We got to chat with director Harald Zwart at The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones press junket on August 9 in Los Angeles, along with Page to Premiere and TMI Examiner.
Harald discussed the importance of the film relying on the characters rather the effects, his inspiration for the demons, the collaboration process and how they decided to handle the film’s massive plot twist.
How did you decide how the demons would look?
Harald Zwart: That was a long process. They are described a certain way in the book, but I though I needed a little more – First of all I was very inspired by The Exorcist and how that movie deals with demons and I was not really wanting to go into full CG demons until the very end. I love how The Exorcist makes sure that the girl is there all the time and that’s what makes it so scary. So I was really inspired by that. When they needed to be full-blown demons, we just thought we just came from, what is it? Is it just a materia that is fire and lava and then we added some teeth and then they didn’t have eyes. It was a lot of that conceptual development and eventually ended up looking the way they looked.”
How important was it to you that the film be more character-oriented than rely on the action?
HZ: That was the reason I got engaged in doing the movie. I was really intruged by how does a young girl like that – I moved away from my house when I was 14 years old and living on my own I was always trying to deal with life – and then I figured how would a girl suddenly deal with her mom being – cause I lost my mom when I was really young – and I thought It was a really interesting aspect. How does somebody who comes home and finds her mom is gone, what is her reaction? I know how I reacted, but then if you start throwing suprernatual things into it, How do you start to deal with the reality that shifts so enormously? And it shifts and shifts and shifts – and when you saw the movie – it doesn’t stop. Once she accepts this universe as being something that exists, then they throw in the mix the trick that Valentine plays on them (Clary and Jace). The guy you fall in love with is – I don’t want to be spoiling anything too much. I just wanted to see how a girl – either she goes under and goes nuts or she becomes stronger than she ever was. And I thought that was a really interesting concept.
How did you eventually decide how to handle the incest reveal?
HZ: That was a long discussion we all had many, many times. I think we landed on the idea that it works really well in the book. It keeps people interested. I think audiences are sophisticated. They don’t believe it’s really true. They’ll go, ‘No. It’s just a movie and I’m sure we’ll know the real solution in movie two.’ But also, there is a risk of not thinking that. We thought it actually makes (Valentine) an even stronger villain if you realize that it’s just a plan. Cause it is an actually nasty idea. So we thought that was good for the movie.
What was your favorite scene to work with using old-fashioned camera trickery?
HZ: I have a couple. You all saw the movie now, the idea when he builds the pentagram and it just looks like random swords that he just hits and it’s actually is with extreme precision. When you have the camera go up you see that they’re not laid out in a star, they’re actually in a forced perspective and all these random swords actually when you see it from one perfect spot are a perfect pentagram. I worked a lot on that. I worked in 3D on my computer, I made little swords and I tried to look at it from different angles. Then I went to the props guys and they spent several weeks putting those perfect in position with the camera suspended so they could always see where they needed to be for it be perfect. That’s one of those things that I know the audience appreciates. The other one that I was happy with, which is a much smaller idea, but it’s the idea when she writes in the dust and she just writes the negative space in the letters. I like that whole mystery-solving idea and instead of her just writing the name Bane, I was sitting experimenting how she could write it differently? Then I thought, well, when we look at something bright, or color or we look at a light spot and we close our eyes, your eyes see the negative image. I thought maybe that’s the way your mind works. It remembers the inverted image. What is the inverted image of these letters? Of course, she does the holes in the B, she does the holes in the A. That’s how she writes Bane and only Jace is smart enough to see that when you start outlining them that’s when you see the letters. It’s another one of those completely in-camera things that I was very happy with that also had some resonance with real, physical. My brother’s a neurologist so I love that stuff.”
How did you trim down the scope of the various supernatural creatures in the film?
HZ: Once you wrap your head around Cassandra (Clare)’s universe it is crystal clear and we made maps and diagrams and things to really keep track of it all. For me, the important story was Clary and how she responds to the whole thing. So we wanted to almost put in a simplified version of it. They’re all Downworlders. We made the scene with Isabelle and Simon where Simon is kind of us asking, ‘Okay, I’m totally confused here. There’s this and that and there’s that.’ And then when he thinks he’s starting to get it and he goes, ‘What about mummies?’ and he says, ‘How do you kill a mummy?’ and she says, ‘We don’t.’ And he goes, ‘Ah, I know, cause they’re already dead.” She goes, ‘No, cause they just don’t exist.’ That was kind of our version. That was how I wanted to make sure the audience knew there are some things that are real and some things that are not real. And I think once you establish that with the audience they go, ‘Okay, I get it now,’ and then they’re on with the journey.”
What scene are you most excited for audiences to see?
HZ: That’s hard to answer. I have my little darling moments that I described to you. I think the interaction between –when Valentine comes on screen I think there’s a huge energy shift in the movie. I am just completely in love with the whole aftermath of everything. When they wake up and it’s snow inside and they’re all trying to wrap up each other. There’s the awkwardness between Jace and Clary. I wish I could tell you. I think I love watching the audience when they jump when the demon girl is taken. Those are the moments when I turn around and look at the audience looking at the screen.
Who worked on the rune designs?
HZ: That was somewhat developed when we came on board. Almost an alphabet of runes already developed. I looked at those and Cassandra was like, ‘You know you could use this or invent new ones,’ and I just thought they looked really terrific. Some of them are based on old Norwegian runes – you know I’m from Norway – so I felt really related to runes. I’ve grown up with school excursions back in Norway when we’d go look at runes carved into stones over there. For me, I could actually tell them what runes were not only symbols but a written language. We’ve taken that even further in the second movie.
Of the songs on the soundtrack, is there one song that really stands out to you as one that best represents the movie?
HZ: I think Colbie Caillat’s – the song that’s in the end – is a beautiful song. She wrote that for the movie. I think that may be one that emotionally and has that melancholy and the lyrics kind of reflect the tone of the movie. I think that’s a really good representation of that. And I love the Bach pieces in there, too, because I played them myself. I loved bringing in the classical music aspect of it all.
Going into the casting process, what were the most important characteristics you were looking for in your Clary and Jace?
HZ: Lily was already on-board when I came on-board so that was part of the reason why I took the movie because I think she’s terrific. But then Jamie was a hot candidate. I met him in London. He had everything the character needed. It was almost a charming arrogance that sometimes British people have because they’re full of humor and they have a very light view on life. I really enjoyed noticing that there’s a vulnerability there, also. And I thought that’s something I really want to explore. You see him all the way trying to hide his secrets and then eventually he opens up to her in the greenhouse scene. Somebody who had both of those sides was someone I really needed. I’m really happy with the whole cast. I think they’re doing a fantastic job.
What inspired the Shadowhunters to have British accents in the film?
HZ: It was something that I felt was instinctively right when I read the book. I wanted the Shadowhunters to feel like they’d been around for hundreds of years even before America was discovered. I thought they were still fighting over in Europe. For me, it was kind of a distinct difference between everyday America and this almost royal blood that had been existing centuries. I think the British accent kind of helped that perception a little bit.
Was there any thought in your mind about trying to fit pieces together for City of Ashes, as well as The Infernal Devices?
HZ: That has been a constant collaboration with Cassandra also because we had to preserve whatever potentially came up in the second movie. Unfortunately, with a movie you cannot get all the backstory. I wish I could have told more about how Luke became a werewolf because that’s a great backstory. I wish In could have told more about how Luke is secretly in love with Jocelyn. There’s a lot great stuff there. Thankfully we can bring that out a lot more he second movie. We’re kind of teasing it in the first one and in the second one we can bring a lot of those things in.
Did you insert any easter eggs in the movie as references to the other works going forward?
HZ: There is a lot of that in the story itself. The idea that Jace is Valentine’s son. I don’t want to reveal too much but obviously all of this is going to be – another box is going to open, another box is going to open. What I love about this movie and this series is that, Okay, now I understand how everything is put together and then some little twist happens and now everything that I thought was true is no longer true. That’s going to continue into the second movie.
Can you talk about actor collaboration in the script, like Jamie’s ‘Have a little faith?’
HZ: That’s what great about these actors is that they read and love the books. It’s such a thick source material and they love their own characters and they started emotiaonlly relating to them and somethimes you go down a path where, this works but this could work better. Actors are really focused on their own character and suddenly he says, ‘Hey, how about this line?’ which belongs somewhere else in the book. And yeah, that’s perfect. That fits perfectly in that scene. And that kind of stuff I think is priceless. As a director, if you’re not open to better ideas continuously and just go, ‘No, no, that’s not how we agreed,’ then I just think you’re freezing your own process. I always want to evolve and evolve.”
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is in theaters now.