Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Talk with Director Jon Turteltaub

I had the good fortune to be allowed to participate in a round-table discussion with the Director of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (and the National Treasure series) to promote the upcoming Blu-ray and DVD releases of the movie.  A lot of times, it’s hard to get a lot of questions answered either due to the quantity of interviewers or because of time but Mr. Turteltaub was extremely generous by allowing us over two hours to talk with him so I was able to get in a lot of questions.

I also really appreciated his honesty and candor which is also rare, and he offered many candid responses that I think you will be interested in reading below.  Thanks very much to the Walt Disney publicity team for setting this up and again to Mr. Turteltaub for spending so much time with us.
Q - With the success of the “National Treasure” films, how was it like to work with Nicholas Cage in a different type of film, especially with a film that is very visual effect driven?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Nic and I had a great conversation before starting this film. Basically, we talked about how he let me take the reins in a lot of ways on National Treasure. That was such a buttoned-up character with a lot of intellectual and historical mumbo-jumbo to say. Balthazar, however, is a renegade… an outsider… a rock-and-roll-style hero. So this time, I let Nic take me on the ride… and I loved it.

Q – Is there any special content made for the Blu-ray version? And are you a big fan of watching films on Blu-ray?
A – Jon Turteltaub: The Blu-Ray version is full of special content not available in other formats. (We got to find SOME way to justify the extra charges!) As for me, I would always watch on Blu-Ray if I couldn’t see a film in a theater. But to be completely honest and inartistic… I love putting on headphones and watching a movie on my laptop. I feel so carried away and alone when I do that.

Q – Did you originally have Nic Cage in mind for the role of Balthazar Blake?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Actually, Nic Cage had himself in mind for that role because Nic developed this movie and hired me later on. Nic was on-board long before I was.

Q – Did the original The Sorcerer’s Apprentice poem written in 1797 have much to do this with film? What main influences were there?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I was surprised to find out, shocked in fact, that most people I spoke to under the age of 40 had no idea what “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was. Certainly not by title. When I then described the Mickey Mouse cartoon with the brooms and the water they usually made that “oh yeahhhh” face. But I myself didn’t know that the source of the musical suite by Paul Dukas was the Goethe poem. When I found that out, I read the original poem and made sure that our film was true to the essential themes and ideas of Goethe’s piece…. student and teacher learning that everything comes in due time and not before.

Q – If you had Balthazar’s powers, what spells would you cast?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I live in LA. I’d get rid of the traffic… but just the cars in front of me.

Q – Lately, you’ve been making a lot of movies for Disney. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship and if there are plans to collaborate more in the future?
A – Jon Turteltaub: If by “lately” you mean, “every movie I have made since 1992″, then yes, it’s a lot. Disney is the only studio I’ve made films for. Frankly, it’s been a great partnership for me. I get the Disney brand and feel very comfortable working in that model. And I feel good about the fact that movies like “National Treasure” have helped to expand the brand outside of standard family fare. If they’ll have me again, I’m ready to keep making movies with Disney until no one wants me anymore.

Q – What was the biggest challenge in creating a movie based on a well loved short cartoon? Was there ever any thought about making a live action animated movie with Mickey in it like they did with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
A – Jon Turteltaub: The biggest challenge lies in the phrase “well-loved”. We knew that in the mops and brooms sequence we were taking on a re-creation of a piece of film history. We worried constantly that it needed to be completely different, completely the same, very funny, very serious, out of context, in context… we were tearing ourselves every which way to make sure we created a sequence that wouldn’t have every film critic in the world ripping us to shreds. Eventually, we just decided to focus on the story at hand, Jay Baruchel’s character, and doing some very special work with the visual FX. As for Mickey and live-action… I doubt that was on anyone’s mind but it’s probably a good idea!

Q – You have went from comedy to more action-driven films but do you ever see yourself tackling a different style of film, say… “romantic comedy” or something a bit Noir-ish?
A – Jon Turteltaub: “While You Were Sleeping” was a romantic comedy that I’m really proud of and I’d like to be proud of another romantic comedy one day. The reason for tackling action-driven films is simply that they were the best choices for me at the time. I don’t really care much about which genre a film falls into… I just want good characters, a good story, and something directorial to sink my teeth into. Face it, I can ruin any genre!

Q – What was it like working with the younger cast members – Jay Baruchel and Teresa Palmer?
A – Jon Turteltaub: My ego is such that I forget that I’m so much older than Jay and Teresa. Of course, when Teresa said I was “fatherly” I went home and sobbed in my pillow. As actors, there isn’t really a sense of “new” and “old” so long as everyone is a pro… and these guys were top notch. I think actors are either good or bad… regardless of how long they’ve been at it.

Q – Is everything you wanted to see on the Blu-ray for extra features on there?
A – Jon Turteltaub: TOO MUCH is on there. Get rid of those deleted scenes! I deleted them for a reason!

Q – Which type of movies do you prefer making – adventure movies like the National Treasure series or more fantastical ones like this movie?
A – Jon Turteltaub: National Treasure and Sorcerer’s Apprentice are very similar styles of movie in my mind. They are big films, hinging on big set-pieces, taking on a lot of spectacle. My favorite movies to make are the ones where I make a lot of good friends and I get paid gobs and gobs of cash. (Did I just write that?)

Q – Could there be a director’s cut of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice down the line?
A – Jon Turteltaub: You know, I always find the notion of a “director’s cut” to be ridiculously pompous and revisionist. First of all, 99% of movies ARE the director’s cut to begin with. The only movie that should get a special “director’s cut” is a movie that stinks. Otherwise, why is the director re-cutting it?

Q – Prior to making “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, did you feel that you need to watch the old animated film?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I watched the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence over and over… but I only watched the entire Fantasia again once. The featured sequence, however, was vital to how we approached making our film. We studied camera and lighting most of all. Even though it was animated, it had amazing “lighting” that Bojan Bazelli and I tried to emulate.

Q – Because “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” did so well in the box office, do you have crazy ideas running in your mind for a sequel?
A – Jon Turteltaub: This must be a question from Australia or some parallel universe where the movie out-grossed Avatar. For this movie to have a sequel I think this interview is going to have to generate about a hundred million DVD sales.

Q – How much freedom do you give your cast, especially Nic, Jay and Alfred?
A – Jon Turteltaub: The cast gets complete freedom to do absolutely anything they want…. in rehearsal. That’s where decisions are made. But when cameras role, we all have a pretty good idea of what’s going to be said and where everyone is going to stand. (That said, Jay Baruchel will always come up with something completely brilliant and completely unacceptable in a PG movie.)

Q – What would you consider to be the best job in the world?
A – Jon Turteltaub: You know… the minute you call anything a “job” it ceases to be the best anything.

Q – What is the “suckiest” question you’ve ever been asked?
A – Jon Turteltaub: “Do you want me to fix you up with my friend’s mom?”

Q – As someone who has stated a preference for location shooting, how does making special effects movies that require a lot of green screen shooting change your approach? Does that lessen your enjoyment of the process?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I love green screen shooting, actually. It’s always nicely air-conditioned and usually someone other than me is going to be blamed if it looks bad. Location shooting is great because it gives the director ideas. There’s so much to draw on. When you’re on a set, however, you have to invent 100% of it. That’s hard!!

Q – There’s a good mix of different elements in the film from magic to science, to comedy to awesome fight scenes and car chases. Do you have a particular favorite element of the film?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I like the use of the word “awesome” to describe the fight scenes. This is now my favorite question. My favorite element is the comedy because it surprises me. When I see an actor or writer invent something new and funny it always amazes me. And when the audience laughs it’s a direct, immediate sense of reward that I feel.

Q – Teresa Palmer really seems to be one of those actresses that will be simply huge in a few years. Can you talk a bit about your experiences in working with this talented young actress?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Teresa is kind of a perfect person. She is so insanely gorgeous, but she’s also insanely sweet. Not fake actress sweet, but real Australian sweet. She has the courage to do whatever the role needs, but the humility to work hard and ask questions when she’s unsure. She also has that indefinable quality that makes audiences like her when she’s on screen. I hope she becomes as huge as you say. I may need to borrow money one day.

Q – In terms of animation, movies have evolved so much since the days of Fantasia. Where do you hope animation will be in another 70 years time?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I really hope there IS animation in another 70 years. It’s so hard to predict the changing technology and it’s harder to predict social and cultural trends. Fact is, there may be no live-action movies in 70 years. The line between animation and live-action continues to dim. Most visual fx could be described really as a cartoon. Isn’t Avatar really just a form of animation? And lord knows that animated films like Up and Toy Story have shown that you can discover extraordinary emotional and thematic depth in animated features. So who knows?

Q – How many people were in the green suits for the film?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Only in that big sequence with the mops and brooms were there a lot of green suits used. And in that scene it was probably about 15 people. And let me say this… as an experienced filmmaker and as a member of a very professional film crew… anyone wearing a green suit always looks like an idiot.

Q – With the title and the Disney name, did you feel like you had to do justice to the “Fantasia” segment?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I was TERRIFIED of this. I was handed the keys to perhaps the single most important animated story in Disney history. I was so worried that I would blow it. But I just trusted that we were doing things with the right intentions and we worked our butts off to make a great scene. (Half of you reading are thinking… you should have worried more.)

Q – Do any of the extra features recorded on set ever slow down the film making process?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Now this is a GREAT question! And the answer is… YES! YES! YES! Everyone HATES doing these things. Sometimes we call an actor to the set and we have to wait because he’s in the middle of his interview. Or we are about to shoot and there’s a camera crew lingering in the shadows thinking nobody sees them. Those poor bonus-material people sneak around in fear of being a nuisance all day long and they are constantly being told to “go away” by everyone they see. (And then when the DVD comes out, I and every actor and crew member thinks “Hey, how come I’m not in it more?”)

Q – Is it a strange coincidence that Jay Baruchel has a slight resemblance to Mickey Mouse? How did he get the role of Dave?
A – Jon Turteltaub: No it’s not a coincidence at all. They’re actually related.

Q – There’s a scene where Bathazar hands Dave a pair of old shoes. Do you have a pair of trusty shoes you enjoy wearing?
A – Jon Turteltaub: This is the most common question I get. Not a day goes by that I’m not asked this. And yes, I do. But they’ve changed over the years. The fatter I get the more I look for trusty shoes with no laces.

Q – What type of extra features do you enjoy and look for on Blu-rays?
A – Jon Turteltaub: For me, the best “extra” you get on Blu-ray is the picture quality. that’s really the best part of it.

Q – Would you be happy making every movie with Nicolas Cage and Jerry Bruckheimer?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I would be happy working with them forever… but not on every movie. Nor would they want to do every movie with me. It would get artistically stilted and dull. Part of the joy of movie-making is the collaborative nature of the art. That means that we are constantly getting good ideas from all the different people around us. If you always work with the same people you stop finding different ideas.

Q – You guys did such a nice job of making modern day Manhattan seem like a place where magic could actually happen. How did you pick and choose where & when you were going to shoot?
A – Jon Turteltaub: The boring answer is that practical considerations play a huge role. The script dictates most of it…. the action that is needed to take place, etc. And permission has to be given by untold numbers of people to shoot in any given location. So, we end up at the best place possible, not the best place period. That said, we were looking for places that had something uniquely beautiful but also definitively New York. We wanted iconic New York imagery, but to see a new side of it. For example, subways feel very New York…. subways with wolves on them is special.

Q – Did Shadowrun influence The Sorcerers Apprentice at all?
A – Jon Turteltaub: What’s Shadowrun? (Did I just insult somebody? I don’t know what that is.)

Q – Everyone loves the “National Treasure” films, so did you feel pressure because of this prior to making “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”?
A – Jon Turteltaub: As someone once said to me, “If you think there’s a lot of pressure to follow up on a hit, try following up on a flop.” The success of the National Treasure films gave me confidence and breathing room. It also helped build my trust and camaraderie with Nic and Jerry. (And not everyone loved “National Treasure”, believe me.)

Q – What do you think animation brings to live-action films?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Animation takes away instant creativity but replaces it with methodical and calculated creativity. It also allows you to “fix it later” in some ways. But most of all, animation releases boundaries. You are not limited by physics, shooting schedules, or safety. You can do whatever you want!

Q – Did you have to consult any experts on Arthurian legends, to get the Merlin back-story accurate?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Yes. And guess what? They all disagree. There are so many different interpretations of this story…. particularly when we tried to get a clear answer to the question “How did Merlin die?” Unfortunately, the most common answer involved an incident we couldn’t show in a Disney movie.

Q – Were you hoping to again shake current expectations of a family film on this?
A – Jon Turteltaub: You know, at this point, I think we’re no longer shaking expectations but trying to meet the new and improved expectations. Audiences now expect quite a lot from family films. There is a weird, undefined line between a family film and a kid’s film. It’s hard to say what that is but we all know it when we see it. The goal is to avoid making a kids film. This was actually a much bigger challenge 30 years ago. Spielberg and Lucas were the ones who broke this mold… and faced a huge amount of criticism for it. Jaws and Star Wars were written off as Kiddie Films by a lot of people and it took ages for either of those guys to get the respect they deserved as filmmakers.

Q – Alfred Molina has had such a successful and varied career. Can you please talk about what led you to cast him in this movie?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Jerry told me to! And I’m glad he did… not just because he is brilliant in the movie but because he’s become such a close friend. Jerry had just used Fred on “Prince of Persia” so he was aware of how versatile, funny and powerful Fred could be. Sure enough, Horvath became all of those things as a result of Fred’s performance.

Q – What do you think of 3D TV and what can it give to the experience of watching films like this?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I’m curious to see if 3D TV is worth it. For crying out loud, I can’t ever find the remote, how the hell am I going to find those damn glasses?

Q – Can you tell us about filming in Manhattan? What were some of the difficulties you faced?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Shooting in New York is fantastic… always… because New York always makes you EARN your success no matter what you do. It’s a rough place…. which makes it a great place. And what makes it so hard is obvious… constantly changing weather, endless amounts of noise, nowhere to park 24 big rig trucks, and eleven million people who don’t give a crap about your stupid movie.

Q – Do you believe in magic?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Nope.

Q – How many mops did go through to make this movie?
A – Jon Turteltaub: One. Maybe two. (You think we spent money on visual fx and CGI so that we could use real mops?)

Q – Aside from the wonderful special effects, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” has amazing production design, were you literally floored when you saw what was built on set for this film?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Did the production designer submit this question? If not, she should have. Naomi Shohan is such a brilliant and extraordinary woman. The sets she created (with her wonderful crew) are mind boggling and get lost in the vfx shuffle. I think audiences assume everything is fake these days… but these massive sets were very real. And you are right… there were days I would walk onto the set and think, “Holy Crap” would you look at this?

Q – What’s more important to you – critical or commercial success?
A – Jon Turteltaub: This is one of those existential questions that probably plagues all of us in our own way. Not just movie makers… but every one of us. Do I take a job just for the money even if it won’t make me happy? Do I marry this person because they are stable and good even though I don’t feel passion? The movie question isn’t really just about critics…. it’s about making movies that have meaning. The honest answer is that, with movies, the pain of a flop lasts a lot longer than the pain of bad reviews. However, there’s also an overall desire to make films that matter…. that are game-changers in some ways.

Q – If you only had one power to save the world, what would it be?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Eliminate testosterone.

Q – Your films have so much destruction and visual effects, but I’m curious… which of the following type of film would you like to take on in the future: a) Superhero b) Disaster c) Alien Invasion film?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Oddly, I’ve never thought of my films as having “so much destruction”. I’m the guy who made “Cool Runnings” and “Phenomenon”!! I also made three action/adventure films where the heroes never touch a gun. Maybe I need MORE destruction. Yeah! That’s what’s holding me back.

Q – What were some of your favorite family films as a kid?
A – Jon Turteltaub: As a kid, every film is a family film. It’s not like I sat around with my pals in fourth grade watching “The Godfather” and “Cabaret”. When I was a kid, we liked EVERYTHING. I remember thinking that Disney’s “The World’s Greatest Athlete” and “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” were the best movies ever.

Q – What does Disney bring to the plate that no other studio does (or does as well)?
A – Jon Turteltaub: You know… what Disney understands that most other studios don’t isn’t about kids. It’s about parents. They know what parents will feel safe taking their kids to see and what parents will enjoy. Disney, because of its success, the brand recognition makes it vulnerable. Rarely will parents see a movie that offends them and say, “How dare the Sony corporation make a movie like that!” But if it’s a Disney movie you can bet there will be letters, protests and law suits. So they have gotten very good at understanding parents.

Q – What is your definition of a film’s success?
A – Jon Turteltaub: For me, success is defined in a lot of ways. Certainly, financial success is important and underrated by many filmmakers. It matters to get the studio its money back and to generate income for them so that they will continue making movies and hiring us. A film is also a success if there’s a general feeling out in the universe that it was good. No one critic matters… but we all know when the vibe out there is good or bad. Awards can also mean success. For me personally, I feel I’ve had a success when the film makes a lot of money and more people tell me they loved it than tell me they didn’t.

Q – Can you tell us who or what your inspirations are? Is there a particular movie or director that really influences you?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I’m a product of the Spielberg age of filmmaking… which must make Steven crazy because I don’t make films that look or feel as awesome as his. But Steven embraced normal, average human beings and made them glorious…. and he embraced movies and made them glorious. That really inspired me. The filmmakers that I probably try most to emulate are Stanley Donnen, Sidney Pollack, and Rob Reiner.

Q – Were there any issues between yourself and the actors over how physical their roles were?
A – Jon Turteltaub: There are two entities that really want the actors to be safe… the actors and the insurance companies. So we have so many people around to make sure that everyone is safe at all times…. stunt men, fire men, security guards, special effects people, stand-ins, etc. But making movies is a dangerous business no matter what you do. You can’t know for a 100% certainty that the wolves aren’t going to eat Jay’s face off. So when I shout action I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’m not about to film a sequence that’s going to appear more on “WORLD’S MOST DISGUSTING DISASTERS” than in my own film.

Q – Any chance of a 3 Ninjas reboot?
A – Jon Turteltaub: That would be fun… but I don’t know. Sadly, I just now read that Dino De Laurentis died. Dino was involved in that film.

Q – Did growing up in Beverly Hills play a big role in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry?
A – Jon Turteltaub: Sure, no doubt. My father was a big television writer/producer, so I was around a lot of people in the entertainment industry. Other kids I went to school with had parents in the business as well. The result of that isn’t that everyone has some nepotistic inroad…. but that we grew up feeling that the entertainment industry was accessible. It wasn’t some crazy dream that was somewhere out there in Hollywood… it was in our back yard and we were invited.

Q – How did you break into Hollywood? Do you have any tips for anyone that wants to become a director?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I went to film school and that made no difference in terms of getting a break. What was my break was that I had a third cousin who knew a guy who was making really cheapo movies and it turned out that producer was someone I knew from Little League. I went in to meet him to get a job as a production assistant on the movie but during the interview I asked if I could direct it instead. He said yes. (Ridiculous.) As for advice… there really is no one best way to make it. Every single person breaks in a different way. The key is to make people believe you have something to offer them that they don’t have without you. It can be a script. It can be your face. It can be your sense-of-humor. It can be anything so long as you let them believe you have something they need.

Q – Which Sorcerer’s Apprentice character is the most like you? Hopefully it’s Horvath… :)
A – Jon Turteltaub: I actually like Alfred Molina the most. Character wise, I’m probably closest to the ten year old Dave Stuttler whose dreams are shattered and doesn’t get the girl. (But later grows up to land the hot blonde chick. YAY!)

Q – Jon, anything from the set that you did keep for yourself as a memento of the film?
A – Jon Turteltaub: I have Monica Bellucci in my basement.

Q – What is your favorite Spielberg film?
A – Jon Turteltaub: No question for me it’s “Jaws”. However, I think “Close Encounters” is his best.

Q – Jon, any final thoughts on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?
A – Jon Turteltaub: You know, I’m really proud of the movie. It’s always hell making any film because we torture ourselves emotionally while making them. But when you go through a tough journey with good and creative people, you can’t help but feel proud of what you’ve accomplished. (I sound like a Boy Scout Troop leader). With this film, I’ve watched it with audiences so many times and I see how they respond to what we did. It’s a great feeling. And it makes all the time away from family and time spent with other smelly, tired people all worthwhile. So, tell the world. Rent it. Buy it. Download it!! (Just don’t pirate it.) Thanks!


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