The Book of Secrets, for the movie. National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), might be the most complicated prop I’ve ever worked on.
In November of 2006, I received a call from prop master Ritchie Kremer about an upcoming film project: the sequel to National Treasure (2004). The producers had just sold the film to Disney Studios, and production was to begin in early 2007. At the time, there was no full script yet, just an outline, and much of the film ended up being written on the fly. while they were shooting.
I had previously made some large book props for Ritchie for the King of California (2007) and the legend of fox (2005). Knowing from those experiences how much work the titular Book of Secrets could be, we wanted to get started as soon as possible. Ritchie outlined the basic idea: When all the presidents of the United States are sworn in, each one is handed an incredibly confidential notebook containing all the secrets too disturbing to keep bottled up, those too indescribably terrible, shocking, or amazing to be. revealed to anyone, NEVER. A kind of presidential confessional. We didn’t have a script at the time, so we didn’t know anything else about the book, what would be in it, or how it would be shot.
I drew some rough thumbnails, just so we’d have something to start the conversation.
I was looking for something big and impressive looking: huge, thick, leather bound, with lots of twisted hardware. They liked the general idea, but decided it needed the Great Seal to telegraph “president” (the Presidential Seal, which is based on the Great Seal, appeared later, around 1850). He also wanted to cut down on the hardware and make something simpler, but with an impressive lock. I felt that the weight, the seal and the lock were enough to sell it.
In the grand Hollywood tradition of Big Scary Movie Books, the new design had gone a little too far.
I put together a show-and-tell presentation for the director with a couple of large leather-bound covers with a gold stamp, sample papers and pages, documents, etc. I thought it would be great to have a lot of color on the pages, with hand-drawn maps, cryptic diagrams, and ciphers. But the director wanted the pages to have only writing, no pictures. He also wanted additional loose inserts scattered throughout the book: lots of photos, newspaper clippings, letters, notes, and diagrams. I was told that he would only submit secret documents, without any indication as to what those secrets should be.
I delved into research on conspiracy theories about Area 51, the Kennedy assassination, D-Day, the government ESP investigation, and lots of other fun stuff. I started making dozens of fake letters, reports, extraterrestrial autopsy photos, moon landing photos, etc. I added many intriguing real things that I had unearthed in my research, including exhibits from the Warren Commission report on the JFK assassination, aerial photos of Area 51, the flight plan of the first moon landing, and actual newspaper clippings of Roswell UFO sightings. , the Kennedy assassination, Al Capone’s trip to Alcatraz, and the sinking of the Titanic.
Meanwhile, filming began while the script was still evolving. At first, the large, closed book was planned to be in an attached case handcuffed to the wrist of a Secret Service agent. Then they changed their minds. It would have been too complicated to figure out how Nicolas Cage could separate the case from the agent (lockpick? Machete? Too much Crisco?). After a couple more switchbacks, they decided that the book would be hidden in the Library of Congress. At first, they planned to hide it at the base of a statue. I was then presented with sketches of what the statue and book would look like. They were based on my sketch, but were done by a concept artist on the team. In the grand Hollywood tradition of Big Scary Movie Books, the new design had gone a little too far.
I joked that we’d have to change the name to “Shoebox of Secrets.”
At this point, I had hundreds of pages of extra insert documents and was responding to requests for more. I told Ritchie that my only concern was that when we got them all into the pages of the book it would be impossible to close and lock it. I joked that we’d have to change the name to “Shoebox of Secrets.” Fortunately, things zigzagged again and the new hiding place for the book was on the library shelves, and the space was so small that the huge shot of the locked book was rejected.
I pitched the idea of a small satchel-style leather cover that tied with a drawstring. I envisioned a design that was simple, that it might look like George Washington had made it like a normal notebook. With the wraparound cover, it would be flexible enough to hold documents. By hiding it in a clever stash with a combination lock, there would be no need to lock the hardware into the book itself, and there would be no need for the actors to fumble for keys and latches. It was also now small and light enough that he could hold it in his hands, instead of having to drop it on a table.
He had already compiled many files of presidential writings, so now all that remained was to print and bind the book. With a prop book, there is usually a “hero” section: the page or pages that are in the script and are meant to appear on screen. The rest of the book can be blank, or depending on my preference, it can be filled with non-hero filler pages, but they match the hero pages and look good on the odd chance that the actor improvises flipping through the book to find the hero page. , something that happens many times. But since the script was constantly evolving, I decided we should have book pages for each president just in case.
It was probably harder to find examples of each president’s handwriting on the Internet in 2007 than it is now. I found letters, handwritten speeches, and notes from about two-thirds of the presidents, but others were difficult to locate. I contacted rare document dealers and pretended to be an interested collector so they could send me photos of rare documents to authenticate, and with that I was able to complete the rest of the book. Each of the documents required hours of Photoshop to clean up and separate the old, faded writing from the dark-stained paper.
During this time, I also worked on other elaborate books and props for the film, including a replica of John Wilkes Booth’s diary for other scenes. So by March several months of long days and seven-day weeks had passed, and I was finishing the Book of Secrets and the Cabin Diary when I got a call from Ritchie that they were needed on set in Washington…that night. . There was no time to send it. I had to drop everything, grab my travel bag (full of things I might need to make prop documents: art supplies, paper, rubber stamps and stamp pads, etc.), and take a train to Washington, DC.
Adapted from Plug Men: From John Wick to Silver Linings Playbook, from Boardwalk Empire to Parks and Recreation. Props and essay by Ross MacDonald, text by Steven Heller, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.