Interview: Jon Turteltaub from National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets

The missing pages of a diary hold a secret so explosive it could change the course of history in National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. An irresistible blend of historical fact and fiction, the high-voltage adventure stars Academy Award winner Nicolas Cage (Best Actor; Leaving Las Vegas, 1996) as Benjamin Franklin Gates, treasure hunter extraordinaire. A search to uncover the truth behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, is packed with breathtaking stunts, awe-inspiring backdrops and a lightning-paced international treasure hunt.

Oscar winners Jon Voight (Best Actor, 1979; Coming Home) and Helen Mirren (Best Actress, The Queen, 2007) head up an extraordinary supporting cast that also includes Oscar nominees Ed Harris (Best Actor, Pollock, 2001; and Best Supporting Actor; The Hours, 2003; The Truman Show 1999 and Apollo 13, 1996) and Harvey Keitel, (Best Supporting Actor, Bugsy, 1992) as well as rising stars Diane Kruger (Troy) and Justin Bartha (National Treasure). The film is directed by Jon Turteltaub, who also directed the blockbuster original.

We had the honor of sitting down with Director Jon Turteltaub to talk about National Treasure 2, his past with Nicolas Cage, the possibility of National Treasure 3, and so much more! Here’s what he had to say:

Aside from the obvious , such as bigger, better, faster, more complex (all of which you touch upon in the DVD extras), what is the REAL book of secrets to making a successful sequel?

The key to making a successful sequel is to be able to accurately judge exactly what it was about the first movie that the audience liked. It can be deceptive and you can fool yourself. In our case, we believed that the most important element of the first National Treasure was the relationships between the characters. Obviously, the use of real history and real landmarks in the search for fictional treasure is the main concept… but what made the movie standout was the humor and warmth shared by the characters. So… we made sure to get the entire cast back together and build on those relationships.

Is there really a Book of Secrets hidden somewhere in the Library of Congress? Is there really a secret compartment in the desk of the President? Or it’s pure fiction?

Well… Let me put it this way. Our rule was that we wouldn’t put anything into the movie that we knew was not true. If we knew there wasn’t a Book of Secrets or a secret compartment, we wouldn’t have put it in. But I certainly can’t prove to you that either exists. Certainly, there have been rumors and stories of this book… sometimes it’s believed to be kept by the CIA, sometimes by the FBI. And if you ever go on a tour of the White House, try to sneak into the Oval Office and get a look at the desk. I’m dying to hear what you find.

Besides the writers, do you have an special team of investigators to give the film and the plot a lot of realism ?

The writers definitely do most of the work. However, we definitely need to rely on a wide range of people to keep us on the right track. For the action sequences, break-ins, kidnappings and things like that, we use security and mililtary experts. Often, we’ll turn to professional law enforcement or government experts and say to them things like, “We need to kidnap the President, how would YOU do it?” Then, they lay out a plan for us.
For the historical information, I rely heavily on the tour guides and park rangers that take us through the locations. In one day I can learn more from the Native American elders who teach at Mt. Rushmore than I can from many of the books I’ve read.

Which location was the most and the least problematic in terms of shooting the film?

Without question, shooting on the streets of London was an enormous undertaking. As many of you already know, just WALKING on the streets of London is difficult. There are an enormous number of rules, regulations, departments, governments and laws that had to be obeyed for us to pull off that car chase… and I’m very impressed with our production team who had the determination and the patience to pull it off. Surprisingly, one of the easiest places to shoot was Mt. Vernon. While they were very protective of the landmark home of George Washington, they were also a private organization without connections to the government. So it was only a matter of one or two people who had to say “yes” to our requests.

How long did it take for you and the production crew to get the permission to access all the historical sites shown on the movie?

This movie was much easier than the first… because on this movie they had already seen the first National Treasure and they knew that we were legitimate and we were celebrating these historical sites, not mocking them. But every location has surprises for a production crew. For instance, the biggest fear the governments had wasn’t that we would damage the landmarks… it was that we would interfere with the tourists who had the right to be there as well.

Was there a point where you feared that the story was too long and complex to be told in a 2 hour movie, and did you have to let go of some material?

We knew the story was too long and too complex the moment we realized that our script was 180 pages long. That’s 60 pages longer than a script should be. Not surprisingly, the first cut of the movie was close to four hours long! So, we basically cut out an entire movie’s worth of material. That’s not fun… but the DVD people LOVE it because they get more deleted scenes that way. (Vultures!)

What role does the DVD play in the proces of making a film like National Treasure 2. Do you, as director of the film, think about the extra’s during the proces of filming, or is that for somebody else?

The DVD doesn’t come into play in a significant way. The goal is still to make a great movie. Sometimes we forget that with all the extras and bonus material, the main reason the public buys or rents a DVD is to see the movie! However, we’re now aware of bonus material when we’re shooting, so if something particularly funny or strange happens on the set, we’ll often earmark it for the DVD.

The DVD extras are a growing part of the all over experience of watching a film. What is your take on these features? What characterizes great DVD extras?

I think directors have mixed feelings about the DVD extras. In some ways, our egos love the fact that the movie gets all that extra attention. It makes it look like the movie is “important”. On the other hand, I hate having to show outtakes and deleted scenes. There’s a reason these scenes were deleted! It’s like having a section in your photo album of just pictures with your eyes closed and your chin looking fat.

Are filmmakers in Hollywood excited about Blu-ray, given its potential to showcase films at home better than ever before (less compromise of picture and sound, plus no more pan-and-scan horrorshows)? But is that a double-edged sword, because more people might wait to see movies at home instead of in theatres?

The sword has so many edges these days that no one knows what to do. TV, broadcast, internet, theatrical, downloads, iPhones… it’s a mess. Most likely, some of these technologies will succeed and others will disappear. But there’s no way to know right now so everyone is tossing out a big net hoping to catch as many opportunities as possible. Blu-Ray was the best format and we’re all pretty happy that it won out… that’s not always how it works.

Do you think that National Treasure 2 was a more successful than the first film?

This is actually a very interesting question for me. Not so easy to answer. Certainly, it was more successful financially for the studio. On a personal level, it was more successful for me in that I vowed to get through the movie without getting overly stressed out. The first movie was a nightmare to make… and I wanted to see if I could make a film without making myself crazy… which I did. But in spite of what 90% of what people tell me, and I know I’m probably not supposed to say this to the press, but I thought the first movie was better.

The obvious question is: there will be a third segment of “National Treasure”? Is it in the works?

We’re trying! Our philosophy is that until we have a great story, a great adventure, and a great piece of history to explore, there’s no point in making the movie. But we are working on it. (And by “we” I mean “other people”.)

Since the action is such a hallmark of these films – what sequence had you giddy to shoot in Book of Secrets?

I loved shooting all the final scenes in the water. I’d never done that before and I had no idea how or if it was going to work. But the special effects people did such a brilliant job, along with the set construction people, to make it all possible. It turned out that it’s really fun to spend an entire week floating around in a gigantic pool, wearing a wet suit, swimming across the set to talk to the actors, and shouting “action” only to see millions of gallons of water shoot out from the magnificent sets. And the answer to your next question is “no, I didn’t pee in the pool”.

On such a huge movie, how much are the actors allowed to improvise, and did you have to manage some rewriting on the fly because of some specific takes?

With these actors, improvisation is really important. Not necessarily during shooting, however. Sometimes improvisation is misunderstood. Finding new lines and new ways of doing a scene is done during the rehearsals for the scene just before we shoot. Usually, the actors and the crew iron out what we want to do before we roll the camera… otherwise, great moments can get lost. On NT2, we were ALL making things up as we went along. The writers were writing as we were shooting…so everyone jumped in. The only thing we had to be very careful about was keeping our historical facts straight. That was something we couldn’t fake.

Benjamin Gates is often compared to Indiana jones. What would you say are the main differences between the two characters ?

The comparison is a fair one and doesn’t bother me… both characters are passionate about history and judge the value of their treasures on the object’s historical and cultural value, not its financial value. But I think Indy and Ben Gates are both characters derived from old-fashioned movies of the 30’s and 40’s. Also, Indiana Jones has one big advantage over Ben Gates… Indy is directed by Spielberg. That’s a plus.

Was Nicolas Cage your first choice as Ben Gates?

I can’t imagine anyone else doing this part.

You and Nicolas Cage were high school classmates. What is it like to work with him having already had some history together?

Working with friends is always a little weird. I think we’re all much nicer to strangers than we are to friends. Nick and I were friends in high school, but then we went twenty years without seeing each other. I went off to college and he went off to become an Oscar winning, world-famous actor. But no matter where you go in life, your friends from childhood always see you as the person you were as a child. So, even though we have huge amounts of respect for one another, we also know that deep down we’re really just a couple kids who did plays together in high school.

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 and we had a DaVinci Code?

I’m not sure why but there is a revival. Perhaps it’s just the cyclical nature of the movie business. When we made the first National Treasure, there hadn’t been a good old-fashioned treasure hunt movie in fifteen years. Maybe everything old is new again. But between National Treasure, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Indy… it shows that audiences still like the old-fashioned adventures.

What do you think about the comparison made between your movies and Da Vinci Code?

How do I answer this without getting in trouble? Ummm…. Hmmm… Okay… In many ways, I can see the comparisons. I never read the book, but I did go see the film on opening weekend. Clearly, the overlapping stories of hidden codes and mysteries being kept in famous places is very similar. But what has always made me crazy is the fact that we were first. Our script was written before the book… and yet we get accused of “stealing” their idea. It’s very upsetting because too many of us did some amazingly creative work… and made a really good movie… all by ourselves. So, I have to admit that I get a bit cranky when we get compared to Da Vinci Code.

Because you are dealing with a fictional story that involves real events and locations, how much of an obligation do you feel you have to pay to the truth?

This is really a big issue when making any movie… but particularly difficult when doing the National Treasure movies. Personally, staying true to the history is everything for me. That’s the puzzle. How do we take these historical truths and wrap a modern-day fiction around them? What we found is that whenever we made up historical facts it made the scenes feel fake, but when we stuck to the real history, things worked more believably. I also think that these movies are trying to honor history and encourage people to embrace learning about all of these things. If we make facts up, it feels to me like cheating.

The real History might look like fiction in your movie (especially bizarre details), and fictional elements might seem real. Did you have problem with this mixture? knowing that a large part of the public are young people, still at school..?

I LOVE THIS QUESTION!!!! I can’t tell you how many times we have been criticized or attacked for making things up that were actually true! We even had reviewers condemn us for “making a mockery of history by creating stories for our own benefit” that were actually completely true stories. Truth IS stranger than fiction sometimes.

Have any teachers reacted to the National Treasure films?

We have had an amazing response from teachers across the world. Many use the films in their classes. I’m not sure I should be so proud of this, but my movies are shown in more history classes than film classes. Oh well.

The other great response we’ve gotten is from the historical sites themselves. Attendance is WAY up at the places we featured in the movies. That means that the public is becoming more interested in history… and we’re proud of that.

What’s the hardest part of putting together a movie today? Obviously sequels are harder– but what challenges are you facing that weren’t there say 10 years ago?

Sequels are actually much easier! If you look at the slate of films coming out of most of the studios, they’re all filled with sequels. The marketplace is such that you need to have a big opening weekend, and the best way to do that is to have a movie that audiences already have shown an interest in. The problem is that sequels cost more. That’s the biggest issue in the movie business today. Cost. It’s stupid how expensive it is. On the other hand, the revolution in digital technology has been a big plus for movies. We can do so much more than ever before to make movies more fun, more entertaining, and more believable.

Can you talk about the National Treasure 2’s digital information, how many production houses were involved, and how was digital work coordinated, etc.?

90% of the Visual FX work was done by one company — Asylum. They’re a pretty remarkable house who had been told we would need about 300 fx shots and were given about 700 to do. Due to the overload, a few shots were farmed out to ILM. (Not a bad 2nd choice.)

What was it like working with Jerry Bruckheimer?

More than any well-known person I’ve ever met, Jerry Bruckheimer is the most different than what my expectations were. As a huge movie producer, he is assumed to be a loud, angry monster. But Jerry is actually a very quiet, calm and patient man. He is also extremely supportive of his directors. I’ve never heard him say a bad word about anyone he’s worked with and he always gives credit to others. When it comes to having differences of opinion, Jerry’s track record and passion gives a lot of weight to his opinions. I usually say to myself, “What are the odds that I’m right and what are the odds that Jerry’s right?” When I look at the big picture, it makes a lot of sense to do what Jerry thinks is best.

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?

I’m curious about this myself! When I saw “Crimson Tide” I asked Jerry how he gets that great look. He said, “It isn’t me, it’s the filmmakers we work with.” But when I began working with Jerry, I knew what kinds of imagery he liked… and I also knew what kind of imagery the audiences expect from a Jerry Bruckheimer film. In turn, I tried to keep the look of the National Treasure movies consistent with that. However, credit really does need to go to the people who are responsible for creating those looks… Michael Bay, John Schwartzman and Tony Scott stand out.

After very diverse movies like Phenomenon, While You Were Sleeping, Cool Runnings and National Treasure 1 and 2, what kind of film would you really like to make? What genre holds a challenge for you?

Every director is labeled. I’ve tried very hard to avoid being considered just one type of director. But it’s impossible. Everyone looks at whatever movie you successfully did last and then they want you to do the same thing. The thing I’ve noticed, however, is that when you make successful action films, they pay you more money! I don’t know about all of you, but getting paid more money for doing the same job seems like good incentive to do action movies. That said, I’d like to get back into character stories and comedies. And I have my heart set on making a movie in Africa.

What’s your favorite adventure movie?

Is “Jaws” an adventure movie? Maybe that’s really a “monster movie”. What about “The Man Who Would Be King”? That’s a treasure hunt adventure. I guess I’d have to say, though, that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is the ultimate adventure movie. I can’t see anything wrong with it. It’s pretty perfect.

Do you have DVDs of your own films at home? And what was the last DVD you bought (or made the distributor send you)?

[Laughs]I have to think if I had DVDs of movies that AREN’T my own. I actually have a small DVD library… nothing big. Mostly, I watch DVD’s on my laptop when I travel. The last few DVD’s I watched were “Singing in the Rain”, “Planet Earth”, and “There Will Be Blood”.

Which movie you’re most proud of?

That’s actually a very difficult question to answer because each film represents a different part of my career or my life. In some ways, “Cool Runnings” gives me the most pride because I think it gave a lot of encouragement to people in developing nations around the world. When I travel, it’s certainly the film that most people comment on.

What’s next for you?

I just produced and directed a pilot for CBS for a new series. I’ll know in a week whether it’s going to get on the air. It’s a really unique show that I think people will love. It’s a murder-mystery/horror show where each story lasts one season. Then next year, after the cast is dead, we’ll do a new horror tale with a new cast and a new location.

But the big thing on my plate is another movie with Jerry Bruckheimer, Nicolas Cage, and Disney. We’re doing a modern day re-tellling of the story “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. It was inspired by the Mickey Mouse classic from Fanatasia.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets Official Site