UltimateDisney.com > Interviews > Jon Turteltaub, director of Cool Runnings, The Kid, National Treasure, and National Treasure: Book of Secrets

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Jon Turteltaub Interview

The Director of the National Treasure Movies
Discusses His 16 Years of "Surprise Hits" at Disney

Few movie directors have remained loyal to a single studio as long as Jon Turteltaub has been at Disney. Turteltaub was still in his twenties when he helmed 3 Ninjas (1992) and Cool Runnings (1993), his first films to receive wide release. He's directed six additional movies in the fifteen years since, each distributed by one of Disney's various branches.
Director Jon Turteltaub and actor Justin Bartha laugh at what they see on monitors on the set of "National Treasure: Book of Secrets."
Far from the stagnancy staying in one place might suggest, Turteltaub has experimented and grown. And he's been at the forefront of one of this decade's biggest movie franchises, one which has led the world to reconsider the phrase "family film" without the negative connotations or critical shield often attached to it.

National Treasure and its recent sequel National Treasure: Book of Secrets take the often lucrative partnership of mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and star Nicolas Cage and filter their adrenaline-pumping action for audiences of all ages (a demographic Turteltaub has found success with in the past), replacing mindless gore with slyly educational elements of historical fiction and cryptanalysis.

Having earned well over $200 million in American theaters and even more overseas, Book of Secrets will come to DVD and Blu-ray on May 20th riding plenty of buzz and public awareness. But, never eager to rest on their laurels, the Mouse this week enlisted Turteltaub to discuss the second National Treasure film and its DVD with journalists from all over the globe. This was achieved in a virtual roundtable with the streaming of two DVD/Blu-ray bonus features followed by an online group question and answer session. Clearly enjoying the laid-back format, Turteltaub was candid and in good spirits.

Here is the transcript from the apparently less populated afternoon hour session. Questions marked by an asterisk (*) are ones asked by UltimateDisney.com.

Q: Can you talk about the "pipeline" for NT2's digital information -- how many production houses were involved, and how was digital work coordinated and shuttled between the houses, etc. (if more than one)?

Jon Turteltaub: Clearly, you have far more respect for my involvement than I deserve. There are people who can answer that question, but mostly I just try to look pretty and say nice things about my bosses.

Q: Why do you think National Treasure 2 was a bigger box office success than the first film?

J.T.: The sequel was more successful than the first movie
because the first movie and its DVD became a big commercial for the second movie. The first time out we were a big unknown. There's no word-of-mouth to drive the opening weekend. with a sequel, there's an anticipation to see the film. However, the word-of-mouth is essential in sustaining the big opening. So... between the bigger opening and the good word-of-mouth, we outgrossed the first film.

* Q: How has the family film changed since your early career, the days of 3 Ninjas and Cool Runnings?

J.T.: I love this question because some people may not like my answer. Family movies have gotten more conservative. Somehow, parents are less and less willing to have their kids see anything even remotely dangerous, scary, adult, or mature. All films have followed this trend and film ratings have gotten more restrictive, not less. Remember the original Bad News Bears? That movie would be rated R today. It's possible that parents haven't changed, but their ability to complain has. The internet and accessibility (and feelings of entitlement) may have made corporations more exposed to the unhappy customers. But in my opinion, the trend has hurt movies and our kids are being exposed to more and more moronic and simplistic films.

* Q: How close are we to seeing a third National Treasure movie?

J.T.: I'm guessing that we're a few years away. By the time we come up with a decent idea and develop it into a complicated and intelligent puzzle, it's going to be at least 2009. Then to prep it and cast it... it should be three years away.

Q: Do you believe there's a revival of movies concerning treasure hunting in these past years, considering that we'll have a new Indiana Jones soon?

J.T.: Clearly, Spielberg and Lucas are riding my coattails. Actually... we went a long time without a big swashbuckling adventure. Then National Treasure and Pirates of the Caribbean came out and they were back. Audiences missed that kind of big, wholesome adventure. But I would also say that this kind of movie is extremely difficult to make. It takes very little to make them very cliched and corny. Without a great script, this kind of movie turns into garbage instantly.

Q: Is there any special content made for the Blu-ray version?

J.T.: Lots! Aside from some extra deleted scenes, there's an entire version of the film that is filled with "fact or fiction" pop-ups... answering and asking the question "what is real and what did you guys make-up?"

Q: The obvious question: if the first movie winds up being a commercial for a sequel, should we expect that the first two movies were commercials for a third?

J.T.: You're a sad, cynical man. :) If you write a great article, it becomes a selling tool for your next article. And so on. I've never done a sequel before and I've made decent movies. Same with Nic (Cage). This movie begets sequels because it's the kind of genre MEANT to beget sequels.

Q: How did you entice Dame Helen Mirren and Ed Harris aboard your action/adventure?

J.T.: Neither of those actors would have done the film had they not liked the script or their parts. That's the first step.
Jon Turteltaub takes a look through the lens while directing "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" on historic location.
The next step is establishing their trust in Jerry and my track record. Third, they loved the other cast members they were going to be working with. And fourth... well... the fourth is kind of obvious.... they don't do the movie for free.

Q: The first movie came out a few years after The Da Vinci Code book was sweeping the country. Was the immense popularity of that novel any sort of influence on the first movie?

J.T.: This is probably the greatest single source of frustration for me. We were prepping our movie when the galleys for The Da Vinci Code came out. And all of us thought, "What fools! They're ripping us off! They're never going to make that movie!" Ooops. We were a little wrong with that one. However... we were first. It was a completely original idea that took an enormous amount of wonderfully creative work from a lot of people. To have that work considered based on The Da Vinci Code is really aggravating. There's a cynicism out there that really hurts creative people. Writers, directors and producers don't run around trying to steal other people's ideas. It's a myth. In fact, we run from ideas that seem derivative of others.

Q: Do you think it could be a successful idea to make a National Treasure sequence (actually more like International Treasure) with lost treasures here in Latin America (in the Amazon forest or Andes Mountains)?

J.T.: We would all LOVE to go to Latin America. In fact, there was a sequence in one of the earlier versions of the first National Treasure that took place in the jungles outside of Tulum, Mexico. The flat-topped pyramids sure resemble the one on the back of the US dollar, don't they?

Q: What's your take on having "surprise hits" in your career? Is that better because it puts less pressure on you when you make a film?

J.T.: My ego is so pathetic that whenever I read the phrase "surprise hit" I take it to me "we fully expect Jon Turteltaub to make a crappy movie."
Additionally, it's much harder to open a movie that has low expectations. Most films these days are either sequels or are based on other sources (comic books, TV shows, novels, etc). Doing something original is getting harder and harder. Of course, I'll take a surprise hit over a surprise flop any day.

Q: Are you still enjoying the change from comedy to action?

J.T.: Oddly, I don't see it that way at all. I think of National Treasure as a comedy in many ways. The humor is central to the tone of the movie. And the film is very character-based. I think that's the key to its success... audiences like the characters and their relationships. Also, my most successful film prior to National Treasure was Phenomenon which wouldn't be considered a comedy. What I have noticed is that they give you a lot more money to make an action movie than to make a comedy. Apparently, it's very expensive to build a City of Gold and flood it.

Q: How did you decide to select multiple Oscar nominated Judianna Makovsky as your Costume Designer? what past work of hers made you want to select her for your film?

J.T.: The key to wanting to hire Judianna was also what led me to hire most of the people I use... they have a reputation for being nice. The work speaks for itself... and it's easy to look at hundreds of movies and see brilliantly talented people. But what's most important to me is talking to other directors and producers and finding out who's a pain in the neck and who's fun. I prefer fun.

* Q: How much stock do you put in critical reviews of your movies?

J.T.: In terms of how reviews effect the way I make movies, the answer is "not at all". I don't think any director reads a review and says "wow... I really should change how I do things... thanks for the lesson in filmmaking, Mr. Critic Guy." Jerry Bruckheimer has made himself an extremely important fixture in the history of film without ever having received a good review. He makes a point of accepting that. Now, that's not to say that bad reviews don't hurt your feelings or frustrate you. They do. Just as good reviews make you feel great. But that's because when I get a good review I know that my Aunt Helena is going to read nice things about me.

* Q: What can you say about the live-action version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice you're making? Will Nicolas Cage be co-starring with a CGI mouse?

J.T.: I'm pretending that the CGI mouse is my idea and I'm presenting it to Disney tomorrow.

Q: Was it hard bringing the original cast back together for this, or did they all want to do it again?

J.T.: Couldn't have been easier. Everyone was excited about it. First of all, it really hard to have any success in this business... so when you have some... you cling to it. And we all liked each other. A lot. And I think it shows on screen.

* Q: Having spent so many years on the universe of National Treasure, are you eager to make a movie outside of it or are you excited for the possibility to tell more stories with these characters?

J.T.: YES!! Please let me make something else! PLEASE!!!!

Q: Did you have any input in hiring your keys, or were they Bruckheimer's decisions?

J.T.: Jerry is big... really big... but as he will tell you, the director has to make his or her movie. Directors ALWAYS hire their own keys. Now, that doesn't mean that I don't try to get the people Jerry believes in. Jerry has great taste and knows talent, so I certainly follow his lead.

Browse more Jon Turteltaub movie posters
But he wouldn't stand in the way of me hiring someone I knew was terrific. I get asked a similar question about casting... as to whether I'm involved in that. I think it makes directors crazy when they get asked those questions because it's probably the single most important thing a director does. It's like asking a chef if he chooses his ingredients.

Q: How would you describe Nicolas Cage as an actor, in three words?

J.T.: Risk means nothing.

Q: You're from Tennessee, Robert Ben Garant ("Reno 911!") is too and he told me the barbecue sucked in LA, do you agree or have you found a suitable place here in LA?

J.T.: You need to stop reading the internet. Tennessee? I'm a Jew from New York. And for good BBQ, try Mr. Cecil's on Ventura Blvd.

Q: Now that Disney is releasing National Treasure books, have you hear anything about the rumor that they�re preparing a National Treasure attraction at Disney�s theme parks?

J.T.: They're releasing National Treasure books??? I had no idea. I'll have to get my agent to find out about that. As for the rides... they may try to incorporate it into the park somehow, but the Indiana Jones Adventure sort of cornered the market as far as rides go.

Q: Cool Runnings was a great film of yours, funny and poignant. Do you miss John Candy? Which comic actor would you want to cast alongside Nic in the upcoming NT3?

J.T.: John Candy was one of those rare comedians who actually laughed and enjoyed other people's jokes.
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He had the softest ego and was as kind an actor as I've known. I miss him terribly. One of my truly most prized possessions is John's Super Chexx table hockey game that John's wife gave to me after he died. We logged a lot of hours on that game.

Q: We've seen so many historical national landmarks in the first two movies. Do you have any ideas about what sort of landmarks we might see in the third movie?

J.T.: There are still plenty of landmarks left... both in the US and around the world. The fun of National Treasure is in building on what's real... bringing out the story in the places and things you see every day. From the Golden Gate Bridge to the Great Wall of China, from the Sphinx to the Taj Mahal... there's a lot left.

Q: My kid recently wrestled against Beverly Hills High (and Nic Cage's son) - were you a Varsity player for BHH? What DID you do in High school?

J.T.: I tried out for the tennis team in high school... and had to quit because I wanted instead to be in the spring musical. In hindsight, it was probably a good choice because I doubt I'd be doing interviews about my Wimbledon victories had I played tennis.

Q: You said you wanted to up the ante for the sequel. Do you feel that you achieved that?

J.T.: I think we managed to make the sequel considerably bigger. We certainly spent more! The car chase in particular was a big step up from what we did in the first film. And the sequences in the City of Gold were pretty enormous. That said, I personally think that the intensity of stealing the Declaration of Independence was too hard to top.

Q: How did you manage to get access to locations like Buckingham Palace?

J.T.: There is no amount of begging that a movie company won't stoop to. However, no amount of cash or pleading can give us access to the places we want to go. Buckingham Palace was very kind about letting us shoot OUTSIDE their gates. Going inside was a different matter. (Perhaps Helen Mirren should have posed as the Queen and given us an invitation.) Everywhere we shot had restrictions because they are all important and irreplaceable landmarks.
But the thing that was always the most important factor for the Parks Service was whether or not we would be obstructing the ability of the public to enjoy the venue. They knew we would be careful not to blow up Abraham Lincoln's nose... but they didn't want to prevent the family on vacation from Iowa from enjoying the site alongside of us.

* Q: Why has a number been added to the title for DVD?

J.T.: You know... I'm curious about this myself. I think they wanted to have a more catchy "shelf appeal". I guess "Book of Secrets" is too messy for the people shopping at Wal-Mart.

* Q: Why do Jerry Bruckheimer movies have a certain look -- lots of quick shots, stylized color palettes...? Is this something he requires or do directors who work with him simply see the value in this manner of filmmaking?

J.T.: After years of working with brilliant filmmakers like Tony Scott, Michael Bay and Gore Verbinski, that style has developed into something Jerry really loves. He has great visual taste and design is very important to Jerry. But the style is something he cultivates, not creates. I also think that it's the marketing materials that exaggerate the similarity in the films more than the films themselves.

Q: In your life, how interested are you in those myths and mysteries surrounding mankind (like Area 51, president assassinations...)? Which one most fascinated you?

J.T.: The biggie is the Kennedy Assassination. That one is probably the Holy Grail of conspiracy theories. In fact, I think it's where the term came from. There's something extremely fascinating about unlocking a mystery and solving a puzzle. Sometimes, the treasure at the end of a hunt is simply "the truth". That's what conspiracy theories give us... a treasure hunt for the truth. That said... I actually think most of them are pretty ridiculous.

Q: Both of these DVD releases have been quite extensive with the number of special features as well. Along with upping the ante of the film, did you try to up the ante with the special features as well?

J.T.: Commerce is always the story of making things bigger and better.
So is art. We always want to do more and better than we did before. It's human nature. Show me someone who rested on his laurels and I'll show you a loser.

Q: Where are you right now? Disney? Your Office? Home? What do you think about this kind of event and how do you use the internet to work?

J.T.: This is, without question, the BEST way to do these kinds of interviews. I'm sitting in my underpants on my bed, eating a grilled cheese sandwich, and smoking a huge pipe of crack. Okay... actually, I'm in my office on the Disney lot. But it's really fun to be able to answer this way. It takes out the problem of answering the same question 30 times in a row. I get to delete really stupid answers. And I can take my time. That said, if I was so smart, I would delete the part about the crack.

Q: Between the two NT movies, what has been your favorite part to film?

J.T.: I really loved filming the underwater sequences in the last film. Going to work in a wet suit and floating around the set was a real kick. It should have been a nightmare, but I loved it. I'll also never forget my day on a bridge over the Seine river in Paris. That felt like I had really gotten somewhere in my life. But truthfully, the best days are those when there's a small scene that has great dialog and all the actors are in a good mood and we finish early. That's the best.

Okay... I have to run. I'm casting a pilot for a CBS show I'm directing and there's a room full of hot girls ready to audition. Yes... my life is that good. Thanks everyone.

National Treasure (2): Book of Secrets comes to DVD and Blu-ray on May 20, 2008. Read the press release.
Preorder: 2-Disc Gold Collector's Edition DVDSingle-Disc DVDBlu-ray Disc

Related Reviews:
National Treasure 2: Book of SecretsNational Treasure: 2-Disc Collector's EditionNational Treasure (Original DVD) � Cool Runnings

Related Interviews:
Gore Verbinski, Director of the Pirates of the Caribbean Films
Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, writers of the Pirates of the Caribbean Films

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Article published March 27, 2008.