Exclusive: Screenwriters Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard

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Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard are the screenwriting team behind Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and they’ve achieved a little bit of royal status themselves among Hollywood scribes, having been tapped to pen two more upcoming Jerry Bruckheimer-produced tentpole productions – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and National Treasure 3. The writers gave ComingSoon.net a window into the world of filmdom’s latest “it” writers.

ComingSoon.net: How did the opportunity to write “Prince of Persia” arise?

Doug Miro: We had wanted to work with Bruckheimer for a while. We’d been sort of holed up at DreamWorks for a long time. We’d been working for Spielberg on “Tintin” and then Walter Parkes on “The Uninvited” and we’d wanted to get over to Bruckheimer at some point, and they’d been sending us scripts. They sent us a draft of “Prince of Persia” and we really responded to it, the timing was right and it was right up our alley in terms of being a big period movie with a lot of summer movies elements, which was something we really were excited to do. And we talked to them and started working then. It was pretty fortuitous.

CS: Was there any different approach you took to the script, knowing it was a Jerry Bruckheimer production and the imagination might be able to run a little bit wilder without major budget constraints?

Carlo Bernard: Yeah, that was definitely one of the things that intrigued us about the project and really got us excited, that Jerry was really clear that unlike some video game adaptations that had been made in the past, he really wanted this thing to be a really high-level Hollywood production, that he really wanted to make the world lavish and exotic and beautiful and like nothing you’d ever seen in film before. So for us it was really exciting to be able to try to create a world that would be visually dynamic and that would be something that no one had ever seen before.

Miro: That was sort of the first explicit instructions that we got, to just go to town and not restrict ourselves at all, and we were totally licking our chops. I mean, we had such a great time. I think we even went overboard. [Laughs] As extravagant as the movie ended up being, our first draft was more so.

CS: When you first looked at the video game, where did you go “Okay, the script has to have this and this from the game,” and where did you see you could add or depart from it?

Bernard: I think the main touchstone that we took from the game was the character and the action – the way the action sort of becomes the character, the way Dastan moves in the action of the game communicates that he’s this sort of audacious, daring character. So we knew that we wanted to keep that how this guy moves is part of his character. And the world and setting – the art direction of the game – is also inspiring and amazing, the way it creates this half-real, half-fantasy version of Persia. So we knew we wanted to speak to the lavish design of the game. And then what we had to do differently was the same thing you have to do with any adaptation, which is of course to make whatever it is into a movie, and that’s always going to be a different process than creating game play. So we had to come up with a storyline that would surprise people who are familiar with the game, but would also work for people who’d never played it before.

Miro: Jordan [Mechner] had set some of the touchstones, because he had preceded us in terms of establishing the story and had done an artful job of picking and choosing a couple of important moments from the game, and we tried to build on those and mesh those a little more emotionally in the story. Dastan’s relationship with his father, which is a bit cursory but mentioned in the game, Dastan’s relationship to Tamina, which just in the game was very hinted at but really not exposed with any detail or depth. And I think there’s a quality to the game we wanted to capture, which is as you explore the levels the world expands and you keep being struck by how spectacular the next new thing is. We wanted the movie to unfold with that same visual dynamic of being struck by the next new world. We could line up each new world and layer, and each new one would seem spectacular and fresh to the viewer in the same way they do in the video game. So there is a series of different worlds that they venture to during the course of the movie that we tried to make also different and dynamic. There’s a mountain vista, there’s a huge burial city, there’s the desert, there’s the ostrich race. There’s all these wild locations that hopefully give the viewer the same feel you have in the game of just being cast from one wild location to the next.

CS: Once the actors were all cast, did you do anything to the script, characters or dialogue to adjust, knowing you had a particular actor in a particular role?

Miro: I think something Jake really wanted – and he was right – was Dastan, the way we had imagined him was a little uptight, and he wanted to have him be a bit more funny and off the cuff and a little bit wilder. And that was smart, because that really informed his transformation over the course of the movie. I think Alfred [Molina] playing Sheik Amar, writing for him we just went further to town, because he can do anything and as a writer you feel – we wrote for him too, on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and you kind of feel like you can put any line in his dialogue and he’ll make it sing.

Bernard: The actors always take notes, and they help you craft what works and what feels natural for the character. It’s all part of the process with actors: when you hear stuff read out loud for the first time, half the time we’re the ones scribbling in our notebooks saying “That doesn’t really sound good.”

Miro: And we had two weeks of rehearsal, which was fantastic. Some of the major scenes were blocked out in this room in a studio in London, and a lot of tweaking went on there. Ronald Pickup, who plays the king, would want to rearrange the very important speech to Dastan and that sort of thing. And Mike Newell was really instrumental in Tamina being such a strong character. When he came on the project that was one of his big things, and that was really beneficial to the script.

CS: Were you envisioning this during the writing to be a franchise, to leave yourself room, or even save some ideas you couldn’t squeeze in for future films?

Bernard: It was kind of discussed a bit, but not really overtly. There were some action sequences that we had to cut out just because there wasn’t really time and money to shoot them that I’m sure Doug and I will try to shoehorn into another script if we’re lucky enough to make a second one. But there were really never overt discussions about “Let’s really set something up for the sequel.” I think you do that just by creating characters that people like and respond to, because that’s what people will really come back to see in the second one.

Miro: We did definitely write, just optimistically, a beat at the end that I think was filmed but didn’t make it into the movie. But that was pretty much it, in terms of anything practical that would hint at a sequel. But it didn’t really fit when they had the final cut of the movie.

Bernard: Yeah, it’s tricky, too. Sometimes that works great, but I think the trick of doing that is that people want the movie to feel resolved, and I think Jerry’s instincts were, and probably correct in the end, is that your first obligation is trying to tell a satisfying story, and you can get ahead of yourself.

CS: That said, now that you’ve seen the finished product. Are you brimming with ideas for sequels?

Bernard: There are definitely some action sequences that we’d love to cook up for Jake. It is exciting to see the movie and see the sheer scale of it. It does get us excited and get us thinking again – even if no one’s listening to us at this point. It’s hard not to come up with some ideas.

Miro: And it’s sort of satisfying and surprising, at least it was the last time I saw it, is that it feels that there’s a gang there that you love at the end of the movie, so the idea of that group of characters and wanting to be with them again is kind of exciting, whatever context it is, to have that group out on another adventure. It’s a fun thought.

CS: You have “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” right around the corner – what was that experience like, how was it pitched to you and where did your minds go with it once you had the project in hand?

Miro: It was totally different from “Persia” because we came much later on the project, and were already building sets and stuff based on the script that they had. So as opposed to Persia, where it was like “Go to town,” this was much more restricted in terms of working within the confines of what they had – a solving things within the context of the script they had. It was a totally different problem, and it was exciting because of that, and there was a lot that was good but there was a lot in the script that needed to be defined. The identity wasn’t there, the tone, some of the dynamics between Balthazar and Dave–Nicolas Cage and Jay Baruchel–and the action in the second half. So there was a lot of that which was written on the fly, and it ran the gamut from we need to do a better job with the relationship to coming up with a car chase that nobody’s ever seen before. Those are the types of tasks that you’re faced with when you’re rewriting.

CS: Tonally or in the approach, how does it differ from other magical franchises that are already out there? What’s the fresh take?

Bernard: I think the casting is what really made it unique. When we first started on the project they showed us some rehearsal footage of Jay Baruchel and Nicolas Cage, and I think that the natural dynamic with Jay is very, very funny and doing this magic thing in the context of contemporary New York City with an NYU college is what helped distinguish it to us, and Jay is really great at playing that character. And that really helped us to make it feel fresh, that is was American, contemporary, with a kid that lives in sort of a crappy apartment in Brooklyn and goes to NYU – those were the sorts of things that helped ground it for us. And then you work in the big concept, which is that magic exists.

Miro: New York City is a great place for those two things – it’s got the grittiness, plus there’s a magical quality to it, so it was a nice place to have that movie set.

CS: How do you write for Nicolas Cage and still leave him all the room he needs to bring his Nicolas Cage-ness to a role?

Bernard: [Laughs] I think we took our best crack at it! Sometimes you miss and sometimes you get it, you know? I don’t think anyone can guess exactly where he’s going to go, so I think it’s kind of futile to try. But we tried to lay out a character we knew he’d be great at playing. Someone who was mysterious, had a sense of humor, was smart and funny and you couldn’t tell if he was a good guy or a bad guy. And then, you know, Nicolas Cage is going to do his thing with that, and make it better than you could’ve imagined it. It’s kind of a losing battle to try to guess how he’s going to deliver something.

Miro: The part about it that’s fun, though, is that you know the character needs to be a little peculiar. That challenges you to make sure this guy has that kind of distinction, that his characters all have, which is a fun challenge as a writer. Whether it’s how he talks or something he does – just little surprising weird things.

CS: I’m always dubious about what I see listed on IMDb, but are you guys also involved in a “Sharky’s Machine” remake?

Bernard: You’re right to be dubious.

Miro: We did a rewrite of “Sharky’s Machine” – what was it, Carlo? Six years ago?

Bernard: Yeah – five or six years ago.

Miro: And I think Phil Joanou or someone was involved then, but I don’t know what they’ve done with it.

Bernard: We were on it for all of two or three months – we weren’t on it for years. It’s sort of accurate, but also sort of inaccurate.

Miro: If it IS still in the works, I imagine our writing has been buried under layers and layers of other writing, so I don’t know what credit we would get. It’s a great movie, though, the original. We’re big Burt Reynolds fans.

CS: Are you guys past ego when it comes to writing drafts and being rewritten in subsequent drafts – like “We’re going to come in, take our best shot and see what of ours ends up on the screen when we see the finished film?”

Bernard: It’s hard, and it’s one of the trickiest things about being a writer. And maybe if you’re more experienced than we are that gets a little bit easier, but it’s definitely part of the game. We’ve rewritten and been rewritten, and those things will happen again in the future because that’s just the nature of how the business works. That said, we’ve been fortunate on “Persia” and “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” to be the last guys in. So that helps, at least for us at this point. You feel like you have at least some degree of control and be there to fight the battles for the stuff that you believe in, because if you’re an earlier writer on the movie, sometimes things are quite a bit different from where you left them.

Miro: It also definitely depends on how long you’re doing it for. I mean, we worked on “Tintin” for I think the better part of two years, so that was really difficult when we went off of that, because we were really attached to it. But something like “Sharky’s Machine” that we didn’t spend that much time on, or even “The Uninvited” where we came in later, it wasn’t as difficult, because we just didn’t have the time invested in it.

CS: Do you know what the latest word is on “Tintin”?

Bernard: No – we were invited to the set last year when they were shooting it, but we were in New York for “Sorcerer’s” and couldn’t go. That would’ve been our one chance to get some intel! [Laughs] Other than that it sounds like it’ll be pretty amazing, we don’t have a whole bunch of information.

Miro: What we gather is that it’s so time-consuming during the motion capture that they’re hoping for Christmas of 2012, but that’s probably what you’ve read online too. But that’s all we know. It just takes a long time – it takes no time to shoot them but a long time to do all the generating and the editing.

CS: Anything else around the corner, or a dream project you’re trying to get off the ground?

Bernard: We’ve been dealing with all the stuff on our plate, and not had much time to come up for air, which is a good thing and a bad thing. But we’re hoping the movies of the summer do well and we have a chance to do more of this kind of stuff. We have a couple pitches that we want to make at some point, but basically we’re coming out of this two-year point of trying to keep our heads above water.

Miro: Right now we’re really concentrating on “National Treasure 3,” and then hopefully at some point we can pitch – we have a couple of big ideas we’d like to pitch. But right now it’s all “NT3.” It’s really important and people have high expectations for that franchise, so it’s exciting and it’s a challenge.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is now playing in theaters and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice opens on Wednesday, July 14.

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