'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Tore My Family Apart

My father and future stepdad starred as extras in 'TMNT III.' Little did we know, it would change everything.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3

Image via New Line Cinema

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3

That being said, I won’t be seeing the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Why would I?  It’s just more warmed over nostalgia, souped up with computer-generated graphics replacing practical effects and Michael Bay explosions. The turtles’ vocabulary alone—bogus, cowabunga, radical—prevents them from making any sort of sense in the 21st century. Plus, 3D movies kinda make me dizzy. The greatest failure of the latest in the franchise, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, is that my father isn’t in it.

The apex of the silver screen adventures of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael was obviously 1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, a movie most memorable for featuring both my father, Liam Dunne, and to-be stepdad, Pierce, as extras with a few speaking parts. (The apex of the TMNT video games was Turtles in Time—this one isn’t up for discussion either.) The movie turns the typical turtles setting on its head, ripping the quartet of reptiles from their home in New York City and bringing them to feudal Japan. The story succeeds on the strength of the fish-out-of-water irony of ninjas feeling out of place in Japan, a pretty convincing space-time continuum mix-up, some chilling flute music as dramatic device, and the first-rate acting from the extras.

My enthusiasm for the movie, and the franchise at large, is great, even if the third part was considered a critical and commercial failure.But there were seeds sown behind the scenes that had some bitter, recently rediscovered implications for my family tree.

TMNT, a franchise of beautiful symmetrical abbreviation, meant something to me as a kid before and after the third movie became a part of my origin story. My brothers and I saw the turtles as archetypes to emulate, characters whose molds we laid into regardless of fit. My older brother admits he aspired to be Donatello: smart, scientific, peaceful. My younger brother says I latched on to Michelangelo as the consummate jokester. He also says he liked Leonardo because of his swords.

How did my father, an immigrant with no experience in the movie industry and no favorite ninja turtle to speak of, make his way into the film? It was forced upon him to some extent, when the movie came to my hometown of Astoria, Ore., in 1992 for production. A good chunk of the budget (estimated by IMDB at $17 million in total) would flow into the town’s economy through the hiring of cheap, local laborers. The idea of grabbing some small piece of this chunk, combined with the chance to maybe get a glimpse at Hollywood, was perhaps too much for the man, who fancied himself an actor, to ignore. He had experience in painting houses (all the older men I know from this town seem to have spent large portions of their life painting houses), so he came on as a set painter.

The studio hungered not only for cheap laborers, but also for cheap bodies to fill frames. My father still recalls his being discovered by a woman working on the movie as a result of this need.

“Some lady from the casting agency in Portland came by with her little group of followers and she noticed me and asked me if I was an actor,” he told me recently. “I said, ‘Yeah I’ve been doing stage acting for years.’ And she said, ‘We’re looking for a bunch of pirates and we don’t want to hire people out of Portland because of the expense.’”

A star was born, and his one paycheck turned into two: he would help paint sets and then hop in front of them, partaking in the sort of “swashbuckling violence” that earned the movie a PG rating from the MPAA.

“Thrill” is the word my father repeatedly used to describe the experience in our recent conversations. In the only newspaper clipping I can find online mentioning him in connection to the movie he is brief, sticking with this description. “It’s a real thrill,” he told an AP reporter in 1992. A thrill, yes, for a young man to have somehow made it from a bleak life in London to America and onto a movie screen.

“At the time it was going on I was totally intoxicated with it and was really into it as if I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” my father tells me now. “Like why isn’t everything like this? You know, that you can be completely enthusiastic and fired up about going and doing this thing every day. For a time I was thinking ‘Wow, why can’t we live like this?’ I was into it, I was taken by it.”

By hamming it up as a pirate, he nabbed some on-screen time, most noticeably at around the 15-minute mark, when he accuses turtle ally April O’Neil of being a witch when she first lands in 17th-century Japan, and later at the 31-minute mark when he’s insulted and subsequently kicked in the butt by a turtle. My (then future) stepdad actually appears in these scenes too as one of the other pirates my father wrangled to appear at the behest of the lady from the casting agency.

My father recalls some “movie magic” that went into the film. Apparently in one of the scenes where the frighteningly tan main pirate, Walker, is menacing around on his horse, the horse wasn’t really up to it, meaning they had to sit him on the shoulders of a crew of stunt men who did their best to bounce him around at an equine rhythm. My father did some stuntwork but it didn’t make the film, and it’s probably too late for any DVD special edition to surface those deleted scene.

“[We] were hung upside down by our ankles over a large cauldron and it was supposed to have like boiling oil in it,” he says, “and we were going to be immersed in it. That was real fun. They cut the whole scene. It was hilarious. We were cracking up all the time.”

When the movie’s production in Astoria finished, my father’s band, the Pagan Pancakes, capped off the festivities by playing at the wrap party.

I don’t recall seeing the movie when it came out—I would have only been three years old at the time—but, according to my father, the main theater in the small town of Astoria was packed with locals at its debut. From that point on it was part of my mythology, something to be proud of in a family history that didn’t offer many other triumphs. A desperately needed thing to talk about when discussing one’s self at parties.

My older brother echoes this. “I'm also pretty proud of Dad’s footage and in college I would often boast about that when meeting folks,” he told me in an email while reminiscing on the movie’s finer points.

“Well, it tore our family apart,” my younger brother told me.

Wait, what?

“Yeah, it’s where he met [Name of Ex-Stepmother Redacted Because There Is Only So Much Family Business You Can Comfortably Publish].”

Oh, right.

Had I forgotten this detail about an otherwise pleasant part of our past? Or had I never put it together in the first place?

My older brother’s thoughts on the movie also pivot on this detail.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III destroyed our family,” he wrote to me. “Sometime in high school I think I saw a video that [our stepdad] had recorded of the cast party, including one [Name of Ex-Stepmother Redacted Because There Is Only So Much Family Business You Can Comfortably Publish] swaying to the Pagan Pancakes.”

So there it was, the evidence. This character even appears in my father’s recent talk with me about the film’s production. Her role is small in his telling, maybe out of shame or maybe it just doesn’t mean much to him anymore. In the eyes of his children her presence in the frame swells, indicative of a course of decisions that would alter our lives.

Our parents were still together during the movie’s production. There, my father met a different woman that he would later marry. The different man that my mother would later marry was there as well, although she already knew him, as he ran in the same circle as my father. As much as the turtles gave us, they kind of tore my family apart.

It’s unclear in my mind what exactly happened from there, the story obscured by the passing of time and an accepted silence in the way that uncomfortable pieces of family history often are.

In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, the catalyst for the space-time tumult at the center of the plot is an ancient scepter. When parties in different places clutch this scepter simultaneously, they become ripped from their respective realities and change places. In a similar way, the future spouses of my parents, both present at the film’s production, would find themselves in new settings, old flames traded for new ones, with them new challenges and failures.

The extended outcome of this switch maybe wasn’t the worst thing given the dissonant personalities of my father and mother. My father’s wife would bring him further into Hollywood. Never on the screen again, but into unions with steady work as a painter. My mother’s husband made sure we always had the latest video games.

Twenty-three years after the release, I don’t let my family history sour the viewing experience of an otherwise fun movie. (It’s certainly more fun than the latest has any potential to be.) At this point it’s part of my canon, parent separation ramifications be damned. The maybe unpleasant pieces that it lent to my personal history didn’t necessarily distract from the still-solid narrative and pizza gags when I rewatched it for the purpose of this article—I saw no gleam in my father’s pirate eyes suggesting betrayal. And thing is, you can still love something if it’s betrayed you, even if its edges are dark.

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