Mike Newell and Jordan Mechner talk <strong><em>Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time</em></strong>

The directing-writing duo behind this upcoming DVD/Blu-ray release take us behind the scenes of their video game adaptation

On September 14th, Walt Disney Pictures epic adventure Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time will finally arrive on DVD and Blu-ray. To celebrate this upcoming release, we recently caught up with the film's director Mike Newell, as well as the creator of the original video game upon which the story is based and screenplay contributor Jordan Mechner, to find out more about the making of this thrilling new addition to the Disney legacy. Here is our conversation:

Why did you film in Morocco at a time of the year that everyone advised against going there?

Mike Newell: I'm afraid that is simply how the movies work. If you are going to do a film about the South Pole, the chances are that you will film it in Hawaii! Whatever is most difficult, you will get to do. That is just when everything happened. It was very hot! Some days it was 135 degrees! But it is very dry and so, you lose a lot of weight, which is good. Wet heat is what is exhausting and so I was fine. Also, it must be said, sometimes up in the mountains, we had absolutely torrential rain. Really serious rain, where we had to watch out for water courses getting washed away.

You never used rain in the movie. So did you stop when the weather got bad?

Mike Newell: Yes, we stopped. And we stopped in vast confusion and disorganization - because nobody said it was going to rain! We simply weren't prepared for it.

What were your feelings when you finally saw the film?

Jordan Mechner: Firstly the original Prince of Persia was a character 40 pixels high on the Apple II screen, running and jumping. The technology at the time was quite primitive, I think in my mind I imagined a much grander spectacle, and to see Jake Gyllenhaal in the best shape of his life running around the rooftops of Morocco and doing parkour and all this stuff was more than I could imagine.

What initially drew you to the setting of Ancient Persia? And how does that culture and mythology inspire you?

Jordan Mechner: I was inspired 25 years ago to make the game really by the tales of the Arabian Nights, and by old Persian legends like the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings. And also those great old Hollywood swashbuckling movies like the 1940 Thief of Baghdad, by Alexander Korda. As a kid I must have heard those stories, the storybook versions are in all of our cultural DNA. We know of that world without really knowing exactly where or when we first heard it.

Mike Newell: I thought about movies that I had seen as a child, though The Thief Of Bagdad wasn't one of them. But I did think about big cowboy movies that I had seen and obviously the movies of David Lean. With a film like this you know you are doing a genre which is called Jerry Bruckheimer and that takes a big canvas to produce and I was very aware of that.

How hard was it to adapt the movie from a video game?

Mike Newell: Well, Jordan Jordan Mechner got on very well indeed. The reason was that he was the man who wrote the game and did the first graphic novel, and he is a research freak. He absolutely loves the ancient world and he loves doing his research. So there would be stuff in the story, which would be absolutely authentic - and I enjoyed that very much. It meant that I did not feel overwhelmed by the video game. Jerry Bruckheimer and I talked a lot about what our attitude to the game should be. Were we making the game or were we making a drama? Very clearly we said that we were making a drama. Then what happened was that during the making of the film, we became aware of at least one other new version of the game, which was much more visually sophisticated. I looked at that and I took some moves from that. The other big thing that we decided was that he had to be an action hero. But what were the seeds of what the character in the game does? What we discovered was that what it was about was this thing called parkour. Parkour was developed by the kids in the French housing estates. They would run up walls! So we watched tapes of this very dramatic stuff. In certain moves they do appear to be able to defy gravity...in just the way that the character in the game does. So the parkour people advised us in all sorts of ways. Like for the big sequence where Jake attacks the gate. They choreographed some of that for us, which was very useful. So there was a kind of overlap between parkour, the game and the making of a great big romantic widescreen experience. That was how it came together.

How did you start the world of Prince Of Persia?

Jordan Mechner: You go back to 1985 when I was right out of college and I took my brother down to the parking lot across the street from the high school. He was in a pair of baggy trousers and I had him run and jump and climb and fall down and I video-taped him doing these moves. Then I set about the three-year process of bringing these animations into the computer and that was the first Prince Of Persia.

How successful was the game and how come it has taken so long for the movie to be made?

Jordan Mechner: It was successful. This was in those days when the industry was one tenth of the size that it is now. It was very much a fringe thing. My friends and I who liked to play games were geeks. We were not in the cultural mainstream. What has happened since then is that video games have evolved technologically and culturally. So we finally came to the point, years later, where a producer and director of the stature of Jerry Bruckheimer and Mike Newell would look at a video game as something worth considering.

Since it started as a video game Prince Of Persia has grown hasn't it?

Jordan Mechner: Yes. Prince of Persia from its first game has become a franchise. So there are now at least seven or eight versions of the game since then. The one that the movie is based on is also called Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. That is the first modern console game. It reinvented the old Prince of Persia game for a new generation of gamers. That was in 2003 and at that point I brought Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney the pitch for the movie along with a two minute trailer that I cut together on my Mac. The screenplay that I wrote is loosely based on The Sands of Time but the movie production drew on all of those games that came out since then - like Warrior Within. And not just for story...also costumes, weapons, physical action and production design. The whole movie making team was influenced by the games at many levels.

One of the film's strengths is the comic banter, which seems like The Princess Bride?

Mike Newell: The Princess Bride was one of the films we watched and were aware of. One of the reasons I wanted to make this film is that it is this new genre and Jerry Bruckheimer is a genre now. He does what he does. It is always a rich, high coloured mixture. I liked that a lot about the script. I liked that it was funny. I very much enjoy doing that stuff. Alfred Molina and I had worked together before and I knew he would be wonderful. Then you do have that uneasy Beatrice and Benedict relationship between the boy and the girl where they absolutely loathe one another and then little by little they fall in love. So what you are doing is to make this great big collage of all sorts of things. It is no one movie. It is an entertainment.

Are you a fan of ancient history?

Jordan Mechner: I love research, that's one of the great perks of this great line of work. You get the chance to go back and try and figure out what things were like in a different time and place. You also get to read the great mythological sources of legends like the Persian Book Of Kings. So you take all that and try to bring it to life.

Why until now have attempts to turn games into movies floundered?

Jordan Mechner: It is hard to make a good movie...period! And to make a movie based on a video game is particularly tricky. Novels and stage plays and other things that you might adapt into a movie, really begin with a story and characters. Video games really begin with the game play, that is with the player's experience - controlling the character and facing the challenges of the game. And that is the one aspect of the game that doesn't translate to film. No matter how you do it, you are never going to have that attractive element and things that are fun to play are not necessarily fun to watch an actor doing on screen. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the first time that a video game creator actually adapted their own game as a screen play. Even though I have just spent a year adapting the game version of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, I had to set that aside and put on a different hat and take a different approach to that story, because I was writing a story that was going to be watched by an audience. As opposed to be played.

Was it hard to write a film after doing games?

Jordan Mechner: I wouldn't say that a games story needs to be less complex than a movie story. I am very proud of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time game. It has an interesting relationship between the main characters. There is a romance and a banter and there is a voice over narration. So not only are you playing the game but you are also hearing it narrated. There is a counterpoint between what you are hearing and what you are seeing which is very interesting. It is almost like a literary kind of effect. So it is not that one is more complex than the other, it's just that they are different. It goes back to the fact that games are played and movies are watched. Even in this case where it is the same world, the same characters and the same type of genre and the same emotional themes - in both the game and the movie - the specifics of how the story is translated into scenes has to be different. The difference in translating a game into a movie is even greater than if you were turning a stage play into a movie. You have to take that extra step of figuring what is it about the material that is going to make a good story; that the viewers are going to connect with emotionally.

Did you have in mind the fact that the characters in the movie are playing games with each other?

Jordan Mechner: Of course, we set out to make a movie for audiences that didn't play games but at the same time, for gamers the movie is full of things that they can enjoy on another level.

The casting of Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton was crucial?

Mike Newell: Yes. Jerry Bruckheimer was very generous about that. He asked who I wanted and I told him very clearly that I had always thought about Jake Gyllenhaal. I wanted him to be American because this was a huge budget movie and the Americans deserve to see their own. At the same time I was encouraged to cast English. I was thinking about going to Bollywood for the girl. I saw a lot of Bollywood actresses. I saw a couple of sensational Iranian actress, an Israeli actress or two. I wanted a kind of exotic look. Then up pops Gemma Arterton from Gravesend, England and she was the one I settled on. I felt very strongly about both leads. Jerry Bruckheimer saw them and agreed.

Jordan Mechner: I think Mike Newell put together a fantastic cast. Jake Gyllenhaal makes a terrific prince. He is a very good actor but he also has the right spirit - besides being a warrior and in the best shape of his life, he has got a humanity that is really important.

Ben Kingsley is a great villain. Had your paths crossed early in your careers when you both worked on the Uk TV soap, Coronation Street?

Mike Newell: Apparently they did. Neither of us can really remember. But it was about the time that we were both working on the Street. I thought of him for this film because of films like Sexy Beast. I wanted somebody who would be believable as a good guy and would turn out to have this appalling second existence as the bad guy. So it was Gandhi on the one hand and Sexy Beast on the other. He was terrific. He puts out his hand and pulls the kid on to the horse and everything is going to be fine from that moment on. You trust him. Then you discover you must not trust him. I said to him that there were always going to be two movies. The movie that we were making and then the movie that his character was making, which was going to be different. And the one movie would twine round the other.

How did you work the balance between actual filming and the CGI effects?

Mike Newell: This is the second time I have done one of these great big live action versus CG movies. We were in Morocco at the wrong time of the year and people were terrified that we would start to get sick, they were terrified that the level of competence that we would find out there was not as great as we needed. It was in fact superlatively more than we needed. They are really good at what they do out there. They were also afraid that we would get behind, that Morocco would turn into a swamp out of which we could clamber. It did not do that, by virtue of us removing certain sequences out of Morocco and putting them into stages in England. The biggest of those was the attack on the Eastern Gate. Originally we were going to build that part of the city in Morocco and we would then, with CG, have grafted the rest of the city all around it. I can see the magnificent location in my head right now. But we were very worried about the wind. In summer the wind out there gets very boisterous. We were afraid that the whole thing would get blown over and then we would be in Apocalypse Now land. So we decided to shift that out of actual production into CG production. That was a tremendous shift. We made the decision quite late not to shoot for real and so it was something that we were constantly running to catch up with. We always knew that there would be huge SFGX things with the dagger. That was quite clear. But several times what we did was to come out squeaky clean from the physical production by loading on to the CG side of the production. So we were constantly sprinting to catch up.

Are you a Disney fan?

Jordan Mechner: Since I was a kid, growing up in New York, I had a map of Disneyland on my wall. I had never been there but I knew where all the rides were. Now that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a Disney movie that is really wonderful. If Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was one day to become a Disney ride that would be a dream come true.

How did you work the balance between actual filming and the CGI effects?

Mike Newell: This is the second time I have done one of these great big live action versus CG movies. We were in Morocco at the wrong time of the year and people were terrified that we would start to get sick, they were terrified that the level of competence that we would find out there was not as great as we needed. It was in fact superlatively more than we needed. They are really good at what they do out there. They were also afraid that we would get behind, that Morocco would turn into a swamp out of which we could clamber. It did not do that, by virtue of us removing certain sequences out of Morocco and putting them into stages in England. The biggest of those was the attack on the Eastern Gate. Originally we were going to build that part of the city in Morocco and we would then, with CG, have grafted the rest of the city all around it. I can see the magnificent location in my head right now. But we were very worried about the wind. In summer the wind out there gets very boisterous. We were afraid that the whole thing would get blown over and then we would be in Apocalypse Now land. So we decided to shift that out of actual production into CG production. That was a tremendous shift. We made the decision quite late not to shoot for real and so it was something that we were constantly running to catch up with. We always knew that there would be huge SFGX things with the dagger. That was quite clear. But several times what we did was to come out squeaky clean from the physical production by loading on to the CG side of the production. So we were constantly sprinting to catch up.

How emotional was it for you when you saw Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time for the first time?

Jordan Mechner: Oh my gosh there have been so many moments along the way - from the last six years, going from script to screen. Setting foot on the set in Morocco was one of them. And seeing the movie and getting an idea of how it would be experienced by an audience was a huge thrill.

You could never have dreamed of anything like this when you filmed your brother in baggy pants for the first game all those years ago?

Jordan Mechner: No, I was just worried about finishing the game while there was still a computer games market! I was afraid I would be too late. It is pretty mind boggling to me that we are still talking about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time 25 years later.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is available on DVD and Blu-ray starting September 14th, 2010.