Q&A: 'Prince of Persia' director Mike Newell

Helmer talks about working on his first Bruckheimer prod'n

Illustration by Chris Morris
Mike Newell has proven one of Hollywood's most versatile directors. After graduating from TV to movies with such hits as "Enchanted April" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral," the British helmer has jumped from a franchise tentpole ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire") to a literary drama ("Love in the Time of Cholera") and now a Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza, Disney's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," which opens Friday.

The Hollywood Reporter: This is your first Bruckheimer experience. What's it like in his world?

Mike Newell: It's fantastic to be able to make a movie of that particular genre when the guy's still here. Most of the guys that make genres important, like John Ford, are dead. But Jerry's alive and kicking and making movies as fast as he can crank them out. You'd be mad not to say yes (to doing one). What are you saying about yourself if you say "no"? No matter how his movies are treated or criticized, what they absolutely are is great big entertainments. I was trying to make something fabulous, in which everything is "more." The battles are more, the personal conflicts are more, the magic is more than you would imagine. It was supposed to be kind of excessive.

THR: Budgets are being tightened all over town. Was there anything you wanted to do but couldn't?

Newell: There was a chase sequence through a valley -- high in the desert mountains full of tombs -- where all sorts of stuff happens, like people falling down and stone-age machinery going wrong. It was very entertaining but budgeted at $14 million. It was a huge amount of money to spend on what was in the end about a page and a half of script. We took it out and wrote another way of doing it.

THR: "Persia" is based on a video game. Did you ever play it?

Newell: I was completely hopeless at the game. It's a very athletic game that depends on the hero evading all sorts of traps like Indiana Jones. I ran him into traps out of which he never emerged. I couldn't tell you the number of times I dropped him in the revolving knives.

THR: Most of the production was in Morocco. What was the most difficult part of that shoot?

Newell: Partly the dust. The dust is filthy, it's red and it gets absolutely everywhere. At the end of a day's work, between the dust and the (sunscreen), we were covered in half-baked clay. I would walk into the shower and shower my clothes off. The humid heat was also difficult to take. But then you'd have a rainstorm of such fierceness, you have to be careful you don't actually get washed out of the ravine that you're shooting in.

THR: There are some very creative scenes involving racing ostriches. Are they decent actors?

Newell: The ostrich is a huge bird that stands 8 or 9 feet, but it is so dim. The damn things would only run straight. I wanted them to run around a circular track, but as soon as the ostrich moves into the curved bit of wall, it thinks that's the end. Its instincts tell it to climb the wall and away to freedom. So we had to give them a straight track and a lot of brave men to catch them at the end of that track.

THR: Jake Gyllenhaal is American but has a British accent. Do you think British audiences will buy him as one of their own?

Newell: We worked on it very hard. He's got a little twang of a London working-class accent called "mockney" because the character is not royalty. Nobody else in the world will notice that, but I'm not sure yet how the English will feel about it.

THR: This movie clearly is made for a global audience. As a filmmaker, how do you do that without making something too homogenous?

Newell: Making it homogenous is a terrible danger. If I'm in the mood to be hyper self-critical, I would say perhaps I allowed (the movie) to become a little homogenous, but I'm not sure. Then again, I hope people are being entertained at such speed, with such vigor and inventiveness that I'm actually wrong about that fact. Or that they don't notice.

THR: What are you most worried about when a movie opens, boxoffice or reviews?

Newell: Not the opening weekend. When you're starting off as a filmmaker, you're making little movies that only screen in half a dozen theaters. So the boxoffice can't mean anything, and the criticism means a tremendous amount. That sticks with you. Being judged by anybody is important with me.

THR: So you don't feel pressure to make hundreds of millions of dollars on this film?

Newell: It's not a little personal movie, so to some extent, yes. It would be very naive of me to think that part of the intention of the people who invest so enormously in this thing is not to get their money back -- they should get their money back. It's very exciting to have this great big machine under your hands so long as you understand what the machine seeks to do.

THR: Having done indies, big popcorn films, British films, American films, star-driven films, special-effect-laden films and television work, what else is there for you to try?

Newell: I've got a knapsack that has four or five absolutely glorious projects that I'll be able to roll out soon. There's a "Three Musketeers"-type story, a modern thriller based on something that actually happened in Britain about three years ago, and a children's film I've wanted to make for a long time as an adaptation of a Dickens novel.
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