Mike Newell is the director of "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton. The film, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, is being released by Disney on May 28.
From fantastic parkour displays of gravity- and death-defying leaps and acrobatics to outrageous ostrich races to medieval Near Eastern battles on a grand scale, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” gave its stunt coordinators an epic canvas. The daring team was comprised of first-unit stunt coordinator George Aguilar, second-unit stunt coordinator Greg Powell, Morocco co–stunt coordinator Stephen Pope, co–fight coordinators Thomas Dupont and Ben Cooke, and parkour choreographer David Belle.
Gyllenhaal and Arterton goes through intensive training
For the actors, preparation began several weeks before the cameras rolled, with rigorous training programs designed to whip them in shape and get them on horseback. Jake Gyllenhaal was already in prime physical condition as an avid runner, cyclist and all-around athlete.
“There’s no reason to do a movie like this if you can’t do the stunts,” says Gyllenhaal. “It was all about functional fitness, being able to do everything that was asked of me. So I got into the best shape I could, with a whole lot of running, parkour training, circuit-training and horseback-riding.”
Along with the other cast members, Gyllenhaal did extensive training with horses under the tutelage of Ricardo Cruz Moral, one of Spain’s top equestrians, at his ranch outside of Madrid. For Gemma Arterton, it was a revelation. “I’d never ridden a horse in my life, so I was sent away with the others on a kind of horse-riding boot camp before we started the film. It was brilliant, and now horseback-riding is one of my hobbies. One of the stunts in the film that I do myself is when I’m swept onto a horse as it’s coming towards me, and I was really proud of that.”
An experienced stunt man
Thomas Dupont, whose credits include all three “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, served on “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” as co–fight coordinator, with Ben Cooke. He also portrayed the lethal Hassad, a Hassansin who fights with two blade-tipped whips. Dupont was charged with shooting a big action scene at an elevation of 8,200 feet. “As far as the altitude was concerned, the hardest part was the sustained fighting. We had to do a lot of things at once for up to a minute at a time. Now, that may not seem like a long time, but if you’re performing at full energy, with strikes, running and jumping, that tends to wind you. And if you’re already up 8,000 feet and the oxygen is scarce, it really takes its toll.”
The Art of Parkour
Filmmakers incorporated one aspect of Jordan Mechner’s creation that promises to set “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” apart. “In the video game, the prince can run up walls and has other skills which are based on parkour,” explains director Mike Newell. “Parkour started in the suburbs of Paris, where the kids were so bored that they started to use what was available to them as some kind of test. I watched documentaries about them and saw that they really do walk up walls and leap from rooftop to rooftop. They are extraordinary athletes. So we brought some of the great world experts of parkour to teach us what to do and how to make it look good.”
“We decided to go right to the source,” says Bruckheimer. “We wanted the best
of the best, and that’s David Belle.” Belle is a young legend and the originator of parkour. ”This is the kind of film that makes me wish I was in the movie industry,” says Belle. “When you watch this type of movie, it’s so magnificent that you want to be a part of the scene. And all of a sudden, I find that I am. It’s like a child’s dream come true.”
In French, parkour is also known as “l’art du déplacement,” or the art of movement. And indeed, to its practitioners and those who observe the astounding feats of traceurs—practitioners of parkour—it is nothing less than wondrous. The action of “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” incorporates both parkour and its offshoot, free running. Says Bruckheimer, “It’s really an art form. It’s so exciting to watch people literally bouncing off of walls, all done without wires, doing it through their own physical force.”
Belle’s own description of parkour is, as one would imagine coming from the man responsible for its present form, perfectly concise and lucid. “To make it simple, parkour is a training method that allows a person to develop their physique so that they can overcome obstacles. The more you train, the faster and more efficient you become. When training, you can create a wide range of movements. These movements help you to get through difficult passageways, between buildings and over rooftops. It’s a different way to learn to move your body.”
Belle was impressed by Gyllenhaal’s parkour abilities and the enthusiasm with which the actor quite literally threw himself into the action. “Jake certainly had me convinced,” he says. “I’ve seen his work, his movements in various scenes, and I have no doubt.”
Particularly thrilled to work with David Belle was Will Foster, a junior parkour student portraying young Dastan. “I was quite nervous when I heard that I was going to be training with him,” Foster admits, “but he really put me at ease. He’s also really easy to talk to, because I speak a little French. David showed me quite a lot of jumps and basic vaults. If he sees I’m doing something good, he’ll say so, but then he tells me how to improve it, which is really helpful. It’s really important to David that kids know that parkour isn’t about getting your camera and filming yourself jumping off the highest thing you can find. You have to study for a long time and become very strong.”