August 10, 2018
We Talk to ‘The Meg’ Director Jon Turteltaub About Making His Big Shark Movie
From being a Film School Reject to adapting Steve Alten’s long in development book, we talk filmmaking and giant sharks with Jon Turtletaub.
The Meg is one of the most self-aware movies we’ll see all year. Director Jon Turteltaub has made an unabashedly big silly popcorn movie that wears its silliness and greatly welcomed lightheartedness like a badge of honor, as it should. The story of Jason Statham going to war with a megalodon doesn’t take itself more seriously than it should while keeping a straight-face without winking too much at the audience.
The director behind the National Treasure movies, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Cool Runnings was the one to finally get this long-in-development adaptation of Steve Alten‘s book off the ground. An adaptation of the 1997 novel has been kicking around ever since it was published, with many other notable filmmakers involved at one point or another. In the end, it’s Turteltaub who got to bring the 70-foot, 60,000-pound megalodon to the big screen.
Turteltaub: Film School Rejects? I was one of those. I got rejected from UCLA. I think wait-listed at NYU and wait-listed at USC.
If you weren’t rejected, maybe you wouldn’t be here today.
Not only that, just think how much more money they would have gotten from me if they accepted me. Suckers!
[Laughs] Very true. You won at the end of the day.
Your movie is exactly what I wanted it to be. I had a very good time.
Yay! That’s good.
How do you feel about the reactions so far?
Every movie you make with different expectations, and you release every movie with different expectations. Some movies you’re thinking, “Wow, I’m going to show the audience something they’ve never seen in their life, or there’s going to be an actor or a character, an idea here, or something.”
With this one, my thought is that the audience needs to be going and knowing a little bit about what’s going to happen, what the vibe is. It’s like going on a ride at a theme park. You know what you’re going to do and that’s why you go on it because you know how fun that will be. We’re not trying to reinvent anything. We’re just trying to make an awesome version of going to the movies.
The tone feels right. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but not too tongue-in-cheek. It can be silly, but it takes the characters and seriously enough. How tricky was that balancing act?
Really tricky, and we talked about it a lot and my feeling … This is more Film School Reject-y, but my opinion, that I keep coming more and more to as I become an old, venerable director, is I don’t think there’s anything a director does more important than tone. It’s maybe everything.
In this case, this was threading a needle, because if you don’t get the action, monsters, thrills right, you’ve blown it. If you don’t get the visual effects and the special effects right, you’ve blown it. But, if you don’t get the humor right, you’ve also blown it.
You have to get the exact right amount of all of these things to do a movie whereas we put it, don’t run from the cliché. Lean into the cliché. I said to the actors, “Your characters have all seen shark movies before. Just like in real life, if you were really a marine biologist, you’ve probably seen Jaws. Don’t pretend you haven’t.” Be aware of the world the way the audience is aware of the world and it gives the film a little bit of just that wink that says, “We get it. We know what you think horrible shark movies are. We know the bad version of this. Don’t worry. We got you.”
Speaking of leaning into cliches, I really enjoyed the sight of Jason Statham drinking his life away in Thailand, doing what broken heroes do.
Exactly. We’ve seen that scene and we know that, and yet you’re like, “Okay. We’re good with this,” because look, the key is to not do a cliché and think you’re doing something new. That’s the death of a movie.
This project has been in development for a long time. Where was the script at when you signed on? How did it change?
The script was pretty good. We changed things as we developed a little more. Characters got consolidated and I think Rainn Wilson’s character was an angry woman at one point, and he made her angrier and more of a woman. Rainn found his Rainn Wilson way of doing it and there were … Those are the circumstances. When the novels were written, the characters worked a certain way, but the Rainn Wilson character in the script I read was almost identical to the Bryce Dallas Howard character in Jurassic World, which didn’t exist when Steve Alten wrote this book. So, suddenly you have a character that the world has seen within the last couple of years, so you got to find something new and do something different.
Jason Statham is probably one of the few actors who can make a giant shark movie work.
I know. He’s perfect.
When did his name first come up?
You know what? There were ideas being thrown around, most of which I hated, and I kept pushing for somebody … See, my concern was that everybody will think the whole premise is stupid and fake. There’s something about Jason Statham that is so authentic and believable that you go with what he tells you. If Jason is acting like this is a real shark, then the audience is going to believe it. He is not larger than life. He’s just a little bit better than most men.
He’s so non-arrogant, no vanity to Jason, that you really believe him, and yet, he has such a great sense of humor and a wonderful working class quality. There’s nothing pretentious or lame about Jason.
I can’t imagine a self-serious actor in this role.
Oh, my God. It would be so boring with that or an over-the-top action star that made the whole movie feel over-the-top.
What’s it like working with him on a shooting day? Is there a lot of talk about character and motivation between takes?
Yeah. You’re constantly talking with all the actors about the reality of the specific scene you’re doing that day. Is it consistent for my character to say this line or to act that way or to stand over here? As you’re having the conversations, you’re making decisions that will affect all the other scenes in the movie.
For Jason … I don’t know if Jason would say this, but he is playing the, not fearless, but the brave rescuing hero who is willing to take on the bad job in order to save the other people. Then he lets the female lead go down in the shark cage by herself. Right?
He wasn’t comfortable with that. So, we got to make sure the scene made sense if there’s a difference between being sexist and saying, “I should go down,” and respecting her abilities that she can go down without him being the coward who doesn’t take the responsibility himself. These are tiny little things that may or may not be noticed in the movie, but they can take up about two hours of your day in figuring this stuff out.
The cast as a whole is a pretty likable group. How important is likability when putting together an ensemble for this sort of movie?
It’s so important. All those characters and wanting to … Movies you’ve seen that you think, “Oh, they’re scary.” “Oh, they’re big.” “Oh, they’re …” whatever. The truth is, it gets back to tone again and character. What was so great about James Cameron’s Aliens, that’s human soldiers, right? You wanted to hang out with those guys. You wanted to crawl through that air vent with Bill Paxton, right?
You remember all those guys and that is true of so many movies we love. So, putting this whole ensemble together, then getting a variety of people who love each other that when you see that kind of fun and affection onscreen, you feel it, too.
Was there a lot of debate over how and when to first introduce the Meg?
There were a lot of arguments and conversations about this. Today’s audience is different than the Jaws audience. When you’re spending all that time and money on CG and the audience knows you are, they want to see that shark. They’re coming to see that shark.
You can’t get away with a few glimpses over two hours, but how soon do you see it and when do you see it? It needs to be a great introduction. I think we did the best we … We found a really great solution and the first time you get a really good look at that shark it’s freaking awesome. But some people don’t realize when you first see it.
You actually see the shark before you know you’ve seen it, and I can … It’s actually in the very, very first sequence of the movie when Jason is in that submarine at the beginning. You have to freeze frame and there’s about three frames and it’s all there, but you may miss it.
The scale of the megalodon is just incredible. These days, is a giant titular CG creature not too challenging to pull off?
It is ridiculous how good they are and the things they can do. The problem is they can do anything, but they don’t want you to know that. They want you to try to do it yourself first, but they can still save your ass.
What they’re able to do in terms of realism and creature creation is … It’s the things you don’t realize that are the most amazing, that the 100% of the water you see in a shot is CG and you would never believe it. You can’t believe it’s not real. It’s that sort of thing that is ridiculously impressive.
Audiences, particularly those with internet accounts are really good at hating bad visual effects. You don’t dare mess with the internet nerd army, because they will destroy you. So, you had better deliver something awesome for them.
What are your thoughts on the internet movie army? They’re loud, but are they of any real importance?
It’s huge. I truly don’t know how much it matters. I don’t really know … It’s funny, it’s amazing how many people go see a movie and have not seen anything about it. People like you and I go to the movies and we’re worried that we’ve seen every scene through all the commercials, and yet half the audience, a lot of people make their decision what movie to see while they’re standing in line. So, I really don’t know.
Audiences are getting very specific and segmented, but to me, the dream is still the movie that’s for everyone and it’s harder to reach everyone nowadays. We all used to watch the same three television channels. Now that don’t happen.
Were there any moments, in particular, you told the marketing department you didn’t want in the trailer?
Most of them, and yet half of them are in the trailer. I mean, I really didn’t want to show that giant neck leaping out of the water and they’re like, “Too effing bad. It’s awesome. It’s going in.” But they’ve been really good about not showing anything from the ending of the film and letting us in on a few of the big surprises.
Having so much of the movie be CGI, is that nerve-wracking at all to you, or does it give you a greater sense of control?
Yeah, it’s the opposite, because other directors … I don’t speak for any other directors. Maybe other directors feel completely differently, but I like seeing a scene and adjusting it. You go on a set, the actors do it and then you go, “Yeah, maybe you stand over here and maybe you do this. Maybe …” A car chase, you can sort of go, “Drive slower. Drive faster,” and all that. CG, you have to describe what you’re picturing to someone. They then make that and if you want to adjust it, it’s really expensive. They expect it to be right the first time and I hate having to be right. I like experiencing something and adjusting based on what I see. It’s too hard to be right.
On the practical side of things you always hear what a nightmare shooting on water is. Was that your experience? What advancements over the years have maybe made it easier?
Well, first of all shooting on some tanks and doing tank work really helps for specific things, but it hurts you in other ways that you got to deal with. Shooting on water, everyone complains about. It’s fucking fun. I don’t care what anybody says.
You are out in the middle of the ocean with your buddies and your cast. You’re really shooting on a boat and it takes place on a boat. You look around and it’s water and it’s tipping, and it’s realistic, and it’s fun.
Nobody can bug you and say, “Can we talk about tomorrow’s scene?” or whatever. You’re out in the middle of the ocean. Especially even better when you’re in scuba gear and you’re underwater, they really can’t bother you.
Digital filmmaking is a huge advantage. Not having to change film magazines every 2000 feet, what a huge difference. How much lighter the cameras are makes a huge difference. It is better and smaller and lighter, and you can do things yocould neverld have done before.
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