In 2014, when the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was celebrating its 21st anniversary, Lionsgate teamed up with Saban Brands to produce a big screen reboot. When the movie received lukewarm critical reviews and only moderate box office success when it hit theaters back in March, it didn’t really phase its director, Dean Israelite. Whether people loved or hated Power Rangers, Israelite is content; he made the movie he wanted to make.
“I made it the same way I hope I go about making more of my movies,” the director told Inverse in a phone interview. “I had an idea for what I wanted. I felt I understood what I would want to see out of a Power Rangers movie. I knew these characters; I love those characters. This was a Power Rangers movie I would want to see, and I trusted that would resonate with people who either grew up with the show or are coming into it for the first time.”
The 32-year-old South African filmmaker tells Inverse that he was never all that “nervous about taking on a project as big as Power Rangers, despite having made just one film before; the 2015 YA sci-fi flick Project Almanac felt almost like a Power Rangers fan film, as it featured a diverse set of teens being endowed with great powers. All Israelite focused on was what the original ‘90s television series meant to him way back when, and hoped he could recreate those raw feelings as an adult.
“It becomes very dangerous when you cater to what other people want,” he says. “I could never be sure what somebody else might want. I can only do what I think I believe is the right thing.”
But Israelite, along with Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Gatins (Flight), also didn’t want to keep the Power Rangers as relics from back during the early years of the Clinton administration. The filmmakers injected modern concerns and real-life complications that better reflect actual teenagers: Billy the Blue Ranger (RJ Cyler) is on the autism spectrum; Zack the Black Ranger (Ludi Lin) comes from a household teetering on the edge of poverty; Trini the Yellow Ranger (Becky G) is unsure of her sexual orientation; and Kimberly the Pink Ranger (Naomi Scott) is kind of an awful person, with an arc that involves her spreading revenge porn around Angel Grove High.
“I always stuck to the [idea] that that’s what we needed in a movie about teenagers in 2017,” Israelite says. “This was our The Breakfast Club if [it] was getting made today. Be truthful to what issues they face today.”
These issues were never present in the TV series, and some critics found them out of place in the big screen reboot, too. But Israelite’s conscience is clean there. “Obviously, there is fear and concern from various parties involved, because you’re nervous about marginalizing your audience,” he said. “But we believe these are issues important to teenagers even though we are making a big commercial movie. We obviously discussed it back and forth, but when we all decided that we’re going to do it and we locked picture with the final cut, it was a memorable day. We were all excited we were doing it.”
Modern teens helped in other ways, too. One aspect where the Hughes influence shines brightest is in the soundtrack, a curated playlist of youthful, contemporary rock and pop (Twenty One Pilots, Fitz & the Tantrums), classic punk (Social Distortion’s “Ring of Fire”), and a cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”, performed by Bootstraps. Israelite says he came up with the soundtrack with his music supervisor, Susan Kent, with whom he traded music before shooting began.
Israelite then consulted with actual teenagers, surveying them specifically on what they thought of the music. “We would preview the movie and have a bunch of teenagers in those audiences and ask specifically, ‘what did you think about the music?’ to see how we were doing. The final product is an encapsulation of trying different things to find what works.”
Of course, in big studio films, sacrifices have to be made. Israelite included deleted scenes in the Blu-ray for fans to enjoy, because even though he loved them and wanted them to stay in the final cut, “the movie buckles under its own weight, and it just becomes too long of a journey.” He also had to cut down the film’s original, highly complex climactic cliff fight — which was uploaded by the stunt team on YouTube — in order to fit the physical space they were shooting.
“It’s the topography of where we’re doing the fighting,” he explains. “That [original] fight was created in a gym, on mats on a flat surface, with wires and rigging up to a stable roof. To transport that into a physical location, it becomes prohibiting, so you adjust.”
Israelite could have filmed the stunt team’s original version with green screen and CG but wanted to keep it as in-camera as possible. “I decided it was important to place it in a real landscape. Maybe we would lose the complexity of the stunts, but we gained the realism of the environment.”
Power Rangers made a modest $140 million in worldwide release against a reported $100 million budget. Whatever audience that didn’t find Power Rangers in theaters, Israelite hopes they find on video. There’s talk of a sequel, of which Israelite has some ideas for. “Obviously it’s Tommy,” he says of the iconic Green Ranger who was teased in the mid-credits stinger. “He would come into the sequel. That’s a no-brainer. Then it’s all about what villains we bring in. We’ve talked about Lord Zedd and him needing a place in the sequel.”
“We made this movie hoping that there would be more,” adds Israelite. “We made an origin story, holding off morphing until the third act knowing that in movies to come there will be a lot more Power Rangers stuff, because now we’ve earned it. There are discussions about a sequel. I’m not involved in financial discussions, but when the studio figures out the finances we’ll start in earnest talk about it. But there are real discussions going on right now.”
Saban’s Power Rangers is available on Blu-ray now.