To this day I remember the first time I watched Fantasia — and not because I enjoyed it so much. Rather, I remember being incensed when my mom randomly turned off a show I was watching — which was either David the Gnome or Muppet Babies — to make me watch Fantasia, claiming I’d enjoy it. I think I fell asleep shortly after watching the only part I remember being entertained by, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
So I had a chuckle a little bit when I spoke with director Jon Turteltaub last week about his live-action movie version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in theaters today, because he aware of the snoozy effect of Fantasia that put me into slumber as a child. All this time I had thought I was just an uncultured child! But even more fascinating than his awareness of Fantasia‘s Ambien-like properties on children was the process he went through to make a classic cartoon segment into a big-screen movie that he hoped would more than keep the audience’s attention.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First, let’s talk casting, specifically Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, She’s Out of My League). It would have been so easy for you to cast some Hollywood guy to sell tickets, put a pair of glasses on him, and called him a nerd.
JON TURTELTAUB: Jay doesn’t need the glasses.
Ha! Tell me about why you picked him.
In the original conception of the movie, the apprentice was a ten-year-old kid. And if you look at the Mickey Mouse character, he was like a little boy in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is interesting because at the same time, they were making cartoons where Mickey owned his own home and had a dog named Pluto and had a girlfriend. Yet, in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, he felt like a kid. And what the writers did very brilliantly was play off that notion and bring it to the level of him being a 20-year-old college student. With Jay, it was very important the character be smart and not pretend he’s smart. Then you have to get someone who not only is a good comic actor, but has good comic inventiveness. Because of the amount of visual effects and magic and all that action, you need someone who’s going to physically really leap in. The other thing about Jay is that when he stops with the goofy, he’s a really good-looking guy. There’s almost a James Dean look to him. There were some shots in the movie where I stopped and was like ‘He’s a really good-looking guy.’ If you get a super nerdy weirdo actor who’s off the charts without Jay’s charm you’ll never believe the romance.
Tell me about special effects. Technology has come a long way since you played with them in, say, Phenomenon (1996). What was it like having this new batch of toys to play with?
It’s always a blessing and a curse. It’s always daunting. You have no excuse, as a director, for something sucking. And the only excuses you can make, there are only three reasons something shouldn’t look good: time, money, and talent. All three are the director’s responsibility. The new surprise for me was how incredibly hard it is to describe a picture. It’s always been hard to describe music to a composer; you have to use words to describe music, which is a hard thing. But to try to convey what you want in an image to someone by just using words is much, much harder than I thought. It’s funny, it didn’t occur to me until I was watching a episode of Forensic Files — or something like that — and saw how the police sketch of a suspect was so wrong from the actual suspect. And I realized that’s what I’m supposed to be doing all day, describing the suspect and hoping the picture that they draw is what I’m seeing. Where it gets hard is not the physical image, but the mood of that image, the feeling of that image. And it’s a moving image. So what’s the right word to explain the exact speed a dragon is supposed to climb up a building, and what does the dragon look like? Chinese versus European? You sketch a lot; you do a lot of drawings. They send you stuff back and forth, and it’s much easier — sorry, I’m getting off track. But it’s okay, this isn’t television, and I have no where else to go, so you’re f—ed.
Ha. Gee, thanks.
It’s shockingly extraordinary. In the car chase, there are shots in the car chase that are 100 percent CG. There’s no car, no building, no anything. But we all know exactly what that car looks like, what that building looks like, so the CG image of it can be a pretty accurate representation without a lot of conversation. To create a spectral, ghostly form of a woman made out of tiny bits of energy is a lot longer conversation because everyone has their own image in mind — which, by the way, includes the writers and Jerry Bruckheimer.
Tell me about scene with Dave and Becky (Teresa Palmer) where they are in the cage and he shows off by getting the tesla coils to fire energy bolts around them.
The challenges there were you had to make the electrical lightning bolts look completely real — they have to be synced to the music (OneRepublic’s “Secrets”) perfectly. So they can’t really start until the music is chosen and edited perfectly, and you can’t change it after that because they’re putting those lightning bolts exactly on the beat. But it also has to coincide with the lighting you do on set. One of my surprises, unpleasantly, was how important the lighting on set is to the visual effects you put in later. It is extremely difficult to change the interactive lighting of an object. A big lighting bolt makes a big flash of light on your face so you have to do that when you’re shooting. And then you edit to match the light flashes not knowing which song you’re going to be giving the licensing rights to.
Welcome to my world [laughs]. So it can get complicated. But truly the biggest issue always is storytelling. Does storytelling match audience expectation? Audiences have been showing amazing things, and as a director, you always want your film to be the best that anyone’s ever seen in history. Then you start compromising that day two. But on a movie like this, you want the audience to walk away saying, “Wow, those effects were fun. Those effects were huge.” But they’re only going to say that if the effects are helping the story and the characters. You talk much less about how cool the effect is and much more about how appropriate the effect is. For example, we have these plasma bolts that you throw. Well, how big should that ball of plasma be? Well, the bigger one is cooler, but that character shouldn’t be able to make something that cool yet. So you’re intentionally focusing on the character part, not the ‘coolest thing ever’ part. You’re always basing everything on your story, but it’s still based on your imagination. My rule that was discussed was mostly focused on the ending. I kept saying “The goal is not to end the movie with a Hulk fight because regardless of the movie, they tend to end with a Hulk fight.” Everything just seems to lose any bearing on reality when two giant guys do giant guy fighting and there’s tons of effects. And the movie suddenly loses any charm or characters that brought it to that ending. It’s not even specific to the Hulk, I just use that phrase because everyone got it. And so usually the goal is to keep it small. And then Jerry Bruckheimer walks in the room and says “That’s it?” [Laughs]
Tell me about the scene that’s a big nod to Fantasia.
Again, it starts with script. The most important thing is figuring out what that scene has to do with our movie, which is odd because our movie only exists because of that scene. But whatever version of that scene is going to be in our movie, it has to be relevant to our movie. It has to affect the course of the story. And from there, you have to talk about the practicality of doing what we want to do. What do things look like in the Mickey version? Well, brooms spout arms to carry buckets from a well to a cistern. We don’t have wells and cisterns now, and no one really uses buckets. Our goal was to keep every cleaning product looking and acting like that cleaning product, so that the mops were mopping and the brooms were brooming and the vacuums were vacuuming and the sponges were sponging. We absolutely look at them as characters, and some of them have names and some of them just have goofy descriptions of them. We all know which one is ”the ass mop” and things like that. [Laughs]
Was conceptualizing the scene daunting?
Certainly psychologically and emotionally, what made this scene daunting is knowing that all eyes and all judgments were going to be on it. You’re talking about as famous a scene in film history as exists. It’s one thing to do a spoof or a satire of a famous movie scene. It’s another thing to legitimately try to do a good version of one of the greatest things of all time. We’re aware that in some ways we’re in a no-win situation. We discussed at length cutting it to maybe making it a tiny quick wink to shot-by-shot recreating the original piece. That was the first idea we realized wasn’t going to work. What I’m hearing is a big thumbs up. Partially, and I’d say this is the single biggest surprise for me, when Nic [Cage] said to me “I want to do The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a movie,” my first reaction was, “How is this possible it hasn’t been done before?” However, when I’ve said to people I’m doing The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a movie, the majority of people say, “What’s that?” Then, I do the obnoxious thing, “Yoooooou’ve never heard of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?!?” [Laughs] Then, you get that blank stare and I say, “You know that cartoon with Mickey Mouse and the brooms?” You kind of get that slow “Oooooooh!” from people. But some people still don’t get it. I realized far fewer people have seen Fantastia than I thought, especially kids. Is it the 2-D? Is it that it’s just so old? Or is it the great unspoken secret that no one wants to say, which is: [looks around the empty room and whispers] For a kid, Fantastia‘s kind of boring. It’s the thing no one will ever admit to. Unless you’re looking for the art or smoking something, a lot of people find it really boring, with the exception of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice part because that’s the only part with a literal story and literal characters. Oddly though, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice version of Mickey Mouse is probably the second most iconic version of Mickey Mouse there is. Mickey in his tuxedo — the way he travels around the park — or in his blue sorcerer’s hat are the most famous images. I’ve been surprised in the marketing campaign why they’ve shied away from Sorcerer Mickey. He’s the perfect spokesman for this movie, and for whatever reasons, Disney has felt that’s not the right connection to make. He was at the premiere, though. He came to the red carpet ceremony to meet the mayor.
Yes. Because July 6 of every year is now Sorcerer’s Apprentice Day in New York City!
Correct. [Sarcastically] Didn’t you know?
It changes everything! [Laughs] It was very nice of him to come, though. Then he trotted off to see the queen.
I’m surprised she didn’t go to the premiere.
I know. Seriously! Why does she hate Disney and movies and children?
Right? But she was only here for, like, five hours.
Really? I actually think she’s an underrated woman. But I can still one-up that. The Queen may have been downtown, but Helen Mirren came to our premiere. So we got the other Queen.
Ha! Take that.
We got the hotter Queen.
Did you see those pictures of her in New York Magazine?
I did a movie with Helen. I didn’t want to look at those pictures. She’s my girl.
Speaking of your other movies, I want to take a second to chat about those because you directed some of my favorite movies, inducing one of my favorite movies as a kid…
Everybody has a miracle in their career, and that’s mine. Because I was out of work, couldn’t find a job, and was studying to get my credentials to be a substitute teacher. I got a call from a crew member I worked with to go in and have a meeting on a karate movie, which in 1991 was the dregs of movie-making and still kinda is in a lot of ways. But it wasn’t just a karate movie, it was a kid’s karate movie, so it was double dregs. It was just barely a step above porn. What made that the single most enjoyable experience of my life was that the producers of the movie were Korean and spoke no English. The main producer was also the camera operator, so my camera operator spoke no English. And all the stunt people spoke no English and no Korean; they were Chinese. So there was just a group of people making a very low-budget movie, no money, no language skills, and some of us with no directing skills. The movie I thought would be the last film I ever made became the launching pad for my career. One of the most rewarding moments of my life was walking down a suburban street, and there were kids on their front lawn and I could hear them playing 3 Ninjas. And one kid was saying “I’m Rocky and you’re Colt.” “Why do I have to be Colt?” I think all filmmakers have this feeling — maybe many artists — when you see kids tap into the thing you tap into as a kid, you’re able to donate this piece of fun to their childhood. You’re connected to them in some way, the way I was connected to James Bond or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — Willy Wonka was actually what it was called. No, the movie was called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Which was the book and which was the movie?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the…book?
Movie. I think the book was called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
No. Where’s my phone? I would settle this battle now.
Fact checker! Fact checker!
[Ed note: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the children’s book by British author Roald Dahl. The 1971 based-on-the-book film was titled Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and the 2005 film was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.]
Anyway, that movie wasn’t supposed to be a hit. There are all sorts of miracles around that movie. I literally finished mixing the movie and drove to the premiere with the sound and movie in my car. They were separate. The film was on one thing and the sound was on another, and you had to play them synced up. I was begging them to delay the premiere a week. Three days after the premiere, the L.A. Riots hit, and there would have been no premiere if we had delayed it and no one would have seen this movie and that would have been it. But it was at that ”premiere” — 500 friends and family — that someone from Disney saw it and bought the movie. Again, miracles.
What about Cool Runnings, one of the most quotable movies of all time? Got any stories?
Nothing but. That movie — a million lessons, a million great things came out of it. Everything from the business side of that movie to how the movie came about to the friends made on that movie to the effect the movie had on people. There’s something special about that movie. It’s a movie that won’t go away. I think it defied all studio logic. I found out years later that the studio wanted the movie to fail, was not supportive, and in an odd way, [that] was a reason they hired me. They just didn’t believe in it, so they got the 3 Ninjas guy. Just everything that should have gone wrong went right. I mean, the last person in the world you’d get to play a gold medalist is John Candy. Yet, he turned out to be that extra piece of magic that made the whole thing work. You know, John Candy, John taught me a lot. He became a friend. He’s the first idol of mine I became friends with. I never really became great friends with him because I never stopped seeing him as my idol. I was that moron who would just giggle every time he talked. One day, we were on the set, and I asked him to make his entrance into the scene one second earlier and he turned to me and said, “You’re not the boss of me.” [Laughs] He reaffirmed to me that you don’t have to be serious when making a movie.
And then there was Jericho.
I knew the project was bold. I knew the project was different. I knew the project wasn’t standard TV stuff. What I didn’t know was how passionate some people would get about the show. And what I really didn’t know was that bold and unique and big usually spells failure on television. I learned that lesson as well. For a show to be a hit, it needs to be a little bit different. When it becomes a lot different, it’s hard for it to catch on. The only thing that I feel a little comforted by since Jericho has been off the air is that any other show like it has also failed. Same with Harper’s Island. I was so thrilled to see Happy Town didn’t work because then it would have meant it was me; I screwed up Harper’s Island.
Is Jericho: The Movie still in the works at all?
It is. It’s still being discussed. We’re trying to build on a graphic novel that was released on Jericho. There’s an inherently good movie on Jericho.
And last, but not least, National Treasure. How’s No. 3 coming along?
No. 3 is literally on page 81 of the script — that’s the last they told me. The writers don’t want me to see it until they’re finished because they know Mr. Judgeypants will rip it to shreds if it’s not awesome. Certainly the goal is to get that script great and get that movie shot quickly. What we discovered on the first one is that the scripts are so much harder to write than anyone can imagine. Coming up with a new idea for a treasure movie is damn near impossible. Every great idea was taken by Raiders of the Lost Ark. Every good idea was taken in the first National Treasure. So we’re really fighting hard to keep it original. If it’s not, there’s no point in making it. But everyone’s on board. The cast is on board. How The Sorcerer’s Apprentice does will determine whether they can afford me or not. At this point, they could probably get me cheap.