As one of the screenwriters of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Matt Lopez has created another fantasy world as wide as his imagination. Lopez, who co-wrote “Bedtime Stories” and “Race to Witch Mountain,” steps onto an even bigger stage with his new film, which stars Nicholas Cage and is loosely based the 1940 Walt Disney classic “Fantasia.” Lopez spoke to me via phone about the movie.
In your last three movies, you have been credited as a co-writer. What is the process like having other screenwriters working with you on a screenplay?
Writers are never really working at the same time. It tends to be more like a relay race where the baton gets passed from one writer to another. So, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was pretty typical in that regard. I feel pretty good about the movie in terms of what I wrote and what got onto screen. Where it did change, it’s still very faithful to the spirit of what I wrote.
As a writer, how does it make you feel when the things you write do change and some of your work never makes it to the final product?
It’s just kind of what the beast is. You always have those pet things that you hope as many of them as possible get into the movie. If you have a problem with seeing changes get made to what you wrote, you probably should write novels or poems or something else. The movie business – unless you’re a writer/director making a small little film – is a very collaborative thing.
I would think a novelist and a poet like you mentioned would really have a personal connection to their writing. Would you consider yourself attached to your work as a screenwriter?
I would. That’s what makes being a screenwriter harder than being a novelist or a poet because you get your heart broken more often. If you’re a good screenwriter, I think you do get just as connected. You end up falling for these characters. You end up falling for their stories. I do at least. Maybe everyone is different, but I get very attached to them. It’s hard because when one project comes to an end you just kind of move on.
I’m sure it’s even harder to forget with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” because we’re talking about a big-budget movie produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.
When you’re talking about a movie like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” – a very high-budget movie – there are just so many factors that go into it. There are a lot of creative factors. With “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” there are a lot of creative heavy hitters like [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer, Nic Cage and [director] John Turteltaub. They’re all brining ideas to the table. It’s taking all those idea and hearing all their notes. You have to be flexible. As a screenwriter you have to learn where to fight your battles. I don’t fight about a lot, but I think that gives me credibility because when I do they listen more.
So, when you do say something everyone is like, “Wait, Matt never disagrees. Maybe he’s right!”
Yeah, everyone is coming at this project with their own perspective. On this, I felt like it was kind of my job to track everybody’s perspective and keep a view from 30,000 ft. – a global view. I wanted to make sure no matter what we decide to do – no matter where the car chase goes – we are always faithful because that’s what audiences will respond to.
How descriptive do you get in the script when it comes to the visual effects? I mean, I would think what the visual effects department can actually do would come before what the screenplay actually says.
There’s some of that. I tend to have a pretty big-canvas imagination. So, there were definitely things where they were like, “No, we can’t do it.” But you’d be surprised at what I described I saw on screen. These guys at the effects houses are so hugely talented. They make everything come to life in a way that you necessarily didn’t even imagine. You’re like, “Oh, that’s much cooler than I thought it was going to be.”
Was there ever a doubt that a version of the “Fantasia” broom scene was going to end up in the final script?
It was always in my script and everyone always responded to it when they read it. We all had such irreverence for “Fantasia” and for what those filmmakers did. I actually have an office on the third floor of the old animation building at Disney that Walt built in 1939. I would write everyday literally where the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from “Fantasia” was animated. I felt that sort of burden of the history. Turteltaub and I would talk about this. We would say, “If there’s one thing we can’t screw up in this movie…” It ended up in the movie. I’m happy to say, those times when I’ve seen the movie with an audience, people just respond to it. It gets a cheer. If nothing else, I feel like we did a good service by capturing the spirit of that sequence.
It’s probably my favorite scene of the film. Would you say it came out as you envisioned it?
It did. It’s very much like we imagined it. You know, they curbed a couple of things. There was a shot I always loved in the animated version in “Fantasia” where Mickey [Mouse] grabs an ax and he starts hacking the mops in two. What happens is the hacked-up mops sprout arms and legs and then multiply exponentially. There’s actually a beat in the movie where Jay [Baruchel] grabs an ax and there is a shot that recalls the original shot where he cocks the ax back and we see his shadow cast upon the wall. But what is not in the movie is each hacked-up mop sprouting. But overall it’s very much like it was written.
Nicholas Cage was cast in the movie before you were named as a screenwriter. Did having his name attached to the project already help you to build his character around his personality?
It did. Nic was always in my mind when I was writing this character. I am a big Nicholas Cage fan. I think he’s good in everything, but I especially love him in big roles that give him a chance just to let it rip. I’ve always wanted to do that with Balthazar. It was also really cool that Nic was the first creative force behind this project. He’s really into “Fantasia” and sorcery. He would bring me books of sorcery with all these sticky tabs on the pages. It really makes you get your game on when you have an actor that is that excited to do a part and that into the world. During the very first meeting I had with Bruckheimer and Turteltoub and Nic we screened “Fantasia” and we just watched it a couple of times back to back and then we just sat around and talked about it. We talked about how we could incorporate elements of that in the movie. It has a very dark, shadowy theme to it. Visually, John was very interested in capturing some of that.
What were some of Nic’s ideas?
The rings that you see in the movie, that came out of that meeting. In the first scripts, the sorcerers used wands. I just felt like I’ve seen a lot of wands. So, I was sitting there with Nic and he had on this really cool ring with a green stone and I was like, “Tell me about that.” So, he started telling me about how he got it in this little shop in New Orleans. That is an example of the give and take, which was great.
I think the consensus on any Jerry Bruckheimer-produced summer movie is that the film is going to be a spectacle. Does knowing this force you to match the grandiosity of it all when you sit down and start writing?
I tend to write a lot in this genre, so I do have that hard-wired into me. I don’t think I have to make it much bigger. What’s great about Jerry is that he understands that it’s kind of a given – not to say it’s easy or that there’s no art to it – but you know a Bruckheimer movie is going to have great action, some effects you’ve never seen before, and a great car chase. You know that’s going to be there. What people end up responding to are the little things – the character moments and the little exchanges between Jay and Nic. Jerry understands that. He always comes back to keeping it grounded and keeping the characters front and center. I feel exactly the same way about it. We’ve all seen movies that maybe dazzle us visually, but you walk out and think, “Who cares?” I hope people care about these characters more than that.
I know you haven’t had a chance to do this in your career yet, but would being part of a franchise be something that you would like to do? Could you devote yourself to writing three or more films in a series?
I think I would. I love to create worlds. There are definitely times when I’m writing a script and you get to 110 pages and you type “Fade out” and you’re just kind of like, “Aww!” That’s why I’m sort of eyeing television now. I always want to write features, but a lot of writers are doing both now. I think the exciting things about television are that you have the opportunity to create a world and characters and stories that aren’t constrained to 110 minutes. I think that is something I hopefully will be doing.