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Prince of Persia – Director Mike Newell on being back in the fantasy genre

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Prince of Persia - Director Mike Newell, Gemma Arterton and Jake Gyllenhaal
Director Mike Newell, Gemma Arterton (obscured) and Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) © Disney Enterprises and Jerry Bruckheimer

Director Mike Newell has worked in varied genres, helming such successful movies as Dance with a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings as a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Love in the Time of Cholera and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Back in the fantasy genre for his new movie Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the story centers on a mystical dagger that can reverse time, allowing its possessor to rule the world. Framed for the murder of his father, Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) reluctantly joins forces with the mysterious Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) to guard the ancient dagger from the dark forces that wished to seize it.

Mike, were there any classic adventure films that you looked at to get a sense of the tone and tenor that you wanted to achieve with this film?

I looked at everything you would expect me to look at. I looked at The Thief of Baghdad; I looked at Harrison Ford (in Indiana Jones), they were very important.  David Lean was very important. I longed to do the charge on Acaba from Lawrence of Arabia.

Prince of Persia -  Toby Kebbell, Richard Coyle and Jake Gyllenhaal
Garsiv (Toby Kebbell), Tus (Richard Coyle) and Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) © Disney Enterprises and Jerry Bruckheimer

All those great big movies of the fifties and further back as well. But I also reckoned that if what I could do was to make this great big, booming five ring circus of a movie, and also have it anchored in intimate, frank, tender, one-on-one scenes where people were telling one another the emotional truth, then you would touch the audience in their hearts in a way that simply big battle scenes were never quite going to. You had to have the intimate with the colossal.

What attracted you to the story?

I loved the idea of it being a living myth that you are watching. This is a story that’s absolutely real and extraordinary – a non-rational, non-physical universe as we now understand it. These things happen in this film.

The more exquisite, the more dark, the more agonized, the more true to our fallible human natures a film can be – that’s a good Brit picture. But lately, I’ve been really interested in great, big entertainment – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is exactly that – great, big entertainment – and I’m very pleased to have (done) it.

How was Jake Gyllenhaal cast as the role of Dastan?

Prince of Persia - Jake Gyllenhaal
Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) © Disney Enterprises and Jerry Bruckheimer

I started to think about young actors that I knew, and I kept coming back to Jake. I’d seen lots of his movies. I’d actually known him when he was a kid. What it was about him was that I knew that he would be a rebel and I needed a rebel. I needed a kid who’d come off the streets and who had been taken into a royal family but wasn’t blood royal.

I thought that he had a wonderful comic sense, I loved the notion of him playing comedy and of course he’s very handsome and his acting is beyond doubt.

What I didn’t know about Jake was that he would be an absolutely God-given action hero. He can fight, hold a sword, run, clamber, jump and ride a horse as if he were glued to the back of it. That I didn’t expect, and it’s no small thing.

What was it about Gemma Arterton that made her right for the role of Princess Tamina?

It was a long process.

I looked at lots and lots of people. I looked at Iranian actresses, I looked at Israeli and Egyptian actresses, obviously British and American, but I was on my way to Bollywood because I wanted a particular luscious, exotic look to this girl so that the two cultures, the Persians on the one hand and the Aleutians on the other, would be physically very different.

Then Gemma walked in and the great thing about Gemma was that she was so young.

I wanted to find somebody who was innocent and untested and for whom the events of the story would be a huge challenge. Gemma was only twenty-one and just fresh out of drama school, so she was very interesting to me for that reason.

Then I discovered as I auditioned her more and more that she was a fabulous actress and looked pretty much exactly what I wanted the girl to look like.

Jake and Gemma’s characters have snappy chemistry in the tradition of really great adversarial romantic pairings in film. When did you realize that they had such great chemistry together?

Prince of Persia - Gemma Arterton and Jake Gyllenhaal
Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) and Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) © Disney Enterprises and Jerry Bruckheimer

I think when we actually started to do it. We did a couple of weeks of serious rehearsing, but everybody was still pulling their punches, everybody was not completely committed. And then you get on and you actually start to shoot it and they were still holding back, and I finally said, ‘Oh come on, cut loose for God’s sake.’

Then they started to grate on one another like sandpaper on iron. Then it got to be interesting, and that only happened when they were actually in front of the camera.