A couple of days ago, Empire was invited into a magical realm where dreams become reality, charismatic pirates cross the ocean and Nic Cage can be a shaggy-haired sorcerer. Not a fictional world of powerful wizards – just one powerful producer. Yes, we stopped by Jerry Bruckheimer’s office.
We were there to see some footage from one of Bruckheimer’s big summer blockbusters, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which sees Cage’s plasma ball-conjuring mystic Balthazar Blake finally tracking down the person he thinks can become as powerful as Merlin himself. That person happens to be Dave Stutler, played by Judd Apatow protégé and rising comedy star Jay Baruchel, who between work on She’s Out Of My League and How To Train Your Dragon, is all over films released this year.
But Blake’s quest will not be an easy one. His arch nemesis, Maxim Horvath (portrayed with suitable snark and snarl by Alfred Molina), has escaped magical confinement and recruited his own apprentice, the showy, smug Drake Stone (RocknRolla’s Toby Kebbell). The stage is set for an epic showdown of good versus evil, with present-day New York as the battleground. And yes, thanks to the efforts of the sorcerers, there be dragons…
Empire was shown a couple of scenes, one set 10 years ago, which sees a young Dave Stutler meeting Blake for the first time and unwittingly releasing Horvath from his prison (he arrives in the form of hundreds of cockroaches in a Mummy-like transformation sequence). A scrap breaks out between the two magicians and Stutler makes good his escape, holding on to a magical item, but warned that in a decade, both of them will return.
Flash forward to today, and we glimpse Stutler, now a nerdy physics student at NYU, attacked in the toilets of the university by Drake Stone and Horvath, before Blake arrives to rescue him. When the lights go up, Bruckheimer and director/fellow regular Nic Cage collaborator (he made both the National Treasure adventures) Jon Turteltaub are suddenly standing before us. Okay, so they just walked from the back of the room, but it’s more impressive if it sounds like they appeared in a puff of smoke.
Candid and funny, Turteltaub certainly knows how to talk the talk. “We're showing these scenes, and I'm thinking, 'they're going to figure that these are the only two good scenes' but these are the only two scenes with effects in them that are done enough to show! There are even better scenes than this, but we have to wait for the effects, otherwise it's Nic battling a tennis ball,” he laughs. But he’s still happy for us to grill him on various topics, including the requisite nods to the original Apprentice, a segment of Disney’s Fantasia. “There are bunch of little nods that some people will get and some will not,” says the director. “Some are anything from cinematography, shots that we lit to do that. Some wardrobe things. Dave with his hood on in shadow gives you the look of Mickey in the hat. Little stuff like that."
Plus there's the big one, with the runaway brooms... "That was the hardest part to get a grip on, because we knew that we were going to be scrutinised for that sequence. First of all, it's the entire story of The Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia, but it can only be a scene in this movie. Our thing was, 'okay, if we're going to do it, the scene has to be integral to the story’. And it is - in this case, he ends up getting a date with Teresa Palmer’s character Becky and she shows up in the middle of all that mess and he has to send her away and that blows his date and it gives him this big crisis of 'I'm a terrible sorcerer, I can't do all this, everything's a mess and I just screwed up a shot with a girl.'”
Referencing an animated movie that – Fantasia 2000’s tweaked re-release aside – is now 60 years old was definitely on the filmmakers’ mind. “It’s an interesting question for us because there's something very wonderful and important and classic, which means you're going to be criticised and judged, but it also means it's kind of old and I'm not sure how many people under 30 even know what the hell Fantasia is,” admits Turteltaub. “I'm always shocked when I say to people, 'I'm doing a movie that's The Sorcerer's Apprentice!' And they go, 'what the f**k is that?' Then I say, 'Fantasia!' and they say, 'what the f**k is that?!'”
The idea to try to turn that short, Mickey Mouse-starring sequence originated not with Bruckheimer or Turteltaub, but with Cage. “He developed this with a guy named Todd Garner, who had worked as a VP at Disney for a while,” explains Turteltaub. “So Todd certainly had the ability to secure the rights to this, but we knew we couldn't make a whole movie out of that, but the key to it was Nic and the writers finding the catch of setting it in the modern day, first of all, setting it in New York is really the hook to the whole movie, the fact that there are sorcerers alive and well and living among us.” Bruckheimer jumps in here: “He likes magic and he likes mysticism and he added a lot of little things he'd read up about, such as some of the stuff he's wearing and he really gets into his role, so he was aware of a lot of magical issues.” Including, as seems to be de rigueur for Disney fantasy stories, a dragon. Here, Turteltaub turns mock defensive. “Tron doesn't have a dragon. There's no dragon in Snow White. No dragon in Toy Story. Pirates doesn't have a dragon… though, the Kraken's like a dragon,” he argues with a grin. “In fact, we have two separate dragons. A very elaborate Chinese dragon that comes to life from a parade and then a little ring dragon that used to belong to Merlin and which Dave inherits. Any kind of sword and sorcery movie has it as an iconic thing.”
Dragons in New York are not a common occurrence (except around Chinese New Year), but crowds are. Turteltaub was quick to point out the challenges – and charms – of the city. “New York is the mixed bag. It's the greatest city in the world and the most horrible city at the exact same moment.” He stops to think about what he just said and how it might be interpreted: “Quote: Jon Turteltaub says New York is the most horrible city in the world!’ They'll help you make the movie, but where do you park? It's that kind of issue.” “It rained 38 straight days,” recalls Bruckheimer. We were shooting a sequence with a car being towed for a chase in the rain and we had a huge crowd because of Nic. I was shocked how many people stopped and stayed and Nic is so gracious that he talked to people and signed autographs and cut into Jon's shooting time.” Fortunately, the director and his star have a history that stretches back even further than National Treasure, so there was no problem between them that couldn’t be resolve with a friendly insult. Or 10. “When Nic says, 'I got a crazy idea!' you're, like, 'oh, boy...' because Nic's crazy ideas are effin' crazy ideas. I would have been scared to death of them on the first movie we did, but by now I get it and I know where he's going and they may not all work but they're all worth shooting. And because I've known Nic since I was 17, you revert back to who you were when you first met, so we can make fun of each other and tease each other to get where we want to go.”
Cage is not the only target for Turteltaub’s good-natured mockery. When Empire broaches the question of both Molina and Kebbell fitting in with the classic Hollywood trope of English=evil, he’s quick to react. “The reason we do that in Hollywood is because English people are evil. I actually thought about that a lot over the years because it happens a lot and I think the real reason for that is this: the smarter the bad guy, the more dangerous and more imposing they are. And Americans think British people are smart. So when you hear that accent, we think, 'uh oh... They're really smart, this is going to be a tough guy to beat.' I always teased Fred Molina that the only reason he got the role is that Javier Bardem passed. So we would've been happy with a Spaniard or whatever.” But he clearly loves Alfred Molina’s work. “Certainly he could do an American accent. He's that guy, he's the Lon Chaney of our generation.”
And so to the big question that seemingly always crops up – are they thinking about this as another next big Bruckheimer/Disney action franchise? “It's up the audience,” says the producer. “If the picture's a big success, Disney will be knocking on Jon's door to make another one.”
“I learned my lesson. In the middle of shooting the first National Treasure, I asked Jerry whether we should be working on the sequel idea,” smirks Turteltaub. “He looked at me like I was a f*****g idiot who had just ruined it. 'Get this movie done, then stop.' You've got to let the audience tell you that they don't just like this one, but that they would want to see another. You'd better at least have an idea. No idea yet. We'll come up with one three weeks into shooting it. Actually, maybe we'll do dancing hippos next, and work our way through Fantasia…”
The Sorcerer's Apprentice will hit our screens on 13 August.