There are a whole slew of movies trying to capture the elusive lightning in a bottle “Twilight” formula this year, whether its the southern gothic of Beautiful Creatures or the satirical romance of Warm Bodies, but none of them have a better shot at following in Edward and Bella’s footsteps than The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.
Based on the widely popular (and controversial) YA novels by 39-year-old Cassandra Clare (penname of Judith Rumelt), “Mortal Instruments” combines the supernatural romance elements of “Twilight” with the magic of “Harry Potter” to create its own action-packed occult cocktail.
In October of 2012, I visited Cinespace Studios in Toronto, Canada to tour the sets of this new fantasy franchise-in-waiting on day 40 of 55 days of principal photography. The mood was light and positive as we were taken to the editing bay to catch a glimpse of what had already been lensed.
The editor plays a reel of footage for us, like a rough extended trailer. In it, Clary (Lily Collins) sees Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) stab a dude at a nightclub, but no one else could see it. She then discovers that there’s a map in her head, and there’s a lot of fighting, including a flip that Jamie actually did for real on the set. Best line: “I’m a werewolf, not a golden retriever.” There’s a definite “Lost Boys” vibe with all the leather and teen angst on display.
Collins, who recently shone bright as Snow White in Mirror Mirror, was chosen in 2010 to play the lead role of an average girl who discovers her own secret history and powers, but weathered several delays in production. The fact that producers stuck with her throughout the ordeal shows a great deal of confidence in her.
“I think it went through the process of changing hands and new people involved,” said Collins. “I think everything happens for a reason, because the team we got together for this is so amazing. Everyone has brought something new to the table.”
Chief among those creative bringing their A-game to the project is director Harald Zwart, who had a smash hit in the recent Karate Kid remake.
“I have just been obsessed with making sure I had great actors for all the parts,” said Zwart. “I think one of the successes with, for instance, ‘Harry Potter’ is even the smallest parts are great actors and thats something Ive been really striving to get, so the casting has been really important.”
“Harald is the ultimate director for this project because its so not really his genre, but hes all about character and emotion,” Collins said. “And its taking the project that could have been so CGI-based, and all based on the physicality and the way it looks, and hes made it a story about real people in this fantasy world.”
It may be a fantasy, but the romance between Clary and Jace was a crucial component, both marketing-wise and story-wise. Many hot young actors were vetted for the part of Jace, but Campbell Bower impressed everyone through the chemistry he shared with Collins.
“I read with a couple of different guys that had come in,” said Collins. “Jamie just came in and that was it. He was just himself. He had this perfect mixture of being this witty, kind of jokey, cocky in the best sense of the word, but also extremely vulnerable, emotional. And thats what Jace is. He has to walk in a room and make people turn their heads and thats what Jamie does.”
“Lily and I just automatically clicked,” Bower explained. “These two characters just came out of us and it was like we had known each other for years, it was so weird. ‘Twilight,’ that was so successful because people invested in the love between these two characters, and that’s what I want them to have with this.”
Another key person Lily clicked with may be the most important: the book’s author, Cassandra Clare, who was given a level of input on the project that is practically unheard of for big budget projects like this.
“Lily’s been a fan of the books for a long time, which I think is really helpful because she sort of admires Clary and she relates to her and I think that she brings a grounded relatablilty to that character,” Clare insists. “She’s a real character, she likes manga, she loves her nerdy music, she has her room that’s covered with her favorite band posters and her sketches. You really feel that she’s grounded in the reality of this girl, who also discovers that she can be this warrior.”
Well, I don’t know about warrior quite yet, but man can Clary take a beating. Our glimpse of shooting starts off with a bang at the Institute set during the climactic battle for the Mortal Cup. We see a series of takes in which Lily (or, rather, her poor stunt double) gets her head slammed into a table by her father Valentine Morgenstern, played with evil cunning by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. There’s a round of applause for the headbanger, and afterwards I see the double sitting off set, drinking a coffee with an ice pack on her head even when things aren’t real, the pain toll sometimes is.
This scene involves Valentine telling Clary that well, we don’t want to spoil it for you now do we? It’s a big bombshell, though, like “Luke, I am your father”-style.
As Zwart and company continue to film, the footage on the monitors has chiaroscuro shafts of flickering light which bring to mind the films of Ridley Scott. As he fights with Jamie we see Jonathan with long braids dangling from his hair that make him look like a dark Jedi warrior. His bare chest reveals several rune tattoos. He slams Lily’s head down (the real Lily this time) and then evades a spear to the face from Jamie. After the first take, Jonathan smiles and shares a laugh with lily to break the tension.
Here is a little taste of the dialogue:
Valentine: “Take out the cup, Clary I WANT MY CUP!”
Jace: “You said you wouldn’t hurt her!”
Valentine knocks Jace away.
Valentine: “That’s enough child.”
He bangs her head on the desk and she falls.
Ever mindful, Jonathan helps a prop man adjust a piece of background furniture that’s gone squiffy. There’s a big statue of an angel holding a sword, and the prop man puts caution tape on it between takes so no one pokes their eye out. Even while candid Lily is incredibly photogenic, the camera loves her, remaining composed as Jonathan repeatedly slams her head into a desk some more. It’s also good to keep in mind that she is doing all of these stunt scenes in high heels.
“Oh my God,” exclaimed Collins. “I know, on that last take I actually did smack it against the table. It really helps, I have to say, because with a lot of the stunt stuff, something is bound to go a little awry, and most of my reactions have genuinely been me saying ‘Ow’ and screaming. Ive had many experiences on this set of intense emotional, physical Im doing stunts in these
Jamie also got his taste of the action:
“So we were doing a lot of stunt stuff and Harald was like, ‘I dont want any wires; I dont want any wire work. I dont want that. I want it to be very much — If youre going to do something, if youre going to do a flip, then you need to be able to do a flip. If youre going to do a jump, you need to be able to do a jump,’ and all this kind of stuff. So for me, learning how to do flips onto tables off the mini-tram was really exciting because thats me doing that in the movie. Thats nobody else. Thats not a facial placement. Theres no wires there. Thats me jumping from the floor onto a table doing a flip in midair, which I know sounds really stupid, but the 14-year-old boy inside me goes, ‘Thats f**king awesome. Thats so cool.’”
We are then taken to the adjacent Institute Library set, which is two-floors high, filled with skulls, busts, paintings, stained glass, huge books in Latin, various weapons, and creepy candelabras straight out of Liberace. Ancient rune symbols line the marble floor. There is a portal, used by the characters as a safe haven to get in and out of places, which has been built practically, using various filters and light effects.
One of the main tenants of this library is Hodge Starkweather, the old wizard straight out of Joseph Campbell, who is played by the awesome Jared Harris of “Mad Men” fame.
“Hodge is a Shadowhunter,” Harris explained. “He was at the Academy with Valentine and Jocelyn and Luke, and Pangborn and Blackwell I think as well. And he was part of Valentines circle who wanted to change the way the Clave used the Mortal Cup. For his part in whats called The Uprising, hes sentenced to remain in the Institute, and he has a curse or a spell put on him which means that hes not allowed to leave. And hes given the responsibility of teaching the young Shadowhunters. And his relationship with Clary is that shes brought into the Institute by Jace, and hes the adult who knows a lot more of her history than she does. And hes slowly sort of drip-feeding it to her, not telling her the whole story outright, so hes making her discover stuff for herself.”
But how does a big budget fantasy movie compare with the phenomenal popularity of that world of high-powered 1960s advertising folk?
“This is slightly different than ‘Mad Men’ because it exists in a literary form first,” said Harris. “The fans have their Its lived in their imaginations already. And I think its really important with things like that, that you have to honor the mythology thats been created in the books, which they have done.”
We then take a stroll to the set of Jocelyn’s apartment, which is filled with paintings. There’s a lot of breakaway glass for a future fight scene, which will be host to a big explosion in the kitchen. Clary’s room is lined with her CDs and medieval drawings, along with some skulls, gargoyles, and miniature angel statues.
We’re taken back to the main set where the fight scene between Jonathan and Jamie continues. Before each take, Jonathan says “silence” to remind himself to move without sound. Their fighting is as fast and aggressive as you would want it to be.
We see Lily cry after she finds out a certain revelation, at which point Jonathan tells Jamie, “You know why she’s upset? Because she’s in love with you.”
Given these revelations (which fans of the book ought to know), is it possible “Mortal instruments” could break out into a full-fledged series with slews of multi-part sequels?
“I think when I was first approached about this,” said Jamie, “I wasnt made aware of the fact that they were possibly thinking about making it into a franchise, so for me, it was — this was a one-film deal. If it goes for another two, if it goes for another three, however many, thats great, but right now were focusing on this one and doing this one and getting that as good as I can make it rather than focus on it as a brand and making it into a brand.”
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones will be released nationwide on August 23, 2013.