The tagline or categorization of "Young Adult" can scare off some movie goers after efforts in recent years, but that doesn't mean that it isn't good to be a solid film no matter what your age. In advance of tomorrow release of "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones", I got the chance to sit down with director Harald Zwart about launching a franchise, making it universally open to all audiences and the inspirations that his children and his father brought to the film and how they influence his style of filmmaking.
Dave Voigt: When you are looking at a project like "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones", I can imagine that it might be something that is comforting and daunting all at the same time considering that you are launching this bigger overall story as well. How do you go about crafting a film that is part of a bigger picture and how did you ultimately become involved with the project?
Harald Zwart: Well they ultimately approached me to look at it and for me my ultimate focus really just has to be to make one movie at a time and make sure that it is satisfactory, even though it is a little opened ended. It was also very important for me to make a film for people who hadn't necessarily read the book. I have a daughter, and my wife who is an exec on the film were discussing it and we just thought this was a great story filled with great role models for kids, in a setting where a lot of kids will end up seeing it. It was never a question of just jumping on this 'Young Adult' property which are all so hot right now, but this idea where this young girl who discovers that her mom is gone, was something relatable for me since I lost my own mother at a young age, then as I figured out the reality of these things and then threw in elements of the supernatural in there as she discovers that her mom isn't exactly who she thought she was, and her mom is messing with her mind and etc, etc, etc. I was constantly impressed with the strength in that character as she digs herself out of these black holes. The character of Clary played by Lily Collins is what ultimately drew me to this project.
DV: How important was it for you to make a film that was ultimately as accessible as "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" was? When you have a story with young adult themes the immediate comparison is usually to the "Twilight" series and that can turn off some audiences.
HZ: It is just about how you approach the project. I really do have to make a film that I want to pay my money to see myself. It's so important for me for it to be grounded in certain physical laws, like all the bits with the Bach and music, I really think that is one of the films universal appeals. I also wanted it to be a very true story, with deep and truly interesting and compelling characters. I spoke with Cassandra Clare who wrote the novel about this at great length, and found out the back stories of all these characters and make sure that they play true. All those things were the reason I wanted to make the movie, and make it like it is a classic from the 1970's, something "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where you are watching the domestic strife and turmoil unfold in that family that rings so true, and then when you throw in the aliens it just feels a lot less important. I wanted this film to feel the same way, that the vampires and monsters feel extraneous to it all, and thank you for saying how you universally accessible you feel it was because it had to be that kind of movie for me. And at the end of the day, I'm a hopeless romantic, I want to feel these characters fall in love and it's all such great drama.
DV: Every character in the ensemble really had their own weight and added a unique gravitas to the story. How important was the casting process for you to be able to get these characters just right?
HZ: Oh it was absolutely huge, these guys were on the top of my list no doubt but they were easy to find yet not so easy to find, because they all had to be just right. I mean for a character like Isabelle (played by Jemima West) we could have easily used one of the hot up and coming actress with all the right features, if you know what I mean (smiles). When a part like that comes up, I just get bombarded by agents and publicists shoving countless headshots in my face, but we just felt that wasn't fair to the character because she was a really cool girl. So we searched high and low to find Jemima who is more French then British actually she lives in France but we tested her and she was just super solid and that is the kind of girl that she is. You need someone who can say with the greatest conviction "Werewolves do exist, but of course Zombies don't exist" and when you hear her say it you just say "Of course"... she just sells it so well.
DV: You talked about the use of Bach and the musical pieces in the film, I also noticed in the credits that you actually played the pieces yourself, do you have a musical background?
HZ: Yeah, I was classically trained and I just really needed something safe that I knew I could fall back on so I went into film instead (laughs). The Bach reference was actually more of an homage to my dad more than anything else. When I started working on the movie and I saw in the book that Jace plays the piano, and it wasn't enough to just have this pretty boy playing the piano I needed to find out why and give it a purpose, like as a weapon. I remember my dad telling me about how Bach's music should be played without any interpretation and just without any dynamic or vibrato just very dry and there is that moment with Jace where he cannot express his feelings to people but he cannot play music without getting too emotional. I just thought that was such a great link because he's supposed to play it cold and emotionless in order to scare off the demons, but he cannot because he simply gets to emotional and it was a nice tie in, that's why I thought it would be great to have Bach be an actual Shadow Hunter. Right before we shot that scene I ran over to his painting and added those little tattoos with a pencil, in the close up and it got a good laugh.
DV: So much of the film is about finding yourself, and on this and other films you have worked with younger actors a fair deal some of whom are at that age when they are still trying to steer the ship in their lives. As a storyteller is it important for you to work with these kinds of actors and get these stories as emotionally true as you can.
HZ: Oh, yeah. I think that ultimately goes back to how inspired I get by my own children. I think that the most important job that my wife and I do is to raise our kids and there's no...no real solutions but every day you just figure it out. My wife is much more wise then I am but if we can tell them to just trust themselves and never let themselves get bogged down in any sort of situation, I think that is just a great message to share.
DV: You've shot a fair bit here in Toronto, and are currently scouting locations for the second one. What ultimately drew you to Toronto to shoot?
HZ: Obviously the truthful answer would be the financial considerations of shooting here, but we also would have never had done it had it not been able to double for New York City as well. But I really did find that crews here were just excellent. You expect a certain air of pretension in the film industry, but everyone here was just so mellow and approachable, just a lot of fun to work with.
DV: Are you going to get to see any of the Toronto International Film Festival at all this year?
HZ: We did get to go to a couple of premieres last year, and schedule permitting we'll try and catch a couple of films this year as well, but TIFF is just such a great festival you guys are really lucky here.
DV: What are your hopes for the film and for the "Mortal Instruments" franchise going forward?
HZ: I'd obviously be happy to come back for them all if they'd have me (laughs) but first and foremost it is just to make one film at a time and focus on that make that the best movie that we can. As well as being careful to make sure we preserve the secrets that get revealed in the third one going forward, but one step at a time.
DV: Thanks again for your time and good luck with everything.
HZ: Thank you so much, this was great.
"Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" opens in theatres all across Canada tomorrow, please check with your local listings for show times.