CS Visits the Prince of Persia Set – Part I

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Video game movies have never been treated with a lot of reverence or respect by moviegoers, maybe because few of them ever contain the ingenuity or interactivity of their source material. That general opinion of the genre might change with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, being that it’s the first movie based on a video game produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Walt Disney Studios, the creative team that successfully turned a Disneyland theme park ride into the global blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Their latest venture is based loosely on a computer and console game created by Jordan Mechner in 1989 that has sustained its life via numerous spin-offs over the years by creating a strong storyline amidst the gameplay. The movie version is being directed by Mike Newell, whose previous foray into the big budget FX movie was the fourth “Harry Potter” movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

By now, you’ve probably already watched the first teaser trailer and maybe you’ve read the recent press conference with Mechner and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Almost exactly a year ago, ComingSoon.net flew to England’s historic Pinewood Studios, where we spent two days being shown some of the amazing sets, costumes and weapons used in the production, as well as talking to Bruckheimer and all of the principal cast about their roles and what went into making the movie. We’ll slowly be sharing some of that information about what we saw over the next few months, starting with some of the preliminaries about the story and characters involved with the big screen version of Mechner’s game.

We’ll begin our coverage with some of the basics about the movie, namely the story and characters. With a screenplay by Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (The Uninvited), there are certainly things taken directly from the video games, the movie is more of an action-adventure influenced by the “1,001 Nights” of Scheherazade involving an epic quest, and it’s likely to have a fairly intricate plot much like the video game, which has often dealt with alternate realities and versions of the characters created by his short bursts of time travel. While we were given hints about the overall plot, a lot of it was kept close to vest.

As you’ll probably already know, the hero of the story is Persia’s Prince Dastan, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is inspired by the prince in the video games but has been developed specifically as a character for the film. Gemma Arterton is Princess Tamina of Alamut who Dastan has to rescue, and she’s also the person who carries the Dagger of Time, which in turn contains the titular Sands of Time that can rewind time similar to the one used in the video game. The film’s main baddie, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, is Nizam, brother of the King of Persia and Dastan’s uncle, who is motivated by jealousy that he was passed over to be king. He also controls a group of fierce warriors known as Hasansins, sort of like Middle Eastern ninjas or “Gestapo” as Kingsley himself puts it. Each of them have unique powers and specialized weapons they use when facing the Persian heroes. Adding to the comic relief of the movie is Alfred Molina as Sheik Amar, who is against Dastan at first, but eventually joins the group, motivated mainly by greed. Toby Kebbell, who last year starred in the title role of Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla, plays Dastan’s brother Garsiff, who is the head of the Persian army, always ready to charge into battle, while Dastan’s other brother Tus, played by Richard Coyle, has his eye on becoming king himself. Relative newcomer Reese Ritchie plays Bis, who has been assigned as Dastan’s man-servant, but whom in fact has been told to watch over the reckless prince without necessarily interfering.

As ComingSoon.net arrived on set last November with a small group of journalists, we were greeted by unit publicist Michael Singer, also head of marketing and publicity for Bruckheimer Productions, who immediately took us into one of the theaters to watch a sizzle reel of footage–some of which you might have seen in the trailer–giving us a better feel for what to expect on our visit.

While all of the exteriors for the movie were shot in Morocco, the production then moved to Pinewood, where they’d been using between eight and ten of the soundstages for the film’s interiors as well as having built a good section of one of the larger exteriors, that being the fictitious city of Alamut where the Persians stage a sneak attack after they learn there may be a secret weapon forged in the city that will be used against them.

On the first day of our visit, we’d watch as the film’s 2nd Unit director Alexander Witt (Casino Royale, Kingdom of Heaven) was shooting some of that scene on the fabled 007 Stage at Pinewood where they had recreated the Eastern Castle Gate of Alamut, including a good portion of the desert outside complete with realistic-looking palm trees. (Apparently, they had brought some actual rocks, sand and trees from Morocco, although a lot of it looked like it had been recreated.)

We were led up to the top of one of the parapets where we stood on a walkway that overlooked the courtyard between two gates to watch Witt and Greg Powell, the 2nd Unit Stunt Coordinator, shooting a complex but intense action sequence where Dastan has to sneak in through one gate, take out a bunch of guards, and then get out the other side before the gate shuts closed. If you watch the trailer, you can see that most of Dastan’s moves involve a modified version of Parkour, the martial arts sport that’s been used to dramatic effect in action movies such as District B13 and Casino Royale). We watched as one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s many stunt doubles using that Parkour to achieve that goal, leaping from one ledge to another, taking out a few archers along the way, then slipping through a small square portal in the far wall. Whenever they were ready to start shooting, the crew would light the torches with real fire, having sprayed the set around them with water to keep the whole thing from going up in fire. As the stunt double jumped around taking out the guards, three members of Dastan’s elite guard were draped over the side of a rail nearby ready to rappel down to the courtyard after he had cleared the way. Because this was one of the biggest set pieces in the movie, they’d be shooting on that set for a couple weeks, but we did get to see some of the type of action we’ll see in the film, even if one imagines this was a fairly small scene compared to others.

Other sets we would visit over the two days included a washroom where the traveling band would try to get some information out of a washer woman, and we’d wander around some of the royal chambers and the Persian throne room where Dastan has a pivotal battle with his uncle, choreographed by the film’s main stunt coordinator Greg Powell, who has worked on the last few “Harry Potter” movies as well as The Bourne Ultimatum. We couldn’t actually watch them fighting because it involved plot spoilers but we noticed that they had set up eight cameras around the main area, which represented the system they were using to create the “time reverse” effect from the Sands of Time. We would also get to see a bit of the still-in-construction cavern sub-structure that leads to the Sand Glass Chamber, which plays a huge point in the film’s climax. Some of the sets seemed too precarious to have journalists wandering about on them, but that didn’t seem to bother Singer as he dashed around between the soundstages and everyone tried their best to keep up with him.

As our readers will probably be well aware by now, one of the key reasons for visiting sets is to get an early chance to talk to the actors and creative team behind a movie. (Unfortunately, Newell was too busy directing on the days we were visiting the set to talk to us, but we hope we’ll get a chance closer to release.) The production went all out to set-up a special press room for us to do our interviews, filled with all sorts of props and artifacts used for the movie. The walls were plastered with some of the amazing scenes they had shot in the Moroccan desert to give us more of the flavor of the film.

First up for the press interrogation was actress Gemma Arterton, who got a lot of attention when cast as a Bond Girl in last year’s Quantum of Solace, which four days before our visit had set a new opening day record in the UK. She looked very different with auburn hair and tanned skin, very exotic looking, and we were lucky enough to talk to Arterton a second time when we visited the set of Warner Bros.’ Clash of the Titans earlier this year. The next day, we had a chance to talk to the rest of the cast, and though we have a lot of interviews we want to share with you, we’ll start with the two stars of the film, each of which you can read by clicking on the appropriate link below:

Jake Gyllenhaal – Prince Dastan

Gemma Arterton – Princess Tamina

Tune in sometime early next year for Part II of ComingSoon.net’s visit to the set of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where we get into our visits with costume designer Penny Rose, armorer Richard Hooper, propmaster David Balfour, art supervisor Gary Freeman and others. After that, we’ll have more with the rest of the cast, including a bit of talk about one of the film’s odder set pieces, an actual ostrich race… using real ostriches!

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is scheduled to open on Memorial Day weekend, May 28, 2010.

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