Exclusive: Prince of Persia Director Mike Newell


Over Memorial Day weekend, fans of the popular series of video games that includes Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time will have a chance to see it realized on the big screen, and they’re likely to be amazed by the fantastic environments, the stunts that recreate the action from the games, and the computer-generated FX used to create the game’s unique time-traveling element.

The man responsible for the difficult task of bringing the games to the screen is Mr. Mike Newell, British director of the comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, whose career took a very different path when he was assigned the task of bringing J.K. Rowling’s fourth book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to the screen, making Newell one of only four directors to work on the big budget fantasy franchise.

Prince of Persia takes Newell to ancient Persia to tell the story of three princes, particularly Jake Gyllenhaal’s Prince Dastan who gets his hands on a dagger that allows the wielder to turn back time, sending him on a journey with the dagger’s protector Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) to protect it from those who want to abuse the dagger’s power.

Here at ComingSoon.net, we try our hardest not to take for granted all the great perks that come with our job, but one of the nicest things about being brought to London by Disney for the movie’s junket was that we’d have a chance to sit down in person with the always affable and charming director, who we really enjoyed talking to a few years back for his previous film Love in the Time of Cholera. He was even nice enough to give us quite a bit more time than we already had allocated so we could talk in a relaxed fashion.

ComingSoon.net: We didn’t get to talk to you on set, because you were busy doing all this stuff. Obviously, there’s the video game, and there’s the genre of a big Arabian fantasy, which no one does anymore. What was the appeal and what was their pitch to you to get you on board?
Mike Newell: What was the appeal? Okay, well, what I loved about it was this: it was sent to me with no spin on it at all, simply sent to me, 120 pages of script with a note from Jerry saying, “Are you interested in this?” He sent with it a book of 19th century paintings and they were called the Orientalists. They were mostly French and they were absolutely sick of painting society portraits in Paris. They wanted to go out and find something else that would energize their eyes. They went to Arabia and came back with this extraordinary stuff. It’s not extraordinary in the way that Impressionism is extraordinary or any of the great kind of painting revolutionaries in the 19th century, but they have gone somewhere entirely different and they’ve brought back the culture that they saw. The paintings are marvelous. The light, you don’t see anything like it, the architecture, the markets, the camels, the soldiery – it’s great stuff. So I loved all that, but particularly what I loved was that it was this marvelous moment where people for hundreds of years in our culture, for instance, have been saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, King Arthur. Yeah, sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Excalibur, you bet.” Then, it’s as if somebody goes down to the West country, the mist lifts and there on the moors is a stone, and in the stone is a sword and there’s this kid who lifts the stone out of the sword and everybody says he’s King Arthur. So the great epic story goes from being a sort of old wives’ tale to something that’s absolutely real just like that. In this movie, there is the scene where the sandstorm lifts and there in the valley is this extraordinary city and everybody says, “Holy God, that’s it.” Well, that’s a wonderful way of starting a story because then they break into the city, they offend the gods by breaking into the city. They steal the great religious object of the city, which is the knife, and trouble starts.

CS: Did he tell you this was a video game? Did he mention anything about the video game at all?
Newell: When I first went into it I was absolutely in ignorance of it being a video game. I then discovered within the first few weeks that it was a video game and said to him, “Look, what do you want? Do you want a video game? Because if you do, I think I’m the wrong guy for you. I don’t play video games. I’m not video-literate. I can just about send an email.” He said, “No, don’t worry about it.” I think the reason that he said that was that he knew that I would have other things to offer. There would be sort of character and story and emotional things that I would have to offer, and comedy and all of that. He didn’t want to freak me by saying, “Actually, the video game audience is very important to me”… and of course, it is. There are a lot of them out there and we must be very careful to satisfy them, you know? We don’t want to insult them, and we do want to satisfy them. I got this kind of feeling, I’m not sure where from, that there was an opinion in that gaming world, that there had never been a proper movie of a game that had satisfied them and they hoped that I wasn’t going to screw this one up. And so, at that point, I started to play the game. Well, I got the game played for me; I’m really bad at the game – he kept falling off the wall into the knives. I got my assistants to play the game and then we sort of got an idea of what the story was, how the game looked and we kind of cherry-picked it. Plus there was the great Jordie Mechner and Jordie and I got on like a house on fire and he’s a research freak. He’s actually read these ancient Persian texts and things like that. You can go to him and you can say, “What do you think about this Jordie?” or “What were the swords like?” or “Was the water really pure?” He’ll be able to tell you all of this fine, fine detail which gives it a great realism.

CS: When your name was announced for this, everyone said, “Well, he did a “Harry Potter” movie, so he should be able to do anything.” But of course, with that movie, you had three prior movies and all the actors in place already.
Newell: Aside from that, I mean, forget that. I’d been to that school. I’d been to a school like that. I’d been to a university like that and I knew the British school story. There is such a thing, there’s been 200 years of British school stories.

CS: Right, and then basically with this one you had to really kind of start from scratch.
Newell: No, no, which as far as I was concerned, this was one of the big attractions, that I didn’t owe anything to anybody. I could actually invent in my own course for myself. I loved that about it.

CS: Every actor I’ve talked to about this movie just loves you and many of them have mentioned that one of the reasons they wanted to do this movie was to work with you. Do you have any idea how you’ve established such a great rep among actors that would make that the case?
Newell: I suppose so. I don’t really know. What I do think is, I think that most people don’t know how to talk and certainly most people don’t know how to talk to actors. There may be a slight difference. Above everything else, people don’t listen. They don’t listen to you. So you get a sense of an actor’s potential, what he can do and what he can’t do, and sometimes what you want to do is to nudge him into what he can do. Other times you want to say, “You know what? You do that really, really well. Let’s do that again, but slightly differently.” Fred Molina who played Sheik Amar whom I’d worked with before. He played a very straight-laced London lawyer for me, but very very funny. Now he’s playing this loose disreputable stinky desert… We were talking about it and he said, “What do you think he’s like?” I said, “Well, I think he’s like Arthur Daley.” Arthur Daley is a very famous character in this country. He comes from a TV series. He’s a guy who sells dodgy cars, and I said, “I think Sheik Amar sells dodgy cars.” So you start to have fun talking to them. I don’t know why it is. I’ve always like them. I just like them. I wanted to be one. I was desperate to be one, but I was so bad. I was hopeless.

CS: You then end up with all these great actors who want to work with you and then you have them in the intense heat of Morocco, you have them riding horses, playing with ostriches. Prety much doing these crazy stunts. How did you get them into that kind of world?
Newell: Oh, they completely love it. Just like I don’t get the chance to make movies like this every day, because they just don’t make ’em anymore, these guys don’t get to act in them because they don’t make them anymore. The opportunities in it are absolutely great. I mean, again, it’s a story about Fred Molina, but when do you ever get the opportunity to raise your arms to the heavens and shout at the top of your voice, “Behold the mighty ostrich!” which is a God-given comedy line. It’s wonderful. When do you get to actually kiss an ostrich?

CS: Yeah, he told us the story on set. I was reading that before seeing this movie again. It’s hilarious.
Newell: Yeah, and Ben is the same. Ben gets a wonderful opportunity to play a really snaky bad guy. Toby Kebbell, who plays his sort of dim military brother, Toby’s very clever. He doesn’t get to play dim very often.

CS: Garsiv didn’t seem that dim to me in the movie, a little naïve maybe.
Newell: Yeah, but what he’s the sort of militarist. He’s the guy who always attacks head on because that’s the brave thing to do when actually the sensible thing to do is go around the back. Well, they were all like that and I had followed these actors’ careers. There was Richard Coyle who played the elder brother and there was Toby. I’d seen them all and thought, “One day, I’ll put him in my knapsack. He’s really useful.”

CS: I wanted to talk about the acting for a second because a movie like this, between being based on a video game and the Arabian saga, one can play this quite big, but actually, there’s a nice balance because no one is overacting, while they also have opportunities for Shakespearean type stuff. How did you find that right balance in how big the actors should play it?
Newell: You get a kind of instinct for that. I remember a wonderful actress I worked with one time saying, “God damn,” she said, “You’re a thing and a half.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “You’ve got such a great sh*t detector.” Of course, there is such a thing as a sh*t detector, and on this movie, I showed a cut to Jerry and he said, “No,” I said, “What’s the matter?” He said, “My sh*t detector goes off.” I said, “Oh, that’s important. I know about sh*t detectors and I also know it’s very difficult to explain what a sh*t detector is, but I do utterly believe that they exist. So, I’ll go away and I’ll do some more work and I’ll find out why it’s doing that to you.” You have to around actors because you’ve got to have a sh*t detector. You have to make sure that they are being in control, that they’re not over the edge with something.

CS: Did you have them do a lot of different versions of their scenes to work with in editing?
Newell: I, for myself, feel that there is a way to do it and I would prefer not to waste time and money on what essentially would be an experiment. I’d rather get the idea that I think is important right.

CS: I want to play devil’s advocate here because when this movie started casting, people were complaining that you weren’t hiring Arab actors. And there are a lot of great Arab actors out there, too. Was that a tough call to make?
Newell: Yes, that was a really tough call to make, not least because when I was looking for the girl, I wanted there to be a huge cultural split between the Persians on the one hand and wherever you said they came from on the other. The first thing I did when I started to make the movie was, I went out to the big map shop in London and I bought myself a huge relief map of the Middle East, so I could see where the Caspian Sea was, where the Black Sea was. I could see where ancient Persia had been and there was Persepolis and all those famous imperial towns. Then came Afghanistan, which is just kind of blank desert for the most part, then there is the line of hills where Bin Laden is apparently currently holed up. Then, there is the Great Green Valley–of course, on the map it is green–of the Indus River, and that’s where we put the town. That’s where we put the magic town so that when the desert army looks down into the valley, what it sees is this vision of something that he almost doesn’t believe. It sees green. It sees lush. It sees the story of the city from the old grandmother’s story. That’s a really powerful thing. I was fascinated by that moment of, “My God, it’s real.”

CS: That’s a good transition to my next question. I was really impressed with the sets you created and the environments between Morocco and the stuff you built here in London, so was most of that influenced by the book that Jerry sent you?
Newell: Kinda, and I then from there, once I’d got this map… the map was very important to me. I started to look at photographs of Afghanistan and I absolutely loved the landscape and I loved the look of the people. Now you asked me about did I feel bad about not casting all sorts of wonderful Arab actors? The answer is that yes, I did feel bad, but I knew that I was going to go to somewhere that would be appropriate. I looked at the faces that I saw in modern photography that’s only sort of 15 or 20 years old of Afghanistan and the villages and the country people and the camel trains and the flocks of goats and what not. There was a particular kind of face, which was actually very, very varied. I remember showing my designer one face and saying, “What’s Jude Law doing in this picture?” There was Jude Law. Then, we started to look for a landscape and I realized that actually Morocco, because they have this very strong, proud heritage, the Berbers who are the kind of mountain people in Morocco, they were conquered by the Arabs in the sixth century when they came around the southern edge of the Mediterranean, but they were very fierce, the Berbers. They became the sort of shock troops for the Arabs and it was the Berbers who took Spain. They’re still there. There they are, and the two languages in Morocco are Arabic and Berber and some French. You could see they had these very convoluted bloodlines in their faces. They looked like the faces of the Afghans and the Persians that I had been looking at in all the pictures. So I felt that I had in fact done okay by the Arabs in the end.

CS: Did you bring some of them over to London when you began shooting here?
Newell: We brought some over, and we went to endless trouble. There’s an enormous Muslim population in England now. They came from Birmingham and London and all sorts of places. Again, the bloodlines were right.

CS: The story for this is so complex, particularly the relationship between the characters, but the movie is under two hours which is amazing – was it hard to keep this under 2 hours? You mentioned that it was a 200-page script originally.
Newell: Yes, yes. It was very hard, but oddly enough, we left almost nothing on the floor. We don’t have a scene omitted (i.e. an outtake) reel. There isn’t enough. What we did was, we squished it and Jerry would drive me absolutely nuts. I had these marvelous British editors whom I’d worked with before and I thought were absolutely wonderful. There was something that I wasn’t doing and Jerry went and said, “Look, just try this guy.” He brought in Spielberg’s editor, a guy called Michael Kahn. All Michael did was to just squish it, just squeeze it down, and so it went from 118 minutes to 110, which isn’t very much on a big picture like that. But every time Jerry would say, “Get on with it. Get on with it!” I would curse and swear at him and I’d say, “For f*ck’s sake, Jerry, you just got ADD. You know, what is this?” He said, “I would make this movie four and a half minutes long if you let me, and you’d better watch out, because that’s what I’ll try to do.” So there was that kind of tension in it the whole time of go quickly. The big thing about Jerry is no matter what else, he knows that audience. He really knows his audience and little towns in the Midwest, when the posters go up, people will go along and they’ll say, “Oh, Jerry Bruckheimer.” That will be like a Sears Catalog. It will be okay, okay for quality.

CS: I was really curious about you working with Jerry Bruckheimer because it seemed like a strange combination.
Newell: Yeah, I think it was strange. I thought it was really, really strange and I put a lot of work into understanding Jerry and knowing that I was making a genre, that this was a Bruckheimer Picture. A Bruckheimer Picture is not Bruckheimer, it’s Bruckheimer values, it’s Bruckheimer instincts, but it isn’t Bruckheimer himself. He’s not that kind of crazy movie mogul inflated ego kind of a guy.

CS: He’s not trying to direct it himself.
Newell: No, he’s a brand. He’s not trying to direct it himself until he gets into the cutting room and then he gets tough.

CS: I wanted to ask about the sands of time sequences because those must have been hard to construct, the stunts also, and the way you’ve been able to use freerunning to duplicated the action from the video game, but the sands of time sequences are really amazing because it must’ve been really complex to set up.
Newell: Yeah, but I mean again, on these big films you do have the most wonderful people to collaborate with. The second unit director who handles a lot of the attack on the gate–Alexander Witt–he’s a wonderful guy and I want to send Alexander a big thank you and my great love, please write it down, please.

CS: I will. I’m a big fan of his as well.
Newell: He’s really terrific. The same was true of the CGI people, the computer graphic people. There’s a wonderful guy who you won’t know, but had done great work in this country called Tom Wood. These guys are like your left and right arms. I’d said to Tom, “I want somehow or another for the dagger to disassemble the human being of whom it’s influence is going to be exerted, they’re going to go back in time. I want it to be like sand, like the body is broken down into it’s constituent molecules, like grains of sand and then from there it will go backwards and then finally the wind will blow and the excess sand will blow away and there you are, you’re back again.”

CS: Easier said than done I’d imagine.
Newell: Yeah, much, much easier said than done, but these brilliant guys–they’re very, very brilliant–these guys went to work on it and 18 months later, there it is. But we started work on those sequences in May of ’08 and they were finally ready and delivered in November of ’09, so that’s eighteen months.

CS: They were working on that stuff, while you were filming of course.
Newell: Oh sure, and we obviously had to do special photography for them and we did a lot of special photography for them.

CS: Didn’t you have eight cameras or something like that?
Newell: More, 12, and they would fire around a semicircle–bing, bing, bing, bing, like that–so you would get a kind of flutter of the various angles on the action. Then they make granular stuff into it, and it’s the most wonderful effect. It’s really exciting. It’s one of my favorite bits in the whole movie is seeing both that one and the very first one where Jake is completely freaked by what’s happening to him. Also, I love the one with Richard Coyle, the elder brother, Tus. I think that’s a very dramatic one. It’s not just a cool effect, it is that the character himself is frightened of what’s happening to him as of course he would be.

CS: In this movie, you do a lot of the stunts practically with a combination of stuntmen and Jake doing stuff, but there’s also many CG-heavy sequences like the sandslide. Jake told me earlier that it was all done on green screen.
Newell: It’s all green screen and a skateboard like that down which he slid.

CS: In “Potter” there was obviously a lot of CG creatures…
Newell: Well, there were half a dozen huge sequences. There was the dragons, there was the underwater, there was the hedge doing all sorts of weird sh*t. Then there was the fight between Ralph (Fiennes) and Dan Radcliffe, that sort of big, heavy CG thing there. There were these great big sequences and it was a great, great… I hesitate to say training vehicle, but it was a training vehicle at a quarter of a billion dollars. But it was successful and it made lots of money and of course, I learned to do lots of things, which I could then push the limits of on this one.

CS: Was this movie ever going to be PG or was it always going to be PG-13? I’m really curious because at one time I thought they were going to try to make this more for younger kids.
Newell: No, I think it was always headed towards PG – there was one sequence which we took out which I absolutely loved which was Garsiv bringing in these chests of treasure and giving them to the king as a gift of respect. Then, that came from his elder brother, and then the king used to say, “And you my son, what have you brought me?” (Garsiv) said, “I’ve brought you the heads of the rebels.” These great big turines would be opened and there, on crushed ice, would be the severed heads. It was a fabulous sequence. They took it out because they were jumpy about the rating.

CS: You could probably have gotten away with the heads with a PG-13.
Newell: Yeah, but then again, Jerry would then be able to say, “Ah, it’s too long.” Jerry’s got ADD. “Jerry, for f*ck sake, you’ve got ADD!” “Yes, I know I have.”

CS: That’s so funny. I did my interview with Jerry earlier and he gave really short answers. I was like, “You can say more,” but he didn’t want to.
Newell: (Laughs) That’s Jerry.

CS: Short and fast.
Newell: (Laughs) Yup.

CS: So obviously you’ve been done with this for a while now. Have you started thinking about what you’re going to do next?
Newell: Yeah, I’ve got several things that I’m interested to make–one is a children’s story, a real children’s–younger than this, but I think it’s gonna be a marvelous script by Frank Cottrell Boyce who was the guy who wrote a film called “Millions.”

CS: Of course. He’s worked with Danny Boyle.
Newell: He does a lot with him.

CS: And he wrote “24 Hour Party People.”
Newell: Yes, he did. Then there’s a thriller, a sort of modern thriller based on real life. There’s another show that I’m interested in with Jordie. Jordie and I have got an idea. Then, there’s a really good Second World War spy story which I’m very interested in. So I’ve got these half dozen things that I’m busy developing. Frankly, I can do with six easy months while I work with the writers and find which of these various projects is gonna go.

CS: Are any of these things from before you started “Prince of Persia?”
Newell: Yeah, certainly the children’s thing is, and there’s an adaptation of a Dickens’ story, that predates it, yeah.

CS: The children’s story, is that an original story for the screen?
Newell: It’s not. It’s from a book that was a children’s book that was once very famous and now has sort of fallen out and people aren’t aware of it anymore called “The Box of Delights,” but it’s a great story. You won’t know it.

CS: It does sound familiar though.
Newell: Well, it sounds familiar because it is such a fabulous title.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opens nationwide on Friday, May 28. Look for our video interviews with the cast sometime next week.