to the screening and when we came out of the screening, we could tell by the reaction of the kids in the audience that it had played well. But we had no idea how truly well it had played because it got these 96-97% like it and would recommend it, which is the holy grail for film producers and distributors, more importantly. All the people from New Line were at the screening and the bottom line was Mitch Goldman looked at these reports coming back from the test and said, “We don’t have enough prints.” He had ordered I think about 1,100 or 1,200 prints to that. I think they were making the prints in London at Fuji Film, if I’m not mistaken. But he called up and literally doubled the order. I think we ended up on 2,300 screens. 

With that lead-time, we knew that at least it was going to open on enough screens to make a number but we were also opening against some pretty heavyweight films. Pretty Woman had opened the week before against the critic reviews, which panned it. And it was doing big business. So, we didn’t have—I remember when I went to the screening, we had a premiere here in Orlando and we went to the screening afterwards and it was like, “Holy moly! The theaters are full! They’re actually full!” Back then we didn’t have the tracking that you do now. I think we were all surprised by the numbers. $25 million at that time meant we were doing an average of over $10,000 per screen and that was a big number for a kids’ film, if you will. But the magic to me occurred when—because I think I watched the film probably 8-10 times that weekend. I went to every screening I could.

The early screenings were full of kids and at 7 o’clock was still kids and then they had a 10 o’clock screening and a 12:30 screaming. And the later screenings were attended by teenagers and college kids, who were the comic book collectors. And I said, “That’s going to kick it over.” And by the second weekend—we’d done a promotion with a cereal and on the back of the box was a 2-for-1 coupon. Kids were buying those things in droves. So, we had an early indication that part of the marketing campaign was really working. The promotion was going to go off. And it did because the kids came in droves. They came 2-for-1, why wouldn’t you go back? So, even though the box office probably could have been higher, I don’t know that it would have been. So, I was thrilled. Unexpectedly, I remember driving home from Disney, where I still had my [office] and thinking, “This is unbelievable!” 

There are so many great actors, characters, and costumes in the film. What stands out to you as the most interesting detail or aspect of it 30-years later? 

Dawson: I still think that I’m particularly enamored of Jim Henson’s and Brian Henson’s take on the costumes. I think what they did was groundbreaking. I was fortunate enough to share an office with Jim Henson at Disney MGM because he had licensed The Muppets to Disney at the time. And I remember talking to him about it and they struggled with how to make the animatronics work because the puppeteering was really complex. It was stuff they hadn’t really done before. Building suits like that to house full-sized characters. Most of the Muppet puppets and the Sesame Street puppets are operated by real puppeteers and they’re not occupied by stunt actors or by actors, right? 

So, in this case, you had puppeteers who were operating the radio controlled units. The actors inside the puppets. And everybody was connected by the headsets. The director could talk to the actors and the puppeteers. So, it was very complex and an extremely creative approach to how to make these things work. The legacy of the picture is that those characters still stand out as being real. People relate to them like they’re real people. That was the best part of it for me, aside from Bobby’s words that he wrote, which were brilliant and inspired and gave [director] Steve [Barron] a wonderful platform and palate to work with. Because without a great script, you’re nowhere. So, we started with a fantastic story and characters. And Bobby and [writer] Todd [Langen] made that script come alive. 

Bobby, how did you get involved with the script, exactly? 

Bobby Herbeck: I brought the project to Golden Harvest. I brought them the assignment. Kim brought it to me and I brought it to them. So, I wasn’t a writer for hire. It was our project and I should have also been a producer on the picture, which is a sore point for me. Kim and Gary are the lead characters and then Kim brought it to me. I was working on another movie for Golden Harvest and then it took me about three months to get Tom Gray off his ass and at least listen, take a pitch meeting. Because he kept saying, “Don’t bother me with the Ninja Turtles. Finish the script I’m paying you for.” The rest turned out to be history. 

It took some time. I went over to Hollywood all over town, wall papered the town in pitch meetings and I was laughed and giggled and ushered out of the meetings. They would call my agent and say, “Who’s the guy smoking pot that came in with the Turtles.” And my agent said, “I don’t know about the pot but the Turtles are real. It’s a TV show right now.” That’s how I finally hooked Tom. We were having a drink one night and I said, “You have two kids, 10 and 12. When you go home, ask them about the Ninja Turtles.” By the time I got back home at night, he left me a message to get Kim and meet him the next morning. 

Now, I had no hand in the sequel. I had no sequel rights. I didn’t get sequel rights, which, you know—30 years later, I’m still grateful for it. But I still have a bruise about not getting a producer credit and not getting to do a sequel as a writer. Kim and them were smart enough to have a lawyer to get them sequel rights! They had a better lawyer than I did. 

As you were writing it, what inspired you? 

Herbeck: I just thought it was so different. I was writing for television, Norman Lear, Diff’rent Strokes and The Jeffersons at that time. I’d written film scripts and I was writing one for Tom, as I said. But it’s a whole different muscle, you know? When you’re writing a movie—the thing about writing a TV script is you know it’s going to be on TV in a month. If you write a movie, it may never get on the screen. You may do 150 drafts before it gets to a screen. I’m doing that right now with a picture for Columbia. It could be god knows when this thing hits the screen. 

I just loved the characters. When they were brought to me, we met in the In-and-Out Burgers in Westminster. Kim brought it to me and I got it right away even though a lot of other people didn’t get it. Our boss at the time thought it was another Howard the Duck and he was wrong. But I just got jacked up. I went and spent several weeks at [TMNT creators] Peter [Laird] and Kevin’s [Eastman] to get the story together to get them to sign off to go to script. So, between that adventure and getting into the Turtles and I was recently asked about my research and I watched a lot of Marx Brothers, I watched a lot of George Lucas, I watched Star Wars and The Three Musketeers. Because I felt they each had that quality to them. That’s the quality I wanted. They were just great characters. It was a genius idea on Peter and Kevin’s part. And everything in life is timing. Our timing was perfect. 

Dawson: I think the best writers in the world are the ones who do research ad nauseam. The ones who read the most, because the background as you heard Bobby say, it was a very diverse palate of material that he was drawing on because when you use all of that, when you combine it all, it comes to a very original type of thing. Bobby has a very fundamental skill in comedy. Some people are born with this. I’d done a lot of work in comedy when I was at Showtime. I was always in awe of people who are funny as Bobby is. Bobby is not only a standup but a warm-up comic for shows, aside from his writing. But he’s just a naturally funny person. You find yourself in stitches in virtually every conversation. To my way of thinking, that element was something that had been—the original comics were pretty serious. They didn’t have the teenage banter that Bobby came up with at the end of the day. I think that humor also gave it—kept it out of the realm of being too serious. 

Herbeck: Well, without Kim I wouldn’t have even done it! 

Last question: who is your favorite Turtle? 

Herbeck: I like all of them because without all of them, we’ve got nada-bupkiss. Raphael has got a lot of my personality in it, which you can probably pick up on already. And Kim is kind of Donatello, to me. Kim is laid back. Kim’s very laid back

Dawson: My favorite character is Michelangelo. Because he reminds me so much of Gary Propper. Gary was like that. He was like the party animal who had more depth than you actually recognized on the surface, because he seems like more of a simple charter. But he has a lot of depth to him. So, Mikey is Gary Propper incarnate and Gary passed away about a year and a half ago. So, that means a lot to me.

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