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Making History Exciting

  • by Peter T. Chattaway Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2007 18 Dec
Making History Exciting
National Treasure surprised audiences and industry observers alike when it came out three years ago. Originally produced for Disney's adult-oriented Touchstone label, it was released under the Walt Disney banner after its family-friendly thrills earned a PG rating, and its box-office success—it quickly became Nicolas Cage's top-grossing movie ever, beating the R-rated The Rock—marked the beginning of a movement at Disney back to films that are fit for the whole family, and not just for the kids.

A sequel was all but inevitable—and indeed, National Treasure: Book of Secrets comes out this Friday—but Cage, speaking to a room full of reporters recently at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, says it took a bit of persuading before he signed on to make the second film. In fact, he notes, this is the first sequel he has ever made.

"I never like to repeat myself," says Cage. "The fear with sequels is that people get lazy, and that they realize they have a winner and then they just throw money at it and they don't care. Fortunately, working with [director] Jon Turteltaub in particular, he really cares about the story. And I wanted to make sure that we could go in a direction that would raise the stakes and hopefully be more interesting."

The first film revolved around a series of clues hidden in the documents and artifacts left behind by America's founding fathers in the 18th century. The second film turns to the 19th century and involves the American Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln—and Cage says he agreed to make the sequel partly because, "right off the bat, that's more interesting for me, historically, personally."

Cage says he thinks of each film in the National Treasure series as a self-contained historical mystery, and of his character, Benjamin Gates, as an "archaeological version" of detectives like Sherlock Holmes. Plus, he says, the films are "wonderfully positive" because the hero succeeds without using a gun, and because they can "inspire especially the youngsters to look into their history books."

What's more, he says, the films might also inspire people to have greater respect for their ancestors. "In a lot of so-called primitive cultures, there's a tremendous respect for our ancestors, that we don't see as much, for whatever the reason, in modern American culture," says Cage. "And with Ben, I wanted to make it clear that … he really believes in a chivalrous way that everything he is, is on account of his ancestors, and they're not dead to him. So they're still there with him and he's honoring them—and I think I try to embrace that in my own life."

In the first film, Benjamin Gates stole the Declaration of Independence in order to protect it; in the new one, he must somehow get access to the President of the United States (played by Bruce Greenwood) in order to obtain certain extremely top-secret information. Through it all, he maintains his respect for the man and the office he represents—and he says other people want to believe in the President, too.

One reporter asks Cage to address this theme, and whether it has any relevance for today, but without "getting political"—and Cage quickly brushes aside any hint of partisan punditry. "Yeah, I'd rather not," he says. "I think one of the things that comes out in that moment is Ben is really speaking what we all want to believe, and in a way he's charging the President in that moment. 'You took this office, so this is the oath—are you going to perform or not?' That's how I saw that."

The legacy of Lincoln

Cage may be reluctant to get all that specific, but Jon Voight, the actor who plays his character's father, is anything but hesitant. Asked by a much smaller group of reporters if history is an interest of his, he begins by talking about the books he has read on presidents of the past—and then he links them to presidents of today.

"One of the great books on Lincoln that I read was called The Eloquent President," he says, "and it shows you the enormous problems he faced. And we can see what's going on with our president right now, the attacks on our president, the vilification of this president, the disagreement with this president. It's so crazy."

This leads to a long tangent on the Iraq War, but eventually Voight brings it all back to the president whose assassination is depicted in the new film. "Everyone was critical of Lincoln, and people were saying he's stupid, the people were saying he's incompetent, people were saying he's bloodthirsty, whatever. And … he answers each of these moments in history usually with a speech, some words that he wrote and put in his hat, and each time, the answer was so eloquent, so powerful."

At this point, Voight noticeably chokes up, before adding: "And so many people were slaughtered in that process. But he kept us together, kept us going… . If you were there, it was worse, much worse, than it is now. So reading history is very important, so we have a way of viewing the present, and some kind of balance. So doing this movie was fun for me, because all this little history stuff is exciting for me, and it also creates an energy to encourage kids to go look at the history."

In a somewhat lighter vein, Diane Kruger, who plays Benjamin's estranged girlfriend Abigail Chase, says she was attracted to the sequel partly because the writers took their time with the script, to keep it grounded in some sort of reality. "They had two years to actually figure out a plot—because it is an action-adventure film, but there's historical facts that are in it, so you can't just sort of whip it up," she says.

That said, Kruger says she was also drawn to the humor and the opportunity to go deeper into the relationship between Benjamin and Abigail. "Now that we have a history and we know the characters, it was actually really fun," she says.

"A lot of it is improvisation, [based on] what real couples fight about and why they split up," she adds. She mentions one particular scene that included some ad-lib lines that were, for her, true to life: "It's funny because I was watching it two days ago with my boyfriend, and he was like, 'I cannot believe you put that in the movie!' He was just cringing."

The new film takes brief detours to England and France, reflecting America's historic ties to those nations, and Cage says he'd like to see future movies go even further abroad. How does Kruger, a German who has lived and worked in various European cities, think that would work? "It could be interesting, I don't know," she says.

"All the journalists say, 'You got to shoot in London and Paris.' And that's home to me! To me, the most exotic place of them all was South Dakota," she says, referring to the state where the climactic Mount Rushmore scenes take place. "I don't know, I think there is something really great about always linking it to America, because I think it's such a big country, and if anything, it's still in need of that, of its treasures."

Shunning comparisons to Indy, Da Vinci

If the actors were deliberately trying to not just repeat what they had already done in the previous movie, director Jon Turteltaub seems conscious of the fact that, to some eyes, his movies are repeating what other people's movies have done. He recalls how some people compared the first film to the Indiana Jones movies—and how, when the second National Treasure went into production, some websites mistakenly reported that they had seen the sets for the new Indiana Jones movie.

"We're trying to go out of our way to not step on the same territory—one, because it's just boring to do that, and two, because we'll always be negatively compared, because those movies are as great as movies can get, so why put yourself in that position?" Turteltaub says. However, he adds: "I heard at one point, though, that they had to change their title because it was sort of similar to our title, and I thought, 'Cool, I'm ruining Spielberg's life! This is amazing, it usually works the other way!'"

And then there is The Da Vinci Code, which—like the original National Treasure—alluded to the Knights Templar and revolved around a series of secret messages hidden in public places. Turteltaub is so ticked by comparisons between his film and that book that he can't resist throwing a grape at this reporter when the subject comes up.

National Treasure, he reminds us, was in development for years beforehand. "I and the group of people who put National Treasure together worked so hard, and our first draft was done before The Da Vinci Code had come out. None of us had heard of it.

"We completely on our own came up with an idea for a movie and a character and a history, and then I remember sitting in Jerry [Bruckheimer]'s office, and we were about to start filming, and The Da Vinci Code had just come out, and they announced around the same time that they were going to make a movie, and we thought, 'Ha ha, those fools, now we have that movie and they're screwed!'"

Instead, National Treasure was widely perceived as a derivative attempt to cash in on the success of The Da Vinci Code. "It's just so frustrating and insulting to people who really came up with a lot of stuff," says Turteltaub. "And it also made us very proud that when the movie was successful, we did that without the benefit of a book, without the benefit of a previous movie. We did that all on our own."

© Peter T. Chattaway 2007, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. Click for reprint information.