Bruckheimer & Mechner on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


The day first screened the trailer for Disney’s upcoming action-adventure Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, we also chatted with powerhouse producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Jordan Mechner, the creator of the video game on which the movie is based. Bruckheimer not only talked to us at great length about his latest project, but enlightened us a little about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice as well.

Q: The one thing I didn’t see in the trailer was the scene where he jumps across a ledge, grabs on and has to pull himself back up. Is that going to be in the movie?
Jordan Mechner: You didn’t see that? Maybe we better show it a third time. (laughs)
Jerry Bruckheimer: You’ll have to see the movie.

Q: Those of us who go back to the ’89 original, that’s what we remember. So how is that a starting point for the wonderful Parkour-esque moves we now see?
Mechner: I think what he says is exactly right. It was a starting point. I did the best I could on a side-scrolling Apple II to try to capture that kind of excitement, and running and jumping and really the first 10 minutes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1981 was the immediate inspiration for the first “Prince of Persia” game. But I think the movie, as you’ve seen, goes very far beyond that. There’s Parkour, there’s sword fighting. It’s pretty extreme.

Q: With a lot of the games adaptations of the past, one of the big digressions I think is they throw out everything about the game and retain a few aesthetic choices. It looks like with the “Sands of Time,” the acrobatic moves of the characters – it’s like you’ve really incorporated a lot of the actual game-play styles from the game directly into what you’ve done narratively on film. Is that something that was important to you to maintain a lot of what is the character of “Prince of Persia”?
Mechner: Yeah, the movie’s mostly based on “The Sands of Time,’ which is the 2003 game that I did with Ubisoft Montrel. Rather than try to do a literal retelling of the game, what I pitched to Jerry and Disney in 2004 and I think what the movie very much is, it’s characters and elements, some of the coolest elements from the game, sort of reconfigured into a story that makes a great movie. And that was what we set out to do in the beginning.
Bruckheimer: And Jordan wrote the first two drafts of the script so he was heavily involved. The fact that he’s here means he likes the movie (room laughs) so that always helps. You won’t be reading him online saying “Don’t go see it.” It’s good.

Q: So if you’ve played through the game you’re going to recognize a lot of the characters in the film?
Mechner: Yeah, although if you’ve played the game, you’re not going to know what happens in the movie. It’s a different story, but yet you’ll recognize the characters, situations in a different form. I think it’s very true to the spirit of the game.

Q: The games have sort of evolved. You have the original, which I think was remade for Xbox Live, you’ve got “Sands of Time,” “Warrior Within,” this is the newest iteration of the game. In adapting this, was there any elements from any other iterations of “Prince of Persia” that you borrowed or thought would be useful and could include as a wink or nod to the fans?
Mechner: At the time I wrote the first draft of the script, those other games hadn’t come out yet, so the screenplay is based on “The Sands of Time,” but as you probably see in the trailer, the production design took a lot of inspiration from later games as well. With Jake’s costume, certainly.

Q: As far as we’ve seen there aren’t any creatures from “Sands of Time” that I remember fighting. Did you specifically not want to have any creatures in the storyline and focus on just humans?
Mechner: That’s a really good specific example of what we were talking about before. There are no sand monsters in the movie. For the game, turning everybody in the world except for the two main characters into sand monsters was really useful because it created an inexhaustible supply of enemies for you as a player to fight. But that’s a story that’s meant to be played with a controller in your hand. And a movie is an experience that’s sort of a ride to go on shared by an audience, so we didn’t want to make the movie about fighting monsters.

Q: You said earlier that when you play the game, you’re not going to know what happens in the movie, so where did you come up with the concept? I know it’s based on the games, but where is the story going in the movie?
Mechner: I don’t want to tell the story of the movie, you have to see the movie.
Bruckheimer: It’s more of a Biblical tale. It’s about a street urchin who gets picked up by the king, made a prince – it’s all family dynamics that happen. These two brothers who are not really his brothers, not by birth. That’s the start of the drama. And an uncle who’s jealous of all of them.
Mechner: And this really cool dagger that can turn back time, which is this great power and also this great temptation–it’s what the villain–you got that part (laughs)

Q: Judging from the trailer, they’re sort of on a quest. They have to take this dagger back to a certain temple to get rid of it, I suppose?
Bruckheimer: It’s sort of part of the story to safeguard the dagger from all the people trying to get their hands on it.

Q: What had to be developed to do those visual effects with the sands of time and the sands collapsing in the temple?
Bruckheimer: What you do is you start with storyboards. First it starts from Jordan’s mind and from our writers, we give it to our production designer, takes it to another step, give it to our artists and they start drawing things. From what we draw we create animatics, they’re visual representations, probably how Jordan starts his games. And then we start embellishing, we start doing tests, embellishing things that we see and we like. We create layers, like the first time we did the actual pushing the dagger and the sand comes out, there was nothing going through his body. He’d just lift it above the scene and stayed there, started using the sand, electricity going through his body. So you keep layering it. When you see the movie in the theaters it will be more layers than what you see just now.

Q: Can you talk about the casting of Jake and what you saw in him that made him right for this role?
Bruckheimer: I always thought he was… I still think he is a huge movie star. [He’s one of those guys who can be a huge hero], romantic hero. He’s handsome, he’s a wonderful actor. I’ve always wanted to work with him. We got very lucky that he A) liked the material and B) was available to do it. There was no other choice.

Q: Can you talk about some of the physical training that he had to go through?
Bruckheimer: A lot. I mean, he really worked hard. He worked for months and months before the movie started. He trained every single day. He rode bikes, he lifted weights, he had a very specific diet. He couldn’t have any fats, and it was really a lot of protein, and all during filming, he was working in 120 degree heat. Jordan said he saw him, after a long day, around 7 at night taking a jog, running, so he kept it up through the whole movie. He had a trainer with him both here and in Morocco working with him to make sure he really kept his physical appearance the way he wanted it to be.

Q: What do you have to do to modern day Morocco to make it look like ancient Persia?
Bruckheimer: It’s just sand. (room laughs) There’s plenty of it there. No, what we did was we had a fantastic production designer who created these amazing sets. We actually built a lot of what you saw. And the other thing we had… We added some set extensions to the top of the frame but a lot of things that you see in there are actually stuff that we built or took structures in Morocco and added our own construction to those actual old structures. We found a part of the city that was one of the most ancient parts of the city that we were able to use for this movie. The city allowed us to shoot there and the government allowed us work with the residents as far as being in the suits.
Mechner: That was actually my first week on set. Seeing that, I literally couldn’t tell where the real city ended and the set began. There were people walking through the streets. I couldn’t tell if they were extras or if they were people who lived there.
Bruckheimer: Yeah, because it’s stopped in time. We were driving up, some of the sets were in the Atlas mountains. As you’re going up there, there’s no electricity. The women are the ones who do all the work. They carry these huge bundles of wood on their back. They carry stuff on their head. They carry the children. It’s just unbelievable. It’s like you’re back in the sixth century.

Q: What city?
Bruckheimer: We were in different ones. We were in Ouarzazate.
Mechner: Marrakech, Ouarzazate, Erfoud. It’s actually one of the things that was so cool for me and such a surprise really coming from the video game world where I was kind of used to various ways of trying to make this look real on the screen. To actually be in the desert where it’s 125 degrees and there’s real sandstorms. How many movies have you seen where there’s a scene in the desert oasis and it’s a set? This was a real desert oasis. And I think the fact that besides all the action and adventure story aspects of it, this is an epic movie that’s shot on location on a scale that really hasn’t been done. It’s never been really seen on the screen looking this way ever so I think that really moves the whole production to another level. It’s not what people expect from a video game movie.

Q: How much Parkour training was there? Any experts come in?
Bruckheimer: We did. We brought in the key experts out of France with us. In the opening of the movie, there’s a young man who portrays Jake as a young boy. He was a Parkour expert. He’s 10-years-old and he’s amazing. Absolutely amazing. They sent us online, Facebook things of these kids. This kid was extraordinary.

Q: How much of what we saw was practical versus CGI?
Bruckheimer: When he’s jumping across the rooftops, that’s all real. A lot of the stuff that’s falling on him is all CGI but all the roof stuff, all the rooftops is all real stuff.

Q: And climbing the arrows?
Bruckheimer: That is a set.

Q: But he’s doing it.
Bruckheimer: Yes, he’s doing it on the set.

Q: What are the challenges thinking as a film versus thinking as a video game?
Mechner: I loved movies growing up as a kid before I loved games, in fact actually before games had been invented, video games had been invented. This is a game that was inspired by movies so I think really in writing the first draft of the screenplay, I just kind of set out to write a movie in that genre, the kind of movie that I love, that inspired me to create the game in the first place.

Q: What makes this game translate well to screen?
Bruckheimer: I think it’s the fact that it’s so different than anything that’s in the marketplace. You look at all the “Spider-Man’s” and all the stuff that’s coming out, “Iron Man” and all these “Transformers.” This is so unique, so fresh and different. We just loved the character that Jordan created. So it takes you back to old ancient periods. The movie when you see it, it’s like an old-fashioned, romantic adventure film. That’s really what it is. It’s like a “Lawrence of Arabia” with this kind of supernatural element added to it. But it’s really a wonderful biblical story about jealousy. It goes back to all the primal fears and conflicts through history, so it embellishes upon interesting things. We found, we tested the movie a few weeks ago. It tested extraordinarily high. It surprised me because I always think these things are going to fail but this one turned out great. The women, I was surprised, I thought we made a terrific movie for the boys , but the women flipped over this film. I’ve never had a score where the parents, and there is violence, it’s PG-13, the parents rated the film 100% excellent or very good which never happens. So it’s one of these movies that we know they’ll take their children to go see it which is a huge advantage for a film if the parents think it’s cool that the kids can see it.

Q: Not even “Pirates” tested that high?
Bruckheimer: We were right up there with “Pirates.” In fact, the number was a little higher but it’s not “Pirates,” but “Pirates” wasn’t “Pirates” either when it tested. So you never know what you have. Testing can be very… you don’t know. I’ve had films test, nobody showed up. We did a movie called “Glory Road” which had enormous tests. We couldn’t get people to go see it. It’s a terrific film but nobody showed up.

Q: How often is the dagger actually used? Is it because Jake screws up or is trying to fix events going on around him?
Bruckheimer: Both. Both. It happens by accident initially and then he uses it to try to fix something that is going terribly bad. It turns back time.
Mechner: You’re not very familiar with how the dagger works? Basically, in the game, the dagger, if you make a mistake, if you’re dying, if you’re falling to your death, you can actually push the switch on the dagger’s handle and it brings you back to the moment before you made the mistake. So you can actually use it to avoid mistakes and people around you aren’t going to be aware that you did that.

Q: Are there scenes like that in the movie?
Bruckheimer: If he has it. That’s the key.
Mechner: This gets to a difference between the game and the movie. In the game, the dagger has so many powers. You’re using it all the time. If we’d done that in the movie, the hero would’ve been omnipotent and it wouldn’t have been very interesting. So in the movie, there’s a lot of constraints. You’ve got to be very careful about when you can use the dagger.
Bruckheimer: It’s very limited. It has a little bit of sand in it.

Q: Was that Alfred Molina we saw a glimpse of?
Bruckheimer: It is.

Q: So he’s in everything now with you?
Bruckheimer: He’s our go-to guy. He’s fantastic.

Q: You have “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” coming out this summer. How did you imagine a “Fantasia” short becoming a big summer blockbuster film?
Bruckheimer: We didn’t, but somebody else did. Nic Cage and some other people decided it’d be kinda cool to do and came to us. We developed the screenplay with them and took this little moment in “Fantasia” and created an entire story.

Q: How crazy is Nic going to be in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”?
Bruckheimer: I think he’s a wonderful mystical character in it. He’s really a character. It’s certainly Nic Cage you want to watch on screen. You’re never quite sure what he’s going to do or how he’s going to react.

Q: With the comments that Bob Iger recently made, it seems there is a paradigm shift. How do you move forward?
Bruckheimer: We take direction from whoever our financier is and in this case we have a deal with Disney. Disney decided a few years ago they wanted to make more family-orientated pictures and we made “Pirates of the Caribbean,” so we made “National Treasure.” We adjust to the people who are paying for this and what they want to make. We develop stories we feel will benefit them not only in a financial, but in a way that crosses all the different platforms. “Pirates” is a great example. It crosses many platforms. Michael Singer, who works with us, was at Disneyland over the weekend and he said there was an hour wait to get into the “Pirates of the Caribbean.” You can see how a movie can affect and change the ride itself and the characters. So it benefits everybody.

Q: There’s a worry about Johnny Depp’s commitment to “Pirates 4.” Are you going to be able to make him comfortable with the new people at Disney?
Bruckheimer: I think that he was very close with Dick [Cook]. We loved him and part of our success is attributed to Dick which is fantastic, but things change. We’ve been through a ton of management here at Disney and have had many bosses through the years that I’ve been here. Somehow you adjust and the gentleman they brought in is very smart. As an executive he’s had an enormous amount of success. He’s been a very good partner to us, but that doesn’t mean we won’t work with Dick somewhere else down the line. Who knows. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Q: I read you’re adapting another game, “Shattered Union.”
Bruckheimer: It’s something we’re developing which takes years. When did you sell this to us, ’04?
Mechner: ’04.
Bruckheimer: So it took us five years to get this one going.

Q: What’s your attraction to the video game world?
Bruckheimer: It’s fascinating. It’s always the concept. Two reasons: Concept, characters, theme and pre-sold title. If you go online and read his blogs, people blog about “Prince of Persia” and its unbelievable the fan base that he has for his game. We had all gamer press before you came in and they’re so excited to see this and skeptical to be quite honest. Skeptical we picked Jake and weren’t sure if he was the right for the character, but when they saw this, they got very excited. They all applauded at the end of it and felt it was true to what Jordan had originally created. They go back to his first game and were asking me questions about a game he created in ’89. They’re talking about a game they played in ’89 and asked if this character is in it so they’re really into this.

Q: You’re a busy guy so do you stay on top of what’s happening in video games?
Bruckheimer: This is my genesis here that keeps me current. That’s how we do it. As I get older, I lean more and more on younger people to bring me stuff that I might not be aware of, but make me aware of it.

Q: What’s your take on making the “Lone Ranger” current for today’s audience?
Bruckheimer: Elliot Rossi worked on that with a couple of other writers and Johnny [Depp] so they’ll create something that has a kind of true to the western, but also other elements like we did with “Pirates” so it won’t be just a straight ahead western.

Q: We know Johnny Depp wants to play Tonto. Do you have any thoughts as to who the ranger would be?
Bruckheimer: Not yet. We’re still creating a pretty wide net and figuring it out. It comes down to who is available when we want to make it. We have a wish list, but we were lucky on this one. Our wish list came through.

Look for our first report on our visit to the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time sets at Pinewood Studios in London next week.