Set Visit: Lily Collins takes a dark trip in 'The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones'
We're being led through the interior of Clary's home, and I decide I'd like to live here. It's cozy and large, the type of spacious New York City apartment only available to middle-class folk in the movies. In the living room there's a fireplace, and off that an alcove with an easel (in the book both Clary and her mother are artists).
Upstairs, we tour Jocelyn and Clary's bedrooms - the former's relatively spare, the latter's filled with elaborate fantasy drawings and occult artifacts (among other things, I catch sight of a horned skull). We're on a soundstage, but the place feels lived-in. With pots and pans and canned food cluttering the cupboards in the kitchen, it's easy to overlook that we are, in fact, on a movie set. But I don't care; I want to live here.
"Grounded." It's a word that's bandied about pretty often by Hollywood types in this post "Dark Knight" age, and "Mortal Instruments" director Harald Zwart is not immune.
"What I liked about the project was it was a good opportunity to really ground it," says the filmmaker, whose previous credits include "Pink Panther 2," "Agent Cody Banks" and the "Karate Kid" remake from a couple of years ago. "I’ve been trying to somehow see how can I take all of Cassandra’s magical ideas and somehow almost scientifically explain them. How could we make sure that -- do these demons exist on a different frequency? Is there a vibration thing? That’s when I started thinking maybe there’s a music thing and we brought in Bach’s music and we thought maybe there’s something hidden. It’s a little like 'The Da Vinci Code,' where you take already existing phenomenon and you back into a solution."
Zwart wears a two-toned zip-up sweater and has a head of thinning grayish-white hair. Born in Norway, his Wikipedia profile claims he has been making short films "as early as age eight." Cutting his teeth as a commercial director, his first feature was the little-seen 1998 action film "Commander Hamilton" starring Peter Stormare, Lena Olin and Mark Hamill. Not the most auspicious of debuts, surely, but Zwart continued chugging along, emerging three years later with the 2001 "Rashomon"-style comedy "One Night at McCool's" starring Liv Tyler and Matt Dillon. That film came and went, and it might have been the last we ever heard from Zwart had he not somehow landed a job directing the Frankie Muniz 'tween-action vehicle "Agent Cody Banks." While not a monster success, the film was successful enough to spawn a sequel (which Zwart did not direct), giving him the necessary cachet to land two subsequent studio movies: the commercially unsuccessful "Pink Panther 2" and, just in the nick of time, "The Karate Kid," which brought in a massive $350 million-plus worldwide while racking up better-than-expected critical notices.
And now "The Mortal Instruments," which clearly hopes to be another "Twilight" or "Harry Potter" but given the crowded state of the YA marketplace may just as well settle for being the next "Percy Jackson." In any event, it's Zwart's first real venture into the fantasy realm, with all of the attendant effects work and stunt sequences implied by the genre. He claims not to be so focused on that part of the equation.
"Effects and stunt work to me is often where you bring in the professionals and it’s more mathematical solutions than it is unsolvable problems," he says of tackling this new and untested genre in the scheme of his career. " I find that finding the emotional tone in a scene, what level they should be at, and getting great performances is much more of an unknown challenge than actually working with effects and stunts."
When you're talking about current Hollywood trends, two rather unusual aspects of this production are both its lack of 3D and the fact that Zwart is shooting on film - a decision the director tells us he lobbied hard for.
"I still think there’s any argument to be made for film," he says. "I fought really hard and the producers were very supportive of going with film. I still to this day think there’s a distinguishable difference. And to me this was not a monster movie, I went as far as, when I spoke to the composer and the designer I said, 'Think of it as an 'Amadeus.' It’s much more an 'Amadeus' than it is a monster movie.'” Because, you know, [production designer] Francois Seguin, the D.P. I have [Geir Hartly Andreassen], and the composers, they’re all people who don’t do monster movies necessarily so I wanted to really approach it from a different direction. And the romantic idea of this movie, the love story, lends itself a lot more to the skin tone, the romance, and the imagery that we can do with film that I still think is much more forgiving with film than when you use digital."
As to the question of future installments, is the speculative headline "Will Harald Zwart return to direct 'The Mortal Instruments 2'" jumping the gun just a tad? Of course it is. But will he?
"I haven’t thought of this as a franchise at all," he says. "It’s obviously out there, but unless this movie's great there is no franchise. I think it’s been important to make sure that the movie has an emotional closure, because the book is very cleverly set up so that you almost have to read the second book in order to get answers to a lot of the questions that are raised at the end. We’ve been really working hard on making sure that the movie at least had an emotional closure to it. It’s almost a little try to not think of the franchise as much as just focusing on one movie at a time."
And if "City of Bones" goes the way of "The Spiderwick Chronicles"? "The Golden Compass"? "City of Ember"? "Eragon"? "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant"? "Inkheart"? "The Seeker: Dark Is Rising"? Well, let's just not think about that yet, shall we?
"The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" is set for release on August 23.