'Apprentice' director rekindles successful formula

Teams with Jerry Bruckheimer, Nicolas Cage again

When we talk about movie magic we usually mean the effect on audiences, but with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" there was magic from the start with the re-teaming of Jerry Bruckheimer, Jon Turteltaub and Nicolas Cage.

Producer Bruckheimer and director Turteltaub created Disney's "National Treasure" franchise, whose two episodes starring Cage grossed nearly $805 million worldwide. Boxoffice magic like that is Hollywood's favorite kind.

"Apprentice's" roots are in the magic of Walt Disney's 1940 animated feature "Fantasia" where Mickey Mouse, as a sorcerer's apprentice, famously brings to life a broom that only the sorcerer can then manage to get back into the broom closet.

"Apprentice," which opened Wednesday, is a live action tale about a master sorcerer (Cage) in modern-day Manhattan defending the city from his arch-nemesis (Alfred Molina) with some help from a reluctant protege (Jay Baruchel).

When I observed to Turteltaub that he's working again with Bruckheimer, he laughed, "Nothing makes me happier than making more money for Jerry."

Actually, Turteltaub explained, it was Cage who came to him with the idea of doing "Apprentice." That was when Cage was making the 2007 fantasy thriller "Next," playing a Las Vegas magician who can see into the future.

When Cage started talking about wanting to play a sorcerer, Todd Garner, a producer on "Next," suggested he should do "Apprentice." Garner and Cage's companies developed the project, on which Garner's an executive producer.

"Then Nic invited me to go see his kid in a school play at the same theater where Nic and I had done a school play 27 years earlier," Turteltaub recalled.

After the play, Cage told Turteltaub he wanted to do "Apprentice" as a live action movie and asked if he'd direct it.

"My eyes got big. I just couldn't believe no one had thought of this before. This was taking a major part of film history and animation history and giving it the best possible opportunity as a live action movie with today's technology."

Before long, Disney gave the project a green light.

"What made it move quickly is Jerry Bruckheimer saying, 'I'll produce this movie.' This is such an important part of Disney's heritage that they needed to really trust the people making the movie."

With Bruckheimer, Cage and Turteltaub on board, Disney was confident enough to say, "Go, go, go -- and hurry!"

However, Turteltaub realized that "Hurry up and go" in a movie with "this many visual effects means, 'Take a while.' You've got to really spend a lot of time prepping and planning and figuring this stuff out. This film has 1,400 visual effects shots, but they're all pieces of other shots. It's the interaction between the live action and CG that's so complicated and really takes so much pre-planning."

At the film's core is the scene where the brooms come to life. The challenge, Turteltaub said, was "how to make all that work in a way that felt real and important to the movie we're making, but also stood on its own as a fun piece of entertainment and was fully taking advantage of CG without ever going over the top."

Exactly how to handle the scene was something they obsessed about throughout writing, prepping, shooting and editing.

"There were times we thought, 'This needs to be the big marquee scene in the movie' and other times we would say, 'We've got to make this really small because it might distract people from the movie' or 'We don't know how people are going to react to this and we're not sure how critics are going to react.'"

Ultimately, he said, they realized they were just driving themselves crazy and should "just go make your movie." Comparing "Apprentice" to Disney's animated original, Turteltaub jokes, "The biggest difference was I have Jay Baruchel and Walt had a mouse."

Actually, he points out, "The biggest difference was that 'Fantasia' was about the music and the images were created to support the music. In our film, as in almost any other film, the music comes along to support the images."

In the live action "Apprentice," Turteltaub adds, "The magic is very based in reality. We're not in some unspoken, unknown fabled ancient land. We're in Manhattan."

Filming in New York posed its own challenges because "in 58 days of shooting we had 46 days of rain. We somehow picked the year where it rained every day."

Asked if he could share any stories about working with Bruckheimer, Turteltaub told me, "I'm trying to think of a good Jerry Bruckheimer story that won't get me fired."

Seconds later he had one.

"You know, Jerry is a brilliant photographer and he's always photographing on the sets. We were shooting a scene that takes place in the Middle Ages with Merlin and Morgana Le Fay (a powerful sorceress in Arthurian legend) having a great old sword fight."

With the camera rolling, he said, "They sword fight right past Jerry taking a picture of everybody. Nobody had told Jerry, 'That's not a good place to stand.' So he's standing there thinking he's totally out of the way -- and there's the sword fight with Jerry in it! We thought, 'Well, all right, we'd better not put that in the movie.' But Jerry got a good photograph."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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