I've left out the first 5 minutes of my conversation with Jon Turteltaub because it consisted of the most boring inside baseball imaginable-- reminiscing about college. Turteltaub and I were both film majors at Wesleyan University, albeit 20 years apart, and we started off our conversation about The Sorcerer's Apprentice actually talking about another fellow alum, Michael Bay, whom Turteltaub calls "the least Wesleyan guy imaginable." Then again, Turteltaub admits he's doesn't exactly fit the description of a guy from a college known for ethnic studies programs and anti-war protests; he's the guy behind the first two National Treasure movies, after all, and with this summer's Sorcerer's Apprentice is likely to once again establish himself as the guy critics dismiss but audiences love.
Whether it was because of our common background or he's just that self-aware of a guy, Turteltaub was remarkably open about what he expects from the Sorcerer's reviews-- "I think we're going to get a beating on opening day"-- his working relationship with Nic Cage, and, well, pretty much everything else I asked him. We talked about the logistical headaches of shooting in New York, the alternate ending that was ditched in favor of an NYC landmark, and how Nic Cage is probably a lot more like an ancient sorcerer than you realize. Check out the interview below. The Sorcerer's Apprentice opens today.
If I've got this right, this was all Nic Cage's idea, right?
It's a combination really, but it started with Nic. He wanted to do a movie where he played a sorcerer and looked like this, and he was working with a producer in his own company, a guy named Norm Golightly, and Todd Garner, who had been a big executive at Disney for a lot of years. Together they said, let's try putting "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" together as a live-action movie. It was Nic who approached me, and Nic who approached Jerry.
What's the working relationship like between you and Nic Cage after making the two National Treasure movies together?
Nic and I had gone to high school together, and that's a gazillion years ago. Immediately after high school I went to Wesleyan and became an angsty college student, and he went to star in motion pictures and be on the cover of GQ. Lives definitely went separate directions, and we basically lost touch. We would run into each other at restaurants or something on occasion but never really saw each other until we had a meeting about National Treasure, in 2003 I think.
Did you pick right up where you left off?
Definitely not. The fear is that you're going to pick up where you left off and he would make fun of me. I was so excited because he wanted me to direct the movie. The professional relationship is very tricky, because you've got to get to know what the adult version of this person is like, and that's the person you see. Nic wasn't wearing snakeskin boots and leather pants in high school. What was really interesting was to find out how little he actually had changed in so many good ways. He really was still the same person, just a much more mature and grown-up version.
So you make these two movies together and come into Sorcerer, which it seems like he was even more involved in. What was different about this film?
It doesn't alter the power dynamic in any way. Once Jerry is on board to produce, it becomes Jerry's production. And once I'm on board to direct it becomes my, sort of, creative universe to run. The sense of responsibility to Nic was very large. I wanted to be sure that I was delivering what his expectations and hopes were. It's not like he was a hands-on guy, counting the pennies in the budget and looking over our shoulders or anything, but there was much more of a sense on this film than on National Treasure that I had to do right by him.
It's fun watching him develop the sorcerer character as the movie goes on. It seems like it would be interesting to watch that process happen too.
And he was really good at driving that personally, understanding that. Even that joke where [Jay Baruchel] says "Are you insane?" and he puts his fingers up [in a "little bit" sign]-- Nic added that. Nic is very aware of the perception out there of Crazy Nic Cage. I really deeply believe this is one of the most perfect blends of actor and character I've ever seen.
Is there more of him in Balthazar than we might expect?
Put it this way: there's a lot more Nic in Balthazar than in Benjamin Gates.
As a New Yorker it's fun to see the way the movie plays with the city landmarks. How did you work with that and pick spots in New York to play with?
You start with stuff that's scripted, and then you've got to make sure that the actual location as scripted works. When we were looking for a big conclusion for the movie, the Wall Street bull wasn't actually in there originally. That became something we discovered as we went.
What was it going to be originally?
It was going to be a giant monster that came out of the ground.
And the Chinatown sequence was certainly scripted, but the confetti was actually added for practical reasons. We were looking for what's the most beautiful way to cover up what the public is seeing.
Oh, so people don't panic and see the real dragon. That makes sense.
And then at the end when they say, it wasn't a real dragon, there's sort of a justification. The movie I kept comparing us to, in saying "We're not doing the same thing," is Ghosbusters. Ghostbusters relied on all of New York being fully aware of what's happening in the movie. And the people in New York were an important character in Ghosbusters. In Sorcerer's Apprentice it's important that people have no idea what's going on in the movie. You have to undersell and underplay a lot of things. You can't go to the obvious places in that way. Show the New York the New Yorkers know, and not the New York the tourists know.
I've never seen anything like the scale of the shoot you did, and how long you shot here. And you had troubles with cars crashing in Times Square and all that. Did it scare you off shooting here, or are you dying to tackle it again?
I would definitely go back and shoot in New York again. The big pain in the neck in New York is usually not a problem for the director, it's the transport guy who has to figure out where he's parking all those trucks. Getting extras is extras, getting rid of unwanted extras is hard. We had the unpleasant script requirement of deserted streets, because that never exists in New York. Even when we were shooting at 4 in the morning, it's New York, it's people.
It was interesting to realize that Sorcerer's Apprentice is the first adaptation you've done, since everything these days is based on a toy or something else that already exists. Do you worry about maintaining originality going forward?
I didn't worry about originality with this, because it was such a departure from the original piece. We're talking about adapting an 8-minute, 2D animated musical suite without dialogue into a two-hour movie, so we're definitely going to be doing something different. However I was extremely concerned about the criticism of taking what may be one of the most famous pieces of film history and redoing it in some way. I wasn't concerned that we would do it poorly, I was just concerned that we would be criticized for doing it at all, and the world of critics and criticism would be looking to attack people like me and Jerry Bruckheimer for daring to entertain people with this idea.
And have you felt good about the response you've seen so far?
I think we're going to get a beating on opening day when all the reviews come out. But that said, with just every person I've spoken to has said one of their favorite, if not their absolute favorite scene in the movie, is the scene that reflects the Fantasia cartoon. When you do something like this you become a huge fan of what you're building on, because you've studied it. We really wanted to do something terrific. And we knew we would be scrutinized, so we had to do something terrific. I don't mean it in a braggy way, I just really feel we did a good job of creating a new version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice.