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It’s summer and that means it’s time for big-budget Hollywood entertainment. When the “blockbuster” began in 1975 with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the prospect of an unseen shark lurking under the ocean was enough to pack audiences into theaters. Even two years later, George Lucas upped the ante with Star Wars’ depiction of fast-paced space battles and swordfights harnessing the power of light.
Each summer, audiences demanded more from their cinematic entertainment. One Hollywood icon who has delivered year after year is producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Whether it was Top Gun’s fighter jets or Armageddon’s hurtling asteroids or Pirates of the Caribbean’s skeleton sailors, a Jerry Bruckheimer production pulls out all the stops to entertain.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the first of two Bruckheimer films coming to theaters this summer. The other, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, follows in July. Prince is set in historical and mythological times, where a dashing warrior Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads armies, runs along walls, hops off ledges and turns back time with a mystical dagger. There’s something for the whole family, fitting in with the evolving Bruckheimer tradition.
“Disney is a fantastic place to make movies,” Bruckheimer said. “It’s got an amazing history and it’s all about entertainment, and the right kind of entertainment. We’ve had a wonderful run at Disney and both films that we have coming out this summer are the kind of films that I think Disney wants to go forward with, Prince of Persia being a very exciting one, and Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is taken from one of their classic films.”

Persia makes an action hero out of acclaimed Oscar nominee Gyllenhaal, who Bruckheimer has had his sights on. Bruckheimer has also made action heroes out of Will Smith, Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp so Gyllenhaal is in good company.

“It’s great fun making an action movie, particularly making something so big where you’re in and out of doing great acting with a great director, and then jumping around all over buildings,” Gyllenhaal said. “It’s great fun. I did all of the normal training that you would do cardiovascularly, and then you listen to all of the experts and they teach you how to do it. Every day, horseback riding, parkour training, gymnastics, sword fighting, all of that.”

Parkour is the martial art of free running, invented by David Belle in France. Belle trained Gyllenhaal personally for his gravity-defying derring dos. The training shows, as Gyllenhaal appears much more muscular than ever before in his sleeveless Dastan costume.

“Well, it’s a very physical role, and I’ve always found myself inhabiting a role starting from the physical level,” Gyllenhaal said. “Whether you’re changing the shape of your body and losing weight, gaining weight, you’re figuring out what the character would look like on a physical level. So for this it was very physical, which I love, which I’d never really done this intensely before. But I don’t think it’s any different at all. When you’re committed, you’re committed, and as soon as I decide to be in a movie or play a part, it’s 120 percent commitment no matter what.”

The film is based on a video game series which first appeared on the Apple II computer. That was before Macintosh. From then through the current Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, players have been able to make the Prince of Persia perform those acrobatic stunts. Teaching Gyllenhaal how to do it for real was only the first step in bringing the game to life. Mike Newell, director of films from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, had ideas for translating the game to the screen.

“What we wanted to do was of course based on a storyline and respecting the look and all of that, but we wanted to make it emotionally real,” Newell said. “So we did a huge amount of work at the script stage, at the rehearsal stage, all of it, to make it absolutely real. So the fights, for instance, you should have seen what I saw which was Jake rehearsing fights like ballet, but because it’s like ballet, it’s also got to have an emotional reality to it as well. That was always the big pressure, to take it into an area where a game couldn’t go, while not destroying the game side of it. So emotion.”

There are lots of young gamers who will be excited to see a Prince of Persia movie. The filmmakers were careful to please them, but put on a show that anyone would enjoy to watch. “We had that pressure on our shoulders the whole time,” Gyllenhaal said. “Yet at the same time, I think transitioning from making a video game into a movie, I think Mike and Jerry from the beginning said anything the Prince does has to be based in some kind of reality. In fact, there were times on set when we would do some sort of stunt that mimicked something from the game, and Jerry would say, ‘Well, wait a second, why did he do that? We need to have that be based in the storyline,’ and everything had to be based emotionally in the storyline, so we’d have to come up with a reason why he flipped upside down over a horse. And we did.”

There’s a lot more going on than just Dastan’s heroics. Sir Ben Kingsley plays Nizam, Dastan’s uncle. You might assume Nizam is the film’s villain, but Kingsley plays him more complex than that.

“I believe that there’s good and bad in all of us and I believe that there is a light side and a dark side,” Sir Ben said. “So what I find fascinating and enjoyable is playing the balance. In the recent movies that I’ve done, what I have to do as an actor is to be unafraid of whether the audience likes me or not. I’ve got to be indifferent to that. I’ve got to tell the story. I know that there have been twists and turns in recent films I’ve done – Shutter Island, Elegy – beautiful films that I’ve done recently, and this one, of course, where I’m not afraid of whether the audience likes me or not. That’s not the point as long as they focus on the character and see his journey through the film. That, for me, is thrilling, to tell that story, that unique destiny through that film.”

While Nizam might be scheming for his own designs on the time traveling dagger, it imbues the film with deeper themes than your average action picture. “There is something Shakespearean about Nizam,” Sir Ben said. “You know, I did 15 years in classical theater before I did Gandhi and I did a lot of Shakespeare and the brilliant thing about his characters is that there is a man and there are layers and layers and layers of magic stuff behind that man. Behind the costume, which is magnificent, and the look, is a man eaten up by such destructive forces presented as the most polite and helpful man in the world. So theater I tapped into and even Shakespeare for this film.”

At Dastan’s side throughout his adventure is Tamina, a princess whose fortress Dastan’s army penetrates at the beginning of the film. This doesn’t get the young hunk and the stunning desert beauty off on a good foot, so they spend the movie one-upping each other for control of the dagger.

Gemma Arterton plays Tamina. Her career has risen fast from a tragic supporting role in Quantum of Solace to this year’s hit Clash of the Titans and now Prince. “I never imagined myself even in a film, let alone in a movie like this,” Arterton said. “I always thought I’d do theater. So my career has completely taken me by surprise. They’re very, very different films. I’d done the Bond film before I started Prince of Persia, and I was only in it for a small amount of time so I didn’t actually see how huge it can be to be in a movie like that. But this was even bigger, I think. You know, with a fantasy movie you have all these huge sets, the landscapes are much more epic. It was the first time I really felt like I was in a massive, massive movie. And then I did Clash of the Titans afterward which, even though it was a big movie, did feel small in comparison. So this was, for me, a really big deal.”

Tamina’s rivalry with Dastan provides the adventure with a romantic tension as their forced cooperation draws them closer together. “At the beginning I’m captured by the Persians, so I don’t really like them, and Jake’s character, Dastan, is one of those,” Arterton said. “So she’s quite snooty at the beginning, and very regal. And as the film develops, she sort of wears him down and realizes that there’s a lot more to him. I think it’s when she sees him mourn his father, she sees that there’s something else going on. I think they play an important role in each other’s development. She makes him realize himself, and he kind of softens her and opens her up, takes the strings out of her bow a little bit.”

Tamina doesn’t quite have the super powers Dastan has, but she gets to be a tough girl in her own way. “I didn’t have to go through as much as Jake and some of the other guys, but I still had quite a lot to do,” Arterton said. "More than anything, I had to train in the gym just to get my stamina up, because it was pretty full on out there and I needed to get through the day without collapsing. So I was in the gym six days a week. Then we went through a fighting boot camp where we learned how to fight, and that was pretty fun. I always saw myself as a little bit of a stunt girl, but never had the opportunity to do it. I got to do a lot of my stunts, and that’s really cool as well.”

Since the Prince of Persia game franchise has lasted over 20 years, it’s easy to imagine there will be future adventures of Dastan. Even though films like Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure and even Bad Boys have become franchises, Bruckheimer isn’t thinking long term. Not yet at least.

“What you try to do is make a really compelling movie with strong characters, great themes, great story,” Bruckheimer said. “If the audience embraces it, you get lucky and then you think about making another one. When we made the first Pirates movie, we had no inclination that the audience would accept a film about pirates with Johnny Depp playing like he’s drunk, so you just go with it. If you get lucky and Disney wants to make another one and you people embrace it, we’ll think about another one.” / Issue 108 - September 2018
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