Q&A: Jordan Mechner and Jerry Bruckheimer on 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time'

Download the HD trailer

The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time movie won't be in theaters until May 2010, but the marketing winds are already picking up with the release of the first full-length trailer (above) -- and it looks ... kinda good. What's more, the original game's creator, Jordan Mechner, has filed an application for the trademark, "Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands," suggesting that a new game could be in the works. More recent remarks, like those found in this Q&A, seem to indicate that an announcement from Ubisoft is coming shortly.

We attended a group Q&A session with Mechner and movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer last week during the unveiling of the trailer and heard about the legacy of the franchise, casting of Jake Gyllenhaal, plans for a movie sequel, Easter eggs hidden on-screen, and hints of a new game. Leap across the break for the full discussion.

So which games is The Sands of Time movie based on?

Jordan Mechner: 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.

Did we see the Dark Prince in there? Something looked shadowy and seemed to be transforming.

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

Your brother was the character model for the original game. Did he make it into the film at all?

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.

Do you have any more videos of him to put online?

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

We'd imagine the rewind-time special effect would be expensive to produce. Was there a limit to how many times you could implement that effect in terms of budget?

Jerry 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.

How long did it take to get that effect right?

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 animatic 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.

Game-licensed movies are notoriously bad. How are you trying to avoid that outcome?

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, creating interesting characters, creating the romance, creating the action, having you care about the characters, and putting them in very dramatic situations.

And I think that is what this has done with Jordan's help, and Jordan was very involved. I think you wrote one of the first screenplays, didn't you?

Mechner: I wrote the first two drafts. I think a big challenge of video game adaptations in general is the first thing that is lost in the adaptation is the gameplay, 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. You know, how interesting the story is in itself. It is very satisfying at the end.

A huge part of the Prince of Persia games is the "platforming" gameplay. In the movie trailer you can see that a bit of that has carried over. How integral is that element in the movie?

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 Errol 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.

What's the essential element that leads to a successful movie adaptation of Prince of Persia?

Mechner: Well first, the world with the One Thousand and One Nights 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 re-conceived 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.

Jerry, did Jordan bring this movie to you? How did you find out about it?

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

Mechner: 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 of drafts and we kept embellishing. Just like ... you know, how 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.

Have you played any of the games?

Bruckheimer: Sure. Sure.

Did you finish any of them?

Bruckheimer: No, of course not. [Laughter.]

You just test screened the movie. What was the running time, and what was the reaction? Is it good enough?

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 1:47, 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.

As a producer, what was more important to you, making an entertaining movie or a faithful adaptation of a video game?

Bruckheimer: I think you have 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 the "Prince of Persia Prodigy" trademark awhile back, and then the "Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands" trademark more recently. Are those related to movies or games -- or both? 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.

Do you know if the trademarks could be

for the movie, or are they related to tie-in product -- 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.

Jerry, Pirates of the Caribbean became a very successful film franchise. Are you already thinking about future movie installments of Prince of Persia?

Bruckheimer: 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, is he drunk, is he ... 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.

Did you set up this first film for a sequel?

Bruckheimer: No. I don't think ...

Mechner: I don't either.

Bruckheimer: There was nothing in Pirates that we ever thought signaled there was going to be another movie. But 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.

Jordan, you seem to have held on to the Prince of Persia IP forever. It feels like you loaned it out to Ubisoft and now Disney. How have you been able to hold onto your character and your IP and sort of loan it out? Has it always been 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.

What's the one part of the movie that is most different from the game?

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 -- Prince Dastan -- 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.

The tone of the movie, at least in the trailer, seems to be lighter than the games. Is that the case?

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 a test screening. What was your reaction to watching your creation like that?

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.

Are there throwbacks to the first game in this movie -- anything that we're going to recognize from that game? Like spikes coming out of the ground? Does the Prince kick open a lot of jars and hang by his fingertips?

Mechner: There are. I don't want to give anything away, but ... okay. I mean if you played the first Prince of Persia, you know that it's 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? Who is like, "Throw me the idol and I will throw you the whip."


Well, that's Alfred Molina, and he's in this movie.

So, why did you choose Jake Gyllenhaal for this role?

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.

Mechner: 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, Errol 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.

What's it like to think 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-La. 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 Legos, too, is also pretty staggering.

How are you going to capitalize on this movie? Is there a new video game coming in 2010, or a collection of past games, or a tie-in with the movie? What's coming 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.

Ubisoft's logo wasn't in the trailer. Is the game publisher involved at all? Are Ubisoft's Prince of Persia projects going to remain separate from Disney's?

Mechner: 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.

Jerry, speaking of games, you recently announced Bruckheimer Games. Has that venture lead to anything yet, 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 IPs.

Editors' Note: The preceding interview is based on a press-only group Q&A session, which Joystiq attended, with Jordan Mechner and Jerry Bruckheimer. The questions in this publishing are versions of those asked by Joystiq and other outlets that

have been partially edited to be most coherent and succinct. Answers have not been altered from the original transcription.