Director Jon Turteltaub is a filmmaker who seems to know how to craft crowd-pleasing movies, which might be seen as a bad thing by those cynics among us. But let's not forget that pleasing the masses was always the goal of films from their inception. Movie makers and eventually studios were always looking for the formula to bringing in the most bodies to theaters, and Turteltaub appears to have tapped discovered at least a portion of that formula. The two NATIONAL TREATURE films he made with Nicolas Cage were hugely successful, and even seemed to have inspired certain-age kids to dig into history to see how many of the riddles scattered throughout the film were based on any kind of reality.
Beyond those offerings, Turteltaub has also had success with such works as COOL RUNNINGS, WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, PHENOMENON, THE KID, and the television series "Jericho," which he executive produced; he even directed an episode of the great HBO mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon." His latest film, LAST VEGAS, is his first since the disappointing (both critically and financially) re-teaming with Cage, THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE, but with the new film, he has more modest goals and not a hint of special effects.
Although the trailers for LAST VEGAS might make it look like a geriatric version of THE HANGOVER, it absolutely is not. Because hidden behind the tales of gambling, partying and making goo-goo eyes at the ladies, there's a story about the fear of getting old and dying alone. Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman star alongside the still-hot Mary Steenburgen in this story of four childhood friends that gather in Las Vegas for the bachelor party just before Douglas finally decides to settle down with a woman half his age. Old rivalries and bad blood is stirred up, while current limitation in their current lives are dealt with.
LAST VEGAS isn't reinventing the wheel of laughing at old people, but having these five Oscar winners in one film is no accident either. They wouldn't sign on to do this film if all it was about was making fun of their attempts to seem young in the face of an arsenal of health issues and other senior moments. I spoke to director Turteltaub recently about the skill it takes to corral these master thespians, and some of the deeper, more thought-provoking moments in the film. Please enjoy my chat with Jon Turteltaub…
Capone: Hi, Jon. How are you?
Jon Turteltaub: Good morning, I’m good.
Capone: You’ve got these four great actors at your disposal; if this were just some standard-issue Vegas comedy, you probably wouldn’t need people this overqualified. What does it mean that you have these four great actors in a film like this? What does that bring?
JT: You said it; that was very cleverly put. If this were just some standard-issue, silly comedy, you wouldn’t need these four guys; that’s exactly right. And, because the film is not only really funny, but it gets emotional and has a lot of great character story to it, you don’t want to waste all that. You really want to have the best actors available for the drama within the comedy, and you’re not going to get better than these four guys.
I was talking to Michael Douglas yesterday about how, certainly, three of the four guys aren’t known for comedy. And, they certainly didn’t win Oscars for their comedies [as Kevin Kline did for A FISH CALLED WANDA], and yet, here they are in a really hilarious movie.
Capone: It’s funny you mention that because, when you watch them in this film, Kevin stands out as the wild card in terms of what he'll do or say next.
JT: Yeah, he really pops, and it’s a mixture of Kevin and the script. He has the part with all the great lines. But, then he takes that and does so much with it, and finds physical humor to go with it, and finds sweetness to go with it, and awkwardness to go with it. A lot of the great physical comedy he added to the movie.
Capone: Was it difficult wrangling these guys? Some of them maybe don’t feel like they need that much direction…
JT: You know what? It was just I never had less wrangling to do. I think that none of them had anything to prove, certainly. And, not because of me, but because of each other, they all were extremely well behaved. Nobody wanted to be the one who was late, nobody wanted to be the one who didn’t know his lines. Because they’re in such great company, I think they were on their best behavior.
Capone: And I say four guys, I really should have said five people, because Mary Steenburgen is the secret weapon. First of all, she looks like a million bucks.
JT: She looks amazing.
Capone: I’ve had a crush on her most of my adult life.
JT: [laughs] All of us guys do. What’s funny is when I wanted to cast her, I kept saying how sexy she was, and people would say, “Really? Mary is a sex symbol?” You have no idea. Boys love her. And a lot of the women were like, “Well, we love her too but we didn’t think she was a sex symbol.” But yeah, kind of.
Capone: She can play the hot mom, but she can also be the sexy lounge singer, and you put her in these great dresses, which didn’t hurt.
JT: No, not at all.
Capone: But, she really is the heart and soul of the story. She’s just so honest about everything and sweet. Did you even realize at the time when you were casting that part that that role was going to become so important?
JT: Yeah, we knew. We knew that she was the glue that held the story together. YRight at the point in the movie where you’re thinking you’re hungry for a plot point is right where she enters the film. And, she sends the movie into a very new direction than it had been going, and she keeps driving it that way. And every time the movie needs a little boost of story, in comes Mary right at that exact minute.
Capone: You said you didn’t have to do that much wrangling, but what are the pitfalls of having so many great veteran performances at your disposal?
JT: Mostly that I know I can be fired at any minute. [laughs] There is no chance I'm winning any arugment on that film set.
Capone: You became the least important person on the film set.
JT: I became very, very expendable at that moment, and there’s no way I’m winning an argument with Robert De Niro.
Capone: Hopefully, you’re not getting into one.
JT: Yeah. Well, that’s the key, to avoid getting into one because you know you’re going to lose if you get there. But, in a sideways, twisted way, that’s all kind of true. You know that these guys are so terrific and so good at what they do that the best choice is to let them be right.
Capone: I’ve got to admit I spent the whole film convinced that Morgan Freeman’s character was going to die, because they kept referring to his heart condition. Was that intentional?
JT: Yeah, we wanted you to think that might happen. You know, you see a movie with people over age 50 these days, you expect one of them to die. And it’s possible that this story certainly could have gone that way, but I think we’re going to save Morgan for a possible sequel. If one of them had died, then we would have been screwed if this movie needed a sequel.
Capone: Is a sequel something you’re considering?
JT: You really do have to wait and see how it does. The movie does need to be a hit, and at that point, everyone looks at each other and thinks, “Why didn’t we think of this sooner? Why didn’t we plan a sequel?” But it’s a mixture of practicality and real superstition.
Capone: There always are one or two films a year that are a hit with the older crowds. Are you hoping that either grown children bringtheir parents to this, or the older folks discover this?
JT: You know, it’s not a movie made for grandparents, but it’s a movie that might grab that part of the audience. I think it plays across the board to everyone, although I don’t think my six year old is going to put it as high on his list as CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. But, it is the ideal movie for everyone. What’s funny is people think an R rating is designed to keep 16 year olds away, but often it keeps 76 year olds away. So, the PG-13 is there partially to let the older audience know that it’s not an offensive film.
Capone: All four of these men do have a young following. They’ve made very cool, modern films, or some of their older films are still playing great to a younger audiences. People still love discovering them.
JT: Well, it’s even more extreme than you’re even thinking. How about the fact that, to my extraordinary surprise, the reason we have 50 Cent in the movie is that Bob De Niro had him on his speed dial.
Capone: That is pretty extreme.
JT: That’s pretty extreme. That makes anyone who thinks they’re hip realize they’re square compared to Bob.
Capone:What do you think it is about Michael Douglas that he can pull off dating a 30-something year old so convincingly?
JT: Doesn’t it make you crazy?
Capone: It would seem weird if he wasn’t.
JT: It’s so frustrating, I know. And, it doesn’t even seem creepy. It’s because he is that charismatic and that good looking that it seems to make sense. But, also when you’re sporting a fake tan and dyed hair, it seems a little more believable as well.
Capone: I love the nickname, Hazelnut [referring to Douglas' clearly bottled hair color].
JT: Yeah, isn’t that great?
Capone: De Niro is playing someone who is obviously the most vulnerable and easily hurt in this context. Were you worried about making him too much of a sad sack?
JT: You’re always balancing all of these things. By the way, you’re asking extraordinarily insightful questions. I’m sitting here going, “Holy shit, was this guy hanging out with us?”
Capone: I did watched the movie, man. It's there.
JT: It was fun for me to do that because it’s not what you’re expecting from De Niro, and throughout the movie, we’re playing with audience expectations for these actors. Sometimes, we’re playing right into their expectations; a lot of time we’re playing way against them. And, for De Niro to be this sweet, sad, almost emotionally frail one is a bit of a surprise compared to the other guys and the other actors, and the other roles De Niro has played.
Capone: It makes him feel like the oldest guy for them, even though Morgan Freeman’s got all the health issues.
JT: That's exactly right. And it does show you that it’s your head and your heart that determine how old you are because he’s given up a little bit. And, as he says himself, “I don’t want to end up just sitting in my room waiting to die.”
Capone: It was kind of amusing watching the younger actors--Romany Malco and Jerry Ferrara. You could almost see the combination of fear and disbelief in their eyes that they even got this gig.
JT: [laughs] All Jerry Ferrara wanted, the day he walked in to audition, he said, “Just promise me if I get this part that Robert De Niro is going to punch me in the face.”
Capone: I think I would want that too, whether it was on camera or not.
JT: Or not. It’s the greatest story you have whether it’s fake or real.
Capone: As the film builds up to the big party scene, the lesson we learn is these guys don’t need to go out to go out to conquer Vegas; they make Vegas come to them.
JT: Right. It’s almost as if they won Vegas. You go to Vegas, people think do you win at gambling, do you win at this, do you win at blackjack, you win at roulette? No, they won at Vegas.
Capone: We were talking before about the sort of themes of loss and loneliness that are in the film. Was that a tough thing to balance? Was that always in the script, or did you have to work on that?
JT: That’s part of the amazing appeal of the script is that it’s filled with all of that humor and all of that fun, and all of that heart. And the balance of humor and emotion is what makes the movie, I think, and therefore was one of the more important things for us to track and make sure it was working.
Capone: Would you recommend to any other director the task of working with five legends at once?
JT: Look, I was scared shitless my first day. I didn’t know what to really except, and it really was a dream. They were so good that your biggest worry, which is the movie, goes away because you know how good they’re going to be, so therefore how good the movie is going to be. But, they were all so good to each other and good to me. They’re such pros, again, nothing to prove, nothing to prove to each other, no reason to act out or be prima donnas. And, I think they kept each other in line, because they have so much respect for each other, none of them wanted to be the one who was causing the problems.
Capone: If you did do a sequel, you obviously wouldn’t repeat what you’ve just done. Did anyone have any thoughts as to where things might go if they did this again? Could it be centered around Michael’s…well I don’t want to say how it ends…
JT: It could be another bachelor party in the works. It’s certainly a possibility. Or a funeral. You never know if one of the actors gets difficult in the contract negotiations [laughs], we’ll center the movie around the funeral. There’s a good idea.
Capone: That’s a negotiating tip right there.
JT: It’s a good tactic, right?
Capone: People probably keep asking you if there’s a chance you’ll ever make another NATIONAL TREASURE film…
JT: We want so badly! We’re trying so hard. And, what’s so funny is, I know I should give you some fancy-pants Hollywood reason as to why it hasn’t been made yet, but the bottom line is, it’s really, really hard to get the script right, to write a historical mystery based on historical fact takes a long time. And, we’re working on it, trust me.
Capone: So, it’s a script issue? You’re waiting for a script to come together?
JT: Yeah, waiting for the script to get better.
Capone: Do you think in the interim, you and Nicolas Cage might find another thing to do together?
JT: Always ready to work with Nic again. It’s funny, I’d never done a movie in my career before with Nic, even though I went to high school with Nic. And all of a sudden, we made three in a row together, so it’s good. He gets a break from me much more often than I got a break from him.
Capone: Alright, cool. Well, thanks for talking to us.
JT: You've got it. I'm glad. Well done. You win the award for most insightful viewer.
Capone: That’s good to hear. I’ll let my boss know.