Talking Games and Movies with Jordan Mechner
Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia has been an acclaimed video game and he is one of the fortunate creators to be intimately involved in the adaptation from game to feature film. Mechner managed to write the screen adaptation, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton. The Disney feature was released to middling reviews and so-so box office in May and comes to home video tomorrow. Disney provided us with this conversation.
QUESTION: What were your feelings when you finally saw the film?
JORDAN MECHNER: Firstly, the original Prince of Persia was a character 40 pixels high on the Apple II screen, running and jumping. The technology at the time was quite primitive, I think in my mind I imagined a much grander spectacle, and to see Jake [Gyllenhaal] in the best shape of his life running around the rooftops of Morocco and doing parkour and all this stuff was more than I could imagine.
QUESTION: What initially drew you to the setting of Ancient Persia? And how does that culture and mythology inspire you?
JORDAN MECHNER: I was inspired 25 years ago to make the game really by the tales of the Arabian Nights, and by old Persian legends like the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings. And also those great old Hollywood swashbuckling movies like the 1940 Thief of Baghdad, by Alexander Korda. As a kid I must have heard those stories, the storybook versions are in all of our cultural DNA. We know of that world without really knowing exactly where or when we first heard it.
QUESTION: How did you start the world of Prince of Persia ?
JORDAN MECHNER: You go back to 1985 when I was right out of college and I took my brother down to the parking lot across the street from the high school. He was in a pair of baggy trousers and I had him run and jump and climb and fall down and I video-taped him doing these moves. Then I set about the three year process of bringing these animations into the computer and that was the first Prince of Persia .
QUESTION: How successful was the game and how come it has taken so long for the movie to be made?
JORDAN MECHNER: It was successful. This was in those days when
the industry was one tenth of the size that it is now. It was very much a
fringe thing. My friends and I who liked to play games were geeks. We
were not in the cultural mainstream. What has happened since then is
that video games have evolved technologically and culturally. So we
finally came to the point, years later, where a producer and director of
the stature of Jerry Bruckheimer and Mike Newell would look at a video
game as something worth considering.
QUESTION: Since it started as a video game Prince of Persia has grown hasn’t it?
JORDAN MECHNER: Prince of Persia from its first game has
become a franchise. So there are now at least seven or eight versions of
the game since then. The one that the movie is based on is also called Prince Of Persia: The Sands of Time. That is the first modern console game. It reinvented the old Prince of Persia
game for a new generation of gamers. That was in 2003 and at that
point I brought Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney the pitch for the movie
along with a two minute trailer that I cut together on my Mac. The
screenplay that I wrote is loosely based on The Sands of Time
but the movie production drew on all of those games that came out since
then – like Warrior Within. And not just for story…also costumes,
weapons, physical action and production design. The whole movie making
team was influenced by the games at many levels.
QUESTION: Are you a fan of ancient history?
JORDAN MECHNER: I love research, that’s one of the great perks of
this great line of work. You get the chance to go back and try and
figure out what things were like in a different time and place. You also
get to read the great mythological sources of legends like the Persian
Book Of Kings. So you take all that and try to bring it to life.
QUESTION: Why until now have attempts to turn games into movies floundered?
JORDAN MECHNER: It is hard to make a good movie…period! And to
make a movie based on a video game is particularly tricky. Novels and
stage plays and other things that you might adapt into a movie, really
begin with a story and characters. Video games really begin with the
game play, that is with the player’s experience – controlling the
character and facing the challenges of the game. And that is the one
aspect of the game that doesn’t translate to film. No matter how you do
it, you are never going to have that attractive element and things that
are fun to play are not necessarily fun to watch an actor doing on
screen. Prince Of Persia: The Sands of Time is the first time
that a video game creator actually adapted their own game as a screen
play. Even though I have just spent a year adapting the game version of The Sands of Time,
I had to set that aside and put on a different hat and take a different
approach to that story, because I was writing a story that was going to
be watched by an audience. As opposed to be played.
QUESTION: Was it hard to write a film after doing games?
JORDAN MECHNER: I wouldn’t say that a games story needs to be
less complex than a movie story. I am very proud of The Sands Of Time
game. It has an interesting relationship between the main characters.
There is a romance and a banter and there is a voice over narration. So
not only are you playing the game but you are also hearing it narrated.
There is a counterpoint between what you are hearing and what you are
seeing which is very interesting. It is almost like a literary kind of
effect. So it is not that one is more complex than the other, it’s just
that they are different. It goes back to the fact that games are played
and movies are watched. Even in this case where it is the same world,
the same characters and the same type of genre and the same emotional
themes – in both the game and the movie – the specifics of how the story
is translated into scenes has to be different. The difference in
translating a game into a movie is even greater than if you were turning
a stage play into a movie. You have to take that extra step of figuring
what is it about the material that is going to make a good story; that
the viewers are going to connect with emotionally.
QUESTION: Did you have in mind the fact that the characters in the movie are playing games with each other?
JORDAN MECHNER: Of course, we set out to make a movie for
audiences that didn’t play games but at the same time, for gamers the
movie is full of things that they can enjoy on another level.
QUESTION: What did you think of the cast?
JORDAN MECHNER: Mike Newell put together a fantastic cast.
Jake Gyllenhaal makes a terrific prince. He is a very good actor but he
also has the right spirit – besides being a warrior and in the best
shape of his life, he has got a humanity that is really important.
QUESTION: Are you a fan of DVD?
JORDAN MECHNER: I have a pretty substantial DVD collection
which now needs to be a Blu-ray collection. I love all kinds of movies.
My favorites include Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, David Lean’s Dr Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia…Raiders Of The Lost Ark and then all the old films that influenced Raiders, like Alexander Korda’s Thief of Bagdad. And Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai is one of my all-time favorites.
QUESTION: Are you a Disney fan?
JORDAN MECHNER: Since I was a kid, growing up in New York, I
had a map of Disneyland on my wall. I had never been there but I knew
where all the rides were. Now that Prince of Persia is a Disney
movie that is really wonderful. If Prince Of Persia was one day to
become a Disney ride that would be a dream come true.
QUESTION: How emotional was it for you when you saw Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time for the first time?
JORDAN MECHNER: Oh my gosh there have been so many moments along
the way – from the last six years, going from script to screen. Setting
foot on the set in Morocco was one of them. And seeing the movie and
getting an idea of how it would be experienced by an audience was a huge
QUESTION: You could never have dreamed of anything like this when
you filmed your brother in baggy pants for the first game all those
JORDAN MECHNER: No, I was just worried about finishing the
game while there was still a computer games market! I was afraid I would
be too late. It is pretty mind boggling to me that we are still talking
about Prince of Persia 25 years later.