Keeping Company With Disney

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The front door to director Jon Turteltaub's production offices in the Disney Animation building is a dead ringer for an elevator door, complete with up and down buttons. You find yourself standing in front of it feeling like an idiot, hoping no one sees you scratch your head, trying to figure out how to get in.

"Don't feel bad," says Turteltaub. "Lots of high-ranking Disney executives have tried hitting the up button the first time they came here to see me." (Just push, and the door opens.)

Turteltaub has opened a lot of doors at Disney. He's something of an anomaly in today's "show me the money" Hollywood. The 36-year-old Beverly Hills High graduate has made six studio films in his career, all released by Disney. Turteltaub knows the names of virtually every staffer on the lot, he's survived three Disney Films chairmen, and he can find his way to the studio commissary in his sleep.

"I would've left years ago," he jokes. "But it's hard to pass up the 35% discount on everything at the Disney Store."

Turteltaub's latest movie even has the studio's name in its title: "Disney's The Kid." The film, which opens Friday, stars Bruce Willis as a brusque, self-involved image consultant who is transformed after being visited by his nerdy 8-year-old self on the verge of his 40th birthday. Industry observers say the $55-million film has strong cross-generational appeal and benefits from being a family-oriented movie in a summer crowded with outrageous comedies and action films.

Studios often sign directors to multi-picture deals as a way of retaining them after they've had a hit movie. Michael Bay, who made "Armageddon," is under contract to Disney, as is Mike Mitchell, director of "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo." "Romeo & Juliet's" Baz Luhrmann has a five-year deal at 20th Century Fox. Tom Shadyac, who made "The Nutty Professor," has a director's deal at Universal, where he's made his past three films.

Miramax Pictures has a number of directors under contract, including Oscar winners Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient") and John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love"). The studio not only gets its next films but also uses the deals to gain access to top-drawer material at other studios. Paramount Pictures, for example, partnered with Miramax on "The Talented Mr. Ripley" in return for Miramax loaning out Minghella to direct it.

But most directors go where their projects take them. John Woo had a production deal at Sony Pictures, but he never made a movie there. Jan de Bont's production company was at 20th Century Fox, but his last film, "The Haunting," was made for DreamWorks. Ron Howard's Imagine Films has a deal at Universal Pictures, but he went off to Disney to make "Ransom."

Turteltaub has been different. He's made sleepers, big hits and flops, all at Disney. After Turteltaub directed "3 Ninjas," a modest 1992 Disney success, then-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg gave him the job directing "Cool Runnings" in return for Turteltaub agreeing to direct his next two films at the studio.

"Jeffrey played hardball with me," Turteltaub recalls. "He said, 'If you want to direct a movie at this studio, I get exclusive rights to your next two movies. And in return,' he said, 'I'll pay you scale for "Cool Runnings." ' Everybody told me it was unfair, but I wanted to do the movie, so I had no choice. I don't blame Jeffrey. He had the leverage, and it was a very smart deal for him."

After "Cool Runnings" came out, Turteltaub asked Katzenberg to let him out of the deal so he could go make a movie at New Line Cinema. "Jeffrey said, 'You're an idiot, but if you really want to make that aardvark of a movie, go do it.' And then the next day he called back and said, 'No, you can't, I've got a great script for you,' which turned out to be 'While You Were Sleeping.' "

The smash romantic comedy, which starred Sandra Bullock, put Turteltaub on the map as a director. When he asked for a raise, Disney offered him more money in return for extending his director's deal. When Turteltaub's next film, "Phenomenon," was an even bigger hit, he got another raise in return for committing to another movie.

"It puts you in an interesting situation," he says. "You start out as a relative unknown, but after you have a hit, you're working for 25% of what you could get on the free market. It gave me a sudden sympathy for Ken Griffey Jr."

Turteltaub had the good fortune to work with several supportive producers. "Cool Runnings" was produced by the late Dawn Steel, who Turteltaub says taught him to believe in himself. "She was fiercely protective of the film. When we'd get notes from the studio, she'd say, 'Remember, these are notes, not rules.' "

After Turteltaub made "While You Were Sleeping," Joe Roth, the film's producer, became chairman of the studio. Turteltaub says: "Joe is very realistic and philosophical, and he's the biggest reason why I stayed here so long."

Events May Have Led Him to a Turning Point

For someone who has directed two big hits, Turteltaub is a relative bargain, getting $5 million a movie, plus 7.5% of the film's back-end gross. (By comparison, most directors in his stratum are making more than $7 million.) But the director knows all good things come to an end. Roth has left the studio, Turteltaub's deal is up at the end of the year, and Disney is trimming a lot of its production deals. Even though Disney is the perfect home for someone who makes family-oriented films, it might be time for Turteltaub to flex his free-agent muscles.

"I keep wondering if I should pursue foreign money and try financing my own films," he says. "But it makes things easier when you've been at one place for a long time. You've been through enough tough decisions that everybody can cut to the chase."

As it turns out, Turteltaub had to handle several tough decisions on "The Kid." Audrey Wells, the writer-director of "Guinevere," had written the script for herself to direct, with Turteltaub as producer. But Turteltaub fell in love with the story and wouldn't let go, and the studio wanted an experienced director to ensure that Willis would take the part.

"The script was so full of humor and sensitivity that everyone thought it was about them, starting with me," he says. "I even thought Audrey might be mocking me a little. Here's this guy who's unmarried, pushing 40, without a dog, who's been called a jerk lots of times. Hey, that could be me!"

Turteltaub acknowledges that Wells was disappointed when he took over her project, but says he kept her involved in every step of the production. "I told her that if I hadn't liked it so much I would've let her direct it, but the better it got, the more I wanted to do it."

Willis was the first actor the director had in mind. "Bruce is perfect for the part because he has this movie star thing of being incredibly likable on screen, which really works well when you have a guy who's playing a jerk," says Turteltaub. "It's like Jack Nicholson in 'As Good as It Gets.' The meaner he gets, the more you like him."

Turteltaub shot the movie on a breakneck schedule, filming until early April, which gave him only 13 weeks of post-production. His composer, Marc Shaiman, wrote and recorded an hour of score in less than four weeks. Normally the studio would've released the film at Christmas, but it had two big family films already slotted for the end of the year ("102 Dalmatians" and "The Emperor's New Groove"). Willis also has another Disney-produced film, "Unbreakable," due out in November, which made it impossible to release "The Kid" within a six-week window because of the star's contract.

Rival studio marketers have questioned whether having the Disney name in the title will keep adults and Willis fans away from the film. The studio had no choice: It felt "The Kid" was easily the best title but had to add the Disney possessive to use the name, which is owned by the Charlie Chaplin estate and others. When asked about how Disney is finessing the issue, Turteltaub unfurls a poster of the film, which features a huge photo of Willis, with the word "Disney's' not only in small type but in a color that blends into the poster's background.

"In passing, you would never know it was a Disney film," he says. "But, of course, the title is a double-edged sword. It's a flashing light that says: 'This movie is safe for families everywhere.' But you don't want to do anything to keep adults away. Sometimes I want to stand on a hilltop and scream to the world, 'This is not a kids' movie! It's just a movie kids like!' "

Turteltaub says he gets panicky before a film opens--the pressure heightens his fear of failure. He still remembers being at Disney World last June when he got the news that his film, "Instinct," starring Anthony Hopkins, had flopped at the box office. He was so queasy that he just wanted to stay in his hotel room and brood.

"I was convinced the headline in Variety said, 'John Turteltaub's Career Is Over,' " he recalls. "But my friends dragged me to the Animal Kingdom, and there I was sitting in short pants with my head in my hands when some lady in African clothes grabbed me out of the crowd to get up and had me make Pumbaa the wart hog noises to keep the 7-year-olds in my section happy.

"And as I went out there to make people laugh on what was arguably the worst day of my life, I started to feel strong again. I thought, 'Hey, I'm alive. I'm still breathing and my friends don't hate me. Just because my movie didn't sell any tickets doesn't make me a bad person.' "

Turteltaub laughs. "Of course, come back on July 8 and ask me how I'm doing, and I'm sure I'll be a nervous wreck again."

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