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Q & A with Director Jon Turteltaub


 
Director Jon Turteltaub on the set of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

Director Jon Turteltaub on the set of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Jon Turteltaub, director of Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films’ epic comedy adventure “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” starring Nicolas Cage and Jay Baruchel, opening July 14.

Walt Disney Pictures, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub, the team behind the “National Treasure” franchise starring Nicolas Cage reunited to make “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” an innovative tale about a sorcerer (Cage) and his hapless apprentice (Baruchel) who are swept into the center of an ancient conflict between good and evil.

The Story (official version – no spoilers): Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) is a master sorcerer in modern–day Manhattan trying to defend the city from his arch–nemesis, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina). Balthazar can’t do it alone, so he recruits Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel), a seemingly average guy who demonstrates hidden potential, as his reluctant protégé. The sorcerer gives his unwilling accomplice a crash course in the art and science of magic and together these unlikely partners pit their powers against those of the fiercest and most ruthless villains of all time.

Also starring are Teresa Palmer, Monica Bellucci, Toby Kebbell and Omar Benson Miller. The film’s screenplay is by Matt Lopez and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard from a screen story by Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal and Matt Lopez. It was executive produced by Todd Garner, Nicolas Cage, Mike Stenson, Chad Oman, Norman Golightly and Barry Waldman.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” started with a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The great German writer, thinker and natural scientist wrote the poem “Der Zauberlehrling” in 1797. Goethe’s 14–stanza poem is narrated by the apprentice, who, left to his own devices, takes it upon himself to arrogantly demonstrate his own magical arts.

The apprentice orders an old broomstick to wrap itself in rags, grow a head and two arms and, with a bucket, prepare a bath for him. The living broomstick fills not only the tub, but every bowl and cup, and the apprentice has forgotten the magic word to make it stop, resulting in a massive flood. The apprentice takes an axe to the poor old broom, splitting it in half, which results in two living broomsticks.

The apprentice is finally bailed out by the return of his old master, who quickly sends the broom back into the closet from whence it came, with an imprecation that it will return only when he, the true master, calls it forth once again to do his bidding.

A hundred years later, the poem was adapted into a hugely popular 10–minute symphonic piece, “L’apprenti sorcier,” by the French composer Paul Dukas. An immediate success for its brilliant musical coloration and rhythmic excellence, and its wonderfully jaunty “march of the broomsticks,” the scherzo has stood the test of time. Walt Disney discovered it some four decades after that, creating an animated version for his animated feature “Fantasia,” casting Mickey Mouse in the title role. In the summer of 1937, while dining alone at Chasen’s restaurant in Los Angeles, Disney invited famed conductor Leopold Stokowski to join him and together they conjured up something extraordinary.

Disney had already utilized music as a foundation of his animated film series Silly Symphonies and hoped to collaborate with Stokowski on a cartoon short based on Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The idea of putting classical music to animated segments was later expanded, ultimately creating the wildly risky but wonderfully ambitious “Fantasia.” The 125–minute film — unusually long even today for an animated feature — opened to great fanfare on November 13, 1940, at the Broadway Theatre in New York City. The music was enhanced by a multi–channel sound system, especially developed for the film, called Fantasound, and “Fantasia” became the first commercial motion picture ever to be exhibited with stereophonic sound.

“Fantasia” now stands as a testament to Disney’s artistic ambitions and his unshakable will to advance the art form of both animation and motion pictures by creating something audiences had never before seen or heard. “Fantasia” is one of the films selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode is generally considered its best and most beloved episode.

Jon Turteltaub has directed all eight of his studio feature films for The Walt Disney Company, including the blockbusters “National Treasure” (2004) and “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” (2007), both starring Nicolas Cage. The two films, which were produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Turteltaub, grossed approximately $805 million worldwide.

Among Turteltaub’s other features are “The Kid,” starring Bruce Willis (2000), “Instinct,” (1999), starring Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland and Maura Tierney, and “Phenomenon” (1996), starring John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Forest Whitaker and Kyra Sedgwick.

Also, the 1993 ensemble cast surprise comedy hit, “Cool Runnings” and the 1995 romantic comedy hit “While You Were Sleeping,” which helped launch Sandra Bullock to stardom. His first film for Disney was 1992’s ensemble comedy hit “3 Ninjas,” which was the studio’s most profitable film that year.

Born in New York City and raised in Beverly Hills, Turteltaub got his BA at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and received his master’s degree at the USC Film School. His father, Saul Turteltaub, is an iconic television producer with credits on such memorable shows as “Sanford & Son,” “What’s Happening,” “That Girl” and “Love American Style.”

Q: I see you’re working again with Jerry Bruckheimer
A: (Laughs) Nothing makes me happier than making more money for Jerry.
Q: How did “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” come about?
A: We got put together this time by Nic (Cage). Nic developed the idea. He was making the movie “Next” where he played a magician of sorts and he talked about playing a sorcerer. (In the 2007 fantasy thriller Cage played a Las Vegas magician who can see the future and is pursued by FBI agents who want him to help prevent a nuclear terrorist attack.) He was working with Todd Garner, who’s a producer. (Garner was a producer on “Next” and is an executive producer on “Apprentice.”) Todd said, “Well, if you want to play a sorcerer why not try to do ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice?’” So Nic and Todd’s company developed the script.

Then Nic invited me to go see his kid in a school play at the same theater where Nic and I had done a school play 27 years earlier. After the play we were talking and he said, “Listen, I’m thinking about doing ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ as a live action movie. Would you be interested?” My eyes got big and I just couldn’t believe that no one had thought of this before.

It was so exciting because this was taking a major part of film history and animation history and giving it the best possible opportunity as a live action movie with today’s technology. To do it again and with the insane challenge of how do you take an eight minute piece that’s animated to one little piece of music and turn it into a full length feature film. They had a really good start on the script and they just kept working on it and got it really sharp and updated. It was very clever to set it in modern day New York.
“THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE BTS: (L-R) Jon Turteltaub,<br /> Jay Baruchel Ph: Abbot Genser ©2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc.<br /> and Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc. All rights reserved.

“THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE BTS: (L-R) Jon Turteltaub,
Jay Baruchel Ph: Abbot Genser ©2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
and Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc. All rights reserved.

Q: When was this?
A: This was November of 2007. This was right as “National Treasure 2” came out.
Q: What happened to move it forward as quickly as you did?
A: What made it move quickly is Jerry Bruckheimer saying, “I’ll produce this movie.” This is such an important part of Disney’s heritage that they needed to really trust the people making the movie — that they weren’t going to take this iconic piece of their history and bastardize it in an ugly way. But with Jerry on board and Nic attached and with me saying yes, I think they just said, “Go, go, go — and hurry!” They quickly green lit it and said, “Go make the movie.” And then you find a number that everyone can live with — both everyone’s individual number as well as the whole movie number — and then you go.

What I realized is, “Hurry up and go” in a movie that has this many visual effects means, “Take a while.” You’ve got to really spend a lot of time prepping and planning and figuring this stuff out. The shoot takes a little longer and the post–production takes a lot longer. This film has 1,400 visual effects shots in it, but they’re all pieces of other shots. It’s the interaction between the live action and CG that’s so complicated and really takes so much pre–planning.

And at the center of it is the big scene with the music and the mops and brooms. (The challenge was) how to make all that work and make it work in a way that felt real and important to the movie we’re making but also just stood on its own as a fun piece of entertainment and was fully taking advantage of CG without ever going over the top and felt tonally appropriate for what we were doing, not just trying to make its own little short that had nothing to do with anything. There was a lot of back and forth on that.

The scene from the time we were writing it to prepping it to shooting it to editing it changed in its scope and size and value and it changed musically. There were times we thought, “This needs to be the big marquee scene in the movie” and other times we would say, “We’ve got to make this really small because it might distract people from the movie” or, “We don’t know how people are going to react to this and we're not sure how critics are going to react to this.”

Normally, when you’re making a movie you’re totally unaware of what critics might say. You just go make your movie. This was an exception for us. We know we’re redoing a very famous scene so you know that’s an angle for critics to pay attention to. So, “Are they going to crush us?” or “Are they going to support us?” With all the going back and forth we realized at some point that it was just too much noise (and we should) just go make your movie.
Q: You, of course, were making a live action movie and that scene came from an animated film
A: The biggest difference was I have Jay Baruchel and Walt had a mouse. (Laughs) But (actually) the biggest difference was that “Fantasia” was about the music and the images were created to support the music. In our film, as in almost any other film, the music comes along to support the images, which is how we had to work. We knew we weren’t going to just play the entire suite of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for nine minutes and do a nine minute scene cut to that music. There hasn’t been a movie with a scene that’s nine minutes long in 40 years!

So we just set about to making our scene as best we could and then letting Trevor Rabin come in and create the music based on the original piece. And there was a lot of discussion about that — “Will audiences roll their eyes when they hear the original piece?” “Should we just use our own score?” “Should we go note for note with the original?” There were a lot of conversations back and forth and trying to be respectful of all things and, “Are we honoring it?” All that kind of stuff that you normally don’t think about on a movie.

We also were worried because we wanted to do right by it. What we ended up with, I think, is a pretty good scene that feels like it’s correct for the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and is also correct for the movie. The scene has an important plot moment that affects the journey of our story and utilizes our best technology today the way Walt was utilizing the best in his time.
Q: How did you prepare to shoot this?
A: For this sequence, in particular, a lot of research had to be done. Normally, when I’m doing a movie, I’ll watch a lot of movies in that genre. If I have a car chase in a movie, I’ll go watch a ton of car chases to learn from the directors who’ve done it before. In this case, it’s not like there were a lot of animated mops or brooms to watch, but there certainly was one. So I watched that sequence in “Fantasia” over and over again to find out what are the key moments, the iconic moments, the tone, the mood — not just to see what was similar, but what's different, what doesn’t apply in our movie.

I watched a lot with the cinematographer (Bojan Bazelli, whose credits include “G-Force,” “Hairspray” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) to see what we could do with lighting and camera to sort of emulate what they did. And then all those plans get thrown out the window when you’re told you have six hours today and someone has to go home and you’d better hurry and the mop guy’s leaving! So you’re constantly improvising.
Q: Did you storyboard?
A: We would do these little animatic pre–viz cartoons of tiny sections of it. Normally, you would use a pre–viz guy to sort of stage the whole thing, but in this case what we did is just have the visual effects house start to test looks and images and feel. The big hurdle was at first that everything was coming back looking like a cartoon. The brooms were looking like cartoon brooms, not real. I felt the more cartoony you make it, the less believable it will become, the more cutesy it becomes. I wanted the mops to look like mops and the dust buster to look like a dust buster and the sponges to look like sponges.

In our version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” the magic is very based in reality. We’re not in some unspoken, unknown fabled ancient land. We’re in Manhattan and so we really wanted to ground everything. Then there’s a lot of work that you have be precise and as detailed as you have to be. Then some production designer has to create a massive set that can hold eight inches of water in it and things like that. So every department on the movie has to come together and prep this stuff and when all that’s said and done you get on the set and you go, “Oh, wait a minute. It looks better over here.” And 80 people look at you like they’re going to kill you. It’s not like a movie where you just get on the set and figure it out and start shooting.
“THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE Nicolas Cage Ph: Robert<br /> Zuckerman ©2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Jerry<br /> Bruckheimer, Inc. All rights reserved.

“THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE Nicolas Cage Ph: Robert
Zuckerman ©2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Jerry
Bruckheimer, Inc. All rights reserved.

Q: What challenges did you face beyond all the obvious ones?
A: In 58 days of shooting we had 46 days of rain.
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: Brooklyn and Manhattan, mostly. We somehow picked the year where it rained every day. It’s not that it rains every day, but it’s sunny in the morning and rainy in the afternoon. That’s one of those unexpected things you can’t plan on. So you need to be quick on your feet. You need actors who can hurry. You need a DP who can make a cloudy day look like a sunny one. And none of that is all that easy in New York City. You know, with all the buildings it’s never all that sunny anywhere, but suddenly you’re shooting sequences underneath a 20 foot tarp so it doesn’t look like it’s raining, but it sure sounds like it’s raining. There was so much of that, we were pulling our hair out. That was the big surprise. Hollywood has its grip on the world, but it still hasn’t figured out the weather yet.
Q: How do you like to work? Do you like to rehearse with your actors?
A: I actually don’t. There are a lot of directors who do and a lot of actors who do. I feel silly when I’m rehearsing. I like rehearsing on the day that you’re shooting — that you get to the actual set and you work out the scene and the blocking and the new ideas with the cast at that time. Being in a rehearsal room with folding chairs and the set taped to the floor just makes me feel like a dope. I think the actors feel kind of uncomfortable.

Most of these actors are pure movie actors and they are much more focused on getting based on the set, based on the moment and getting those few lines out in that very specific intense way, not in a way where you have to know exactly what the blocking is. That’s my good excuse (for not rehearsing in advance). My bad excuse is really fear that eight weeks before I shoot a scene I frankly have no idea what I want out of that scene and don’t want to sit there with five actors looking at me like I’m supposed to know what I want. So rather than have to make a decision one day in January about a scene that I’m shooting in March I’d rather wait until March and the cast and the crew are pretty okay with that.

Now that, of course, doesn’t work when you’re shooting action. When you’re shooting a sword fight, for example, you’ve got to know where everyone’s going to be and you’ve got to get on that set and you’ve got to rehearse and they’ve got to learn how to do the fight choreography. So in that sense, yeah, you've got to be prepared. But if it’s a driving scene where two actors are talking and they’re both sitting in a folding chair to pretend to hold a steering wheel, it just looks stupid.
Q: When you’re shooting big action scenes are you using multiple cameras?
A: Oh, yeah. The ability to use a lot of cameras saves not just time and money, but it is often a safety issue. If you can shoot a car crash once instead of twice, that’s better for everybody. So (it’s great) if you can get 10 cameras going. Now you’re not going to use all 10 (shots in the movie), but three of those cameras, which you never would have used, are going to get you a better shot than you ever thought you would have if you only had seven cameras. Film is still the cheapest part of a movie budget so you might as well roll a lot of it at that point.
Q: How many cameras did you actually use?
A: I think the most I ever had on any shot was six. And it’s always where it’s a one–shot deal — where you’re going to blow something up or the set’s going to get wrecked or somebody’s going to get wet and you know you’re going to have to wait an hour to blow dry their hair. That’s when you go ahead and load up with cameras.
Q: It sounds like you must have had a lot of footage to go through in post–production.
A: The saving grace on that is that we don’t do a lot of takes. I don’t do a lot of takes anyway, which helps to not have too much footage. Also, the editor is the one who really has the burden of dealing with all that footage. You don’t want to overburden your editor with too much because it’ll just never get put together. But once it’s put together, then it’s obviously good to have a lot of footage because you’ve got a lot of choices. You remember what you shot. You know what you shot and you know what was there. You may not remember exactly what number take that great look was, but you know you got that great look in there somewhere.
Q: Have you got any good Jerry Bruckheimer stories you can share with us?
A: I’m trying to think of a good Jerry Bruckheimer story that won’t get me fired. (Laughs) You know, Jerry is a brilliant photographer, actually, and he’s always photographing on the sets, taking pictures of the actors and the lighting and interesting stuff. We were shooting a scene that takes place in the Middle Ages with Merlin and Morgana Le Fay (King Arthur’s half–sister and a powerful sorceress in Arthurian legend) having a great old sword fight.

We’re rolling and they pan the camera and they sword fight right past Jerry taking a picture of everybody. Nobody had told Jerry, “That’s not a good place to stand.” (Laughs) So he’s standing there thinking he’s totally out of the way — and there’s the sword fight with Jerry in it! We thought, “Well, all right, we’d better not put that in the movie.” But Jerry got a good photograph.