Director's Cut: Jon Turteltaub ('Last Vegas')

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John Turteltaub may not be as big a household name as other directors who have made careers in the studio system, but you’ve likely enjoyed his work since the early ‘90s. “Cool Runnings,” “While You Were Sleeping,” “Phenomenon,” “The Kid,” “National Treasure” (and sequel), he’s made a living directing some of the biggest stars of the last few decades. So it’s no surprise when news came out that some of the greatest actors of our generation were going to team up to make an AARP-meets-“The Hangover”-type comedy, there was Turteltaub at the helm.

“Last Vegas” is an ode to the kind of comedies that ran rampant in Hollywood during Turteltaub’s hey-day: a mid-budget, PG-13 laugher with big names and little thinking involved. Comfort food for the soul. But thanks to a script by Dan Fogelman (who’s penned everything from “Cars” and “Tangled” to “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “The Guilt Trip”) that sets the hijinks of life-long friends Billy (Michael Douglas), Paddy (Robert De Niro), Archie (Morgan Freeman) and Sam (Kevin Kline) in Sin City, the film has a tiny bit of edge that makes it appealing to today’s moviegoer.

I chatted with Turteltaub about how comedies have changed, why he still gets nervous directed big stars and if we’ll ever see a “National Treasure 3.”

FILM.COM: At this point in your career do you get jitters working with big-name talent?

JON TURTELTAUB: Terrified, especially these guys [on “Last Vegas”]. I was so nervous and so intimidated, I think I never succeeded in not being in awe of them but I did succeed in faking that I wasn’t.

So you had a good front going. 

Great front. I felt like the guy on the date with the model and you knew the only way you were going to succeed on the date is to not let her know you can’t believe you’re dating her.

But you’ve worked with stars throughout your career, many of them when they were at the peak of their careers—

Well, guess what, I was nervous then too. [Laughs]

There’s never been a comfort level?

You know, you get it during the course of a movie. But there’s this weird balance where if you’re too excited you can’t do your job and if you’re not excited you shouldn’t be doing your job. You’re wasting the joys of your own life if you’re not stopping and pinching yourself and thinking, “Wow, I’m directing Robert De Niro.”

And you don’t want to be fanboyish around these guys.

Well, that’s a guarantee for failure right there. So you want every actor to feel loved but you just don’t want to come off as a creepy stalker.

In developing “Last Vegas,” how did you gain that trust with the actors? Was it meeting with each one individually and talking to them about their characters?

Exactly right. The most important thing is we had a great script, it’s why I signed on and I think it’s why the cast signed on. But even before I signed on there had been conversations started with Michael Douglas, so when I came in it was a very easy beginning to just funnel me into those conversations with Michael. And because the script was so strong everyone we talked to all had the same point of view on the script. Everyone liked it and liked it for the same reasons, at least I think so. At first, Michael’s only issue was that he didn’t think Morgan and Kevin’s characters were fully developed enough so we developed them a bit more and found more stuff for them and now he jokes we did too good of a job. But everything we did was just a little bit of tweaking for each specific actor. There are some things that guys are good at and things that might seem awkward for that style of acting or specific character that they have, so little tweaks like that but nothing major.

“Last Vegas” is kind of an endangered species in the business: a modest budget PG-13 comedy. Why has Hollywood given up on making these movies?

My guess is, and it’s hard to say, but Hollywood is extremely responsive. So at a fault, we’re trying to give the audience what they seem to be asking for. There’s a reason we’re only making comic book hero movies, because that’s what’s making all the money. And we the audience complain about that sort of thing, but that’s where we’re going to, more than other projects. But there’s something that feels both very fresh and very old fashioned about “Last Vegas” at the same time. I don’t know exactly how or why, but there’s something about a character-based comedy where you really like the people, care about the people, and that the jokes aren’t based on just being shockingly crude, there’s real character and real humor going on.

And that was the tone even in the original script?

Yeah. And don’t get me wrong, I love really crude, horrifying R-rated humor, but there was something about this that felt like we hadn’t seen it in a long time and in fact it’s the old fashioned quality of it that made it feel so fresh.

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How have you adapted as a director to continue working during this shift of the kinds of movies Hollywood is making?

You pay attention to what’s going on and you read a script not just through your own eyes but through an audience’s eyes, you keep in mind what you think people want to see. As great as a script may be, I don’t want to make it if I’m the only one ending up seeing it.

Will your next film be “National Treasures 3”?

I would love that to be the case, but the bottom line is it’s damn hard to get that script right. The first one took seven years to get right, just coming up with a full and exciting historic mystery based on facts always ends up being a lot harder than we think it is.

Is it still hard to sell a studio on a film like that, though it’s had two successful films previously?

It was when we started [the first film]. We were told not to make the movie, no one wants to see a movie with history in it and I thought that was ridiculous and in fact it turned out to be the reason why it was successful. They were definitely underestimating the audience, but the one thing quite frankly that “National Treasure 3” would have going for it is that it’s a sequel and it’s really hard to sell original concepts now.

Could you see everyone coming back for a “Last Vegas” sequel?

Absolutely.

Has there been talk about it?

Only when the question comes up. [Laughs] There’s a superstition in Hollywood: you don’t talk about a sequel until the first one’s a big hit, but when it comes up everyone got along so well, it was a big love fest with all the actors and I think everyone would love to come back for a sequel.

So with all of the famous stars you’ve directed and in dealing with their different idiosyncrasies and egos, what’s the secret to navigating the ship so the story you need to tell gets told?

That’s exactly the question, it’s not how do you navigate the ship but how do you navigate it without losing the destination that you had set out to find. It really comes down to doing a lot of listening to make sure you’re giving the actors what they need but also speaking with as much integrity as possible. If you can be very honest with these actors, tell them what you need, it’s amazing how responsive to your needs they can be.

"Last Vegas" opens in theaters on November 1st.