WonderCon Exclusive: Director Jon Turteltaub

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It had been roughly nine or ten months since ComingSoon.net spoke with director Jon Turteltaub at the Bowling Green location where he was shooting The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but at this year’s WonderCon in San Francisco, we got a bit more time to have a casual 1:1 conversation where he wasn’t as distracted by being in the middle of shooting a pivotal scene for his movie. (In case you missed it, we interviewed the movie’s star and Turteltaub’s boss (sort of) Nicolas Cage, just a few minutes earlier, which you can still read here.)

ComingSoon.net: You probably should thank my editor for whenever I spell your name wrong, he always catches it and fixes that.
Jon Turteltaub: I love that! I used to get really upset about that and then I was reading an L.A. Times story and they spelled Spielberg’s name wrong, and at that moment, I went, “Alright, forget it. This is meaningless. If they can’t get Spielberg right, I’m never going to be upset.”

CS: I was just talking to Nic, and we were talking about how the reaction to this movie has changed from the puzzled head-scratching when it was announced to the first teaser that looked interesting, to the new trailer which has started to impress people. It’s really interesting to see how minds have been changed as more people start to get what it’s about.
Turteltaub: I obviously have a weird sensibility, because when I first heard the idea, I went, “Wow, homerun, perfect!” And then I would tell people the title and the name and they would look at me with a blank stare, like “What are you talking about?” Either “I’d never heard of that,” shockingly, or if they had heard of it, “How does that make a movie?”

CS: When they think of it and Mickey Mouse, they assume Nic would be wearing the ears…
Turteltaub: “Is it Mickey Mouse? And is it a cartoon?” But when Nic said, “What about making ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ as a movie?” To me, I went, “Of course, live action, doing what sorcerers can do” but not taking that story of the eager apprentice and not being equipped to do magic and doing magic. Who is the sorcerer and getting into his story and the backstory and where do these guys come from? Being set in present-day New York City. Suddenly, there was this sense of mythology in a place we can relate to. I would have loved to have seen “Clash of the Titans” if it took place today. Actually, don’t tell anyone I said that, it’s a great idea, I’m running with that.

CS: Actually, “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief” did that already.
Turteltaub: There you go, that’s right. Okay, you can tell everyone.

CS: In New York, too.
Turteltaub: (gives a pained look then gets back to his own movie) But that seemed really fun to me, and I can’t wait for the day that I make a movie that isn’t described as a “surprise” and an “unexpected success.”

CS: Because that was exactly the same thing that happened with “National Treasure.”
Turteltaub: Correct. It wasn’t unexpected for me. I thought it was a really good idea, but the rest of the world looked at me like we were crazy, so what do I know?

CS: Was a lot of the backstory and how the magic worked, was that developed even before you came onboard as director?
Turteltaub: (Nods) It wasn’t a finished script, but there was a script and a lot of work done, and the essence of it. While they always morph and grow, I didn’t have to reinvent the movie. The backstory was there, the essence of who these sorcerers were was there, the hook of the movie being present-day sorcerers trying to get this child to become who he really is and wake him out of his own self-doubt to become all he can be, so to speak, that was all there.

CS: What about visualizing the movie? When you’re working with a team and trying to figure out how to bring various elements of New York City to life and do the magic and effect, how involved was all that?
Turteltaub: You know, that ultimately falls on the director to envision and try to communicate those ideas to all these other people, and then those people take what they hear, which is never exactly what you mean, and then create their thing which hopefully is better than the thing you said. As a director, you’re not just expected to have a vision of it, but I think the job is to be able to sit back and let other people be smarter than you, so when somebody else has a brilliant idea about what a dragon should look like or what a sorcerer should look like, let them be more creative and better at their jobs than you are. And then you still get credit for it, you still win, but it doesn’t have to be your idea. The amount that there is to envision is shocking when it comes to doing things that have this many visual FX in it. You realize that everything on screen has to be explained to somebody. There’s nothing that just is what it is… without over-explaining and on-time and on whatever budget you have.

CS: This has a ton more visual FX than “National Treasure,” so does post on a movie like this just take a lot longer than you’d ever normally expect?
Turteltaub: Yeah, I was shocked at how much longer it takes. You think they do it all in post-production; they don’t. You have to shoot in a very specific way and you can do a lot that’s improvised later, it’s just a lot more expensive and much more complicated, so the more prepared you are, the better. Well, you can only prepare so much. You need to leave a lot of room for mistakes, for actors’ opinions and ideas, for new lines of dialogue, whatever it is. No matter how much you prepare, you’re wrong. You get it wrong all the time and you’re realizing the right answer as you go. With visual FX, you’re limited on how wrong you’re allowed to be, so that’s where you realize you have to prep a little harder and think things through a little more.

CS: How about using New York as a character or a part of it? Did you end up having to rebuild a lot of on set to incorporate those FX?
Turteltaub: We went out a lot and we tried to leave New York as is, use existing New York. The needle moved along this full scope from complete cinema verité to a full-fledged fantasy world. You can go Tim Burton creativity or stretch it even like “Men in Black” did in some ways vs. just leaving it as is, such as in “Serpico.” Where do we fit? We tended to say let’s let as many things be real as possible and let the magic be the unreal element rather than let the whole world be magic. We kept thinking–and I still do–that the fun of the movie is how there are magical elements in a world we all know versus creating a fake world that might be wonderfully entertaining but doesn’t really connect to my own real life. The wish fulfillment of the movie is “What if I were a magician?” not “What if New York were made out of magical material?” I want to know what it’s like in a real setting to do magic.

CS: I have to say that I live a block from where you shot in Chinatown and…
Turteltaub: It never looked better, did it?

CS: No, it never looked better, and when the first trailer came out, I showed it to the local merchants and they were thrilled to see a dragon in their neighborhood.
Turteltaub: That’s funny. I saw a pamphlet for a woman running for Governor of New York and she was talking about the beauty of New York and they had a picture of Chinatown with all the lanterns and the dressing that was only there for a movie! She’s saying, “Look how beautiful New York is!” Sorry, three days later that was all gone.

CS: I was thinking that people were going to see your version of Chinatown and show up and be really disappointed with what it really looks like.
Turteltaub: It doesn’t look that nice.

CS: Absolutely. I also wanted to ask about the comedy, because that plays such a huge part in “National Treasure” and a big part of this, but what’s the balance? Are there parts where it does get serious?
Turteltaub: You bet. Comedy is–at least as it’s been in my own life–comedy is your ice-breaker. Comedy is the way to let people relax, to feel a connection and a sense of humanity. Comedy is a way of delighting in our flaws. If it goes too far, you lose the stakes and the jeopardy in the movie because it doesn’t seem like the movie is taking itself seriously enough, but without the comedy, I don’t really believe these are real people, because life is fun and funny, and it’s a real quality people have. But it’s also entertaining and it’s an element of movie entertainment that we need to take advantage of.

CS: People don’t want to go to a movie and be depressed, they want to go and have fun.
Turteltaub: Correct, and we desperately need it. Even in “The Hurt Locker,” we keep calling it comic relief but yeah, that’s exactly what it is, and it’s entertaining, it’s fun, it makes it pleasurable to go. When you have actors like Jay Baruchel, certainly you have such a resource for comedy, it would be a waste to not use it. What I like to do is try to shoot a movie that’s as funny as we can make it, and then start scaling back on it, so that we’re not stepping all over the story and the drama. It’s much harder to make something funny after the fact.

CS: On set, you do a lot of takes of things to let the actors play around with the level of humor?
Turteltaub: You bet. It’s much harder to put jokes in than it is to take them out.

CS: How do you feel about your movie being an underdog of the summer? Because it’s not a sequel or a remake…
Turteltaub: It’s the strangest thing. It’s the same with the “National Treasure” movies. I’m making a movie with a star and Jerry Bruckheimer and suddenly, I’m an underdog. There’s good and bad. Being the underdog requires your movie to be really good. You make a big hit out of a crappy movie if expectations are high and everyone’s ready to go see it, because they’ll go see it anyway, and then they tell their friends not to go, but by the time that happens, you’ve made a lot of money. As an underdog, you actually have to make a good movie. The good news is that when the movie succeeds, you can feel you succeeded, not just the posters, and it was the movie that brought the money in, not the marketing.

CS: When you’re done with this, there’s been a lot of talk about “National Treasure 3″ of course.”
Turteltaub: Yeah, “National Treasure 3” is being worked on right now. We’ll see if that’s ready next. You know, Hollywood is making fewer movies. I think most directors feel like they’re only as successful as their last movie, so we’re a little bit more nervous than we used to be. But who knows? I’d love to make that small art film that everyone goes, “Wow, look how small and arty he can be,” but those scripts are just as hard to find as good big budget movies. I think all directors feel the same way. Give me a great script, I’m in. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, it doesn’t matter the genre. If that script tells a great story and has great characters, I’m in.

CS: Do you have any idea where you’d want to go with it? Unlike “Pirates,” it was never designed as trilogy. There’s one movie, and then a few years later we see the characters pursuing something else.
Turteltaub: There’s plenty of real treasure out there, but more importantly, there’s plenty of real history that isn’t told, and the fun of the “National Treasure” movies and the irony of the criticism on the “National Treasure” movies was how everyone said how stupid and fake it was when it was neither of those things. These are real facts, real history, and we’re connecting dots that may not connect, but these are actual people and actual events, and there’s a lot more where that comes from.

Incidentally, a few weeks back, ComingSoon.net spoke more with Turteltaub and the writers about the third movie, which you can read here and here.

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