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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
May 8, 2010

Based on the enduring video game series that debuted in 1989, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a blockbuster action adventure that tells the story of Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a street urchin who is adopted by the nobel king of the Persian Empire after performing a good deed as a young boy. But life in the royal family becomes complicated for Dastan as a young adult, when the political ambitions of his nefarious uncle Nizam (Ben Kingsley) lead to him being framed for the murder of the king.

On the run from his family, the law, and any number of mercenaries looking to claim the bounty on his head, Dastan uncovers the secrets of the Dagger of Time, a mythical artifact that contains a magical sand with the power to turn back the clock. In a frenzied bid to clear his name and thwart Nizam's plan to use the dagger to re-write history and establish himself as king, Dastan is forced into a rocky alliance with the beautiful Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), an Alamutian guardian of the sand with an intense dislike and distrust of the invading Persians.

In this interview, director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Donnie Brasco) talks about the casting and production of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. He also comments on the particular format of this interview, conducted as a streaming webcast in which reporters submitted questions via chat and e-mail, while he answered live to a camera broadcasting half a world away from London...

MIKE: [marvels at the webcast] Dear God, this is magic. Hello, everybody!

MEDIA: How did you arrive at Jake Gyllenhaal as the right actor to play Dastan?

When I read the script, knowing that I was going to go and talk to Disney about the whole way that I wanted to make the movie--and [producer Jerry Bruckheimer] 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 around young actors that I knew, and I kept coming back to Jake. I'd seen lots of his movies, I had actually known him when he was a kid. And he simply kept coming back, and 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...well, simply a rebel. I thought that he had a wonderful comic sense, I loved the notion of him playing comedy, and 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 and he made himself have an English accent, and the work that he did was phenomenal...And so I went to Jerry with Jake and he said, "Who do you think it is?" and I said, "I think it's Jake." They met and it was okay.

And how did you come to cast Gemma Arterton in the role of Princess Tamina?

With Gemma, it was a much longer process and a more conventional process, in a way...I looked at lots and lots of people--I looked at Iranian actresses, I looked at Israeli and Egyptian actresses, obviously British and American. 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 Alamutians 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. And I had wanted to cast...I had wanted to go right down to 16. If I could have found a 16-year-old, I would have, 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. And Gemma was, when I met her, only 21 and just fresh out of drama school, and so she was very interesting to me for that reason. And then I discovered as I auditioned her more and more and more that she was a fabulous actress and looked pretty much exactly what I wanted the girl to look like. And then Jerry saw her and everybody got comfortable and away we went.

Regarding Jake and Gemma...

[marvels once more at the webcast] It's a very odd process. I don't know whether you're aware of that. This is an extremely odd process. I can see lots and lots of technicians in peripheral vision. I can see a man who's asking me questions in peripheral vision, and you, to whom I am talking as if you are my brothers, I cannot see at all! God, it's weird.

When did you realize that Jake and Gemma had a great chemistry together in these roles?

I think when we actually started to do it. Because, of course, in rehearsal, 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. And then you get on and you actually start to do it, and they still hold back. And finally you say, "Oh, come on, cut loose for God's sake!" And then they do, and they start to kind of grate on one another, you know, like sandpaper on iron. And then it gets interesting. And that happened only when they were actually in front of the camera.

What classic adventure films did you look at to get a sense of the tone that you wanted to achieve in this film?

Well, I looked at everything you would expect me to look at. I looked at The Thief of Bagdad, I looked at, ummm...It's the end of a long day here and I'm afraid my synapses just snap. Who was the Spielberg archaeologist with the slouch hat? [remembers] It's Harrison Ford! And I looked at all of those movies, and they were very important. [Lawrence of Arabia director] David Lean was very important. I longed to do the charge on Aqaba from Lawrence. But all those great big movies of the '50s and further back as well, they were all very important to me. But I also reckoned that if what I could do was to make this great big booming five-ring circus of a movie that had got so much in it, [and] 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.

How did Jerry Bruckheimer's role as a producer contribute to the project overall?

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 a kind of 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 and I showed him the first cut, and then he began! And Jerry's a very generous guy, and he's a very un-egotistical guy. And at the same time, he's like a little...Well, he's not a little...He's like a terrier. And he sinks his teeth into your leg and he does not let go! And 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 or whatever it is?!" And 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. What he knows is he knows the audience, and he knows 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! And so he and I had a marvelous kind of sprightly, un-cruel, un-nasty adversarial relationship when we got into the cutting room. And then I said to myself, "You know, if this thing is going to be any good--and for Christ's sake, you are working with the most successful producer in the western world--then this guy, Jerry, has gotta sell two hundred million dollars worth of tickets before this thing shows one cent in the black." And so really, it should be part of what you the director do: to not 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...Certainly, I began to understand him better. And it was kind of fun. I mean, you know, it is like dealing with John Ford. People will say down the line, "My God, you worked with that guy--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.

Thanks for your time.

Okay, cool!

Related Material

Interview with Jake Gyllenhaal
Interview with Gemma Arterton
Interview with Ben Kingsley
Interview with producer Jerry Bruckheimer
Interview with video game creator Jordan Mechner
Movie Coverage: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


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