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Q&A with Prince of Persia Creator Jordan Mechner

by Aaron Kaluszka - November 4, 2009, 4:00 am PST

We take a peek at the upcoming film adaptation of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, followed by a Q&A session with long-time game designer Jordan Mechner.


Last week, video game journalists were invited to the first screening of the trailer for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time movie, which is based on the game franchise of the same name. The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsly, and Alfred Molina, is directed by Mike Newell, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, and distributed by Disney. Jordan Mechner, creator of Prince of Persia and screenplay writer for the movie followed up the screening with a question and answer session.

One word for the movie, based on what was shown in the trailer, is "epic." Featuring tons of action and special effects, the movie looks to bring the Prince of Persia story to the big screen in a big way with action scene after fight scene after action scene. Elements from the game were shown, such as the sand-filled Dagger of Time, which gives the power to control time, and a powerful antagonist bent on obtaining the artifact. Like the game, it appears that the interaction between the prince and the princess is also a major feature of the movie, with a lot of sexual tension and witty dialog featured in the trailer. While many were concerned over the casting of the Prince, I'm actually more concerned with the Princess, who narrates the trailer with an artificial-sounding voice. Overall, however, it's looking much better than I expected, given the movie-based-on-game stigma.

The trailer, now released to the public, is shown below, followed by a transcript of the Q&A session with Jordan Mechner.

Q: Is the music played in the trailer what we can expect from the movie?

Jordan Mechner: I'm not sure if the music was taken from the movie or composed just for the trailer. Harry Gregson-Williams is the composer for the movie. This is actually my first time seeing the trailer, so the experience has been pretty cool for me as well, but I haven't seen the movie along with the score.

Q: How long have you been planning to make Prince of Persia into a movie?

JM: I've really wanted to make a Prince of Persia movie for 20 years, and the first time was right after the first game came out in 1993, but unfortunately, Disney kind of beat us to the punch with Aladdin that year, and we figured "yeah, you can't compete with Disney," so we kind of put it back on the shelf for a while. But I think what really made the movie really catch fire after a lot of years and attempts on my part was the Sands of Time. Ubisoft Montreal and I worked together to make this game, which is the one that the movie is mostly based on. And that brought back a classic franchise and brought it to a new generation of gamers, and I think that was key in getting Disney and Jerry [Bruckheimer] excited about it. John August and I actually brought Prince of Persia to Jerry and Disney as a pitch in 2004, after the Sands of Time game came out. Actually, if you're curious about the details of how that process worked, I've posted on my blog, jordanmechner.com, the homemade trailer put together to pitch the movie.

Q: Does [the movie] follow pretty closely to what the game was or are there new characters that weren't part of the game?

JM: The movie is based on The Sands of Time game, the first game in the Sands of Time trilogy, but it doesn't follow the story beat for beat exactly, and that goes back to the very first pitch, the first draft of the screenplay that I wrote, and the reason is that I wrote the Sands of Time game as a story to be played, a story to be enjoyed by one player with controller in hand, and the movie is made to be experienced by an audience, so it's a very different kind of storytelling. I didn't want to retell the story of the game literally beat for beat. I think it was more interesting to take the same elements and characters from the game and re-conceive the mythology and create a story that was tailored to work as a movie. The mythology is different and the names of the characters are different. The princess in the movie is called Tamina instead of Farah. One reason I changed the name was so gamers would know not to expect it to follow the story of the game, but hopefully it will remind people who played The Sands of Time game of the game. They'll recognize a lot of their favorite elements—hopefully in a good way.

Q: The platforming and the wall jumps and the action sequences, how do you do that in a way that doesn't seem cheap or gimmicky?

JM: That's an aspect of the movie that I think has worked really well. There were a lot of cool moments for me in the course of production. The first time I saw a rough cut sequence of Prince Dastan running on the rooftops and jumping, it put a big smile on my face, because I really felt that the action of the game had been captured in the right way. Going back to the first side-scrolling game 20 years ago, in my imagination there was a certain kind of action that I wanted to capture. I wanted the player to feel the excitement. One of the things that was in my mind was the first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which had just come out when I was in high school in 1981, and so that was one of the immediate inspirations of the first Prince of Persia game. You remember the opening temple sequence, where Indiana Jones has to run, and jump, and spikes spring out, and he misses the ledge, he has to pull himself up, and the gate is closing down. When you look at the Apple II version now—the soundtrack is beeps and buzzes, the character is 40 pixels high—you need to bring a lot of imagination to it to feel that that's as exciting as an Indiana Jones movie. Obviously the technology evolved a lot, so the Sands of Time 2003 game is that much more fully-realized and thrilling. But even so, I think any time you play a game, you bring in your own imagination so that the adventure that you're living as you're playing is greater than what someone looking over your shoulder would actually see on the screen. So, for me, the thrill of seeing that kind of Prince of Persia action done as a movie for the first time it really felt real and visceral, so I'm really happy with the way that came across.

Q: If they were to do a sequel for the film, do you think it would be more appropriate for them to have a different prince and different setting like the games, or just stick with this prince?

JM: That would be like turning forward the sands of time (laughter). I can't do that. The power of visions is only in the game.

Q: What was it like working with Jerry Bruckheimer?

JM: Well, Jerry makes big movies. He doesn't do things halfway. Jerry is completely unfazeable. He has this serenity about him. Even on a production of this scale, anything that can go wrong—sandstorms, typhoons—he just takes it in stride. You get the feeling that none of it is really that bad, and that confidence radiates out to everybody around him.

Q: What was your reaction when you found out you were going to get Ben Kingsley in your movie?

JM: Sir Ben Kingsley is one of my very favorite actors of all time. When I was in college, before I even made the very first Prince of Persia game, we invited him to speak at a screening at our college film society. I really doubt he remembers it. That was about the time of Ghandi. In person, he's the sweetest, most gracious man, and absolutely terrifying, and I think that's perfect for the character.

Q: Do you think you've escaped the whole stigma of "movie game?"

JM: You mean the fact that there hasn't really been a good movie based on a video game? I think Prince of Persia is a movie that can stand on its own even if there wasn't a video game. To me, as a movie-goer, the problem with video game movies is that the first thing that's lost in translation is the gameplay, which so often is the thing about the game that made it successful in the first place. It's kind of ironic that that's the element that doesn't come across. I think the reason that Prince of Persia can work as an action-adventure movie is not because of the gameplay. It's because, first of all, it's set in the universe of One Thousand and One Nights, which is this really rich and cinematic world. That's always been fascinating to filmmakers, and it's been a long time since that world has been brought to the screen, and certainly never in this epic scale that's possible with today's technology and visual effects. That's one reason. Another is that the kind of action in the games—the parkour, the sword fighting, the swashbuckling kind of hero that the Prince of Persia has always been—is something that also lends itself well to cinema. And finally, the character of the prince is a recognizable, likeable, sympathetic human being. So I think the movie has all those things going for it.

Should we show the trailer again? (Shows the trailer)

I was thinking about that question you asked before, about similarities between the game and movie. There are no sand monsters in the movie. Part of the reason the sand monsters worked great in the game is because they were an inexhaustible supply of enemies for the player to fight, and also it tied into the gameplay mechanic of the dagger of time, as a way to keep the dagger filled with sand. I didn't want to write a movie about fighting monsters.

Q: How would you describe the difference between working on a game based off a movie as opposed to working on a movie based off a game?

JM: I've never worked on a game based off a movie. The first Prince of Persia game and actually The Sands of Time as well were sort of inspired by a kind of movie. Going back to the original game, my inspiration was old Hollywood swashbuckling movies like Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, Doug Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I think it's important in writing a game to be able to create a storyline that's tailored to support the gameplay. The gameplay has really got to come first.

Q: Did you write this movie and did they film this movie as a video game adaptation, or did you push the video game aside?

JM: The story that I pitched to Disney in 2004—I had just come from Montreal, working with the team on Sands of Time—was already different, and it was actually very close to the story that you see in the finished film. My idea was never to redo the game exactly as a movie, but it was always, "OK, how can we take what's cool about the game, and make something that's going to be as cool as a movie?"

Q: Did you put in little winks to people who played the game, or is it pretty much a stand-alone?

JM: It's actually both. I mean, the movie totally stands on its own for people who have never played a Prince of Persia game, or who have never played a video game; there's absolutely no reason why they can't completely enjoy and understand the movie. But at the same time, for people who have played Prince of Persia, and do know the games and know that world, there are moments that will click and resonate on a different level. Some of them are kind of humorous, and some of them, like the Dagger of Time for example, it's in the game and it's in the movie, playing a somewhat different role in the narrative, but you have a concept of a dagger that you press a jewel on the handle and it turns back time. Even just a little bit of action you see in the trailer, you've probably noticed, certain moments, running and jumping, that's always been part of the kind of action the Prince of Persia games have.

Q: How many boss fights are in the movie? (laughter)

JM: Ah, boss fight! I knew we forgot something. (laughter)

Q: Of all the references you make to the Sands of Time video game, did you make references to your original 1989 Apple II game in the movie in some fashion?

JM: It's complicated, because when Ubisoft Montreal and I were working on the Sands of Time game, we were trying to put in certain nods and references to the original game. So those are in the Sands of Time game. But, yes.

Q: Should we expect any sort of Sands of Time Redux to go along with the movie?

JM: I'm not the guy who's going to make these announcements, but I don't think it's giving away too much to say that the guys at Ubisoft Montreal are working on something that I'm excited about, and that we'll see some new announcements from Ubisoft in the next few months that relate to Prince of Persia.

Q: There are many fans out there that think The Sands of Time has one of the best relationship stories ever told in a video game. What do you think makes that work so well, and does that translate into the movie?

JM: As you can see from the trailer, the relationship between Prince Dastan and Tamina hopefully has a lot of that same charm and dynamic. It's interesting: Movies are about relationships, and part of the great pleasure of movies is seeing the emotional connection and relationship between two flesh-and-blood human beings. I agree with you, I think that's an aspect that worked really well in the Sands of Time game, and to make it work in the game, the trick was to really have that relationship unfold through the gameplay, and not just be something that would stop the game and [present] a cut-scene, where you'd have a charming scene between two characters. It really had to do with the role that Farah was playing in the game. She was fighting by your side, and sometimes she'd accidentally hit you with an arrow, and the prince would be outraged and say something to her. And I think that's what made it work well in the game, the fact that it was really part of the game. For the movie, obviously it's a different type of storytelling.

Q: What do you say your target audience for the film is? Is it the same sort of person who played the games, or are you looking for more of a broader demographic?

JM: I see this very much as a movie for everybody. It's good for kids, for their parents, and the gamer audience can also enjoy it. I don't think the appeal of the movie is just limited to gamers.

Q: It's not a film that you would've had to have played the games to appreciate?

JM: Prince of Persia is a movie that I think can stand on its own without reference to the game. If you played the game, that can deepen your enjoyment of it on certain levels, but it's absolutely a movie for non-gamers as well. Jerry and Mike Newell have never seen this as a video game movie. A lot of what appealed to them about it was the chance to re-imagine this amazing world of One Thousand and One Nights with a level of technology and visual effects that's never been possible before. The last time Hollywood did a big A-level Arabian Nights movie was probably 1940, The Thief of Baghdad. I think it's a genre that's ready to be reinvented and the fact that Prince of Persia was a successful video game I think really helped. I'm really thrilled that Prince of Persia, this game I did 20 years ago on the Apple II, which was inspired by movies, could in its turn, become the vehicle to revisit this great genre, this world of One Thousand and One Nights.

Q: What was it like for you, creatively and personally, moving from being a very innovative game designer in a new medium like this, and being able to do brand new things that really stand out, moving into film, which is a much more established, much older medium, where a lot of things have already been explored, and you're basically "small fish, big pond" instead of the other way around?

JM: When making the Sands of Time game with Ubisoft, we definitely felt like "small fish in a big pond." We felt like underdogs making the game, and that was part of the fun of it. Making a movie with Jerry Bruckheimer, one of the things I had to get used to was not feeling like we were underdogs. You have a challenge in making a movie that's in such an established genre with such a history as the swashbuckling, romantic, action-adventure movie, which has been around since the beginning of cinema, since the silent film days, is to find something that'll make it fresh, make it new, in a way that has never been seen before. And I think something that was really key for that was the dagger of time, which had a certain importance in the game, as a gameplay element, but also as a story element. In the movie it works a different way, but I think that's something that hasn't been seen on screen before in this way, and certainly not in this world of ancient Persia, so that's something I think people were excited about.

Q: Does he use the dagger a lot, like, "Oh, I wish I ordered the cheeseburger," (laughter) or is it only in dire situations?

JM: You put your finger on one of the first challenges in adapting the game story into a movie. In the game, Sands of Time, the dagger is so central to the gameplay experience, that if you took all the dagger's powers in the game and gave them to the hero in the movie, he would be omnipotent, and it would basically suck all the drama right out of the movie. So, in the movie, the dagger does have the power to rewind time, but it's much more limited. The hero has to be very careful and choose when he has to use it.

Q: So are you hinting that the use of the dagger implies some sort of consequence?

JM: I don't want to get into story spoilers but um, there's—well, let's leave it at that. (laughter)

Q: The casting of Jake Gyllenhaal seemed to upset some people. What did you think of his performance, and what aspects of the prince does he bring out well?

JM: That kind of gets back to "who is the prince?" To me—and this goes back to the original game—to me, the Prince of Persia has always been a hero in the mold of Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, or Doug Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad, or Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He's not this invincible warrior who is out looking for enemies to vanquish. He's more of an underdog. He fights with a sword, but he lives by his wits. He's got this sort of mischievous quality, this certain attitude and humor about him, and a vulnerability as well. You can see why the girl falls in love with him. I think Jake embodies all those qualities and captures them in a really appealing way. I think that comes through in the trailer as well. The action-hero side of the role, Jake took that very seriously. He did a lot of training, horseback riding, sword fighting, parkour, and he actually did a lot of his own stunts to a degree that movie stars usually don't. He's in fantastic shape, he worked really hard, so I think he makes a great Prince of Persia.

Q: How much creative control did you have over more artistic aspects of the film, like the music, costumes, set design, and things like that?

JM: I was the first screenwriter on the movie, so my influence over the movie is through the screenplay. It's a Jerry Bruckheimer film, Jerry's the producer and Mike Newell is the director, so the things like choosing the composer and casting, that's basically Jerry and Mike.

Q: After doing both making games and being a screenwriter, which do you prefer?

JM: It's hard to choose. I love making games, I love making movies, and I also love writing graphic novels. Those are three really different media that I've loved for a long time. For me, the very coolest thing I could imagine would be to be able to continue to create in all three media without having to choose. And thanks to Prince of Persia, so far I haven't had to. (laughter)

Q: With Karateka and Prince of Persia, you're a pretty talented coder when it comes to the old-school, and it seems there's a revitalization with old-school programming with the digital downloads and stuff like that. Do you ever see yourself getting back into programming?

JM: I'd have to say my 6502 assembly language coding skills are pretty rusty at this point. (laughter) But maybe we can talk later if you have a particular game in mind. (laughter) Even at the time when I was programming the first Prince of Persia, I felt like I was an OK programmer, but for me, programming was a means to an end. It was a way to get the character and the animation and the story up on the screen, so I was pretty glad when the industry evolved to a point where I could work with real artists, real animators, and real programmers, who were much better at those things than I ever was. I could focus on the world and story and gameplay.

Any other questions? You know, we've talked about Jake, but we haven't talked about the rest of the cast. It's a great cast. One of the things that was a cool opportunity about the movie is that one of the joys of this kind of epic, romantic, action movie is that the hero gets to meet a variety of colorful characters, and you've always got to have this colorful side character, in this case Sheik Amar, played by Alfred Molina. He brings a certain humor and his own skewed perspective on the world, and that's something that we didn't have in the video games. If you remember the first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was the sequence that mostly inspired the first Prince of Persia game, the guide in the temple sequence is Alfred Molina. "Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip." So you can imagine my delight learning that he'd been cast 20 years later in the Prince of Persia movie. You don't see that much of his character in the trailer, but he's a lot of fun in the movie.

Q: Did you have him say the line? (laughter)

JM: He's much bigger than me. I wouldn't have dared. (laughter)

Q: Seeing as how this is a feature bankrolled by Disney and Bruckheimer, are we going to see a big merchandising blitz for it? Will we be seeing Prince of Persia book bags and action figures and collectibles and all this other awesome stuff?

JM: There will be action figures, designed by Todd MacFarlane, actually. There will be LEGOs. To me in some ways that's even more cosmic than there being a movie.

Q: There's the next question: LEGO Prince of Persia? (laughter)

JM: That's another turning the sands of time forward question. (laughter) There will also be a graphic novel prequel to the movie. But we'll save that for another day. That's a project that I'm involved in that I'm excited about.

Q: If this movie does well, can we see a film adaptation of Karateka in the future?

JM: Another sands of time question. We'll talk after the screening.

Q: How is it pronounced: "Kah-RAH-teh-kah" or "Care-uh-TEE-kah?" I've heard it both ways.

JM: It should be pronounced without stress on any syllable. But that was a game that came out in 1984, which was before there was radio or TV coverage of anything to do with computer games, so actually I never knew how people who played the game were pronouncing it. I always called it "Care-uh-tay-kah," but then I found out years later that everybody else in the world except me who played it called it "Kah-rah-teh-kah," so at this point I'm sort of confused as to what I should call it. (laughter)

Event attended by Aaron Kaluszka. Q&A transcribed by Dan Wasielewski. Thanks go to Jordan Mechner, Disney, and One PR for the opportunity. Be sure to join the discussion in the NWR Forums!

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