Mike Newell Discusses Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Director Mike Newell discusses collaborating with Jerry Bruckheimer on the new big screen adaptation of the popular video game

English director Mike Newell has been making films for over thirty years and has created movies in almost every genre there is. He's done comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral), dramas (Donnie Brasco) and even family fantasy films like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but now the director takes on a new challenge directing the big budget adventure film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which opens in theaters on May 28th and is based on the classic video game. The film, which was produced by Walt Disney Studios and Jerry Bruckheimer, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Dastan, an orphan who is adopted by the king and raised as one of his own. When a close confidant betrays the King, Dastan must go on a quest to bring the King's betrayers to justice and protect "The Dagger Of Time," a magical weapon that has the power to reverse time and allow its possessor to rule the world. We recently had a chance to speak with Mike Newell about the new film, casting his leads, the scope of the movie and collaborating with Jerry Bruckheimer. Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, can you talk about casting Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton as the leads in your film, what was it about them that told you they were right for the roles?

Mike Newell: They were cast because to start with Jake, when I read the script, knowing that I was going give a talk to Disney about the whole way that I wanted to make the movie, and Jerry needs to know as well, I knew that I should have somebody in my head. I wanted to get that issue out of my head very early on and so I started to think about young actors that I knew and I kept coming back to Jake. I'd seen lots of his movies, I'd actually known him when he was a kid and he simply kept coming back. What it was about him was that I knew that he would be a rebel and I needed a rebel. I needed a kid who'd come off the streets and who had been taken into a royal family but wasn't blood royal and would be simply a rebel! I thought that he had a wonderful comic sense, I loved the notion of him playing comedy, of course he's very handsome and his acting is beyond doubt. What I didn't know was whether he could become an action hero but he took that on in spades. He really, really took that on and he made himself into an action hero. He made himself have an English accent and the work that he did was phenomenal.

With Gemma it was a much longer process and more of a conventional process in a way. I went to Jerry with Jake and he said, "Who do you think it is?" I said, "I think its Jake." They met and it was okay. With Gemma it was a more conventional process and I looked at lots and lots of people. I looked at Iranian actresses, at Israeli and Egyptian actresses. Obviously, I looked at British and American actresses as well. But I was on my way to Bollywood because I wanted a particular luscious, exotic look to this girl so that the two cultures, the Persians on the one hand and the Aleutians on the other, would be physically very, very different. Wonderful looking girls in Bollywood and terrific actresses too. But then in walked Gemma and the great thing about Gemma was that she was so young. I'd wanted to go right down to sixteen if I could have found a sixteen year old so that I would find somebody who was kind of innocent and untested and for whom the events of the story would be a huge challenge. Gemma, when I met her, was only twenty-one and just fresh out of drama school, so she was very interesting to me for that reason. Then I discovered, as I auditioned her more and more that she was a fabulous actress and looked pretty much exactly like what I wanted the girl to look like. Then Jerry saw her and everybody got comfortable and away we went.

Jake and Gemma have great chemistry together in the film, which is sort of a throwback to the old romantic adventure films of the past, at what point did you realize that the two actors would work so well together?

Mike Newell: I think when we actually started to do it because of course we did some pretty serious rehearsal. We did a couple of weeks of hard rehearsal but everybody's still pulling their punches, everybody's not completely committed. Then you get on and you actually start to do it. They still hold back and finally you say, "Oh come on, cut loose for God's sake." Then they do and they start to kind of grate on one another, you know, like sandpaper on iron. Then it gets interesting and that happened only when they were actually in front of the camera.

Were there any classic adventure movies that you looked at as inspiration to get the right tone and feel for this film?

Mike Newell: Well I looked at everything you would expect me to look at. I looked at The Thief of Bagdad and I looked at Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I looked at all of those movies and they were very important. David Lean was very important. I longed to do the charge on Aqaba, from Lawrence of Arabia, but all those great big movies of the fifties and further back as well. They were all very, very important to me but I also reckoned that what I needed to do was make this great big, booming, five ring circus of a movie that had so much in it, but that it would also have an anchor of very intimate, frank, tender, one on one scenes where people were telling one another the emotional truth. Then you would touch the audience in their hearts in a way that simply big battle scenes were never quite going to. You had to have the intimate with the colossal.

Finally, can you talk about working with Jerry Bruckheimer, what he brings to a production like this as a producer and how he contributed to the overall production?

Mike Newell: I had reckoned right from the beginning that what I was doing was to make a film in a very particular genre and for me it was like making a western with John Ford sitting over there because this was a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, which as we all know is kind of it's own genre. They just aren't like any other films, they are very particular but there is Jerry sitting across the corridor in his office and so there I was with the man himself. Now when we shot it, cast it, did all of the preparation work he was very, very hands-off. I didn't see him more than half a dozen times while we shot and then we moved into post-production, I showed him the first cut and then he began. Jerry's a very generous guy and he's a very un-egotistical guy at the same time. He's like a little, well he's not a little, he's a lot like a terrier, he sinks his teeth into your leg and he does not let go.

I remember howling at him once, "For God's sake Jerry it's a gorgeous shot, why do you want me to chuck it out or cut it in half?" He said, "Don't you ever forget that if I could I'd have this movie play at four and a half minutes long," and he would too. He's got ADD and what he knows is that the audience has got ADD as well. Actually I might ungenerously point out they've partly got ADD because he's introduced them to the complaint, but there we are. So he and I had a marvelous kind of, sprightly, un-cruel, un-nasty, adversarial relationship when we got into the cutting room. Then I said to myself, if this thing is going to be any good, and for Christ's sake I am working with the most successful producer in the western world, then this guy Jerry has got to sell $200 million worth of tickets before this thing shows one cent in the black. So really it should be part of what you the director do not to impose your daft little, "But the shot's so beautiful," kind of demands. You should be listening to what it takes to make a dollar at the box office and I think we then began to understand that. Certainly I began to understand him better and it was kind of fun, I mean, it is like dealing with John Ford. People will say down the line, "My god you worked with that guy?" I'm glad to have done it, he's instructive and I've learned all sorts of lessons that I will never forget.