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TMNT Exec. Producer Ciro Nieli Talks Ninja Turtles, Robot Monkeys, and the United Kingdom

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Season 4

Ciro NieliToonzone recently had the chance to talk with Ciro Nieli, executive producer of Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, during his latest visit to the United Kingdom.

TOONZONE NEWS: Season two is racing towards its dramatic conclusion, season three is soon to start and a fourth season has been confirmed. You’ve said before that ideally you see this version of the Turtles as a five season story. Would you be interested in taking the story beyond that point?

CIRO NIELI: I think if we went beyond five with the broad steps that I’ve planned, we’d have to definitely do some reconfiguring. I’m definitely not opposed if we keep going but we’d need to go back a certain amount on our promise story-wise. I wouldn’t turn it down but it’s kind of a nice package the way we have it in five right now.

TOONZONE NEWS: Long term fans often ask about the show using popular past characters and stories. It’s been mentioned that the vast backlog of TMNT lore is available to the show, but are more recent takes such as the IDW comics included in that?

CIRO NIELI: You know, we’ve tried really hard not to look at the IDW comic just because, first of all, it’s very current so they’re running neck and neck with us. I’ve actually spoken to some of those guys too. We try not to look at each other’s stuff because I kind of like the idea of not cross-pollinating those two things. It kind of makes the world bigger. Sometimes we serendipitously kinda do some of the same things. We don’t keep tabs on each other, it’s not like I read the IDW books and make sure I don’t do what they’re doing. I just avoid them and every once in a while I’m told we’re hitting the same nerve which is kinda nice.

Maybe that could be what season six is about…

[both laugh]

TOONZONE NEWS: Continuing from that question, you and your team have clearly worked hard to add new ideas to the mythos and make the show stand out in its own right. Which of these ideas are you most proud of?

CIRO NIELI: I really like what we’re doing with Karai the most. I mean, I know she’s been part of the universe before but I think the twists and turns we’re doing with her and just watching her evolve as a very key player in a series is really exciting. Aside from her, there’s a lot of frivolous things I’ve come up with like Newtralizer or Ice Cream Kitty, who is fantastic but not the most dramatic character. But I really love Tiger Claw. I think Tiger Claw’s a great character whose got a lot of potential. I’d like to see everyone else kinda take Tiger Claw and use him, like the IDW books and such eventually so he can have his own life beyond our show. That’d be great.

TOONZONE NEWS: As you say about Karai, I know people on our forums were looking at the previous canon and saying “It’s going to go this way” and then obviously it went a completely different way, leading to many cries of “I didn’t see that coming!”

CIRO NIELI: Yeah. We’re not really interested in the old Karai canon so much. The canon we’re pulling from and really cared about is the major, broad building blocks, the foundation series. A lot of it’s more rooted in Volume One Mirage stuff, just real basic Shredder vs Splinter stuff. There are likenesses and names we might use but we try not to arc everything the same way it was in the past.  I feel like that was done a little bit already with the 2003 show so we try to stay away from that.

TOONZONE NEWS: That’s part of why I’m enjoying the show. You can see where it’s taking reference but it’s not tied to it too strongly. It’s very much its own thing and making it relevant for the current generation.

CIRO NIELI: There’s a reverence too, not just relevance. We try to be reverent, we try to do it right. I think you can capture the spirit of the book but not necessarily the letter of the book. I think it’s better that way, more free and more creative.

It’s been a good time. I’m a huge fan of Turtles, so if I sit down and think “Well I’m just gonna take this comic and adapt it exactly,” it’d be kind of boring and then you have to live up to something you loved in your childhood. It’s just copying. I’m just trying to make the franchise grow a little more.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Season 3 Within the WoodsTOONZONE NEWS: One of the most distinct elements of the show is the edge of horror, primarily seen in the likes of mutations and Kraang robots. Cult horror movies have been cited as an influence for this but how much freedom are you allowed and has an idea ever been submitted that was judged as going too far?

CIRO NIELI: It’s funny that you say that. You guys in the UK are midway through season two. Without giving up any specific spoilers, coming into season three we do kind of venture into horror a little deeper for a few episodes. Not for too long and I think if you’re a horror fan you’ll really enjoy it. That being said, there are a couple of story ideas that I think went a little too far and we kinda self-edit a little bit. We had a really specific Halloween story that we couldn’t do about a boy who came to the door and knocked in his Halloween costume and never left — wouldn’t go home, and then wasn’t really wearing a costume. [grins] It just felt a little too creepy and it turned almost into Poltergeist, too. I think the network didn’t understand why it became so meta-physical. It was…strange, it was very strange. But I like those stories too, especially with the excuse of Halloween airing and stunt-ing something. Myself and Brandon Auman (who is my co-E.P. ) are both old friends and fans from back in the day of magazines like Fangoria and Gorezone. We have all our horror cult knowledge and facts straight…but yeah, there’s a lot of horror! I feel like it’s a part of the series. I mean when I first pitched the show it was equal parts ninja, science fiction and horror. The action element, at least. There’s this other side which is the social side, the fun side, the camaraderie and comedy side of it. But the action element was always divided into those three things.

TOONZONE NEWS: Season one’s Space Heroes Filmation homage was replaced in season two by Super Robo Mecha Force Five, a mecha anime parody. Given this and your own creation Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force Go!, are there any mecha anime you’re a specific fan of?

CIRO NIELI: Oh my goodness. I love all that stuff. There’s Dairugger, which some people call ‘the second Voltron.Dartanias, which was very popular in Italy as well as Japan, which is a robot which has like a lion face and turns into a vehicle, lion, and a robot man. Voltron was always great. I love Mazinger Z, the Getter Robo series…pretty much anything from Nagai Go. Gigantor…I love any of the robot Tezuka stuff, which would be mostly Astro Boy.

There’s also the Romance Trilogy which was bigger in the Philippines. Combattler, Voltes and Daimos. I’ve just started getting into those. But yeah, when I was a kid in the States growing up in the northeast I remember specifically I would come home from kindergarten around 2:30 and there was a show that would come on called Tranzor Z, which was the American translated version of Mazinger Z. It blew my mind because it had a level of drama and pathos that wasn’t in American cartoons that I was used to, like Popeye. It was more dynamic, there were upshots, the action was crazy. I didn’t know that kind of stuff was possible. Later, with shows like Transformers and G.I. Joe outsourcing to Japan you started seeing that come into action shows.

Sorry, I could talk forever about robots. [laughs]

TOONZONE NEWS: No, that’s fine! I was going to say, it might be a coincidence, but in the Newtralizer episode of season two I did notice that the two legged Kraang tank looks similar to the Big Zam from Mobile Suit Gundam.

CIRO NIELI: Yeah, a little bit. We were also inspired by the Mars Attacks walker. That was more us trying to do a cheesey, 50’s sci-fi kind of robot. Alien invasion stuff, as much of the Kraang stuff is. I’m a huge fan of the Norman Saunders Mars Attacks cards that came out in the 1960s.

superrobotmonkeyTOONZONE NEWS: Speaking of Monkey Team, are there stories for that you’d like to explore if given the chance to go back to it?

CIRO NIELI: Oh yeah.  There’s a finale planned for that and I don’t know how I’m gonna do it but I swear that I’m gonna do it someday. I can do it as one movie or I can do it as a whole season, it just depends on how much breadth I want to give it. Look at the last episode. You can either pick it up from there or you can go ‘Five years later: it’s the war of the undead vs the robot chimps.’ It’s this crazy battlefield where all forces have kinda teamed up against the ultimate evil. It’d be awesome. It’s all figured out pretty much. Everyone bugs me about it all the time and I really wanna sit down and tell everybody what happens but I’d rather just make it someday and give it to them. Worst case scenario: before I die I’ll do a perfect graphic novel of it and then Disney can sue me posthumously ‘cause they now completely own it and that’s how it goes [laughs]. I guess I could make a comic and change the names and hairdos…

TOONZONE NEWS: A popular element of the show has been Donatello’s crush on April, a comedic and complicated situation that only got more so with the arrival of Casey in season two. With fans buying into it in differing levels, is there a planned end point or are you seeing where it goes episode to episode?

CIRO NIELI: There’s definitely a planned end point, but we don’t know how we’re charting it, so it’s a little bit of both of what you just said. It’s fun to meander there. The affairs of the heart are never planned that clearly so we’re kinda playing it a little bit realistically that way. We’re just having fun with it right now, but Casey definitely moves fast though. I think Donnie’s a lot more of a polite guy but Casey never waits that long. But you never know….I think April truly loves Donnie.

TOONZONE NEWS: To conclude, is there anything you’d like to say to UK based fans of the Turtles?

CIRO NIELI: First of all, I’m glad you guys aren’t watching a show called Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Thanks for watching, I think the support’s been great. I’ve been seeing so much of a huge fan base from the UK, it’s kind of overwhelming. I’m open to suggestions, thoughts, and opinions but for the most part thank you and I’m always happy when I can show this show in a different country and still keep the original voice talent too.  You guys get the real effect of it and the voice talent is really strong on this show.  I’ve watched this show in Italian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese and it was really strange. Italian was very strange as I speak Italian and it kinda freaked me out. The language gets a little blue and cheeky in translation and they’re cool with it, which is odd.

So, thank you UK fans.

Toonzone would like to thank Ciro Nieli for taking the time to speak with us and the Nickelodeon UK press department for arranging this interview.

The two part Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles season 2 finale ‘The Invasion’ premieres in the UK over Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th December 9:30am on Nicktoons (Sky 606, Virgin 717 and through BT Vision).