Interview: The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Director Harald Zwart


Ever since the fantastic success of the “Harry Potter” franchise, Hollywood has been on the lookout for the next big young adult fantasy find. Some of them, like “The Chronicles of Narnia,” have been every inch the success the studios wanted, but far more have disappeared into the vast pit of audience indifference. (“The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” anyone?)

Now Screen Gems, known more for its bloody “Resident Evil” and “Underworld” franchises than young adult coming-of-age stories, is preparing to step into the arena with its adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments” series.

Although the film doesn’t open until next week, internal reaction to The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones has been strong enough that the studio has already given the green light for its sequel “City of Ashes” which will begin filming this September.

Director Harald Zwart, who will be returning for the sequel, took some time out of pre-production on “City of Ashes” to talk with about what drew him to the project and what audiences can expect. You’ve done several coming-of-age adventure films now, and all from a young boy’s point of view – how is it different working on a film that is more for and about a young woman?
Harald Zwart:
It’s hard to say, but that difference is part of the reason I took on the movie. I have a young daughter and it’s important for her to have healthy idols. Not idols, what’s the word I want … role models; someone to look up to. The media can be incredibly influential in a young person’s life and we need more positive role models from it – it needs some girl power to inspire young girls like my daughter. After “The Karate Kid,” that’s the kind of story I was looking for and then I found Cassandra’s book.

Clary (“City of Bones'” main character, played by Lily Collins) is an incredibly positive person who just has terrible things happen to her and she just survives no matter how bad the news is. That’s something I can relate to. I lost my mother at 12 and moved out on my own at 14, so I can see how your whole world can be turned upside down in days.

And fantasy is a good genre to bring that into. That’s what I like about it; you can have big scenes without being pompous.

One of my inspirations was Rutger Hauer’s speech at the end of “Blade Runner.” It’s so sad and full and tells you about him and his world. That was my inspiration [for “City of Bones”]—”Blade Runner” and “The Exorcist” and “Harry Potter.”

CS: It’s interesting that you mention Harry Potter as an inspiration since films like this seem to exist in its shadow and have to fight to break out. Were you worried about that at all?
You know, I didn’t really look at it like that. I just approached it as a story about this normal girl who think she’s normal, then her reality shifts completely. I thought that’s what was really interesting about it.

CS: “The Mortal Instruments” is a pretty developed series by now with a lot of back-story and something of a conclusion. Does that make it easier for you to develop the first story for the screen or do you just focus on the story in front of you?
No, part of the fun of it is knowing there is more to this world than just what is in our two hours. Part of what we struggled with in developing it was what to share and how to keep some things secret while revealing some things of what is to come? That is really a dream for a filmmaker, to have a fully developed world to walk into. The hard part is choosing what to leave in or take out.

CS: You’re already developing the next film in the franchise now, so I guess some of what didn’t go into “City of Bones” can go into the next one. Are you worried about starting directly in on it before an audience has really seen the first one?
Not really, I mean the story is there, the book is already written. We start filming in September and I really have to give credit to the studio for being willing to green light it so early. But that just comes down to how much great material there is.

CS: Having already made one “Mortal Instruments” film and having the benefit of hindsight, is there anything in the sequel you’ll approach differently or something you couldn’t get into the first film that you really want to put into the next one?
Not really. There is a definite learning curve with the first one, and there are things we don’t have to do again for the sequel. We don’t have to design the demons again; we can just refine their look. But I’m happy with the way the first film has come out. The big thing is now that I’ve seen how great the actors are—Lily Collins is just great—now we know just how far we can push them, how far we can go with some of the scenes.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones opens on Wednesday, August 21.

(Photo source: Apega/