Exclusive Interview: Mike Newell on creating a cinematic crown for ‘Prince of Persia’

HollywoodNews.com: It almost seems hard to imagine that a director who worked as far back as 1964 could be helming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, but Mike Newell is cut from the same cloth as luminaries like John Glen and Terence Young – Brits with the competence and professionalism to tackle virtually any challenge they faced. After more than two decades as a director of television shows, Newell made a cinematic breakthrough with Four Weddings and a Funeral, then moved on to the acclaimed crime drama Donnie Brasco, and eventually, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As such, Prince of Persia is just another stepping stone, an example of the director’s versatility and talent regardless of genre or content.

Hollywood News sat down with Newell at the San Francisco Comic-Con in April for an exclusive chat about Persia. In addition to talking in depth about the challenges of bringing a video game to life on the silver screen, Newell talked about his indefatigable but irreverent take on contemporary blockbusters, and his attitude about filmmaking and his approach to material that may seem to appeal to audiences that expect action and energy rather than character and storytelling.

Hollywood News: Because video game adaptations have sort of a dubious pedigree, does that put more pressure on you to do a particularly good job in adapting this, or does it embolden you to be able to be more free and do whatever you want?

Mike Newell: Well, I think it’s more like the latter but you have to remember that… I mean, there are two things to be said about that. One is that, when we began, I said to Jerry [Bruckheimer], how important is a strict obedience to the game going to be? And he [didn’t say] I am completely not interested in the game. I think what he was saying is you’ve got to be free. And so from that moment, what I concentrated on first was making a drama. So I concentrated on the casting and the characters and the writing and the this and that and the other.

While all that was going on, I started my own feeble attempts to play the game and I was absolutely terrible at it. I’m just not – well, it’s not in my culture. I am the age I am and I was hopeless with it. I played the sort of first version of the game and I was absolutely hopeless and he fell into the revolving knives every time. And then I realized that this was going to be a colossal waste of time if I was going to do it all and so I got one of my assistants to come along and, you know, every day or so we would sit down and we would have an hour on the game and he would play the game and enjoy himself furiously and I would be able to watch the sort of things that happened and very interestingly watched the architecture of the things as did all the design people. They all watched it very carefully.

And then we became aware – I can’t remember exactly when this was, I think just before we started shooting so we were that stage about seven, eight months in, a whole new look came out to a new version of the game. And it was obviously, hugely increased power. The costumes, the detail, the weaponry were all very, very exact and then we did begin to take some stuff from that so that it would at least look like that, it would have a visual reference to it, even some moves. There were little bits of parkour and whatnot. We were very careful about the parkour. We got the great French guys who sort of invented the whole sport. They came in from Paris and they taught us how to do parkour and we progressively wrote that into the film and so by the time we finished, we sort of had our own version of where the game took us, but we did not have a reproduction of the game which I think everybody felt was probably dangerous.

Hollywood News: Well, that said, were there specific, less so in terms of constructing the world than even maybe visual or behavioral flourishes?

Newell: Yes. Well, there were actual shots sometimes. You can see as the game is played, you can see that there are certain kind of physical postures. There’s one particular one where he kind of, where he jumps from heights and as he descends, he has his, kind of his arms spread and the cloak on his shoulder spreads and he’s like some terrific eagle descending on his prey. We use that.    And we were pretty interested in a lot of the wall running, which is very spectacular and you sort of think in the game, you think, he can’t do that. But actually when you try it on the set, you can, in fact, run about four steps horizontal to the ground and we do do that.

Hollywood News: Well, in the press conference, you were talking about, or you and Gerry both were talking about sort of the idea of times to a sense or realism.

Newell: That is very, very important.

Hollywood News: But where is the line for you in terms of creating a sense of realism and telling the most compelling story? You can be as realistic as you want to be, but that doesn’t necessarily make the most interesting movie. How did you sort of figure out where to draw the line or say, all right, somebody couldn’t actually do that but it’s more visually interesting or dramatically compelling?

Newell: Well, to start with, I know this sounds crazy, but we had to put them into the right kind of moral or almost religious universe. In other words, they had to believe in the basic premise of the story, that there were gods, they had to believe that. That there was such a thing as fate or destiny, they had to believe that. And they had to believe the whole business of if the gods get lathered up then they are going to, just like they did with Noah, they’re going to wipe the world out. And they’re going to do that not by a wet storm, but with sand; they’re going to drown the world in sand. Did I tell a story about the Italian archeologists?

Hollywood News: No.

Newell: Oh, completely fascinating. There is an ancient story, real sort of, you know, Troy age kind of myth story of the army that went missing in the desert and it was one of those Arabian kings, Nebuchadnezzar or somebody like that, who was having trouble in Egypt or somewhere like that. The Egyptians wanted their independence so he sent an army out to crush them. And the army went into the Egyptian desert and they never came out the other side. They just vanished. And everybody thought, oh, well, you know, this is sort of 800 BC, it doesn’t mean a thing. And then eighteen months ago they found the bloody army, twenty feet down in the sand, under a kind of rock ledge that they would have used and they reckon they were overwhelmed by a sandstorm. So there they were. And I was really interested in having that kind of world exist in these characters’ heads, that they would believe that that could be done, that God could, or the gods, whichever, could actually manipulate the world in order to make a kind of moral point, that gods were boss. I’ve now talked completely found and forgotten your question.

Hollywood News: Can you talk about the idea of knowing the balance between creating something that was fully realistic and something that maybe is less credible but is more dramatically effective.

Newell: Well, then there we have something that had to be the case or you couldn’t imagine these people doing what they did. If you have simply only modern beliefs, you’re not going to believe that God sends a sandstorm. That just doesn’t fly. And so you have to have them believe that stuff. And kind of everything else sort of flows from that. You’ve got to make a world where a whole new other set of beliefs is credible. And that was a huge thing for me, to make the performances, the script, the situations in which people found themselves obey the rules of that kind of thing. And that was more important to me than making it accurate to a series of video game moves. Then I could draft whatever I wanted onto the top of it but with Harry Potter, for instance, you’ve got to believe that there’s magic. You’ve got to believe that when he fixed the wand like that, something happens the other end or there ain’t no story. And the same is true of this but with a different set of beliefs.

Hollywood News: Well, in the early footage showed to audiences, there was this fascinating use of zooms and pans in these, like, sort of great panoramic shots. That’s something that seems to have become more prominent in a lot of action movies more recently. How do you decide how to incorporate that into sort of the visual construction of the movie to both depict the spectacle and then sort of sharpen the focus on certain things?

Newell: Well, I shot much more spectacle than I put on the screen. And the reason for that was that Jerry came along at a relatively late stage and said, get on with it. They’re not going to stand for this. The film was at that stage running at about 120 minutes. Film now runs 108 minutes. And he simply said, they won’t stand for this, get on with it. I said, ah, f*ck you, Jerry, you’ve just got ADD. And you have also created ADD in your audience and so it’s now an induction loop and it’s just feeding round and round and round. And I know you, you don’t want any shot to last more than 25 frames. And we had a lot of rather sour jokes about that because I do believe that, and I do think that we lost some stuff that way. But of course, what did happen was that in order to do what you’re talking about, in order to have sort of big shots but also keep this incredible Bruckheimer drive in it, you had to say to yourself, well, grab the big shots, grab the epic shots while you can. Design them in so that they can’t be cut or tinkered with and then put the pace into it with the kind of fast, sometimes almost commercial cutting that you do elsewhere. And it was a way, simply, of coping with that. You had to have both things. You had to have the epic big shots and I just had to get Jerry off my back.

Hollywood News: Given the logistical constraints or economic constraints now and just the ability to render so much stuff in a computer, what is sort of key to creating that epic, sweeping visual style and storytelling in an age in which audiences are so savvy that they automatically pick up where all the things are composited together.

Mike Newell: Well, what I think is two-fold. One is that it doesn’t matter how sophisticated the computers are. If you don’t give the guys who are running that side of the show a compelling emotional story – that is, these soldiers are in danger, are they gonna get through the gate or are they not, or these two young people are in love and they have to climb in order to get to the next part of the plot, what is the case is that those predicaments have got to be very keenly felt. You’ve got to feel on the edge of your seat with the predicaments. So that’s the first thing, and that’s nothing to do with any technique aside from writing, acting, putting it together, knowing where the tensions lie, how you would ramp up the tensions, how people would respond in dangerous situations. So all of that is absolutely standard, old-fashioned movie making.

What you’d have to say is that if David Lean had had what I’ve got when Peter O’Toole charges Akabah, he would have used it like crazy. The only reason that he didn’t use it was that he didn’t have the techniques. Actually Lawrence is not my favorite of his films, my favorite is Bridge on the River Kwai. One of the things that’s absolutely great about the River Kwai is that the bridge and the collapse of the bridge and the train going into the river and all that kind of stuff, that’s all absolutely physically real. And there’s a great kind of joy in that. But I’m sure that if he didn’t have to go deep into the jungle in Sri Lanka and built all that stuff, he wouldn’t have. But you see, it’s got it’s own challenges.

When we had to build the city of Alamet, because Alamet had to have a very specific emotional weight to it, nobody in our story knows whether Alamet is actually fabled, not real or what. Is this Alamet? If it is Alamet, are we seeing it, or is it some kind of weird dream? Because it’s very famous and nobody’s ever seen it. And so you design a city with a certain kind of shape and the first shape that we had was this long thing with a spike on the top and the great temple would be at the very top of that tower and so that gives you shape. But then the guys who were going to do that, the computer graphics people who were gonna do that, went to India, and they came back with these extraordinary textures. Bits of wall, bits of roofs, gardens, so on and so forth which they then photographed and they then stuck all of the city like making a kid’s jigsaw. And so in a case like that, you’d say, well the technique is completely not realistic and yet the textures and the effects are absolutely realistic. And with a bit of luck, what you can do is to make the audience forget, oh yeah, look, the matte line’s there. You can make them forget all that.

Hollywood News: Notwithstanding his obvious charisma and commercial appeal, what quality was it in Jake that you thought made him perfect to play this guy?

Newell: Common man. That’s what it was. It was that I wanted everybody to not remember intellectually but through the seat of their pants that he was not royal blood, that he was a street kid. All the time he was a street kid. So what a prince does is what a prince should do. He goes to the main gate where everybody’s standing waiting to be attacked, and he attacks. Whereas a street said, that’s a loser way to do it. Let’s creep in over the back gate. And so off he goes. And it was that kind of cheeky, irreverent, trickster sort-of Odysseus kind of thing which I thought Jake would be absolutely brilliant at and I thought that there was absolutely a character that had never been done like that before in that portrayal.

Hollywood News: I think people may have been surprised when you first took on Harry Potter because the projects that you’d done before then were sort of more character intensive. Did you imagine that the sort of filmmaking that you would be doing in your career would run this sort of broad spectrum?

Newell: No, because it didn’t exist. When I began, it simply didn’t exist. I remember very well, I was doing a film, in fact, and in the end, I didn’t make it, that was set in late Victorian England and I had to do a scene on the night that the British victory in the Boer War, it becomes public knowledge and of course, the whole of London goes crazy. I had 40 people and I said, I don’t know how on earth am I going to do this, and the designer said to me, I have heard of a technique and this was the beginning of that. And then George Lucas ran a show, TV show, called The Young Indy, which was an absolute godsend to guys like me in England because whenever we weren’t working or whenever we owed money and were being punished for it, we could go off where we could earn money by doing a Young Indy and what George was doing was he was using that TV show, and nobody could understand. George, nobody’s watching – what the fuck are you [doing]? And George knew more than all of us, and he was in fact using it as a test bed for all of the software for the stuff that we are now able to do. So George could take 40 people and he could make the big, wide public streets in London full of celebrating people. No problem whatsoever. But of course, until that existed, what did you do? You… I don’t know. What was your question?

Hollywood News: I was wondering sort of how you maybe had seen the trajectory of your career-

Newell: You couldn’t predict that, and now that it’s there, I think that I would think to myself that it would be just kind of daft and wrong-headed to say, no, no, no. We’re going to do a dogma film, it’s absolutely strict rules of golf. You are not allowed to do this, you’re not allowed to do that and no computers allowed within a hundred miles of this show. It would be crazy to do that. Why not use it? It’s getting cheaper all the time. It’s getting more sophisticated all the time. But I think when I began, it wasn’t imaginable.

Hollywood News: Well, is it hard to crawl inside all that machinery and still make it a personal experience?

Newell: Oh, totally. I mean, they said to me on Harry Potter, because every thought, as you do, I think, Warner Brothers thought as well, what does this guy know? And they said, well, what kind of film are you going to make, thinking I was going to kind of blather about, well, we could do, you know, have this, and the dragons could do that. And I said, I’m going to make a paranoid thriller. And they didn’t understand that and I said, well, it’s like North By Northwest. The leading character begins the film with the bad guys after him for a very good reason, but he doesn’t know that anybody’s after him, let alone what the reasons are. And he spends most of the story not knowing what the reasons are, and that’s exactly the arc that Harry Potter IV has. The bad guys are after Harry because they need three drops of his blood because if they can get three drops of his blood, they can recreate the bad guy back to what he always was. But Harry doesn’t know that. Harry just knows that a lot of bad stuff is happening to him.

And so that, in a way, I could say, I don’t care how ignorant I am. It’s your job to fix that. I’ll tell you this is the story, this is the absolutely compelling story. We’re going to cut everything that doesn’t, and I never heard a peep out of it. Everybody was worried that there would be a kind of backlash from the audience and it never happened, because what you were giving them was this thriller.

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