|May 25, 2010
"I thought my job was to make it all feel real to an audience, so they wouldn't stand outside the story saying 'Look what they're doing now! My word, don't they think they're clever?'" so says acclaimed director Mike Newell, discussing his new film "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," an epic adventure inspired by the classic video game. Opening Friday, "Prince of Persia" features the sumptuous sweep of a classic adventure film surrounding a story of magic, combat, adventure ... and a mystical dagger that defies the laws of time itself. Prince Dastan and Princess Tamina journey through mystical lands of ancient Persia, battling assassins and dark magic, to recover that magic dagger, and discover love, treachery, and responsibility (plus a little ostrich racing for good measure).
With so much action and fantasy, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" is great fun to watch – and according to Mike, great fun to make. "In this film, we were able to do huge, epic things like cavalry charges and the attack on a city and these huge magic sequences. It has all the elements of a big epic drama – it has a very good romance, there is some marvelous comedy. It is obviously a dream for people who enjoy combat and athleticism, but it is all rolled into this epic fable." It is also a film that brings the impossible to magnificent life on-screen, with stunning visual moments. However, as his comment above suggests, he wanted the movie to be more than a festival of special effects, leaving audiences exclaiming "Don't they think they're clever!"
Over his career, Mike has crafted many intimate dramas, and he understood that casting great actors was key to giving the universe of "Prince of Persia" heart and depth. His first choice for Prince Dastan was an acclaimed actor not known for his action credentials. "I knew that I'd better have somebody in mind when I talked with Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney, so rather surprisingly, I suppose, I came up with Jake [Gyllenhaal]," he explains. "I thought he was a marvelous actor, absolutely terrific. I thought he looked exactly the way you would want a kid who is a kind of rebel, and as if he had come from the streets, rather than being an aristocrat. I didn't know whether he could do the athleticism, but by main force of will he taught himself to be the kind of athlete he needed to be for an action picture! He gave us this dynamic cocktail of acting and sensitivity on the one hand, and real tough stuff on the other."
Equally important was the role of Princess Tamina. "I went all around the world and looked at Iranian girls, Egyptian girls, Israeli girls, I was going to go to Bollywood ... but then one day in walked [Gemma Arterton]," says Mike – and he knew at once that he had his princess.
Mike placed his talented cast, also including legendary actors Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina, in a world that, although fantastic, is grounded in a lot of genuine elements. Much of the stuntwork was inspired by the French street sport parkour, which Mike describes as "broadly speaking, throwing yourself off a roof and living to tell the tale!" The great parkour expert David Bell worked with the film crew to teach the stunt crew – and Jake – to perform the jaw-dropping leaps you see on-screen. Mike assures that "They were actually doing these stunts – as was Jake, from time to time. Jake was very involved in doing this stuff!"
The otherworldly scenery of "Prince of Persia" was actually created by using the very real landscapes in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, where the crew braved temperatures above 130 degrees, torrential rainstorms followed by flash floods, and what Mike airily describes as "a snake or two and a scorpion or two." By the end of some days, the crew found their eyes crusted almost shut by dried salt. However, the payoff is on the screen, in stunning vistas of mountain and rock. Plus, Mike found Morocco and its people enchanting. "Every one of the extras was a full-on actor, and they were just great. All the costume makers and the weapons makers were all hugely skillful. We had a lot of that work done locally [while in Morocco]. And all the technical people as well. I'd go back like a shot!"
Even the film's hilarious ostrich-racing sequence was achieved by placing jockeys on trained ostriches – no computer wizardry here! Although Mike admits it wasn't easy working with animals whose "brains weigh less than their eyeballs."
In the end, Mike says, what brings the film to life is what you don't see on-screen. "There's a huge number of interlocking people and talents without whom the film could not have been as it is. Every time a sword is used, that sword had to be designed by an armorer – and a very good armorer, too. The sets are imaginative projections of what reality might have been, but they're not simply taken from a book – everything has to be imagined. So those guys whom you never see, the designers and armorers and second-unit directors and assistant directors – have to be enthused about the movie or it simply will be dull. Those guys need a big loud round of applause for this film!"
When the curtain rises on "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," this Friday, May 28, that applause should be very loud indeed.
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