“I’ve seen the movie. It’s fantastic,” says Prince Of Persia’s star Jake Gyllenhaal. His director Mike Newell is even more pleased with it. “It’s colossal,” he nods. Their producer Jerry Bruckheimer backs them both up. “I thought it was brilliant,” he declares. “I loved it. It was just amazing.”
Typical. Hollywood types giving themselves a big pat on the back. Actually, no. They’re not talking about Prince Of Persia. They’re talking about the movie that everyone’s (still) talking about. Cruising past Titanic’s record and still screening strong after two months in cinemas, James Cameron’ seismic 3D sci-fi adventure Avatar has become the highest grossing movie ever at the worldwide box-office and changed the cinematic landscape forever.
How does anyone compete with that? If one man stands a chance, it’s the man behind the last billion-dollar franchise to rock Hollywood. “I hate to compare our film to anybody’s, but James certainly makes it hard,” admits Jerry Bruckheimer, who counts Avatar in his top three of 2009 along with The Hangover and The Hurt Locker. “We just need to try to make you feel better when you walk out than went you walked in.”
As ever, you have to marvel at the size of Bruckheimer’s balls. Roughly around the same time that Cameron began shooting Avatar, the Pirates Of The Caribbean producer bought the rights to smash-hit videogame series Prince Of Persia. For once, no one ventured that great videogames never make good movies. “We took a lot of heat from the media that we were making this movie based on a theme-park ride,” he shrugs. “Then we put Johnny Depp in it and they thought we were really crazy. You go with your instincts.”
If videogame adaptations are the cyanide pills of Hollywood filmmaking, does Bruckheimer know something no one else does? “If there was a recipe, a lot of people would be making huge hit movies,” he shrugs. “It comes down to what’s in the writer’s head, always.” There are four names on Prince Of Persia’s screenplay. Jordan Mechner, creator of the game, wrote the initial script. Disney then hired The Day After Tomorrow screenwriter Jeffery Nachmanoff, whose work, if any, has not been credited. Overhauls were done by Boaz Yakin (whose last produced script was Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights) and Doug Miro and Carlo Bernard (the duo behind horror flop The Uninvited).
Four writers, four reasons to be worried. Brit director Mike Newell, surprise-signed by Bruckheimer to direct his first blockbuster, was worried. “I heard terrible stories of other movies of this type,” he explains. “Where people had gone in to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on nothing more than a 15-page treatment. And I vowed that would not happen to me.” Despite helming the excellent Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, Newell was known less for blockbuster than for dramas (Donnie Brasco) and character comedies (Four Weddings And A Funeral and Donnie Brasco).
And it’s here that Prince Of Persia starts to make sense. Newell couldn’t give a damn about videogames. He told his assistant to play the game for him and started watching movies instead. “I looked at epics like Lawrence Of Arabia and Gladiator to see what would an audience expect,” he remembers. “What I found was these other epics lacked one thing that my story had in spades: mystery and magic.” But one movie offered an even better template. “Yes, Indiana Jones was pretty important to me,” he says. “You couldn’t say the characters are the same, but it has that mixture of action and a wonderful comedic touch.” And the script? “The script is there. The script is very, very good.”
That script travels back to magical, medieval Persia, where heroic Prince Dastan must battle human and inhuman foes to stop a bitter villain from unleashing a sandstorm that could destroy the entire world. At the eye of the storm is the Dagger of Time, weapon of incredible power. “If you press the jewel on its hilt, you go back in time,” explains Newell. “You can avoid death. You can, in effect, see the future.” explains Newell. “Every time you see the dagger perform that trick, it’s very, very exciting. Because you’re absolutely not expecting it.” He frowns. “Except it’s not now because you’re going to tell them all and spoil the surprise!”
An even bigger surprise was coming: the man playing Prince Of Persia’s action hero is best known for spooning Heath Ledger in a tent. “Jerry said, ‘Who do you want to play Dastin? And I said, ‘I want Jake Gyllenhaal.’” Bruckheimer didn’t even blink. “With Tom Cruise in Top Gun it worked for us,” retorts the producer. “With Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, two comedians, in Bad Boys it worked for us again. Johnny Depp, you never saw him in a big adventure. Nic Cage, we put him in The Rock and I don’t think you ever saw him in a role like that. He’d just got an Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas. Not exactly an action hero, you know?”
But there’s no getting around it, dropping a $200m franchise on the shoulders of a sleepy-eyed 27-year-old who’s barely thrown a punch in his career was another massive gamble. “Yeah, sure it is,” says Newell. “But I’ve known Jake since he was a little boy and I’d seen this quality on screen. He’s not like John Wayne, who’s a massive block of wood. You can always see into him. He has a very soft and gentle side to him but Jake is an action hero made in heaven.”
Faced with the biggest role of his career, Gyllenhaal rebuilt himself completely. He hit the gym and the fridge for four months, stacking on six pounds of lean muscle, even more than his buff-up for Iraq drama Jarhead. Donnie Darko disappeared behind a wall of muscle, a shoulder-length mane of hero-hair and a steely glint in the eye. Well, he’d almost disappeared. “I went out of for dinner and I had two people come up to me and go like, ‘Donnie Darko is the best film in the world!’” he laughs. “I was like, ‘Are you stoned?’ I really think they were. But I mean, yes and no. I’m still dealing with the mystery of time! I care about this one as much as I care about that one. So I don’t think I’m far away at all. But yes, I have grown up a lot. And yeah, this movie is huge.”
This movie isn’t just huge. It’s the biggest of Gyllenhaal’s career. If he fails, the movie fails too. “Um… Huh!” Gyllenhaal goes quiet for a second. Then laughs. “Wow, yeah, you’re right! Yeah, thanks a lot! You’re totally freaking me out… Look, I think there is a legacy of these films. People who’ve done them and pulled them off. And those who haven’t. Indiana Jones is one of my favourite films ever. That’s what I want to challenge and that was the pressure I felt. It’s me every day. I’m the guy.”
For 105 days, in sweltering Morocco and on Pinewood Studio’s soundstages, Gyllenhaal had the chance to prove it. “Everything was based in reality,” says Gyllenhaal. “Any action had to be actually done. In the videogame, you see the Prince running on walls. So how do we do that? We had David Belle, the so-called inventor of parkhour. He can jump from building to building /without/ wires.”
Mostly, though, it was Gyllenhaal himself. Running, jumping, horseriding, punching, ducking, swordfighting… “If an actor takes it into his head to be wet about stuff, there’s no part of him in the scene,” says Newell. “And a tremendous amount of the time – much, much more than you would find in a normal movie – it’s Jake actually doing that stuff. So it immediately takes on a realism and an electricity that it wouldn’t otherwise have.”
That’s Prince OF Persia other answer to Avatar’s blue-screen mo-cap magic: a bracing dose of the reality. Opening with a giant scene of a Persian city that wowed even Bruckheimer, Newell’s movie kept Gyllenhaal thankful of those four months in the gym. “The bad guys all have different powers, so I fight them in all different ways,” he says. “There’s a great fight, where one of them has these whips with blades on the end. Then I fight another guy who has blades for hands. And another one who shoots spikes. And there’s some great chases in the movie, involving sword fighting and parkhour… um, and humour! Which is the hardest part of action.”
He’s only half-kidding. As the priestess princess who forms a love-hate relationship with Dastan, Gemma Arterton also stepped up to the biggest role of her life and one of the juiciest female leads since, well, a James Cameron movie. “She could definitely give as good as she got!” laughs Gyllenhaal. “She stands up for herself, she fights for herself, she’s funny and sexy and be herself with or without the leading man.” According to Newell, Jake and Gemma’s comic spark is going to be the separator from this year’s other big blockbusters. “The humour in the script is one of the reasons I wanted to the thing in the first place,” he says. “If anything is my first love, it’s making people laugh and there’s a wonderful series of characters here who do that.”
After rolling cameras for more than 100 days, Newell was racing to finish the movie in time its release in July 2009. “Then, just a month or two into post-production, we suddenly heard, no, we’re going to go out nearly a year later,” remembers Newell. “Nobody had even seen the movie yet – I hadn’t finished it. And I said, ‘Why, for fuck’s sake? Does nobody trust the movie?’ they said, ‘No, it’s the reverse of that.’ It’s that they think those summer months are congested and we wanted to avoid that.” ‘That’ being Transformers 2, slotted to assault cinemas just a week before Prince Of Persia. Gyllenhaal was big. But no one wanted to slug it out with an army of 30ft robots. “Now the other thing they may have said to themselves is, ‘Jesus, we’re never going to get this CGI stuff done in six months,’” adds Newell. “And think they were absolutely right. It would have looked cheap.”
That, as Newell discovered, was never going to be an option. Bruckheimer was on his A-game. “I would show him a cut of the movie and I’d say, ‘So what do you think, Jerry?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ I’d say, ‘I think it’s terrific.’ And he’d say, ‘My shit detector goes off.’ And I would say to myself, ‘Well, I pride myself on my shit detector.’ I know there is such a thing as a shit-detector. It’s a very, very important instrument. And if his shit detector is going off, why? I’ve never worked for anybody like that before. I’d always felt like I could dominate proceedings. How did that feel? It feels uneasy. You bet!”
All told, Newell had just over two years to complete the film. Instead of slugging it out with Transformers 2, it’ll charge into cinemas between Robin Hood and Sex And The City 2. Avatar’s theatrical run will have finished. Probably. Not that it matters to Bruckheimer, anyway. Truth be told, he acts almost like Pandora had never been discovered. There were never any plans to shoot in 3D (“No, it takes enormous amount of time and it’s very expensive”) and or raise the tech-bar (“We’re not trying to do that, the point of our movie is the story.”).
But just how big a gamble is that? Does he have any doubts about a director who’s never direct an epic and a star who’s never played an action hero in a $200 million videogame adaptation of an epic adventure? Does he know same audiences that made a billion dollars for Pirates Of The Caribbean and Avatar show up to launch Prince Of Persia as another Bruckheimer super-franchise? “From your lips to God’s ears, I hope so,” says the producer. “Sam Goldwyn says that individually the audience isn’t very bright. But collectively they’re geniuses. Would I want to see this movie? Yes. That’s why I made it.”
And that’s as much as he’ll give away about the risky business of blockbuster franchise-building. “Can I give something away to you?” asks Gyllenhaal, before grinning and dropping his voice to a low whisper. “The movie’s really, really good.” This time, he’s not talking about Avatar.
Publication: Total Film