Soft countries make soft men: Q&A with Mike Newell, director of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

By James Geary

Mike Newell, acclaimed director of hits including Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire and Four Weddings and A Funeral, spoke to James Geary about the making of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and about his lifelong fascination with archeology.

Mike Newell
Mike Newell: Director of 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time'

Electrum: What kind of research was involved in preparing to film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time?

Mike Newell: The screenwriter, Jordan Mechner, who also wrote the original Prince of Persia video game on which the film is based, is a research freak. By the time I got involved with the project, he had already minutely researched the Persian empire. So a lot of what I did was to respond to his writing. My chief notion at the start was: We all know about Noah’s ark, the end of the world story, and how the God of the Old Testament is a merciful but jealous God. That’s a story for wetland folk, though, for people who live near rivers. What would that myth look like to a desert people? If God wanted to destroy the world and make a new start, how would He do it? Sandstorms. Sand became a key part of the story.

Was it difficult to find the right location for the film, given the importance of sand?

In the film, the heroes must stop the villain, who is bent on obtaining a magic dagger containing sand that can reverse time. So the sand has mystical properties. We had to find a place that would feel right. I went to the best map shop in London and started poring over maps of the region, looking for a physical landscape that fit the story. A couple books by photographers Robin and Sabrina Michaud were particularly helpful, Caravans to Tartary and Afghanistan. The land there is hot, high, and arid. I kept thinking of a Persian king’s reply when he was asked why he lived in such an inhospitable place: “Soft countries make soft men.” Morocco turned out to have just the right kind of countryside, the kind of place where you could really imagine an army blinded by a sandstorm, with sand so thick you can’t breath.

Did you try to make the battle scenes historically accurate?

The Persians were the only people who gave the Romans a really hard time. They were not disciplined fighters like the Romans, though. The Persians did it by guile. They were extraordinary horsemen and archers. We worked with local Moroccan extras for the battle scenes. They were fantastic horsemen, very fierce, absolutely magnificent. We trained them to fight with the weaponry we gave them, but not in a finger-wagging kind of way. That would have been just dull. But historical accuracy absolutely lay underneath everything. As a director, you want to get things right because then you can see the light in the eyes of actors. If you show you are concerned about getting it right, they turn the knob up for you.

What other aspects of historical accuracy were important?

Once you have the landscape, you have to have the architecture, the colors, the faces. The set and costume designers studied the architecture, the weaponry, the costumes, and the religious rituals. We looked a lot at the Silk Road cities to get a sense of the enormous scale of the Persian empire. The designers went out to places in Pakistan to photograph rooftop textures, which we electronically cut and pasted onto the rooftops in the film.

There are all sorts of references to Sufism in the film. The king spent a lot of time in the saddle, so wherever he went the court and the palace went with him and there was always some kind of fire altar with an eternal flame burning. We did a lot of research into religious symbolism. Since we were dealing with Islam, there were no naturalistic representations but the designers made one cave into a kind of cult sanctuary full of little items brought by pilgrims and inlaid into the rock, a glorious collage.

Were you influenced by any previous cinematic depictions?

I love Ben-Hur! I love all the great big Hollywood epics, and they are revisited all the time. The scenes in Ben-Hur are wonderful. The scene on the Roman navy ship, for example, is exactly observed. It may be entirely invented, but you believe the slaves are chained to the oar; you believe their exhaustion; you believe they keep the oars in time by listening to the beat of a mallet. I have no idea if that is historically accurate, but it is utterly believable. The scenes are more exciting for being accurately portrayed. I take delight in that.

Which comes first then, accuracy or entertainment?

Archeological accuracy is not the first thing on your mind. There’s no question that it’s ‘story story story’ when you’re making a film. But accuracy sets all sorts of standards below which you should not fall. You need to get it right enough. You cannot allow people to see off the edges of the world you are presenting.

I come from a family of great readers. When I was around 13 or 14, I found the books of my father and my aunt endlessly fascinating. One book in particular I remember: Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archeology by C.W. Ceram. This book told the stories of Schliemann and Troy, Carter and Tutankhamen, Botta and Ninevah, and many others. I read that ‘til kingdom come. I always loved the archeological stuff, the effort to find the truths behind the myths.

When we had almost finished filming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, someone gave me a newspaper cutting about an Italian expedition that found the remains of a Persian army said to have been lost in Egypt 2,500 years ago. This army had been sent out to sort out trouble on the outer edge of the empire. But the army disappeared. No trace of it had ever been found, and everybody said it was just a myth. But this expedition looked at an alternative route the army could have taken. Under a low ridge in the desert, they found coins, weapons, scraps of clothing. They had found the army, which had been overwhelmed by a great sandstorm. That was our story!