Feature director turned to TV for 'Jericho'

Jon Turteltaub didn’t really need to go nuclear in primetime last season.

The director-producer had plenty to keep him busy with preparations for “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” the sequel to his 2004 hit starring Turteltaub’s former Beverly Hills High School classmate Nicolas Cage. And he has a host of feature development projects in the works at his Disney-based production shingle, Junction Entertainment.

But Turteltaub had been working with a trio of writers — Jonathan Steinberg, Josh Schaer and Stephen Chbosky — who had an idea for a project about a post-apocalyptic civil war in the United States, focusing on how the country would respond if a nuclear bomb suddenly exploded in, say, the middle of Kansas. The assumption was that Turteltaub would tackle it as a movie, but somewhere along the way he decided to take a cue from Jerry Bruckheimer and “go about making a TV show like a movie,” Turteltaub says.

The result was “Jericho,” the CBS/CBS Paramount Network TV drama that quickly earned the title of “cult fave” following its premiere in fall 2006. The sprawling ensembler has defied Turteltaub’s expectations at every turn — never more so than last summer when the sheer volume of the outcry from devoted fans spurred CBS to do an extraordinary about-face on its decision to ax “Jericho” after one season. The Eye gave it a seven-episode reprieve for a second-season run that begins Feb. 12.

Turteltaub had a number of motivations for expanding his company’s horizons into TV. For one, he says candidly, “there’s money to be made in television.” For another, the stories and themes he wanted to explore were better suited to episodic television than a stand-alone pic.

“There were too many stories to tell for it to just be a feature,” Turteltaub says. “And when you try to do what we’re doing in ‘Jericho’ in a feature, it can get too message-y. We wanted to explore what would happen to our country after a (catastrophic) event like this.”

“Jericho” uses the civil war as a prism for examining intolerance, cultural prejudices and how extreme adversity brings out the best and worst in people. In the new season, the allegorical references to the war in Iraq are unmistakable, particularly with the storyline involving the omnipresent military contractor Jennings and Rail (Halliburton by any other name) and its reconstruction efforts in the war-torn Kansas towns of Jericho and New Bern.

“No question, this is a case of art imitating life,” says Turteltaub, who directed the first two segs of “Jericho” last season and remains actively involved as an exec producer.

“We’re not trying to imitate it so much as learn from it, and get people to think about it. Our feeling is that this could happen in the United States” after a major disruptive event, he says. “We know that there are these private contracting groups out there with a lot of power that might trump our own government.”

Between “National Treasure” and “Jericho,” Turteltaub has carved out a distinct niche as a purveyor of action-drama that leans toward the feel-good side without going overboard into sappy territory. With a strong wind at his back, Turteltaub aims to cast Junction Entertainment’s net as far and wide as he can.

As a child of the entertainment biz — he’s the son of Saul Turteltaub, a prominent TV writer-producer in the ’70s and ’80s — he knows how easy it is for careers to sputter. And he’s fascinated by the uncertainty of what’s in store in the next decade for the entertainment biz as a whole.

“We’re in a really weird time. I don’t know that I know what the business is going to look like in 10 years,” he says. “Will it be all about TV, or the Internet — or for all we know the feature business is going to boom. The thinking at our company is that the more places you can own some real estate, the more likely you are to be able to survive.”

Turteltaub is quick to cite his longtime lieutenants at Junction, Karim Zreik and Dan Shotz, as being instrumental in helping him chart the course for the company, and for working closely with “Jericho” showrunner/exec producer Carol Barbee to maintain his vision on the series.

Junction has several TV projects percolating (more like simmering due to the writers strike) through the overall deal the shingle signed in August with CBS Paramount Network TV. At the moment the company’s focus is on the scripted side, but Turteltaub is not averse to taking on a reality series if a compelling idea came along.

“I love reality programming,” he says. “I think it defines what makes TV unique. TV is the only medium that can be live and very immediate and bring out a broad audience to see something for the first time at the exact same moment. There’s something very special about that.”

As many feature directors have discovered in the past few years, Turteltaub says TV’s creative process is invigorating to anyone who thrives on tight deadlines and fierce competition.

“One thing TV does much better than film studios is that they stick to their deadlines. And there’s always an implied sense of competition. When you’re make a movie, you’re just trying to make the best movie you can make.

“When you’re doing TV, you’re trying to make the best thing you can make but it damn well better be better than everything that everyone else is making if you want to get on the air. When you face that choice of, ‘is this scene good enough, or should we stay up all night to make it better,’ you stay the extra hours.”

At the outset, Turteltaub’s goal with “Jericho” was simply to make it to the pilot stage, so he and his company would become schooled in the process. They were pleasantly surprised when it went the distance to 22 episodes, and they were floored when the intensity of the fan-organized campaign (it was 100% organic, Turteltaub assures) brought it back from the near-death experience.

“Being resuscitated and brought back to life by a fan base is the ultimate reward, because it’s all about the audience’s genuine love for the show. It wasn’t a decision based on money or strategy or anything other than love,” Turteltaub says. “And rarely do you ever get revenge in this world for being dumped, whether it’s in life or in show business.”

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