Movie Picture

The cast and crew of National Treasure speak!

Jerry Bruckheimer was not out to scoop The Da Vinci Code when he produced National Treasure. Though the film features historians following clues on historical documents to lead them to a legendary treasure, the film was in development long before Dan Brown’s book. “We’re thrilled it became such a huge success,” Bruckheimer said of the book. “Hopefully people who read that will come see this.”

Director Jon Turteltaub had developed the project for one year before inviting Bruckheimer to join, and that was still seven years ago. “These movies are hard to make, these scripts, they really are,” Bruckheimer said. “It’s hard to get ‘em right. If you see the progression from what the first draft to the final draft is an enormous difference. I mean the first draft was more, a much sillier movie, and we tried to add a lot more reality and a lot more history to it.”

Turteltaub’s difficulties came in applying reality to a high concept adventure script. “We had a treasure hunt movie without a treasure for a long time, because we were a treasure hunt movie about a map more than we were about a treasure, which was the fun part for us,” the director said.

“The notion that the map is more valuable than the treasure was kind of interesting, and it’s harder to get the map than it is to get the treasure. That was the new fun idea, and then we said, ‘We need a treasure and we can’t do something stupid and it’s got to be relevant and it’s got to have meaning and value and historical significance.’ So we’d gone through a ton of existing real treasures, and I think if you make one up, then I think you’re in trouble. I think instantly treasure movies get really fake when the treasure itself is fake, and there’s a reason why the first and third Indiana Jones movies clicked more with the public.”

That said, Turteltaub is NOT comparing his movie to Indiana Jones. ““There’s overt avoidance because you guys are going to kill us if we copy anything so we had to constantly avoid anything. That being said, it’s to me one of the greatest movies ever made, so you just sit there saying ‘I’ll never make a movie that good,’ and keep going.”

Movie PictureWhen approached with the material, Cage was not quite sure it would be believable. “I think that the very thing that made me trepidatious was the same thing that intrigued me, which is the idea of a man going in and stealing the Declaration of Independence,” Cage said. “I though, ‘This doesn’t seem very plausible, and how can this actually be pulled off?’ I met with John Turteltaub and he said, ‘But that’s what’s interesting. He’s audacious. He’s bold.’ And Jerry Bruckheimer always brings in a great group of technical advisers who do the research and try to figure out exactly how to make it within the context of the film seem as believable as possible. And I got to do it in a tuxedo, so that was interesting to me as well.”

When searching for a leading lady, the filmmakers wanted a woman who could stand up to the presence of Oscar winner Nicolas Cage. Diane Kruger proved herself when she gave a reading so strong it even intimidated Cage, or so Bruckheimer said. “We tested her and we could see she put Nic off a little bit,” Bruckheimer said. “She’s a beautiful girl and she stares at you with those beautiful blue eyes and it’s a little intimidating. And she’s very strong. We interviewed a lot of actresses for that role and we found that most of them played it in a very comedic way and you didn’t believe them. You didn’t believe that she actually worked for the archives. With her, there was an edge to her and we kind of felt that you could believe her. That she actually was intelligent and had a real job rather than just being cutesie. We had a lot of girls that were just too cutesie and we didn’t hire them. That’s why we went with Diane.”

Movie PictureKruger told a different version. “I’ve heard that [I intimidated Cage] since yesterday and I wish it was true,” she said. “I’m very glad to hear it actually, because that’s a first. I think what happened is I was really extremely star-struck and I didn’t know if I was going to get the job. There were two other girls that were testing for the movie, and I’ve seen every single film he’s ever been in. Three years ago I just started drama school and Adaptation was out, and here I was two years later in Hollywood screen-testing in this very surreal situation and I was terrified he would think I’m a terrible actress, so I couldn’t even look him in the eye. I was a little standoffish just because I wanted to make sure I didn’t screw up my screen test, so maybe he thought I was odd.”

For the funny sidekick, the filmmakers cast Justin Bartha, whose previous credit was playing the mentally challenged hostage in Gigli. Having survived the media onslaught of that film’s reviews, Bartha is still hoping for a big break. “Every time you get a job you think it’s your big break because you’re working,” he said.

Providing the film’s comic relief as the assistant who always knows just a little less history than his learned employer, Bartha saw a chance to stand out from the slew of action movie sidekicks. “I think I’ve seen this character on page, in maybe twenty movies. So, basically, my job as an actor is to try to create an interesting and new, fresh idea for the character. Basically, I came up with an idea where I try to make this guy the audience. That’s what I saw in the script that would shine the most to me. This guy, what if he was sitting in the audience and someone picked him up and threw him into the screen like Purple Rose of Cairo and he reacted accordingly in a realistic and humorous manner to the things that were happening, the ridiculous, at some times, things that were happening around him. That was how I approached the guy. I also wanted to make him a bit of a wild man in the sense of what if he was stuck in a cubicle for his entire life. He got hired by the NSA when he was 14 as a computer expert and he has been in a tiny little cubicle making computer models and someone finally comes and gives him a chance to go on an adventure and I think everyone can identify with that. Most people work in a cubicle for their entire life. So I wanted to make him like a mouse in a cage and you release him and he has to find that cheese.”

Movie PictureWhen Jon Voight signed on to play Cage’s father, he wasn’t even sure how the script would turn out. “I was talking to him about doing Ghost Rider at one point and then, all of the sudden, this thing comes up,” Voight said. “I say, ‘Okay, yeah. We’re gonna go for the ride on this. I’ll jump in here.’ And I did, I jumped into this picture without knowing exactly what my parts gonna be, because they hadn’t finished the ending and all of this, but I said, ‘So it’s Nick, I’ll jump in.’”

Voight enjoys playing such supporting roles because they often provide the heart of a film. “I’m very fortunate. I get the knock on the door to come do these pieces and I’m very grateful for that aspect. These pieces are good pieces and the roles are good roles. I’m kind of an anchor guy now, you know, I kind of hold the thing in place in a certain way. Like in Heat, without that character in Heat, something would be missing. When they need some gravitas, they call on me for things, and I’m getting nice parts that way.”

When it came to the action scenes, the filmmakers wanted to have a more light and breezy atmosphere than a bang bang shoot ‘em up one. For Cage, the tuxedo heist scene was indicative of the film’s tone. “Cary Grant comes to one’s mind,” Cage said. “It’s interesting because in the beginning, during the rehearsal process, I wasn’t exactly sure what the tone of the movie was going to be. And it was Jon Turteltaub to his credit who kept sort of pushing it towards a stylization not unlike what maybe Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart might have done in the ‘30s and ‘40s, where they seemed to have a very playful touch during these caper movies.”

Bruckheimer added, “Our throwback more was towards the old kind of North by Northwest, Charade and some of those movies that have witty dialog and were real adventures and romps. And that’s what we felt this was going to be.”

Most of the actors were used to complicated action scenes. Obviously Cage has a large resume at this point, as does Voight, and Diane Kruger even had some exposure in the historical epic Troy. Justin Bartha was the one who had to get used to acting while technicians arranged the scene around him.

“The most difficult thing for me was I’d never been a part of a movie on this scale,” Bartha said. “So, you have to act in character while things are exploding next to you which is not something I’m used to in my real life. Things don’t explode on the streets of the city that often. That doesn’t sound too good but , you know what I’m saying. That was a little difficult for me is the genre of the film, trying to consider doing character work and working realistically off the other actors while crazy things are happening all around you.”

For Cage, it was just like being a kid again. “At the end of the day, it’s impossible at certain times not to, on the set, take a look at yourself,” Cage said. “I look at where I’m standing and I go, ‘I’m still in the back yard playing like I’m a treasure hunter. It’s still very much the spirit of playfulness that children have and it’s a great way not to have to grow up.”

Movie PictureThe actors also got an education while shooting the film, learning some American history as the characters discovered clues. For German Kruger, this was an enlightening experience. “I’d never been to Washington or Philadelphia and obviously I had a lot of reading up to do as a European, which is really interesting,” she said. “I lived in New York for many years and most of my friends actually are American, and so going to Washington and going to the Smithsonian and then actually going to see the Declaration of Independence, it really kind of moved me, because I do in a way feel like I’m a little bit American. I’ve lived and worked her most of my life. It was a pretty cool thing.”

For Bartha, shooting in and around historical monuments gave him a new appreciation for history. “I wasn’t really a history buff before this,” Bartha said. “I’m not saying I’m a huge history buff now but I did gain a bit of an appreciation for the country and shooting in these places which I see in a new light now because I got to have a lot more intimate of a look than most people have. I got to go in the belfry at Independence Hall and see where the Liberty Bell was and actually shoot at the Lincoln Memorial which was amazing. It was kind of awe-inspiring.”

Cage concurred. “I got to go to these very hallowed ground landmarks like Independence Hall and start to cultivate the enthusiasm that even the character has,” Cage said. “Because even though it’s not a historically loaded movie, I wanted to make it fascinating on some level to people. But I would point out that this is a world treasure, this is not just a United States treasure, this is a treasure that belongs to the world and I believe it’s even in the movie. I mean these are things here like Alexander’s sword, I don’t know if that’s in the movie, but artifacts that belong to the entire world.”

Movie PictureIt was important to Turteltaub to shoot in as many real locations as possible. “It felt like if we’re going to celebrate these aspects of American history, I want the movie to look real, not fake,” Turteltaub said. “I want people to see how fantastic these places look. There are scenes in this movie that could have been set anywhere. After Nic decides he’s going to steal the Declaration of Independence, he and Riley have a chat. Well, they have the chat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That could have been at a lunchroom somewhere, but to me when you’re making a decision about something honorable and difficult, why not in the shadow of Lincoln? Why not see how majestic and impressive the backdrop is for the decision he’s about to make? Then they go to the library of Congress. Well, they could have gone on line for a lot of the things they were looking at, but for the actual documents, let’s not only go to the Library of Congress where they have it, but let’s go to maybe the most beautiful building in the United States, that very few people have seen.”

Of course, it was somebody else’s job to work out all the government licenses to shoot in such locations. “The restrictions make it difficult because security, obviously, is a big issue, which means time out of our day shooting and making sure that the public’s access isn’t limited. So that at no point does our shooting mean people can’t go to see the Liberty Bell. Just getting permission to climb the tower of Independence Hall and stand where the Liberty Bell stood and shoot right there, it just makes the movie better. It makes the actors better, and it also makes it more fun.”

Discover the National Treasure for yourself, in theaters Friday.