Post-'Pirates,' 'Persia' pops for Bruckheimer

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Given the current state of world affairs, Iran is probably not the most ideal setting for a family-friendly, big-screen blockbuster. But refer to it, instead, as "Persia" (its former name), set it back 2,500 years or so, and base it on a popular video game brand, and what have you got? Exactly the sort of creation producer Jerry Bruckheimer might envision as his next major project.

Indeed, Bruckheimer intends to release "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time" in the summer of 2009, and he has aboard Jordan Mechner, the creator of the 11-SKU "Prince of Persia" franchise that first took the gaming world by storm back in 1989.

But why flying carpets and palaces which, after all, haven't been seen on the silver screen since Disney's "Aladdin" in 1992?

That's exactly the point, says Bruckheimer. "Pirate movies had been dead for a long time when we came out with 'Pirates of the Caribbean' and did it in a different way than people were expecting. I like to look at arenas that haven't been exposed to audiences for quite a while and then surprise moviegoers with the way we're doing it. The 'Prince of Persia' characters are wonderful and they exist in a period of time and a venue that's interesting."

All that needed to be done, he says, was "flesh out the characters and create the drama and the themes that turn this into a viable movie experience. It's always about the characters and the story; the action is just icing on the cake."

But so few movies-from-video games have been successful that surely Bruckheimer recognizes the risk. Nevertheless, he says, "It's a good idea. Why would I make 'National Treasure' versus whatever other people are making? When something hits you and excites you, that's what you do. I've played the game ... it's a great game ... and I believe the movie is one people will want to go see."

Especially if Jordan Mechner's original screenplay appeals to moviegoers the way his franchise has appealed to gamers for 18 years.

The very first "Prince of Persia" ("POP") came at a time when the video game industry was still in the "garage phase," Mechner recalls, "when it was still possible for someone like me to work on an Apple II computer for three years and build a 2-D side-scrolling action game single-handedly -- meaning the artwork, the animation, the story, the sound effects, the level design, the programming, everything -- with practically no budget."

While Mechner had started out as a programmer and animator, he confesses he never developed those skills beyond "just good enough. For me," he says, "those talents were a means to an end. What appealed to me most was the challenge of creating an imaginary world, with characters and a story that could fascinate and absorb players the way a movie or a novel could."

Indeed, in 1993, he first got the itch to turn his creation into a big-screen movie. But it was a hard sell, ironically, in part, because of the similarities between "POP" and Disney's "Aladdin," Mechner remembers. That changed when, in 2003, he teamed up with video game publisher Ubisoft to create "Prince of Persia: Sands of Time," a 3-D sequel that sold more than 3 million units worldwide and brought the "POP" franchise roaring back to life.

"The timing was perfect," explains Mechner. "Movie studios were showing interest in video games, 'POP' was suddenly at the top of the video game charts, and we had a game with great characters and a storyline that cried out to be made into an epic, romantic action-adventure film."

Under his deal with Ubisoft, Mechner kept the film rights to "POP." Which meant that it was on his shoulders to find the right film partner and create something that wouldn't damage the value of what had become one of the game publisher's most important brands.

"I pitched the game to Nick Reed at ICM, who is now my agent," recalls Mechner. "He warned me that the hardest part would be to sell me as a first-time screenwriter." Eventually he was introduced to John August ("Corpse Bride") who agreed to join Mechner as co-producer and help pitch it to the movie studios.

On Reed's advice, Mechner cut together a two-minute trailer of video game footage, structured like a movie trailer, which forced him into thinking about the storyline and be very clear about what sort of movie he was proposing to write.

"Once we had the trailer, John and I spent two months fine-tuning the pitch until we could tell the story in under 20 minutes, including all the characters, the action set pieces, and the plot twists," says Mechner. "We pitched it first to Disney which loved it, but because it was such a big movie, the only way they'd take it on was with 'an established producer like Jerry Bruckheimer.' We interpreted that to mean that we needed Jerry Bruckheimer, so we showed it to him, he loved it, and we did the deal in early 2004. I wrote the first draft in three months and then spent the next 18 months writing and revising it. So it was a 21-month project, not counting the 15 years of preparation before that," he quips.

If there's a lesson to be learned from adapting a movie from a video game, notes Mechner, it's that there cannot be a one-to-one transformation. "If I'd tried to adapt the game's storyline beat for beat into a screenplay, we would have wound up with a 'B'-level survival-horror movie about a warrior prince who spends most of his time fighting off ravaging, zombie-like sand creatures -- basically, 'Resident Evil' in the desert," Mechner explains. "You might make a good movie from that, but it definitely wouldn't be a Disney-Bruckheimer 'A'-level summer blockbuster."

Instead, Mechner's efforts went into turning his game into "an epic, swashbuckling, action-adventure movie in the tradition of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' 'The Mask of Zorro,' and 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' " he says.

Currently, the film is in preproduction, with Mike Newell ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") signed on as director but no cast yet determined. The team has begun scouting locations with an eye towards shooting in June if the writers' strike is settled soon.

In retrospect, Mechner says the best advice he can give anyone who wants to transition from game writer to movie writer -- or vice versa -- is to "really, really want to make that shift. While they seem similar on the surface, those are two very different disciplines and the barrier for creators to move between the two is going to stay pretty high," he notes. "You're moving from a field in which you already excel and are compensated accordingly into a new field in which you have to pretty much start over again, building a reputation and a new body of work.

"It's not an easy lateral move," he adds, "and, in my case, it sure helped that I owned my own IP. If you've got that, at least you've got a chance to get your foot in the door."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman is the former editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He has covered the games industry for more than a dozen years. His columns for The Hollywood Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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