Interview: Sorcerer's Apprentice Director Jon Turteltaub

On June 23rd 2010, I had an appointment to chat with Jon Turteltaub, director of the National Treasure films and Disney's upcoming Sorcerer's Apprentice.

I woke up early that morning, and headed down to the Apple Store at The Grove to pick up the new iPhone 4, which I had reserved. The plan was to crib for the interview while I was waiting a few hours in line to get the new phone. I had waited in line for the previous three iPhone launches at one of Apple's flagship stores in the downtown San Francisco, I expected this to be quick and painless (or at least quicker and less painful than it ended up being). The few hours I had expected to wait in line quickly turned into multiples of that. And by the time my scheduled interview time approached, I found myself near the front of the line. I waited all day, and regretfully, I had to choose between calling it a total loss of my 10 hours and rush to the interview, or cancel the chat and get the iPhone. Don't get me wrong, if I had known at the beginning of the day that I'd have to choose, I would have never gotten in line (actually, if I had known I was going to wait 11 hours in line, I would have never gotten in line...). I called Disney to see what I should do, and they told me I could probably reschedule the interview to another day and time, which was a big relief.

Thanks to the wonderful Disney publicists, I was able to get time with Jon on the phone the next week. By the time I talked with Jon, he had already done a week full of press, international, domestic and television. I decided the best approach was to ask him some questions, for the most part, out of the norm. The bad situation turned into to be the best possible result — I got to talk to Jon for over 30 minutes. For those of you who don't know, a normal 1:1 interview lasts 10-15 minutes, resulting in a very fast pace as the interviewer is usually trying to cram all their questions in. The interview you are about to read after the jump has a much different pace (which is probably why Turteltaub allowed me to go over the scheduled fifteen minute time limit.

We talk about how Jon launched his career with Three Ninjas, Being pigeonholed as a kid movie director, How Phenomenon was originally supposed to star Harrison Ford and Holly Hunter, Becoming the "surprisingly good" director, Being a populist movie director who gets not-so-good reviews from critics/film snobs, the disappointments of National Treasure 2, the possibility of a Sorcerer's Apprentice sequel, How he became involved in the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Going to High School with Nicolas Cage and beating him out for the lead role in the school play, what it is like being a part of a "Jerry Bruckheimer production", weaving science with magic, the choice to not film the movie in 3D, the choice not to post convert it to 3D, Balthazar's Warehouse of Magical Artifacts, The Easter Eggs hidden in the movie, Where did the artifacts disappear to and the possibilities for a sequel, shooting the movie on location in New York City and shutting down traffic in Times Square for five nights, the troubles of trying to shoot a movie with "any kind of depth or any social relevance" (referring to the Greenpeace biopic he's developing), Avatar, and more.

Read the full interview, after the jump.

Peter: How's it going Jon?

Jon: Hi, how are you?

Peter: Good.

Jon: You go see Twilight rather than talk to me?

Peter: Wait, what? What happened?

Jon: You went to the Twilight premiere? Isn't that what happened?

Peter: No, no, no. What happened, I was in the iPhone line that day, and I had gotten there at 7 AM.

Jon: Oh, that's right! The iPhone line...

Peter: Yeah, by the time it was 4 PM for the interview I was almost there. And I couldn't talk myself out of wasting the entire day! [laughs]

Jon: You made a very good choice.

Peter: I'm glad I finally get to talk to you, so it worked out in the end.

Jon: I'll try to do it in less than nine hours.

Peter: [laughs] Most people know you from the National Treasure films. But your career, it started over a decade before teamed up with Nicolas Cage in the first place. Could you tell us a little bit about your career so far?

Jon: I started making low budget movies back in the days when people made low-budget movies that nobody ever went to or saw. Like really low budget shit movies. Like $500,000 low budget movies. And my really big break came when I made a super low budget kids' karate movie called "Three Ninjas". And that movie wasn't made by Disney but was bought by Disney. And that sort of got me invited to like real movie making jobs instead of scary, horrible kids' karate movie making jobs.

Peter: Well, even that movie has kind of become like a cult classic for kids of the '90s.

Jon: I gotta tell ya, it's so funny. Kid's who were born after 1980 all know and love that movie. I can usually tell how old someone is by which of my movies they like. So definitely the "Three Ninjas" group, and that group overlaps the "Cool Runnings" group a lot.

Peter: Oh, definitely.

Jon: A lot of kids loved "Cool Runnings" that saw it on DVD. They never saw it originally when it came out in theaters. By that was my first movie I made, "Cool Runnings", first one I made for a studio. And that turned out to surprise everybody and be a big success. After "Three Ninjas" and "Cool Runnings", the only movies I got sent were kids' movies. Everything was a kid's movie. Every script had some kid with a disease and some animal who was his best friend.

Peter: [laughs]

Jon: [laughs] So I was desperate to find a real romantic comedy, because that was like a real grownup movie. After a long search and a lot of auditioning, I was able to get "While You Were Sleeping".

Peter: Yeah, that was a solid movie.

Jon: Yeah, thank you. It was supposed to, I think, be like a big grownup movie with big grownup actors. And then I signed on and then all the big grownup actors decided not to do it. Then we had to go back to auditioning. I think it was...For some reason I feel like it was supposed to be Harrison Ford and Holly Hunter at one point. And then soon as I was hired they just decided they would rather not make the movie. So we just went and started auditioning. And that's how we put Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman together. And then, of course, after that movie, every script I got was a romantic comedy until Disney sent me "Phenomenon", and Jon Travolta was already attached to that. And that was like a really grownup movie. I was like, "OK, this really counts." You know, it's funny. "Phenomenon" did well, and it was like the fourth movie in a row where people said it was surprisingly good. It was just movie after movie with really low expectations that people end up liking. And for some reason, every movie I make ends up that way. I don't know why. I thought when I did the "National Treasure" movies with Jerry Bruckheimer and Nic Cage, people were going to have very high expectations and say: "Wow! Here comes a big, fun action movie!" No. Same thing.

Peter: You are the "surprisingly good" guy.

Jon: Correct. And I'm hearing it again on this movie! That's the crazy thing. When I sat through the junket, people went...They don't say, "Hey, great movie." They go, "You know what? I really liked it!" It was a given it would be bad, and yet they liked it!

Peter: So that's almost like an insult, right? Like that's...

Jon: Of course it is! And I'm dying to know, what have I gotta do for people to expect my movies to not suck? Apparently I'm the moviemaker whose movies just get assumed to suck and then actually do well. So maybe that will be my niche.

Peter: [laughs] Well that seems to be the thing with you, is you make a lot of, should I say, populist movies which are enjoyed by moviegoers, but always seem to get a really...or don't always seem to get, but regularly seem to get a bad rap from critics and film snobs.

Jon: Horrible reviews...It's funny. I got a great review on "While You Were Sleeping" from Janet Naslin [sp] in the New York Times, and I framed it. And my plan was to frame all my really good New York Times reviews, but they ended with "While You Were Sleeping".

Peter: [laughs]

Jon: So that's just sitting there all by itself. I don't know what it is about my style that makes the general critical crowd despise me, but there's something to making a movie audiences like that tends to be a movie critics don't. And I'm not sure what it is. And I'm not sure if I should change what I'm doing, because things seem to be going OK.

Peter: Well, for the record, I really loved the first National Treasure, and I really liked "Sorcerer's Apprentice" a lot. And I find it funny that a lot of people are...

Jon: So for the record, you didn't like the second "National Treasure"? See, that's how neurotic Jews hear things.

Peter: You know what? I liked it. " I liked it more than I thought I was going to..." [laughs]

Jon: [laughs]

Peter: You know what? My problem with the second National Treasure was that there was too much of the parents. And I felt like that distracted...and I've heard that complaint from a couple people.

Jon: Interesting!

Peter: I was wondering what your take on that was. Have you heard that, and is that going to affect the third film?

Jon: I'm probably not a great judge, because for me to...You know, Jon Voight and Helen Mirren, and I thought they were lovely....It's sometimes very hard to gauge exactly what audiences think, because people tend to just be nice when they talk to you personally. Unless, of course, they write for a newspaper, in which case they tend to be really mean when they talk about your movie. But I think I get it. Was it that there was just too much puke and not enough adventure?

Peter: Well I think it's also hard bringing in new characters. Like, you want to go on that same ride with the same characters. "Who is this new lady?" You know what I mean?

Jon: Right. And it's hit and miss with that all the time. I mean certainly when...I agree with you, by the way. I think the reason people go to sequels are to see the characters again. You know, I keep getting asked, throughout these interviews, "Is there going to be a sequel to "Sorcerer's Apprentice?", which is a silly question before the movie comes out. If the movie doesn't do well, it doesn't matter how good it is, the answer is no. But it's about the people, and if the audiences like the people, great. And some movies succeed in that and some don't. It's sometimes just the chemistry of who the new actor is and how that works. But I totally see your point. And point taken for "National Treasure 3" if that ever gets made.

Peter: How is that going, by the way?

Jon: I have seen writers sitting in a room writing. That is the extent.

Peter: [laughs] I heard there were new writers hired. Is that true or is that just a rumor?

Jon: The writers from "Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "Prince of Persia" are writing "National Treasure 3". I have observed their writing. I have seen them going in and out of meetings with producers to discuss things, and I have yet to be shown any actual pages.

Peter: How did you become involved with the "Sorcerer's Apprentice"?

Jon: Ah, Nick. Nick and I were, long version which you don't have to write, or you don't have to write any of it. Nick and I went out to see his son in a play at Beverly Hills High School where Nick and I had done plays before. We went to High School together and he said, "My son is in the play. He is on the same stage where you and I did a play 27 years before, let's go." So we went and then, this is going to be a better, even longer story which I'll tell you at some point. After the play I said, "What are you doing?". He goes, "I've been working on making a full feature out of the "Sorcerer's Apprentice", what do you think?" and I don't know why others don't see it this way, but I thought it was a brilliant idea just from that. Just the notion of taking that short, expanding the notion of the sorcerer and the teacher, and a young klutzy student, and bringing sorcerers alive in today's culture just sounded great. And thank God, I said I liked it and he said, "Well do you want to direct it?". I said, "Yes, please.".

(Peter laughing)

Jon: And he said "We'll see." because he had brought it to Jerry also and Disney owned it, but Disney actually didn't develop it. The idea came from Nick. It was good that I was nice to him on the first "National Treasure" movie.

Peter: Yeah, definitely. When you were going to Beverly Hills High School, you were in the same drama department, did you actually know Nic? Or was it kinda like...

Jon: Yeah, yeah, we were friends then and did plays together and hung out together, all that stuff. Nic is actually a year younger than I am, and he looks much, much, much older.

(Peter laughing)

Jon: But yeah, it is so weird when your high school friends become big and famous people because it's always so hard to see as anything but the people they were in high school. That's always true I think, of all of us.

Peter: And he was there when you were still making $500,000 movies, right?

Jon: Yep.

(Peter laughing)

Jon: I remember in college, doing lame-o college plays in the basement of a dorm and seeing a GQ magazine with Nick's picture on the cover.

(Peter laughing)

Jon: All I could think of was "THAT guy?".

Peter: That's funny.

Jon: It's just so weird. Imagine what your parents must think of your success. I mean your parents must always just be shocked that any of their children do well.

Peter: Well imagine what the lead of that play that you and Nick were in, is thinking of your success.

Jon: Dude, I was the lead!

Peter: Oh, you were the lead?

Jon: I was the lead of the play!

Peter: OK.

Jon: Now how do you think I felt?

Peter: OK, so you were...

Jon: I was the lead thinking that I actually went up for the same part for the lead. I got the lead and he had a two line role as a cop.

Peter: Wow.

Jon: Which I must say, knowing that I am a far superior actor to him...

(Peter laughing)

Jon: When he won the Academy award it only proved to me that I would've probably won three by now.

Peter: Do you remind him of this all the time on set, or..?

Jon: Every chance I get.

(Peter laughing)

Jon: Any disagreement, it's funny. The play was "Our Town", and he ended up playing "Constable Warren", alright? It was literally like a guy who walks through the stage once and goes, "Nice night.". Something like that. Every time we have a disagreement off and on the set, over something I'd say, I'd say "OK Constable Warren, we'll do it your way."

(Jon and Peter laughing)

Peter: And he keeps on bringing you back for more projects, I mean that's good.

(Peter laughing)

Jon: Funny thing is, he'd probably rather be directing at this point. He loves directing.

Peter: Really? That's something I did not know.

Jon: Yep.

Peter: The Sorcerer's Apprentice is your what, third collaboration with Jerry Bruckheimer?

Jon: Yes.

Peter: Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jon: Well I'm trying to remember life before Jerry Bruckheimer, actually. I've been now ten straight years, in ten years made three movies all with Nick and Jerry.

Peter: And Bruckheimer went from Michael Bay to you, right?

Jon: Yeah...rough.

Peter: Which puts a strange...

Jon: Well we like to think he went from Michael Bay to Gore Verbinski and then I sort of filled in the blanks.

(Peter laughing)

Jon: I was like the sort of secondary job. You know, working with Jerry is fascinating because everybody has such strong and definite images of who he might be, before you work with him. It is very rare that there is a famous producer and a signature producer. As a director you are struggling always no matter what movie you are doing to get your own stamp on a movie. But with Jerry you are also struggling to make sure you are getting his stamp on the movie. That it looks and feels like a Jerry Bruckheimer film.

Peter: Yeah, Jerry Bruckheimer is a brand.

Jon: Exactly. And as a movie watcher, I wanted to make Jerry Bruckheimer movies. As soon as I was directing it, I wanted to make Jerry Bruckheimer movies, but I also wanted to make Jon Turteltaub movies. We're such a weird marriage because I think the cliché version of his films or my films would never be on the same video shelf.

Peter: Yeah.

Jon: You picture him as slick and glossy and action packed, and I am sort of the relationship, comedy heart guy. Those are our stereotypes and as a result I think he really brought me along to a new place as a film maker. Branching me out and pushing me into more cinematic films. And at the same time I stuck to my guns and he actually would encourage to keep the films in my realm and make sure that the characters were rich and real and had the sense of humor and the film had heart and emotion. And so I think we've had success as a result of blending our two styles.

Woman: There's time for about one or two more questions.

Peter: Two more questions?

Woman: Yeah.

Jon: Oh, geez they better be good.

(Woman laughing)

Peter: OK, back to Sorcerer's.

Jon: Alright, here's my version, "Tell me everything you know about....", see that's where you get around these damn Disney people.

Peter: Yeah, tell me everything about the movie! No, I really liked the way the movie tries to weave science and magic.

Jon: Cool. That was really important to me. I feel and I felt that we just present magic as something that isn't grounded and isn't based in any reality, it will feel purely like a contrivance in a modern day context. That you just have the sorcerers wiggle their noses and things happen, it's going to feel like an episode of "I dream of Genie". You want to ground it in something believable so that both dreamers and cynics can appreciate the adventure that the movie is.

Peter: I am sure you are asked this question a lot, but why wasn't the movie filmed in 3D?

Jon: Do you want the stock answer that I give when Disney is listening, or the real answer?

Peter: Well, we are going to print the answer, so whatever answer you want to give.

Jon: You know, I'll give you the honest answer. Two and a half years ago when we started, I had just seen the lecture by James Cameron on 3D, and I went to Disney and said "This is the perfect 3D movie.". And they said "Nah, it's too expensive. There aren't enough theaters and it's probably just a gimmick.".

(Peter laughing)

Jon: Goofy.

Peter: Well, glad that you didn't post convert it because a lot of that is kind of looking pretty horrible.

Jon: Oh, I think that is lame and I think that is a lie. Audiences, if they haven't gotten smart yet they need to be smart about it. I's so wrong when you try to trick them into something. It's like colorizing the movie.

Peter: One of the other locations I loved in the movie was Balthazar's Warehouse of Magical Artifacts. It almost felt like a supernatural version of the warehouse at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Where like there are stories for each one of those things.

Jon: If each little thing has a whole story, right.

Peter: Did you talk to the writers about what objects should be in that room, or is that all art direction?

Jon: Where we discussed it a lot was with the production designer and the set dressers and what kinds of things need to be in that room. Actually Oren Aviv who was the president of production at that time also kept pushing saying "Make sure there's at least a couple recognizable things in there. Because that will be really fun for the audience."

Peter: Well what kind of Easter Eggs can we find in there?

Jon: See, a lot of it gets cut out. Certainly we feature Aladdin's lamp pretty obviously.

Peter: Yeah.

Jon: The head in the jar is nothing, but I always thought it reminded me in a very unpleasant way of "Silence of the Lambs".

Peter: Hmm.

Jon: But if you look really carefully you'll find an original Pinocchio.

Peter: Oh, really?

Jon: And if you stay to the end of the credits, you'll see the original sorcerer's hat that Mickey wore in "Fantasia".

Peter: Yeah, I did see that.

Jon: That's at the very end. I'm trying to think because so much of it got cut out. There's photographs around the room from Fantasia that we snuck in there. And there's all sorts of little weird artifacts and things. I should look at it a little bit more, at all the outtakes. Oddly we ended up using the takes that had Nick Cage in them rather than had very good props.

Peter: I was wondering throughout the film, where did those artifacts go, and do they all have demons or you know? And after this movie does Nic Cage have to go on a search around the world trying to...

(Peter laughing)

Jon: Find what happened to the New York City public auction of all of his stuff?

Peter: Yes. That should be the sequel.

Jon: Well, we may find that out in the sequel. Come to think of it, uh, yeah that is exactly what the sequel is.

(Peter laughing)

Jon: But we actually talked about that, there used to be a scene in the film that never got shot, where that old Russian family buys the vase from a city auction to explain how they actually got it in their possession. And there were going to be a whole bunch of other things there, and then we talked about who might be buying other things for what other parts of what other movies, but you never know.

Peter: Interesting, and my last question because it seems..

Jon: It all depends on you by the way.

Peter: Oh, that's a relief!

Jon: If you really want that sequel made, you have to convince 60 million Americans to go see this movie in your one article.

Peter: In my one article? I don't think I have that power but I appreciate the confidence.

(Peter laughing)

Jon: OK...

Peter: The other thing is shooting on location in New York City. You show us in New York City that like, I feel like a lot of the films in the past ten years have shown this glossy, the new New York City, and your New York City really looks grittier and almost pre-Giuliani New York City.

(Jon laughing)

Peter: Wondering if you could talk about that and if you could also talk about shooting on location.

Jon: Well, again the contrast of magic which seems so unreal and New York City which is so real, was an important part of making the movie for us. Which meant you gotta really get into the streets and show what New York really looks like and so a lot of that is about architecture and really feeling you're in the kind of New York where people could live and no one would notice there is a sorcerer walking down the street. So that means not shooting the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, but shooting on smaller streets in SoHo and things like that. It's more New York where people live, rather than just post card New York. Everybody knows Chinatown, but rarely does anyone ever shoot there.

Peter: Yeah, usually it's shot in Toronto or on a backlot...

Jon: Correct. And New York made it very inviting for us to come, and they did everything they could to make it as easy as possible for us. Those large tax incentives that really make the film much more affordable and help with locations and things like that and their being extremely wonderful hosting us for a big premier on Tuesday. That said, it's not like it's not a pain in the neck to shoot their also. Parking fifteen trucks anywhere is hard, but in Manhattan it's crazy. You know when you're shooting there it's going to be loud. We were shooting there at 3 o'clock in the morning, some of the driving scenes, so we're in a truck towing Nick and Jay Baruchel in the car and out of nowhere there would always be a crowd. Three in the morning. If we stopped at a light, there would be a crowd and I would say half of the takes if you heard the raw dialogue someone was screaming "Yo, Nick, whattup?!" in the background and that is sort of the fun of New York but it definitely goes with the territory.

Peter: And you actually, did you shut down Times Square?

Jon: Shut down Times Square to shoot the action stuff. Shut down 6th Avenue for about four or five nights.

Peter: Wow.

Jon: Now, we say shut it down, but we don't shut it down during rush hour. You have like from 10pm till 5am, Sunday night through Wednesday night. That kind of a thing, at the least busy time.

Peter: It is still pretty impressive.

Jon: 5th Avenue. We closed 5th Avenue as well. Now by closed, closed doesn't always mean closed by the way. Closed means you are shooting there and it is closed but people can still walk there and if a car happens to turn on the street it's your problem, not theirs. There's always a lane for emergency vehicles, so you are driving down the street but there's cones up and down the street for where the police and fire have to go, then you use visual effect to get rid of all the cones. Even so, there was that moment where I was standing, I think on 7th Avenue walking down the center of the street at three in the morning and thinking about Sinatra saying if you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere, and thinking "Well, this isn't so bad."

(Peter laughing)

Peter: Well I hope it works out, I hope it does well.

Jon: Are you Canadian?

Peter: No, I'm not Canadian.

Jon: Where are you from?

Peter: I am originally from like Boston area.

Jon: From "like Boston area."?

Peter: Well, outside of Boston. Like a suburb of Boston.

Jon: Isn't all of Massachusetts a suburb outside of Boston?

Peter: No, well, you are either a suburb of Worcester, or Springfield, or Boston.

Jon: Oh, Springfield. Nobody lives out there.

Peter: Yeah. (laughs)

Jon: Even people I know in Amherst say "Oh, I'm from outside of Boston." just trying to cover their ass. Worcester, have you ever been to WPI?

Peter: Wait, what is WPI?

Jon: Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Peter: No, no I haven't.

Jon: Wow. Gotta go, it's horrible.

(Peter laughing)

Jon: Oh, I've actually been there. Covered a baseball game there, the baseball announcer. This is all stuff you didn't ask, but there you.

Peter: Well, I've been to Fenway, that's all I need.

Jon: It's a lot better.

Peter: The only thing else I wanted to ask you is, what's next, is it Green Peace?

Jon: Well, thanks for noticing. We are working on that. Very hard movie to get a studio to make these days. Movies with any kind of depth or any social relevance, no matter what, no matter how big or how interesting they are shying away from. It could be that.

Peter: Which is funny because Avatar was so that kind of movie, or had that kind of message.

Jon: It did, but nobody knew it until they got there. If the movie was called "That Poor Tree", I don't know if anyone would have gone.

Peter: Probably not.

Jon: Now, if it's James Cameron's "That Poor Tree", everyone would have gone. So we'll see. I'm working on a movie, actually, about Teddy Roosevelt, and we'll see. We'll see. I don't know yet is the answer to the question.

Peter: Don't know yet. OK. Well, I wish you luck and I'll let you go, because I think I heard that you just had a kid, right?

Jon: I've got a 12 week old baby to compete with a 2 ½ year old son. And I gotta say, life's pretty good.

Peter: Well, it's a pleasure speaking with you, I'll let you get back to your family.

Jon: Thanks so much. This was a surprisingly good interview. See! Feels horrible, doesn't it!


Peter: Thank you Jon.

Jon: All right. Bye-bye.