Ciro Nieli & Hoon Lee talk Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Season 4

Pictured:  clockwise from bottom: Leonardo (blue Mask), Donatello (purple mask),  Raphael (red mask), Michelangelo (orange mask) in Teennage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nickelodeon

If one word defined my generation, I’d cast my vote for “Cowabunga.” If another word shall define this upcoming generation, I’d place my bets on “Booyakasha!” As a lifelong Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fanatic, we currently live in the golden era of Ninja Turtles fandom. The sewers of New York City are in high demand. The IDW comic book series continues to receive critical acclaim and the theatrical reboot was a commercial success. To top it off, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series might be my all-time favorite adaptation.

Back in 2012, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were revived by the creative minds of Ciro Nieli and Brandon Auman. Some fans were apprehensive towards this remake since Nickelodeon had purchased the rights to the franchise; just like Disney and Star Wars. However, those assumptions were crushed quicker than Splinter in the dumpster circa 1990. Unlike most reboots, Nickelodeon’s T.M.N.T. captures the innocence of the original series and the intensity of the comic books with state of the art computer animation. The creators pay serious homage to all previous adaptations (shows, films, and comics) yet take the Turtles into uncharted territory from a storyline perspective.

Case in point, executive producer Ciro Nieli certainly isn’t afraid to challenge the fan base. If anyone missed the finale of season three, my emotions were crushed in a way that I haven’t felt since I saw Toy Story 3. The Turtles face serious consequences for their actions and the stakes involve life or death. For a so-called “children’s series,” Nieli finds this magical balance between dramatic storytelling and captivating fun. He captures the human element of the Turtles, their loveable family dynamic, and the infliction of suffering a huge loss. Being fortunate enough to speak with him, fans are lucky to have such a passionate visionary behind our “Heroes in a half-shell.”

The good news: Season 4 premieres on October 25. Nickelodeon kicked off the New York Comic Con in “Cowabunga” fashion when they hosted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle panel. Better yet, Pop-Break joined an exclusive roundtable where we interviewed Ninja Turtle executive producer Ciro Nieli and Splinter voice actor Hoon Lee. Believe us; keep your eyes glued to the screen as the visionary and leader behind the Ninja Turtles give us the full insight into “why they love being involved with the turtles.”

As the executive producer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, why do you think these characters have endured for so long? The Turtles are more popular than ever.

Ciro Nieli: The Turtles have endured forever basically in their simplicity and relatability. There are a lot of reasons really. What I’ve boiled it down too; I think it’s strengthened by this new show – there’s a very strong personality/archetype in each of them. They are almost modular in their look. People automatically see them as a group but they’ll say, “Oh, I like them as a group but I like that one.” Or they’ll say, “Oh, I like that one because he’s so cute but he’s also really dangerous and cool,” or “I like the clown,” or “I like building machines,” or “I get very angry.” Unlike anything else, I can ask anyone in this room and everyone could draw a Ninja Turtle. I mean; the design is genius. The idea of a turtle wearing a bandanna and carrying a weapon is genius. You can’t top that.

I get asked this all the time and it’s always in the vein of, “Oh, we need you to do the next Turtles for us!” And it’s never going to happen. It’s not going to happen, sorry. It has nothing to do with my ability or anyone else’s ability. It hasn’t happened in thirty plus years. The Turtles magically hit this nerve and it’s never going to repeat. They’ve tried it; Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Samurai Pizza Cats, Biker Mice From Mars, Street Sharks, and Battletoads. Get in line; it’s never going to happen. The Turtles are awesome.

This show has carved out its own legacy in the Turtles Universe. As a producer, how do you balance appeasing the loyal TMNT fanbase and still find a way to connect with the kids and create that magic?

Ciro: I think the one thing Brandon and I do a lot; we don’t think about Turtle cannon. We respect the Turtle fans but we don’t react to the Turtle fans. We are feeding the Turtle fans. That entails a certain approach. The way I like to think of it; tell a story you like to tell because it’s a good story. Tell it well and the four characters in your story are Ninja Turtles so that’s a bonus. I see them as real actors or real characters that show up for work and they get to play in this drama and story for me.

That does something to it after a few seasons – complexion wise – where it stands on its own. By standing on its own, I think it has a certain amount of respect within the canon and within an existing property that is already huge. I’ve worked on a lot of existing properties whether it’s the DC Universe, Marvel Universe, Transformers, or GI Joe. The best thing to do – don’t think about the logo and the fans and making anyone happy because you will just choke. Don’t choke. Don’t make things as a fan. Make things out of love with an open heart and really believe in it.

Pictured: Leonardo (blue mask), Raphael  (red mask), Michelangelo  (orange mask), Donatello  (purple mask) in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES on Nickelodeon.  Photo:  Nickelodeon. ©2012 Viacom, International, Inc.  All Rights Reserved
Pictured: Leonardo (blue mask), Raphael (red mask), Michelangelo (orange mask), Donatello (purple mask) in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES on Nickelodeon. Photo: Nickelodeon. ©2012 Viacom, International, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Do you have a certain amount of creative freedom that is afforded to you since the show has been successful?

Ciro: There are freedoms that come with the success. On the contrary, I think there’s a lot of things that become pitfalls and stumbling blocks because of the success. More so than ever, I think we’ve been getting outside influence. You have to understand, I started this project alone. It was myself along with the Development Executive at Nick and the President of Animation at the time working on this project. We developed this thing for over a year. Now, I’m going to have a meeting tomorrow where I walk into a room with 200 people. All of whom really care about and believe they are a big part of Ninja Turtles and they are but I’ve maybe never met them before. If they saw me walking down the street, they wouldn’t know who I am. It’s a snowball effect and it does make things a little more complicated. There’s a product and it’s a huge company For Brandon and myself, I think the biggest challenge is navigating through all these obstacles and trying to keep true to the stuff that we want to do, and that works for these characters and property.

The Turtles are going to space so can you tease any new aliens or space pizza?

Ciro: Well, I talked about this a little earlier. We don’t have any space pizza in light of having a Fugitoid spaceship. The Space Speeder has a food replicator, which could both be joyous and horrible at different times. There are some great new villains. One character we’ve talked about is Lord Dregg – he’s an old 80s series character played by Peter Stormare. He’s just so awesome. Yes, the Turtles are teenagers and more so than usual in space, they don’t fit in and they screw up. They upset the wrong people – one of which is this intergalactic spider crime lord insect. Because of that, he also summons other villains to the Turtles, unbeknownst to them since they are chasing something else. It’s going to be fun. It’s kind of a roller coaster story…literally. They’re in a spaceship careening out of control constantly.

Earth was seemingly destroyed at the end of season three. I know you can’t say much but is there another dimension or way that the Turtles could return to Earth?

Ciro: I know it’s hard; I can tell you everything but I can’t tell you anything. When is this coming out? We are going to show a sneak peak today that will answer all of these questions. You could base it off of that. But yes, I can say The Fugitoid ship is equipped with certain technology that may or may not – if they could put all of the right pieces together – fix this situation. But you’ll see it, especially if you’re at the panel because we’re going to drop something. I think we established how things need to go if they properly work out during the premiere of season 4, which I believe airs on October 25.

Brandon Auman mentioned earlier that if viewers weren’t up to speed during season three, they could watch season four and know what’s going on?

Ciro: Completely and that was for a lot of reasons. Coming into season four, we tried to make sure this season was self-contained. If I were going to speak to someone that hasn’t watched this series at all, I would make a little cheat sheet of episodes they need to watch. Knowing what the Ninja Turtles are already – I would say to start with the finale of season 2 and go through the end of season 3. You could do that if you want the fast version. I love a lot of those episodes in season 1 and 2 though. It all adds up to character development and you miss character moments when don’t watch it all the way through.

Pictured:   Raphael  (red mask),  Leonardo (blue mask),  April (red hair), Donatello  (purple mask) and Michelangelo  (orange mask),  in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES on Nickelodeon.  Photo:  Nickelodeon. ©2012 Viacom, International, Inc.  All Rights Reserved

Most great television series really hit their stride in the third and fourth seasons. The actors and writers come together and the material usually stands out for being the best. Is that how you feel about season four? Are you in the zone creatively?

Ciro: I feel strongly that way about season three. It’s hard for me to talk about season four because I’m literally up to my eyes in it right now. I was in Austin, Texas for three or four days doing a convention. I flew back to LA for one day to finish and post 402, which is the second episode of season four. I finished it and I immediately jumped on the plane to fly over here. If I didn’t do that, I would’ve missed an airdate. I could’ve flown from Texas to here and it would’ve been easier. It’s hard for me – I don’t have any hindsight on it because I’m in it. I could clearly say – season 4 from a story standpoint and cutting the storyboards, designs, and building all those sets and characters; it has been the hardest. It’s way too big and it’s exceeded our capacity but we’re doing it.

Hoon Lee (Splinter): I think that’s good though. At that point in the show, this is kind of tipping point for a lot of shows where people say, “We know what this is. Let’s keep going and stay the course.” Or they could say, “We’re going to break a bunch of stuff so we could reinvest in it and push ourselves to the next level.” It’s always a good thing to see that happen.

Ciro: It’s like when you’re working out and you chase the imaginary sandwich (Laughs). You’re like “Aghhh!” Your brain is telling your body “No!” and you have to get past it. And it’s like “Ah, my brain really hurts and my hair is falling out. It hurts!”

Hoon: We’re going to blow up the earth. There’s your sandwich.

Ciro: It was so funny – the first shot of the earth exploding came back looking like a cadbury egg had cracked. That was a melting point a few months ago. I was freaking out and it was like, “No! We have no time (Laughs)! Why does it look like that (Laughs)?”

How far ahead did you know about Splinter’s fate and what was going to happen to him?

Hoon: I don’t get scripts that far ahead of time. It’s always a nice surprise to discover things at a certain pace except when it’s not a nice surprise. It’s the sort of thing – it keeps things really immediate and fresh for the recording. They are running at such an intense pace to produce the show. There is some sense that we’re just part of the slipstream. We just have to get in there and execute as well as we can partially because there’s so many moving parts. I kind of enjoy not having a full spectrum picture right away and some people don’t.

Even for a scenario that dramatic?

Hoon: Yeah, because on some level – the character doesn’t see it coming so why should I? He’s not going to live his life in the six months prior knowing that this is going to happen to him.