Jon Turteltaub on National Treasure: Book of Secrets

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Although National Treasure got more bad than good reviews from critics, that didn’t stop Jon Turteltaub from directing the follow-up National Treasure: Book of Secrets. In fact, as the director walked in our press room, he laughed about how he was prepared for the reporters not to like the movie and he couldn’t have been more good-humored and easygoing about it. Turteltaub was in quite the teasing mood as he strolled in, looked at the group of journalists and immediately began cracking jokes before he sat down.

“You seem friendlier than the last room, and it’s a far more attractive group than across the hall.” [everyone laughs]

He then turned the interview around on us and it was rather entertaining to see the banter between another reporter and Turteltaub about why the sequel is better than the first film.

Jon Turteltaub: Let me tell you something, no matter what I do the reviewers are not going to like this movie. That’s the way it goes. Some of you are reviewers, right? There you go.
Reporter: Why do you say that?

Turteltaub: They didn’t like the first one, and so if they didn’t like the first one they have to pretend they did to like this one, because this one really isn’t that different than the first one.
Reporter: Actually, I think I can prove you wrong because I probably wrote some not nice things about the first one, and I liked this one a lot more.

Turteltaub: Why is that?
Reporter: I think it’s more fun, I think it’s sharper.

Turteltaub: But maybe it’s more fun and sharper because now you get the joke, but you were a little slow to get it the first time. [laughter]
Reporter: I wrote last night, “maybe I’m smarter than I was three years ago.”
Turteltaub: I love that, I love that. What was odd too was that a lot of the reviews the first time said this movie is really stupid, and I thought, “really?” That was the one thing I didn’t think people would say about the first one.

CS: What would they say about this one?
Turteltaub: Oh, this one’s very stupid. I think people think we made up most of it, but we didn’t and we got attacked for history not making sense. We didn’t make this stuff up, those are the glasses Ben Franklin designed, those are the buildings where the stuff happened… this is all real stuff. And none of us had even heard of “The Da Vinci Code” when we wrote the script, none of us had read it, because we’d been told it’s similar, so none of us read it when we made the movie and then we got accused of stealing from it. And then when that movie came out all those critics had to like that movie more, because they’d already told us ours wasn’t as good as that. It got confusing.

CS: I think the thing that may have hurt the first one more than “The Da Vinci Code” parallels was that about the same time you came out, PBS’ Nova did a story about the ultra protection of the Declaration of Independence, and how it was locked up.
Turteltaub: But what was interesting is that that story wasn’t really right, because I saw that Nova when it came out. I’d been to the archives, and I got a tour of how the Declaration was kept, and what was amazing is honestly it was kept like in a safe that you’d have in your house, and they had a halon gas thing so that if there was a fire, the fire would go out, but basically Ernie the janitor could have gone in and shown it to you. After 9/11 they went, “Ah, it’s safe,” and spirited it away and redid the security system. But they had already given us all the plans of the new security system, which we had, so we just did what they told us, it goes down that tube and down the thing into the room and it goes across the hall when they’re working on it, into that other room. Then we got told, “oh we made up a fake system,” that’s what happens, just like that. Don’t blame me.

CS: Given all the bad reviews the first one got, were you apprehensive to come back to make the second one?
Turteltaub: No, because [to the first row] don’t listen, don’t listen, don’t listen, the people we know who have families in Texas and aunt and uncles in Minnesota matter a lot more to us than the critics. One of the problems all of us have is we all see too many movies and so we just don’t watch movies right, we can’t help it, we know what’s coming, we can’t help but know where this is going, we’ve seen that actor in too many movies that year, and at too many lunches that year, so if you listen and you really talk to people and you go into someone’s house and you see the movie on the shelf, and you see it’s been watched, they’re watching that movie and you know that there’s something that crept into the, sorry, but the zeitgeist on it. I read references – you know online, on the YouTube thing it says, there was something about a fire and someone said, “It looked really like National Treasure,” that’s a sign to me that it’s out there. And then we said, you know what, it made money but not all in its opening weekend, it built, so there was word of mouth that made the success of the first movie. And the DVD life was so strong. That’s all about just people telling each other to watch the movie. And you look and you go, okay, we did better [in the] red States than blue States, and there’s probably more of you working in blue States than red States, so what does that mean to a movie, and by better, not world’s better, but there’s things. And we said, well, let’s do a sequel, but let’s start by coming up with ideas and a script. We don’t green light a movie until we know we’ve got a movie to make. And if there’s a sequel to this one it’ll be because not it opens well, but because it has some shelf life, you can smell whether audiences liked it or [not so enthusiastically] liked it. And if the new story we come up with works, and we feel confident, then we’ll do our best to get all the exact same people together again and do it again.

CS: Have you written yourself into a corner with this page 47?
Turteltaub: You know what? We can always tell people that’s the fourth movie. That doesn’t work. I’ve actually seen movies that seem like they’re setting up for the sequel and that wasn’t the sequel.

CS: What happened with the Lincoln Memorial scene, why was it cut?
Turteltaub: What is so great is, I’ve been watching all these TV commercials and most of the commercials – the problem is, commercials always give the movie away, well in this case it didn’t because nothing in the commercials made it into the final movie. [everyone laughs] And we keep looking at the commercials going, “That’s good, why did we cut that?” But they make the commercials based on dailies and your first four hour cut; they don’t know what’s going on.

CS: Wasn’t it tough to get permission to go inside the Lincoln Memorial?
Turteltaub: It’s very tough. A lot of restrictions went with it. They’ll often give permission for documentaries because the crews are very small. Surprisingly what’s tough about shooting in these places is not security. They know you’re not blowing the place up, their biggest concern is that you’re going to ruin the vacation of a family from Iowa who spent a lot of money to go see the Lincoln Memorial, and what’s great about America is that the Walt Disney Company is not more important than that family on vacation. So we needed to promise them that we wouldn’t upset access, that we wouldn’t ruin someone’s trip, we could only send six people in, and you add to it that the Lincoln Memorial is a little special, it somehow has a spiritual quality to it, and I’m telling you it sounds dumb and hokey, but you’ll feel it if you go, there’s something very…

CS: Spiritual?
Turteltaub: Sacred. I was going to try it, I didn’t have my Thesaurus. But there is a hallowed ground aspect to it, and you’ll hear people lower their voice when they go in because he was killed and because of the awkwardness and humble visage of Lincoln, and you read those words that are inscribed on the walls, it’s really very special and they don’t want to destroy that quality by having a circus inside there.

CS: What about shooting in Buckingham Palace and in Paris?
Turteltaub: Screw them! Same really. The same. Shooting on the streets of London, you know, a car chase in London is almost impossible but we bite it off in little pieces. We would shoot only on weekends. They would close pieces of streets. There’s no street in London that’s more than two blocks long anyway. So you find that little thing. There’s no way. To go around you got to go to Ireland. And what we would do is we would set up from 3 in the morning until 6am ’til the sun came up, shoot ’til 9 and be gone.

CS: How long?
Turteltaub: Nine weeks of weekends to do that. It’s not cheap.

CS: What about Buckingham Palace? Did you actually get inside?
Turteltaub: No. We kind of had the inside scoop on palaces that look like Buckingham Palance from Helen Mirren. She’s like, “You want good Queen stuff, I got the Queen stuff.” Experts. We created, recreated some stuff. There’s an extraordinary palace literally across the square from Buckingham Palace we used. Again every single person who shot needed to have their names in a week in advance for background checks and security and all that stuff. But if you have the production… You ask why do movies cost so much. This is one of the reasons they cost so much. You need that amount of bureaucracy on your end to organize all of that and be that prepared to get all that done. That cost us $72 million just to do that.

CS: I want to ask about “Jericho.” Do you think this writers strike might be a benefit to “Jericho” because it will end up being the only new program?
Turteltaub: And CBS will probably put it on against “American Idol.” [Laughs] That’s probably how that’s going to go. Yeah, maybe. The problem is if it’s a hit, then what? There’s seven episodes. We have seven episodes waiting to be aired but if they’re great, there’s no eighth episode. So who knows? Who knows?

CS: Have they given you an air date yet?
Turteltaub: No, but the rumblings are maybe February. They’re looking sometime in February. I think that’s when they’ve kind of exhausted what they have. I think it’s changed, you know, the notion of cancelling shows went out the window because they have nothing to replace shows with so they might as well show what they’ve paid for and see where it takes them. The strike is bad for everybody.

CS: How hard will it be to mount up after seven? Is everyone all split up again?
Turteltaub: Oh no. We can get going. You just got to do it and if the strike’s not over, it’s a problem. There’s no scripts.

CS: I mean you can get picked up for after the strike?
Turteltaub: That’s true. If we get picked up for September, great. But see this is what they know they made the mistake with the first time was when we went off the air for 13 weeks, the momentum of the Fall season went away and when we came back after the 11 weeks off, we had lost the flow. Look, the same thing happened to “Heroes.” “Heroes” had 30% of its viewers lost from the beginning of the season until the end of the season and that was considered a big hit.

CS: Was that because they intentionally chopped it in the middle and wait? What is the theory behind this?
Turteltaub: People aren’t really watching TV during Christmas time, in January, and we want the season to go longer and so…

CS: Do you want to pay for extra actors?
Turteltaub: Well more than that, the belief is that on serials like “Jericho” and “Heroes” that reruns don’t play as well. So let’s not have reruns. So instead of showing two, rerunning one, show three, rerun one, let’s wait and show 11 in a row. So that was the theory there.

CS: We heard that you just finished the film just a few days ago.
Turteltaub: Yeah, basically.

CS: How challenging was it? How much pressure was there to deliver the film?
Turteltaub: Nothing gets cut out because you don’t have time to make the movie unfortunately. I would have loved for them to say “You only have six more weeks. Don’t bother with this.” They go, “You only got six more weeks. You’d better hurry.” The movie comes first so you just have to… I’m not kidding. It’s 7 days a week, sometimes 24-hour days for 5 straight days. That’s another reason why movies cost a lot of money. You’re working as hard as you can and then one day you’re driving down the street and you see your poster with a date on it. Okay? The movie’s coming out that day so you’re put in the position of how good is your movie going to be and I can stay here and not see my kid or I can just say that’s the best I can do. It’s a tough position to put people in but what are you going to do.

CS: What is the running time.
Turteltaub: It’s 2 hours.

CS: Do you have 20 or 30 minutes you think is going to end up on the DVD?
Turteltaub: There’s two answers to that. The first cut was 3 hours and 55 minutes long. Okay? So there’s about an hour and 50 minutes cut. That’s a movie. That’s an actual version 3 done. I want $11 million please. Alright here’s a little inside scoop. Everybody believes in the financial world that “Pirates of the Caribbean 3” would have made another $50 to $100 million had it been 45 minutes shorter. Okay? The filmmakers will say you’re wrong. It made this money because it worked at this length. The studio says it would have worked at 45 minutes shorter and more people could’ve seen the damned movie and people can go more than once and all of that. So the studio was really concerned about the length. That’s coupled with I’m always concerned about the length. I don’t like really long movies and I know when a movie feels too long. Now it’s dumb to cut things out just for the length but I’ll tell you a scene can be boring if there’s two hours of movie in front of it and not boring if there’s 1 hour of movie in front of it. So the film itself can benefit from being shorter. That said, just ’cause scenes get cut out doesn’t mean they were bad and doesn’t mean they were boring. Sometimes they’re terrific scenes that were just not necessary when you look at the whole thing to the movie. Some scenes get cut out because they don’t quite work and for me, why would I still want to show that on a DVD? It’s like, you know, “Look what a sh**ty job we did.” It’s crazy putting these deleted scenes on some of these DVDs and I know film buffs and people like it but they never play great because they’re always out of context. So you’re sitting there not really watching a scene in the movie. You’re sort of watching other things and it’s just dumb. But “Oh, it sells DVDs and [the audience] loves it.” “Really? It does? Will I get more money?” “Yes. Here.” [Laughs] So the good deleted scenes will be on there.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets opens in theaters on Friday, December 21.