South African director Jonathan Liebesman knew going into “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” that taking on such a storied and popular part of pop culture wouldn’t be without its challenges. Chief among them? Even die-hard fans argue about what exactly counts as canon when it comes to Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael. But then again, Liebesman likes a challenge.
How do you decide what’s canon and what’s not for this franchise?
For me, I was a huge fan of the cartoons and the movies. I didn’t know a lot about the comic books until I met Kevin Eastman and read them. What was important were touchstones such as pizza and “Cowabunga,” but their personalities were most important. There are those tropes, for sure. I think it’s like a dysfunctional family that has to come together to save the world.
In the age of ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘The Dark Knight,’ you have to make sure audiences know this isn’t meant to be taken seriously, right?
That’s what I love about the Turtles. I feel like the stuff that I became a fan of was actually the parody of superheroes, the fact that they are so absurd — the combination of teenage, mutant, ninja and turtles is so ridiculous that we do want to laugh. And the more I got into the movie, the more I wanted it to be funny. … I wanted to try and point out how ridiculous it is without undermining the world.
You have a battle on top of a skyscraper and actually show the debris hitting the ground below, which is oddly rare in an action films.
Those shots can be expensive, and studios often say, “No one gives a s— about those people down there.” But actually, that was [producer Michael] Bay. It’s very important for him to see the world being affected by the action; action doesn’t happen without consequence.
You’ve had to deal with online criticism at every turn with this project. How do you stomach that?
At least people care, and that’s why they’re s—ing on us.