Cowabunga, dude: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie producer and SJU alum David Chan shares insight with CSB/SJU students

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May 18, 2016

By Mike Killeen

When one of his films makes its debut, David Chan plops himself down in a theater audience — and waits.

If it's a comedy, he waits for laughter. If it's a tear-jerker, he waits for tears.

"It's a little nerve-wracking," Chan said. "If you're a professional filmmaker, you kind of know if that movie is going to sell or not sell. But still, it is very rewarding in those particular moments when people are actually laughing. You hear the entire theater going up in laughter. They really laughed. I was right. I was correct.

"It's more like a confirmation. It's a revolving confirmation. Because, until that live audience, that paying audience, is reacting to it, everything else is speculation. They should love it. But now, they are loving it. There is a difference."

David ChanMore often than not, Chan has been on the successful side of the equation. The 1973 graduate of Saint John's University, who spoke to about 20 students from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University April 22 about developing screenplays, has worked on 22 international and over 100 Chinese films in various capacities, but mainly as a producer.

He is currently a freelance producer for both Hollywood and Chinese language movies, and a freelance screenplay consultant for Chinese movies. At present, he is involved with three Hollywood projects and six Chinese projects. 

Among his many screen successes are four green turtles named Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael — better known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Chan produced three Turtles movies in the 1990s that grossed over $250 million at North American box offices.

"That franchise was fantastic. It's still doing great. This year, the second new Turtle movie is going to come out. Two years ago, the relaunch came out and did real well," said Chan, who was not involved in the 2014 and 2016 Turtle reboots.

Chan prefers to watch his movies in the theater, noting the reaction of moviegoers to help him learn things that can be used in future productions.

"I'll go right in (the theater). Inside, you can tell the reaction of the audience," Chan said. "For example, some jokes maybe only half of the cinema gets it, and the other half of them don't. Then, you watch - did the women get it, or the men get it, or do the kids get it? So, you're there first-hand and you know."

Chan told the students that he knew he wanted to become a filmmaker at age of 12. One problem remained — his family could not afford to send him to a film school in the United States.

"Saint John's University gave me a scholarship to come and study," Chan said. "Saint John's did not have a film major. So, I thought to myself, 'This is a good chance to get a college education in America.'

"I have always been good in drawing and painting. So, I thought, 'Why don't you study art first and get a degree in art, and then go to graduate school and study film,' " Chan said.

He completed his undergraduate degree in three years at SJU, then attended the University of Kansas for his graduate degree in film. In 1975, he joined the Golden Harvest Group, where he worked for 32 years.

Chan may not have studied film at SJU, but he certainly grew as a person and filmmaker. College is a time to grow from your experiences — laughter, confusion, wonder and, if you are traveling thousands of miles from home to a new country, some loneliness.

"Loneliness is constantly a recurring theme in a lot of commercial movies," Chan said. "I used those experiences and they helped me a great deal in translating it and incorporating it into screenplays and movies in my career," Chan said.