In the 25 years since he released his first game Karateka, Jordan Mechner has strenuously avoided becoming tied to any one creative form. Best known as the man behind the classic Prince of Persia, Mechner has served as a game designer and programmer, screenwriter, graphic novel author, documentary filmmaker, and sketch artist, among other roles.
Since he assisted Ubisoft Montreal with the much-loved Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time in 2003, Mechner's action-adventure franchise has become a regular video game fixture, with Ubisoft having released about half a dozen games.
Now he is finishing his highest-profile project yet: a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced, Mike Newell-directed film, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and based on Mechner's original screenplay.
How much changed from your original Prince of Persia screenplay draft to what was shot?
Jordan Mechner: I actually worked with Jerry for about a year. I did the first half-dozen or so drafts, and pretty much laid the foundation of the story, plot, and characters. The movie that you see is a different version of the same story, if that makes sense. The same things happen to the characters in the same order, but the actual lines of dialog are often different.
Earlier, we were discussing how with Bruckheimer's films there is often a veneer over it, where you can't actually see anyone's individual hand. It's not an auteur situation. It's a big-budget blockbuster, after all.
JM: Yeah. There were four writers who came on after. It was very much a process of building on what was there. There was never a point where it was a radical change of direction. It just evolved.
You've talked about doing sketches of the Prince of Persia movie sets. What did that entail?
JM: I carry around a Moleskine sketchbook, and that was a hobby I'd picked up a couple of years ago. I drew when I was a kid, then I didn't for a good 20 years. I was more involved with writing and programming -- left-brain activity. This was really the first time I went public with my hobby. I really enjoyed sketching the cast and crew and sets in the desert of Morocco.
Was it just for yourself, or was there any function for the film?
JM: At the time, it was just for myself, but I ended up posting some of the sketches at my blog at jordanmechner.com, and Disney asked to use some of them in the "making of" book.
Your blog is fascinating for the amount of historical material posted there. Has digging those up given you any retrospective insights or realizations? A lot of it is unusually revealing.
JM: Absolutely, yes. I assume you're talking about my "Making of Prince of Persia" journals from the '80s. When I posted excerpts from the actual journals, going back and reading them for the first time in many years, some made me laugh, some made me want to cry, and some I had just completely forgotten.
I didn't realize that I'd spoken several times on the phone to Jack Abramoff, and that he'd tried to produce the first screenplay that I'd written right out of college. That's this thing that happened that had completely slipped my mind as years went by. It was a lot of fun.
You're one of the few people in this industry who just does what he wants to do.
JM: I try.
It seems you're able to say, "I have this interesting idea, and I'm going to do this," and you can actually go get it done. There aren't many people like that. Do you think that's because of who you are, or because of how the industry is?
JM: The hardest thing is always to create something out of nothing, or to convince people to give you the chance to do that. It's a great advantage if you can start with something that's a known quantity in some way.
Prince of Persia is obviously a known quantity, but a lot of people really didn't have the foresight or knowledge to keep their properties for themselves. I don't think Richard Garriott could make an Ultima game right now. Was there ever a time when you didn't own it, and had to get it back?
JM: When I did the first Prince of Persia on the Apple II, in those days we didn't think that far ahead. I was thinking, "Is there still going to be an Apple II market for Christmas?" The idea that this would still be around 10 or 20 years later -- nobody was thinking of that.
It's fortunate that the rights reverted to me, so that I was able to join forces first with Ubisoft to launch the game and now with Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney.
So it wasn't a conscious matter of, "I'm going to keep this"? How did it fall back to you?
JM: It was in the original agreement, that as the author the rights would revert back to me after a certain period of time.
Have you maintained them throughout? Ubisoft even owns, at this point, a significant portion of Tom Clancy's actual name, so they must like that security.
JM: Without getting into too much complexity, at this point, Ubisoft is doing the games and Disney is doing the movie and books and everything else.
This seems like the most financially large-scale project you've ever been involved with, but you started as someone who had complete creative control over what you made. How has it felt to work across the whole of that spectrum?
JM: Certainly, in terms of the sheer number of people working on it, this Prince of Persia movie is by far the biggest project I've been involved in. At the same time, the games are getting bigger and bigger too.
It's actually really fun to balance that with graphic novels, because there's just a few people working on those -- me and a couple of artists. "Solomon's Thieves," which is coming out this spring, and the new Prince of Persia graphic novel, "Before the Sandstorm," are a nice counterbalance to these gigantic projects.
Are you still working with [book publisher] First Second?
JM: Yeah. "Solomon's Thieves" is coming out from First Second. It's illustrated by LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, and it's a totally original graphic novel, set in Paris in the 14th century.
I wrote Disney's "Prince of Persia: Before the Sandstorm," and it's illustrated by six different artists, each doing a chapter and envisioning the world of Prince of Persia in their own style. I had fun writing the books, [evoking] the original games.
Can you say anything about what games you might be working on now?
JM: It's been a desire of mine to relaunch Karateka for the modern generation of consoles, so that's a project that I'm excited about.
Would you do Karateka with a large team, or would you be looking at a small scale to do a lot of it yourself or in a small group?
JM: There's an interesting story to tell about Karateka and the way we're doing it. We will talk about that [another time], though.
The Last Express was a huge labor of love. At the time, it was the biggest, most ambitious project I'd been involved with. I love that world, and I'm looking at ways to go back to it, and not just in video games.
Can you see yourself doing another big game project where you serve as the primary creative force?
JM: The last game that I was involved in was The Sands of Time in 2003. That was a great experience, and a really great, wonderful collaboration with Ubisoft. It's been seven years, during which I've been doing movies and graphic novels, so it would be fun to do that again.