Filmmaker Randall Lobb’s new documentary Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (now available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment) is astonishing not so much for its thorough chronicling of one of the most unlikely pop-culture phenomenons of the last half century, but for the way it finds an emotional core to the story behind that story. The documentary features in-depth interviews with the two charismatic comic book artists who created the Turtles and saw them through their rapid rise to fame in the ’80s and ’90s — the high-energy and enthusiastic Kevin Eastman and the reserved and analytical Peter Laird. Not that Turtle Power isn’t bursting with nerd-friendly ephemera. The Turtles’ many incarnations — from alternative comic heroes to kid-friendly cartoons to action figures to movie stars to Broadway performers to pizza pitchman — are all covered here in fascinating and colorful detail. I sat down with Lobb recently and he told me how Turtle Power came to be, and how it reflects his own career.
Nerdist: As your documentary shows, at the core of the massive Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon was a surprisingly sweet human story about two very different creative individuals who complemented each other very well.
Randall Lobb: Yeah, and if you look at it in a kind of surface way, the three of us who made this documentary were working in a similar structure. [Producer] Isaac [Elliott-Fisher] and I would have a clash about something because our needs are very different. He’s a big Turtle fan and I’m much more reticent, I’m a naysayer. I’m a strategic thinker and very calculated. Where he’s emotional, some people would say I’m super reserved or some would say cold. [Laughs.] There’s a clash there. And [executive producer] Mark [Hussey] is very optimistic and very generous and gentle with both of us. We had to find ways to work together successfully. So when we’re looking at these two characters who made the Turtles, of course you flash on, “I know that. I feel that.” It was so relatable, I don’t think we could have helped but put it in. If we had said, “We’re simply gonna list the facts in a row,” it wouldn’t have happened. When you hear the interviews, you feel their vulnerabilities and the pride they had and the excitement. Remember, we got to know these two guys. We got to be friends with them. Literally, we went and had pizza with Kevin Eastman. Literally, we sat with Pete and watched some of this documentary and watched where he reacted, and he would hit pause and talk to us. We really got inside the story, so we couldn’t help but put it in.
N: Your own background is actually in teaching…
RL: I am a twenty-five-year English and media teacher. I’m actually the head of the English department at my school. So if you need a job we can talk off air. [Laughs.]
N: How did you get involved with Turtle Power?
RL: I was working at a very grassroots production company with my partner, Roger, just the two of us. We were working on different documentaries and music videos, all this stuff. And in a post-podcast world, we’re big fans of do-it-yourself media. Chris Hardwick starting Nerdist — that’s very inspiring. So right around the same time all this other stuff was happening, we wanted to do the same kind of thing in our own little way. So we were working on many projects. Roger has a history with music and technology and I have a history with writing and screenwriting. So when [our producer] said, “ I want to do this documentary on Ninja Turtles,” I said no at the exact time my partner said yes. We looked at each other and in that moment I realized, “This is exactly the kind of project that we’ve been talking about. It’s pop culture. It’s right in our wheelhouse. We don’t have any choice. We have to do this.” So it was all about, “You have a thousand fans. You satisfy those fans and they will buy something. And we can hopefully break even and if we’re lucky make some money for the next project.”
N: In the documentary, it appears you guys were the first people to bring Eastman and Laird back together after a prolonged separation. What caused the pair to drift apart?
RL: Thank you very much. I don’t want to claim that we did it. But I don’t think that it hurt, the process we underwent. I will tell you that from day one that was our hope — that we could help play a small part in bringing them back together. I don’t know why they separated. I have never asked. I can easily guess that it had something to do with creative vision. Working together at a small grassroots scale and achieving success, that creates an enormous amount of pressure. These guys were young when they created this. Peter was just thirty and Kevin was in his mid-twenties. We can’t imagine the success, hardly anyone can. It’s literally like winning the lottery — only you have to keep working. I would bet any amount of money that their disagreement was something about their competing responses to “How do we deal with all of this?” I have no doubt that it’s something they look back on and think, “I don’t even know what it was.” I’m sure it was just two people who were trying to do something together that in every way is difficult and hard to manage and juggle. It’s only natural. It’s amazing that forty-five percent of couples stay married. Because you’re really throwing your lot in with somebody else, and all of your deepest insecurities are smashing together constantly inside yourself. Then you turn to those people around you, and it takes a very, very different kind of person to be able to not separate on some level, or say, “I need my time. I need my space.” Remember, I’m speculating because I never asked. But that would be my guess. Perhaps I’m saying more about myself, and yet I’m happily married. [Laughs]
N: What is your own favorite incarnation of the Turtles — the comics, the cartoons, the movies, the video games?
RL: I have two, and you’re going to think that one of them is based on commercialization, but it’s not. My initial interaction with the Turtles is very resonant because it was so surprising — seeing the first comics in the Silver Snail [comic shop] in Toronto with [filmmaker] Mark Askwith really made an impact. But the latest thing that happened was when I was in Hall H at Comic-Con and Paramount showed some of our footage, and then that footage led to footage from the Michael Bay-produced movie directed by Jonathan Liebesman… They nailed it. I loved the powerful Turtles. I thought it was awesome, I thought it was funny. I started laughing out loud in that Hall. I met Megan Fox, and she said, “I was born in ’86. I am a Turtle fan. I lobbied to get this part.” This movie was made by people who really like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They want it to be cool.
N: You guys uncovered quite a few nuggets of information in making this doc. What surprised you the most?
RL: There are two things. Number one is “Oh my God, we sold it to Paramount!” The second thing was learning that Michael Ian Black and Robert Ben Garant wore Turtle costumes [to promote the Coming Out of Their Shells music tour]. I absolutely had to interview them. I did whatever I could to somehow make it happen. Even looking back I can’t believe it happened. We interviewed those two gentlemen in their homes. I can’t believe it’s real still. I’m a huge comedy nerd and a fan of The State and a fan of both of their work. It was unbelievable.
N: Who’s your favorite Turtle? Who do you identify with the most?
RL: Well, everybody says that I’m Raphael because I’m aggressive. But I’d say Splinter, because I’m a lifelong teacher, and I’m always trying to find that stillness and that center. To live that kind of life is really difficult, but I think Splinter represents a balance. I’m a Splinter.
N: Thanks for your time, Randall, and for putting such a fun documentary together.
N: Thank you so much, Joe.