Legendary film director, Jon Turteltaub, of such major features as “Cool Runnings”, “Last Vegas”, “While You Were Sleeping” and the insanely successful “National Treasure” movies was kind enough to share some thoughts with me on movie making, music and juggling family life.
I usually shy away from name-dropping, but in this case, it would be absurd not to. When you come across someone as talented, clever and experienced as Jon, it’s time to crank the lever and let those shiny pearls fall.
So here goes: Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Donald Sutherland, Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Harvey Keitel, Jon Voight, Christopher Plummer, Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Robert Duvall, Kevin Kline, and that’s only an overview of the actors. On the music front, we’re talking Thomas Newman, Hans Zimmer, Marc Shaiman, Danny Elfman, Trevor Rabin, Mark Mothersbaugh and Harry Gregson-Williams.
Resoundingly in Jon’s case, it’s not the big names that maketh the guy, but the guy who bringeth the big names.
Wiltshire: Thank you so much for your time, Jon! You weren’t long a graduate of USC School of Cinematic Arts when you began directing major features for Disney. How did you minimize the gap between budding filmmaker and heavyweight director in such a relatively short time? What are some of the key events or moments you feel propelled you up the ladder?
Turteltaub: You know that expression “It’s not what you know it’s who you know”? Well, I had a third cousin who knew a guy making really low budget movies. And it turned out I also knew the guy. My cousin got me a meeting to be a P.A. on one of this guy’s movies. But I asked for the directing job since it was available. He hired me. Insane.
As for being propelled up the ladder, I was exactly propelled. I dragged myself up it by saying “yes” to anything that came my way. Eventually, one of those things turns into something which turns into something which turns into a career.
Wiltshire: Not many people would know that apart from being a director and producer, you’re also an accomplished musician. Which took hold first and how did moviemaking muscle out the music or was it always the clear winner? Do you think your music knowledge has paved the way for a more effective dialogue with the composers who work on your movies?
Turteltaub: I may be a musician, but not a good one and definitely not an accomplished one. I would say that being a musician and reading music, understanding keys, chords, instruments, tacets, and fortes has been a big help… but it is anything but necessary. Truth be told, I think most composers find it annoying that I sometimes speak in musical terms because it betrays their secret magic powers and ability to fake me out when there’s a problem. On the other hand, no matter how much music you think you know, it’s an almost impossible thing to talk about. What does “happy” music sound like? Sad music? Triumphant music? It’s usually something a little different for each person. And saying “put it in a minor key” or “play the fifths and leave out the thirds” usually doesn’t help much either. Let’s face it, scoring movies is about talent, instinct and “feel”, regardless of the director’s music background.
Wiltshire: How involved do you get in selecting the composer, the scoring process and any additional songs for the soundtrack?
Turteltaub: I get as involved as I possibly can until I feel I don’t need to. If you think about the most important elements in a film – script, acting, directing – the music is equal to them all in terms of its effect on storytelling. Music makes or breaks a moment… so what director wouldn’t be all over that? Guiding the process, choosing cues, it’s far more important to most directors than almost anything else.
Wiltshire: Any sticky moments or frustrations working with composers you’d like to (or can) share?
Turteltaub: They are ALL sticky moments. Whenever a composer plays a cue for a director it’s a painfully terrifying moment for everyone. The composer has just put her creative soul on display to be judged. Awful. I’m trying to keep my film from sucking while also keeping my composer from hating me and quitting. And most composers are big-shots in their own right. For me, working with a composer is like working with a movie star. You have to be very careful and supportive while still getting what you want. In addition, you can’t just shove a composer aside and write a cue for a 72 piece orchestra by yourself with the 20 minutes remaining of studio time. You are at their mercy. So like all artists and creative people, composers do their best work when they feel loved and supported.
What’s phenomenal is when you have such a good relationship and have enough real trust that you can be super honest with each other. I remember Trevor Rabin bringing in a cue for National Treasure and telling him it sounded like late night Showtime Euro Porn. It was brutal, but he understood what I meant and we laughed. That’s the benefit of working with the same people over and over.
Wiltshire: What should aspiring composers know to avoid pissing off the director?
Turteltaub: The director is a scared, nervous, abused child by the time the composer joins the process. The movie feels like a house of cards that could fall apart with just the slightest misstep. So be loving and complimentary. And there’s nothing a director likes more than having choices. We feel horrible asking composers to start over on a cue or try something different. But if you are okay with doing that… let us know. We will LOVE you.
Wiltshire: You’ve previously stated you thoroughly enjoyed floating in a wetsuit to film the underwater sequences for National Treasure 2. You also mention working on a bridge over the River Seine in Paris as a high point. Your upcoming sci-fi action horror film, “The Meg”, features a former Naval captain and expert diver, recruited for a deep-sea mission to rescue Chinese scientists under attack from a massive shark. Do you have a particular passion for watery locations or is the liquid theme a pure coincidence?
Turteltaub: The truth is never what anyone thinks it is. Why do I love filming while in the water? It’s because most people can’t come up to me with stupid questions!! I’m in a restricted spot or under the water and I’m hard to reach. As a result, I can focus and be “in it” with the actors and the camera people. Also, when I get in the water someone usually takes my picture and I look cool.
Wiltshire: Is calling Carcharodon Megalodon, “Meg”, a deliberate move to help us feel less terrified of watching a “big tooth”, 70-foot white shark terrorize us in 3D?
Turteltaub: No, it’s an attempt to not have the worst movie title and worst dialogue ever. “Oh Shit! Here comes the Carcharodon Megalodon again” would suck. T-Rex is good. Kong is good. Meg is good.
Wiltshire: I’m assuming there must be many intricacies incorporating the 3D production process with traditional methods. Did it have a significant influence on your approach?
Turteltaub: What’s so interesting to me is that we rarely film anything in 3D. It’s completely a post-production job. And it’s remarkable to see what they do and how they do it.
Wiltshire: You’ve had us on the edge of our seats with your psychological thriller, “Instinct”, reaching for the box of Kleenex in heartwarming movies as, “Phenomenon”, and perhaps reaching for the Kleenex once again, but for a totally different reason in “The Meg”. Would you say it’s your ability to turn so many great stories into major features the reason for your diversity as a director? And to what extent do your current projects “leak” into the non-movie parts of your life?
Turteltaub: Ass-kissy and completely ridiculous question. These days, the only time anyone reaches for a Kleenex is when they’re home with their laptop watching porn. As for diversity, I bore easily. And I don’t actually have that many good ideas. So once I’ve done a romantic comedy, I’ve pretty much used up my romantic comedy tricks. I did a sports movie, a drama, a character comedy, a sweeping adventure and now a monster movie. I think when you try new things you come up with new ideas.
As for movies leaking into real life, there are definitely things in my life that change as a result of the movies I’ve worked on. I got a dog after making “The Kid” because of the dog conversations in the film. I think more about sharks and the oceans after “The Meg”. I’m more aware of how people unfairly question people’s patriotism after “National Treasure”. But the big differences usually come from the places you go and the people you meet. For instance, after working with 5 huge Oscar winning legends in “Last Vegas”, I now get free rooms at Aria in Las Vegas. That’s what matters!!
Wiltshire: As a parent, I know the enormous commitment it takes to stay present in your children’s lives which can be tough, but immeasurably rewarding. Has becoming a husband and father altered your approach to your craft and how do you juggle your time when you have to put on the big director hat once again?
Turteltaub: People always talk about how directors’ early films always seem better. You know why? Because those directors are single and don’t have kids!! When you can stay up all night improving your movie and nothing else matters, the movie is better. So as life gets fuller and kids arrive, the trick is to do excellent work quicker and more efficiently. But it’s definitely a problem. And it’s not a directing issue, it’s an everyone in the movie business issue. Composers get shoved piles of work at the last minute and aren’t allowed to leave their studios for days on end. It’s unhealthy for families and for everyone involved. But we work in a business where “good enough” is rarely good enough. Sometimes we have to accept it, but most of the time we are in pursuit of “amazing” and we get sick over “good enough”. The catch is to marry the right person, don’t kick the cat, don’t let work stress make you mean, and when you are with your kids focus only on them.
Wiltshire: Your best filming moment.
Turteltaub: A few come to mind. Suppressing laughter during a take when John Candy was ad-libbing. Standing in the bell tower of Independence Hall next to where the Liberty Bell was. Shooting the opening credits for “Phenomenon” with just four friends at 6 am, no crew around, capturing gorgeous images while laughing and using ping-pong balls to act as eggs in a fake bird nest we made.
Wiltshire:: Your best music moment.
Turteltaub: Suggesting during the recording of a 90 piece orchestra, on a cue that was a little busy, that we “tacet bar 35”. Everyone in the control room looked at me like, “WTF did he just say?” Oh, and anytime you get to go on the floor and sit in the middle of the orchestra. Nothing like it in the world. Makes you cry and feel embarrassed knowing you will never be as good at anything in your life as these musicians are at playing their instruments.
Wiltshire: Your favorite meal.
Turteltaub: Taco Bell. Nobu is a distant second.
Wiltshire: Attributed to the enormous love worldwide viewers have for the first two, the pressing and possibly tiresome question is, can we dare hope for a “National Treasure 3” in the near future?
Turteltaub: You can not. I wish you could. But it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. I think it’s a shame. Huge shame. Audiences want it. The filmmakers and the cast are ready to make it. But the studio doesn’t think it’s a good idea for them. What can you do? (If I can read the tea leaves on the entertainment and movie industries… I would predict there will probably be some cheesy re-boot straight-to-streaming video one day.)
“The Meg”, directed by Jon Turteltaub, stars Jason Statham, and is due for release August 10 by Warner Bros.
“Stuck Like Glue” by Songtradr artist, Kritikal, also features in “The Meg” soundtrack. Listen here.