PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Game Creator Jordan Mechner Interview

     November 4, 2009

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Jordan Mechner Prince of Persia The Sands of Time.jpg

Last week I went to producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s office in Santa Monica to get an early look at the “Prince of Persia” trailer along with a number of other online journalists. As I said last week, I think “Prince of Persia” is finally going to break the movies based on a video game curse.  Up to now, every video game based movie has been treated by Hollywood as a joke. They never have a budget. The scripts have been terrible. Also, after you see the movie, you lose respect for the game it’s based on. But after watching the trailer and speaking with Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and “Prince of Persia” creator Jordan Mechner, I think they’ve done everything they could to try and make this movie work.

Anyway, after we all watched the trailer, Bruckheimer and Mechner answered questions for about twenty minutes. While they discussed all the usual behind the scenes stuff, there was a lot of new info revealed.  Here’s some of the highlights, but you can read the full transcript after the jump:

  • They recently test screened the movie and it was 147 minutes (2hr. 27 minutes) but they’ve shortened it since then. Bruckheimer said “the movie took a little long in getting started, so we made a trim at the beginning of the film that really helps it.”
  • Bruckheimer says “Prince of Persia” is like a throwback to Lawrence of Arabia with supernatural
  • They’ve been working on the special effects for over a year and a half.  Bruckheimer talks about how they took a long time developing the story to try and break the video game curse.
  • Some other “Prince of Persia” games are coming but Mechner wouldn’t tell us any specifics except  we’ll hear about them in the next few months
  • I tried to find out if they set up anything for sequels in the movie.  Bruckheimer and Mechner said they didn’t.
  • They changed the names of some of the characters from the game as a signal to gamers to not expect it to be a literal retelling of the story of the game
  • If you’ve played the game, you’re going to notice some gameplay on the screen

As I said, after the jump you can read the full conversation. If you’re a fan of the video games or you just want learn what went on behind the scenes to bring “The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” to life, you’ll really dig this interview. Take a look:

And in case you missed the trailer, you should watch it before reading the interview.  “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” gets released May 28th, 2010.

prince_persia_sands_time_jake_gyllenhaal_movie_poster_01.jpgMechner:  The game that the movie was based on is Sands of Time. That is the 2003 game that Ubisoft Montreal and I relaunched the franchise with. But you can see with his costume and with certain elements in the trailer, it also draws on the whole Sands of Time Trilogy.

Question: Right. Did I see the Dark Prince in there at some point? He was kind of like shadowy and seemed to be transforming a bit.

Mechner: No. I think what you saw was the rewind.

Forgive this question. It might be a little silly. But I remember in the earlier games like your brother would do some of the sound effects. So is he in here somewhere doing stuff?

Mechner: It’s true. My brother actually was the model for the original animations in the first Prince of Persia game back in 1985 when he was in high school. He wasn’t a very good athlete even then, and he hasn’t really gotten any better. He was disappointed, but no. Jake really did his own stunt work.

You don’t have more YouTube videos of him to put up online like you did…?

Mechner: I have got plenty of videos. I am not sure you want to see them, but…

Were you the one who put those online originally, the tests for the first Prince?

Mechner: Yeah, I did. On the website I have got old journals of the making of the first game back in the ’80s, kind of a nostalgic time capsule.

Could you talk a little bit about…the effect of him rewinding time is really cool. I would also imagine it is very expensive. So could you talk a little bit about how that…in the film, were there budgetary things where you had a limit on how many times you could kind of play that into the film? Could you talk a little bit about that effect?

Bruckheimer: Well first, that the most important thing is the story, the script. So what we do is we write a screenplay, try to get it as dramatic as possible with character arts, and romance, and action, and everything else. And then you budget it. You see where you are, and sometimes you shrink things. But it doesn’t come down to the rewinds. It comes down to other things, too. So the rewinds are expensive, but dramatically, we feel that we got the right amount of rewinds into the movie for the audience to really believe it and go with it.

Gemma Arterton Prince of Persia The Sands of Time movie poster.jpgCould you talk about the actual design of the rewind in the film, and how long did it take for you guys to get that look, because it really looks cool?

Bruckheimer: Well we started, what, a year and a half ago working on it. And we have visual effects supervisors in a visual effects house in London that is working with us. What they did is first they did an anamatic or a storyboard, and we kept building from that. Some of the stuff we didn’t like. We finally arrived on a process that we liked, and then we kept embellishing that process, which you are seeing now. You would just keep adding layers to it. First, the things didn’t go through his body. He just overlooked the scene; came up and overlooked the scene. And we started adding layers and started actually using sand, so the sand just swirls around his body. So it is constantly embellishing something that you really like.

Video games are notoriously bad, usually. I was asking how are you guys king of combating that? Obviously, having the original creator, and then having Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer are major first steps, but what else are you doing to avoid the pitfalls?

Bruckheimer: Well we took our time developing it. We really did. It is over a number of years that we developed it and worked with a number of different writers until we got to a place where we thought we really had a good screenplay, and that is the key. It is telling a good story. I haven’t seen a lot of the other video game films, but I think that is the key to our success in our company, is telling you good stories, create interesting characters, create the romance, create the action, have you care about the characters and put them in very dramatic situations. And I think that is what this has done with Jordan’s help, and Jordan was involved. I think you wrote one of the first screenplays, didn’t you?

Mechner: I think a big challenge of video game adaptations in general is the first thing that is lost in the adaptation is the game play, which is usually the reason that the game was successful in the first place. So it has got to be a movie that can stand on its own even if there never was a video game. And Prince of Persia is that.

Bruckheimer: It is a really interesting story. It reminds you of a throwback to like Lawrence of Arabia, like an old movie with the supernatural added to it, because it is a really wonderful tale and it takes you full circle. I mean, you have seen it. You know how interesting the story is in itself. It is very satisfying at the end.

Ben Kingsley Prince of Persia The Sands of Time movie poster.jpgWith that being said, like you said, the game play is lost, and a huge part of Prince of Persia was the platforming. And in the trailer you can see that there is still a bit of that. How integral is that in the movie itself?

Mechner: The cool thing about Prince of Persia, and this goes back to the first game 20 years ago, it was a game that was inspired by movies, and especially by those great old Hollywood swashbuckling movies with Earl Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, which came out when I was in high school. It was a big inspiration. So I think that kind of action just really translates really well to cinema. As you can see in the trailer, I think it goes beyond the game. It captures the spirit of the gameplay, but it also really goes beyond it. It is more visceral, more exciting.

Bruckheimer: And the editor who cut Raiders of the Lost Ark also worked on this film.

Given the wealth of sort of mythology and material that you guys had to draw on, what was sort of the core element that each of you felt was maybe essential to making a successful adaptation?

Mechner: Well first, the world with the 1,001 knights inspired the game and the movie. I think the idea of a dagger that can turn back time was really key to the 2003 game, and that is something we carried over to the movie. We have reconceived mythology in a way that would make a better movie, as opposed to better…it is an experience that is meant to be shared by an audience, not played with a controller in your hand. We never really intended for it to match the game exactly, but I think for people who have played the game, they will recognize a lot of characters and scenes and great moments from the game.

You are known for taking a lot of risks, building off of these last two answers. Obviously, doing, again, a video game related movie is a big risk, but your risks always seem to pay off. I mean when I first heard Prince of Persia, I was like, “I don’t know,” because there had been so many unsuccessful ones. But then when I heard you were behind it, I was like, “This could be sick!” So what was it about the pitch? Like did Jordan bring it to you or did someone else pitch it to you? And how long did it take for you to go, “Sweet. Let’s do this.”

Bruckheimer: Jordan, how did you get to us? Did we find you or did you find us?

Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton Prince of Persia The Sands of Time movie image (1).jpgMechner: Actually, John August and I brought it to you as a pitch in 2004.

Bruckheimer: They brought it to us and we liked the idea and started developing it. We let Jordan write the first couple drafts and we kept embellishing. Just like…you know how we talked…I just told you about how we do the effect? We start with something and then you keep layering it and layering it. It is the same thing with storytelling. Jordan gave us a great blueprint and some great stuff, and then we kept layering more and more on it. It is really a biblical story. It is about a boy, a street urchin, who gets taken off the streets and gets to be a prince of Persia. And it is the competition with his two brothers who want the throne and the uncle. So it is just kind of a wonderful story that goes back to the Bible.

Did you play any of them at all?

Bruckheimer: Sure. Sure.

Did you beat the game?

Bruckheimer: No, of course not.

[laughter]

You mentioned you guys just test screened the movie. Could you talk about what was the running time that you guys showed? And did the test screening shine a light on anything that you might, say, change or alter, or were the numbers just real good?

Bruckheimer: I never think it is good enough, so I am always changing things. The numbers were really good. And the running time was like 147, and that is without credits, so it will be a little longer once you get the end roll credits on there. I think we have shortened it a little bit since then. And we made just some clarity things that the audience might have been a little confused by, but not much. We made some little trims. We felt that the movie took a little long in getting started, so we made a trim at the beginning of the film that really helps it.

So there are all like DVD deleted scenes, if you will.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton Prince of Persia The Sands of Time movie image.jpgBruckheimer: Yes, exactly. You will see the full…all the scenes will be shot when you see the DVD.

Jerry, as a producer, what was more important to you, making an entertainment movie of faithful adaptation of a video game?

Bruckheimer: I think you got to do both. I think you have really got to entertain an audience. That is the key. Otherwise, you will be unhappy and the gamers will be unhappy. Because if they come see it, they are not entertained, but they see all the cool gameplay in it, they will walk out saying, “Eh, it was all right.” So I think you have got to give them exactly what Jordan said. Give them a great story, great characters, and have recalls to the game. And that is what we have. We have a lot of recalls. So when you see the movie, you will say, “Oh, yeah! I remember that. That is cool. They took that…” So you will see a lot of the game stuff that is in the movie.

Jordan, you filed a trademark or a copyright a while back for something related to Prince of Persia, and another one recently. Are those movie related or are they game related? What are those?

Mechner: I am not sure. When you say I filed a trademark, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I know I filed a trademark.

Like the Forgotten Sands trademark. That was earlier this month. And then the other one. I didn’t know if those were by you for the movie or is it a tie-in, or something else?

Mechner: Yeah. There is a bunch of stuff. There is a graphic novel. And with regard to games, Ubisoft Montreal, the team that I worked with on Sands of Time, is developing something new. I am not the guy that is going to make that announcement, but there is other Prince of Persia stuff in the works.

This looks like it is going to be…let’s just call it what it is. It looks like it is going to be a big success. Are you already sort of thinking about, I know it is early to say this, but future installments? When I was watching I couldn’t help but think Pirates of the Caribbean a little bit. So what did you, or did you set up some stuff in this that in a second movie or a third movie, we are setting up a universe here?

Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia The Sands of Time.jpgBruckheimer: I will tell you, when we made Pirates, it was a one off. We made just the one picture and we had no idea it was going to be the success that it turned out to be. It went against all conventional wisdom that a pirate movie with the supernatural in it, with Johnny Depp playing a guy who…you don’t know what he is, you know, he is drunk, he is…whatever, is going to be a hit. The audience decided it was going to be a hit. Same thing with this. We have no idea if it is going to be a hit. So we just hope that this movie is going to come out and the audience will embrace it and go see it and enjoy it. I think we made a picture based on the focus groups we have for everybody from 8 to 80. Women love it. They love Jake in it. They love the romance in it. The guys love the action. So I think we have something that kind of crosses all quadrants, and hopefully we will get them all.

I am very confident you are going to get them. So getting back to my question, did you set some stuff up in it?

Bruckheimer: No. I don’t think…

Mechner: I don’t either.

Bruckheimer: There was nothing in pirates that we ever thought was going to be another movie. But we took, in pirates, and I think we will do the same thing if the public embraces us, we will take what is in this movie and embellish it into something else.

Mechner: I didn’t set up the first Prince of Persia game for a sequel either.

Bruckheimer: You just don’t know. But if you have smart people working with you, and fortunately we do, they figure out what they can take, like they did on Pirates, Ted and Terry, Elliott and Ross took the ideas in that first movie and created three films, and now we are doing a fourth with them. So that happens.

So I have a question for you. So you were saying…for both of you, obviously. Now when you are saying that there is some stuff that we will recognize from the game, so it is kind of a two part question. So is there like shot for shots of like the cut scenes? And also, is there any sign of the donkey? Or can you not tell me?

Mechner: You mean the donkey from the 2008 game?

Yeah.

Jerry Bruckheimer on the set of Prince of Persia The Sands of Time (1).jpgMechner: We started writing the script back in 2004. So yeah, it was too new for us. That will be in the next one.

Question for Jordan. You seem to have held on to your IP for forever. It feels like you loaned it out to Ubisoft and now like Disney. Not everybody has that sort of strength to them. I mean how have you been able to sort of hold onto your character and your IP and sort of loan it out to properties? Has it always been such a good experience?

Mechner: Honestly, the way that it has happened with Prince of Persia over the last 20 years, I couldn’t have planned. I didn’t have a dagger of time to help me. It just sort of went from one thing to the other and it has just worked out better than I could have ever imagined. I mean Jerry and Disney are the best partners I could possibly have had to make this as a movie. Ubisoft is doing a terrific job with the games. I was lucky.

So holding on has just been lucky?

Bruckheimer: He is smart is the truth. He found good partners and made good movies.

What would you say is the part about the movie that has most changed from the game when you look at it and you say, “Oh, yeah. This is very different.”

Mechner: Well the story is different, and that was true from the first draft of the script. The game was a story to be played. There are elements that you will recognize, but if you tell the story of the movie, it is quite different. Changing the names of the characters, Princess Estan, we sort of meant that as a signal to gamers not to expect it to be a literal retelling of the story of the game.

I also noticed the trailer seems to be a little bit more lighthearted than the game. Would you say that is true?

Mechner: I think it is more lighthearted than some of the games, but I feel like it is true to the Sands of Time, the 2003 game, which is really the one that the movie screenplay is most based on.  I feel like it is very true to the spirit of the game, to a lot of kind of the action. It is really…the plot itself is different.

You have seen the film in test screening. What was your reaction watching your creation like that? Could you talk about…you know.

Mechner: Yeah, I can talk about that. I was in Morocco. I was seeing some of these things get shot. But the first time I saw a rough assembly of Jake as Prince Dastan running on the rooftops with arrows being shot at him and swinging, I just got this big smile on my face that wouldn’t go away, because I just felt like it was…like what I saw in my imagination when I played the game, back when the character was 40 pixels high and his face was four pixels square, but seeing it like real in visceral in the best way.

Jerry Bruckheimer on the set of Prince of Persia The Sands of Time.jpgAre there throwbacks to that first game at all in this movie, anything that we are going to recognize from that?  Spikes coming out of the ground? Does he kick open a lot of jars and hang by his fingertips?

Mechner: There are.  I don’t want to give anything away, but OK. I mean if you played the first Prince of Persia, you know that the first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones runs and jumps and the gate is closing, that was a big inspiration for the action in the game. Well you remember the guide in that sequence?

In the game?

Mechner: No, in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Oh, yeah.

Mechner: The guide is like, “Throw me the idol and I will throw you the whip.”

I was going to ask you about the casting choice, because I know that when it was announced that Jake would be playing the character, a lot of gamers were a little bit skeptical. And obviously, when people see this trailer, it should shut them right up, because I was one of those ones that was like, “Jake Gyllenhaal, I don’t know.” But now seeing this trailer, like, yeah. I could absolutely get behind going, “You know Jake Gyllenhaal was a good choice.” I am sure the forums were just flooded once they found out that Jake was playing the prince. How did you guys respond to that, and did that like motivate Jake to come to you more and say, “I want it.” I know that he is a hard worker and he wants to stay faithful to anything that is already a successful franchise. So did he work harder with you guys to make sure that he stayed true to the character or did you just let him go on his own?

Mechner: I can talk about why I think Jake is great in the role. I know that he is really into the games and took that very seriously.

Bruckheimer: He trained very hard for this film. He really transformed his body. He really did. He worked really hard. He trained every single day for months, and all during filming he was training to physically look like the character. So I think that is a big part of what he was doing in his look.

Was he playing as the movie was going? Did he just ever go back to the game and just be like, “Oh, I want to refer a little bit.”

prince_persia_sands_time_gemma_arterton_movie_poster_01.jpgMechner: Well I know he was speaking with a British accent in between takes. At the end of my first day on set, driving back to base camp, I saw him jogging. After this long day of 125 degree heat, he went for a jog. He had more muscles than his stunt doubles. But as far as the role, as far as who the prince is, to me the Prince of Persia has always been a swashbuckling hero in the vein of Indiana Jones, Doug Fairbanks, Earl Flynn. He is not like the kind of video game hero who is out to vanquish all his enemies. He has got like an intelligence, a mischievous streak. Sort of an underdog. He has got a vulnerability. I think Jake just embodies all those qualities and captured them in a way that is very appealing.

I would like for you to realize that you might have a Disneyland ride at some point.

Mechner: That is pretty mind boggling. I grew up on the East Coast. When I was six, Disneyland was like Shangri Li. It was like this far away thing that, if I was lucky, I might get to visit once in my life. So that is a pretty amazing thought. But the idea that there are going to be Lego’s, too, is also pretty staggering.

Are there ideas for like capitalizing on like a video game in 2010, or a collection, or a tie-in with the movie or something next year?

Mechner: All I can say is there are going to be some cool announcements coming out of Ubisoft in the next few months, but this isn’t the occasion for me to make them.

Building on that question actually, and I might have missed it, but Ubisoft’s logo or anything wasn’t in the trailer. Are they involved at all? And if so or if not, would any announcement out of them, could that be related to the movie or are they going to always be two separate elements like Ubisoft and Disney: Prince of Persia?

prince_of_persia.jpgMechner: Well Ubisoft is making the games. Disney is obviously making the movie. Ubisoft and Disney didn’t work together directly, but I worked with both of them, with Disney on the movie and Ubisoft on the games, And Ubisoft was very supportive of the movie. I think the influence on the production was kind of at all levels. It wasn’t just through the screenplay. When I got to London, I met the artists, the technicians, and the craftspeople who were actually designing the sets and the costumes and so forth. They were totally steeped in the games. They were big game fans.

Speaking about games, you announced Bruckheimer games recently. Have you guys made any inroads or have you been too busy making movies?

Bruckheimer: We have two terrific executives. One of them came from Ubisoft and one from Microsoft. So they are out there beating at the bushes, putting together some terrific, cool IP’s.

There was an announcement yesterday in Variety about you…I forget the name.

Bruckheimer: Shattered Union?

That is the one.

Bruckheimer: That is another one we are trying to get going. So maybe four or five years you might see a movie.

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