Born into a showbiz family, Jon Turteltaub started his career acting on stage, but quickly learned that acting was not for him. “I would be on stage doing a play in college and find myself worrying about the temperature in the theater and the lights and who’s missing their cues and their marks and trying get the pace going, all of which are directing issues, not acting issues,” he recalls. He knew it would be easier to support himself on a movie career than a theater career, so he turned his forcus to movies. While working as a PA on a movie set, Turteltaub says he was told the director gets to jump to the front of the lunch line. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s awesome. I want to be a director,’” he says. Turteltaub went on to direct hits like “National Treasure,” “The Kid,” “While You Were Sleeping,” and “3 Ninjas.” Looking at his body of work, it’s not surprising to find that he’s charmingly witty and always ready with a lighthearted joke.
His latest film, “Last Vegas,” stars acting heavyweights Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline. “Even though it was Dan Fogelman’s script, it felt like it was my voice and my soul and my spirit,” he says. So he called up the head of CBS Studios and signed on to the project. “They said, ‘You know we have no money.’ And I said ‘Still yes,’ " he says. "And she said ‘There’s no money for you either’ and I said ‘Still yes.’”
Casting is key.
“Casting is everything to a director," says Turteltaub. "That’s true in the smallest play or the biggest movie. The last thing you’d want to do as a director is let somebody else cast your movie.” Combined with a good script, Turteltaub feels actors are the key to making a movie work. “You must have great actors and not just great actors – the right actors,” he says. “Someone who’s going to bring that character to life in a way that feels honest and real and believable.”
Show you care.
Most actors hate auditioning, but it’s part of the job. Turteltaub prepares as a director, and expects that same commitment from actors. “I’ve had actors come in unprepared," he says. "No matter how good they are, it just seems to me that they don’t care about it.” Preparation and respect are also important on set. “Listen to the director and listen to the other actors," he adds. "Try to listen to the tone of the scene and the tone of the set. Show up there to give, not to take."
Be open to change.
In acting and directing, preparation is only the first step. “I want an actor to be fully prepared, knowing what they want to do, and then keep all of that in their back pocket ready to pull out after hearing what I want them to do,” he says. He likes to watch the scene play out and then fix it, rather than dictating. “There’s always a level of dictation that’s necessary, particularly when you have a scene with a lot of actors in it," he explains. "But if you want the best out of your actors, you want to see what the actor’s prepared for you – what they brought in with them. [Then] you shape that, rather than bully them into what you have pictured.” The scene might be perfect the way the actor’s prepared it, but Turteltaub may also throw something completely different at the actor. “If an actor comes in thinking this is only going to work if I’m sitting down and eating fruit salad, it’s never going to work. They’ve got to be wide open to whatever the director, cameraman, and other actors require,” he says.
Improvising is mandatory.
There will always be something that doesn’t work on set. “I know exactly what I believe will make a great scene, but then I may have to throw all of that out based on realities and practicalities of the set,” says Turteltaub. “So you’re constantly improvising and playing with the blocking of the scene, with the emphasis of the scene, with the location of the scene, and with the dialogue.” Although every scene presents its own unique challenges, Turteltaub says the bikini contest scene in “Last Vegas” was particularly challenging. The scene had very little dialogue, so the majority of the dialogue for the bikini contest host was improvised in order to turn a montage scene into a real scene. “It needed more structure, and it needed more jokes," he says. "And then listening to and watching the actors and what they were doing adjusted how we played the scene and what kind of shots we took. And then Kevin Kline came up with a funny sight gag that just happened by accident. So then we went back and made sure we shot it again not by accident."
It’s more fun to make it better.
Directing is a long process. “Prepping is agony because I get obsessed with thinking I’m supposed to come up with the best idea imaginable. When you believe you’re supposed to be creating perfection, everything is disappointing,” says Turteltaub. The actual shooting tends to be chaotic. “Shooting is misery, because you’re making your movie a little worse than you dreamed because the practicalities don’t fit. Even though you’ll find amazing magical moments, you’re still settling,” he explains. But post-production is another story. “In editing, you’re making the movie better every day," he explains. "You’re taking a limited amount of variables and improving them, so that whatever you end up with is better than what you started with. And that’s a good feeling."
Turteltaub is grateful that his success with directing feature films allows him to explore other mediums and take risks. His work on tonally dark shows like “Jericho” and “Harper’s Island” is very different from the films he directs, and allows him to grow as a director. “When I do television, I’ll try new things and actually be bolder when doing a TV pilot than I am when doing a feature," he says. "And television in 2013 allows for that. TV is currently a more courageous medium than film."