Mike Newell, Director of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
September 9, 2010
QUESTION: Did you reference old films like Korda’s The Thief Of Bagdad as you were making Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time?
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 Bruckheimer and that takes a big canvas to produce and I was very aware of that.
QUESTION: 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.
QUESTION: 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.
QUESTION: How hard was it to adapt the movie from a video game?
MIKE NEWELL: Jordan Mechner [creator of the video game and film scriptwriter] 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.
QUESTION: 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. He is Pirates Of The Caribbean and The Rock and Bruce Willis going to defend the world from a crashing meteor. 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. Fred (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.
QUESTION: The casting of Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton was crucial?
MIKE NEWELL: Yes. Jerry was very generous about that. He asked who I wanted and I told him very clearly that I had always thought about Jake. 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 saw them and agreed.
QUESTION: 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.
QUESTION: 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.
QUESTION: What is it like making a big film like Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time?
MIKE NEWELL: Making a movie like this is like being the Chief Executive of the Ford Motor Corporation. They bring you stuff and say these are our plans for next summer’s SUV. You say can we have it in blue? They reply of course, whatever color you like. And so on. You can see the analogy. These films are so huge that there are two other directors – the second unit director and the visual effects supervisor. The whole thing about what happens when you press the button on the dagger came from one of the visual effects houses in London. They showed us tests and we thought it was terrific.
PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME Available on DVD and Blu-ray 9/14/10