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An Interview with Jon Turteltaub, Director of The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Disney's most loyal director discusses his fantastical newest adventure and spectacle filmmaking at large

You may not know Jon Turteltaub's name, but you should. He's been directing movies for over twenty years and major ones for the Walt Disney Company the past eighteen. Turteltaub's early work ran the gamut from the Jamaican bobsledding comedy Cool Runnings (1993) to the Sandra Bullock romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping (1995)
DVDizzy.com Presents: An Interview with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" director Jon Turteltaub
to the inspirational John Travolta drama Phenomenon (1996). In recent years, Turteltaub has collaborated with mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, helming both blockbuster National Treasure movies.

In between the second and third films of that franchise, Turteltaub reteamed with Bruckheimer and leading man Nicolas Cage to make The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a fantasy adventure film channeling Mickey Mouse's famous Fantasia segment, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe's poem, and Paul Dukas' familiar symphony all of the same name into a contemporary story about a New York college student (played by Jay Baruchel) who becomes apprentice to an eccentric sorcerer (Cage). The film became the summer's second live-action Disney/Bruckheimer tentpole to flounder at the box office, grossing just $63 million domestically on a $150 million budget (failure that the behemothic success of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3 offset). Critics weren't wowed either.

Nevertheless, I've been looking forward to seeing the film. Clearly, I didn't contribute to its underwhelming earnings. But the movie comes to DVD, Blu-ray + DVD, and Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy on November 30th, so I'll be getting and reviewing it any day now. Meanwhile, in anticipation of the release, I got the chance to talk with Turteltaub in a "Virtual Roundtable." These password-protected moderated press & filmmaker chats are cost-effective and time-effective, but generally not the most fun or stimulating time for a journalist. But one definite exception I recalled was when I and others questioned Turteltaub back in 2008 for the DVD release of National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Defying the format's tedium, Turteltaub was unforgettably fun, displaying candor and a sense of humor in his replies (several of which were omitted from Disney's official transcript).

Having long appreciated his movies and more recently admired his online personality, I excitedly signed up for the event. Turteltaub did not disappoint, answering no shortage of questions (including a half-dozen of my own, which you can identify as the best) quickly, candidly, and with an amusing touch of snark. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did...

Hi Jon and welcome to the virtual roundtable! Thank you for joining us to answer questions about The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Jon Turteltaub: I love talking to the press this way. Any opportunity to sit in front of my computer, chat with strangers feels like something not to be missed. I hope my answers are helpful and that the questions don't suck. Let's go!

With the success of the National Treasure films, how was it like to work with Nicolas Cage in a different type of film, especially with a film that is very visual effect-driven?

Jon Turteltaub: Nic and I had a great conversation before starting this film. Basically, we talked about how he let me take the reins in a lot of ways on National Treasure. That was such a buttoned-up character with a lot of intellectual and historical mumbo-jumbo to say. Balthazar, however, is a renegade... an outsider... a rock-and-roll-style hero. So this time, I let Nic take me on the ride... and I loved it.

Is there any special content made for the Blu-ray version? And are you a big fan of watching films on Blu-ray?

Jon Turteltaub: The Blu-ray version is full of special content not available in other formats. (We gotta find SOME way to justify the extra charges!) As for me, I would always watch on Blu-ray if I couldn't see a film in a theater. But to be completely honest and inartistic...
I love putting on headphones and watching a movie on my laptop. I feel so carried away and alone when I do that.

Did you originally have Nic Cage in mind for the role of Balthazar Blake?

Jon Turteltaub: Actually, Nic Cage had himself in mind for that role because Nic developed this movie and hired me later on. Nic was on-board long before I was.

Did the original The Sorcerer's Apprentice poem written in 1797 have much to do this with film? What main influences were there?

Jon Turteltaub: I was surprised to find out, shocked in fact, that most people I spoke to under the age of 40 had no idea what The Sorcerer's Apprentice was. Certainly not by title. When I then described the Mickey Mouse cartoon with the brooms and the water they usually made that "oh yeahhhh" face. But I myself didn't know that the source of the musical suite by Paul Dukas was the Goethe poem. When I found that out, I read the original poem and made sure that our film was true to the essential themes and ideas of Goethe's piece.... student and teacher learning that everything comes in due time and not before.

If you had Balthazar's powers, what spells would you cast?

Jon Turteltaub: I live in LA. I'd get rid of the traffic... but just the cars in front of me.

Nicolas Cage is Balthazar Blake, the master. Jay Baruchel is Dave Stutler, the apprentice. Jon Turteltaub is the director.

Lately, you've been making a lot of movies for Disney. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship and if there are plans to collaborate more in the future?

Jon Turteltaub: If by "lately" you mean, "every movie I have made since 1992", then yes, it's a lot. Disney is the only studio I've made films for. Frankly, it's been a great partnership for me. I get the Disney brand and feel very comfortable working in that model. And I feel good about the fact that movies like National Treasure have helped to expand the brand outside of standard family fare. If they'll have me again, I'm ready to keep making movies with Disney until no one wants me anymore.

What was the biggest challenge in creating a movie based on a well-loved short cartoon? Was there ever any thought about making a live action animated movie with Mickey in it like they did with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Jon Turteltaub: The biggest challenge lies in the phrase "well-loved". We knew that in the mops and brooms sequence we were taking on a re-creation of a piece of film history. We worried constantly that it needed to be completely different, completely the same, very funny, very serious, out of context, in context... we were tearing ourselves every which way to make sure we created a sequence that wouldn't have every film critic in the world ripping us to shreds.
Eventually, we just decided to focus on the story at hand, Jay Baruchel's character, and doing some very special work with the visual fx. As for Mickey and live-action... I doubt that was on anyone's mind but it's probably a good idea!

You have went from comedy to more action-driven films but do you ever see yourself tackling a different style of film, say... "romantic comedy" or something a bit noir-ish?

Jon Turteltaub: While You Were Sleeping was a romantic comedy that I'm really proud of and I'd like to be proud of another romantic comedy one day. The reason for tackling action-driven films is simply that they were the best choices for me at the time. I don't really care much about which genre a film falls into... I just want good characters, a good story, and something directorial to sink my teeth into. Face it, I can ruin any genre!

What was it like working with the younger cast members, Jay Baruchel and Teresa Palmer?

Jon Turteltaub: My ego is such that I forget that I'm so much older than Jay and Teresa. Of course, when Teresa said I was "fatherly" I went home and sobbed in my pillow. As actors, there isn't really a sense of "new" and "old" so long as everyone is a pro... and these guys were top-notch. I think actors are either good or bad... regardless of how long they've been at it.

Is everything you wanted to see on the Blu-ray for extra features on there?

Jon Turteltaub: TOO MUCH is on there. Get rid of those deleted scenes! I deleted them for a reason!

Which type of movies do you prefer making - adventure movies like the National Treasure series or more fantastical ones like this movie?

Jon Turteltaub: National Treasure and Sorcerer's Apprentice are very similar styles of movie in my mind. They are big films, hinging on big set-pieces, taking on a lot of spectacle. My favorite movies to make are the ones where I make a lot of good friends and I get paid gobs and gobs of cash. (Did I just write that?)

Could there be a director's cut of The Sorcerer's Apprentice down the line?

Jon Turteltaub: You know, I always find the notion of a "director's cut" to be ridiculously pompous and revisionist. First of all, 99% of movies ARE the director's cut to begin with. The only movie that should get a special "director's cut" is a movie that stinks. Otherwise, why is the director re-cutting it?

I know in a past interview, you have said that Fantasia was a brilliant but boring film. But prior to making The Sorcerer's Apprentice, did you feel that you needed to watch the old animated film?

Jon Turteltaub: I watched the Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence over and over... but I only watched the entire Fantasia again once. The featured sequence, however, was vital to how we approached making our film. We studied camera and lighting most of all. Even though it was animated, it had amazing "lighting" that Bojan Bazelli and I tried to emulate.

Because The Sorcerer's Apprentice did so well in the box office, do you have crazy ideas running in your mind for a sequel?

Jon Turteltaub: This must be a question from Australia or some parallel universe where the movie out-grossed Avatar. For this movie to have a sequel, I think this interview is going to have to generate about a hundred million DVD sales.

How much freedom do you give your cast, especially Nic, Jay and Alfred [Molina]?

Jon Turteltaub: The cast gets complete freedom to do absolutely anything they want.... in rehearsal. That's where decisions are made. But when cameras roll, we all have a pretty good idea of what's going to be said and where everyone is going to stand. (That said, Jay Baruchel will always come up with something completely brilliant and completely unacceptable in a PG movie.)

What would you consider to be the best job in the world?

Jon Turteltaub: You know... the minute you call anything a "job", it ceases to be the best anything.

What is the "suckiest" question you've ever been asked?

Jon Turteltaub: "Do you want me to fix you up with my friend's mom?"

As someone who has stated a preference for location shooting, how does making special effects movies that require a lot of green screen shooting change your approach? Does that lessen your enjoyment of the process?

Jon Turteltaub: I love green screen shooting, actually. It's always nicely air-conditioned and usually someone other than me is going to be blamed if it looks bad. Location shooting is great because it gives the director ideas. There's so much to draw on. When you're on a set, however, you have to invent 100% of it. That's hard!!

There's a good mix of different elements in the film from magic to science to comedy to awesome fight scenes and car chases. Do you have a particular favorite element of the film?

Jon Turteltaub: I like the use of the word "awesome" to describe the fight scenes. This is now my favorite question. My favorite element is the comedy because it surprises me.
When I see an actor or writer invent something new and funny it always amazes me. And when the audience laughs it's a direct, immediate sense of reward that I feel.

Teresa Palmer really seems to be one of those actresses that will be simply huge in a few years. Can you talk a bit about your experiences in working with this talented young actress?

Jon Turteltaub: Teresa is kind of a perfect person. She is so insanely gorgeous, but she's also insanely sweet. Not fake actress sweet, but real Australian sweet. She has the courage to do whatever the role needs, but the humility to work hard and ask questions when she's unsure. She also has that indefinable quality that makes audiences like her when she's on screen. I hope she becomes as huge as you say. I may need to borrow money one day.

In terms of animation, movies have evolved so much since the days of Fantasia. Where do you hope animation will be in another 70 years time?

Jon Turteltaub: I really hope there IS animation in another 70 years. It's so hard to predict the changing technology and it's harder to predict social and cultural trends. Fact is, there may be no live-action movies in 70 years. The line between animation and live-action continues to dim. Most visual fx could be described really as a cartoon. Isn't Avatar really just a form of animation? And Lord knows that animated films like Up and Toy Story have shown that you can discover extraordinary emotional and thematic depth in animated features. So, who knows?

How many people were in the green suits for the film?

Jon Turteltaub: Only in that big sequence with the mops and brooms were there a lot of green suits used. And in that scene it was probably about 15 people. And let me say this... as an experienced filmmaker and as a member of a very professional film crew... anyone wearing a green suit always looks like an idiot.

With the title and the Disney name, did you feel like you had to do justice to the Fantasia segment?

Jon Turteltaub: I was TERRIFIED of this. I was handed the keys to perhaps the single most important animated story in Disney history. I was so worried that I would blow it. But I just trusted that we were doing things with the right intentions and we worked our butts off to make a great scene. (Half of you reading are thinking... you should have worried more.)

Do any of the extra features recorded on set ever slow down the filmmaking process?

Jon Turteltaub: Now this is a GREAT question! And the answer is... YES! YES! YES! Everyone HATES doing these things. Sometimes we call an actor to the set and we have to wait because he's in the middle of his interview. Or we are about to shoot and there's a camera crew lingering in the shadows thinking nobody sees them. Those poor bonus material people sneak around in fear of being a nuisance all day long and they are constantly being told to "go away" by everyone they see. (And then when the DVD comes out, I and every actor and crew member thinks "Hey, how come I'm not in it more?")

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The Sorcerer's Apprentice Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo cover art
The Sorcerer's Apprentice conjures its spells on DVD and Blu-ray November 30th.
Order it from Amazon.com: DVD Blu-ray + DVD Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy

Related Interviews:
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Jon Turteltaub, March 2008

Related Reviews:
Directed by Jon Turteltaub: National Treasure National Treasure: Book of Secrets Cool Runnings
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Summer 2010 Movies: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time The Karate Kid Toy Story 3 Marmaduke Grown Ups
Nicolas Cage: Knowing Next Ghost Rider Kick-Ass G-Force Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans Con Air
Jay Baruchel: She's Out of My League Tropic Thunder Knocked Up Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
From the Writers of The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Bedtime Stories The Uninvited

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Posted November 11, 2010.

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