Harald Zwart is clearly a fan of the material he’s been asked to bring to the big screen. Seated on a couch in room at the Trump Hotel high above the city in Toronto, Zwart sports a chain around his neck adorned with the most famous rune from his adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. When talking about his work (and the upcoming, already bankrolled sequel which goes before the cameras next month), Zwart shows an enthusiasm akin to the legions of teenagers who have made Clare’s literary series a success that’s just slightly below the level of Harry Potter and Twilight.
The Norwegian born Zwart, like many others, got his start directing music videos and commercials, so the step to bigger blockbuster filmmaking seems quite natural. The man behind Agent Cody Banks and the remake of The Karate Kid is no stranger to working with material that could potentially rankle fans if not properly adapted. Working side by side with Clare to bring her vision to the big screen, Zwart (who has a theatre named after him in his home country where the film will eventually premiere) took a decidedly character based approach to the material, letting the actors and their actions speak for themselves instead of reams of exposition and overplotting.
Zwart talked with us about managing fan expectations, why blockbuster movies are so long these days, getting off to a fast start with the series, crafting a strong female heroine, and that one time he stopped production to wake up the book’s author in the middle of the night with a question about a single word choice.
Dork Shelf: You sort of came up doing mostly commercials, but you’ve also done several music videos for bands that have had huge followings. You’ve worked with people who have had fans that have certain expectations. Now you have done both this film, which is based on a series of beloved novels, and a remake of The Karate Kid. Both of them have a lot of expectation tied to it. How is it now compared to then when it comes to managing those expectations that fans of a franchise have?
Harald Zwart: With anything you do, even when I started with commercials, you have to know that there’s an audience out there for it. When I did Karate Kid it was like I was taking on a real American national treasure. I’ve never felt pressure from that and it carried over into this. I knew when I took this job that I was going to respect the fans and I was going to be working closely with Cassandra, who has been a great collaborator. That helps to manage things a lot.
But what attracted me to this from the beginning was always the story of this young girl who finds their own power and is just a great female lead. She’s not there because of the boys around her. She’s just a strong girl who finds her in all of these shifts in reality. She goes through quite a lot. That’s what attracted me and I wanted to tell, and I wanted to tell it with the best possible actors.
When I read the books I became a fan myself. I knew this wasn’t really so much of just a young adult fiction. It was a bit like Harry Potter, The Exorcist – which I love, and a bit of Amadeus. I always told my DP and the designer that when you go into the institute where everyone stays in the film that you should think more like Amadeus than monster movies, but there is that, and a bit of classical mythology. And that’s what Cassandra does so well. It’s kind of like The DaVinci Code. You build what people have already done and work a lot with and you create your own spin on it.
DS: Well, the old expression goes that the best artists often steal.
HZ: (laughs) Yes! But in this industry we call it homage.
DS: But the film is also really genuine in terms of trying to please the people who would want to see the movie and see this world come to life.
HZ: Yes. And that was the balance that we always had to be on. We had to make sure that the fans got what they wanted, and thankfully they have so far, but we also had to make it so the people who haven’t read the books or haven’t even heard of them were going to have a satisfactory, inclusive, and conclusive experience. The book isn’t really that conclusive, so we had to cheat a little bit in that respect. That was how we worked with it and try to make it have that broad appeal, so we grounded it a bit.
DS: It’s kind of bold that this film, which is the first film in what will hopefully for you guys be a franchise, is that you get off to a bit of a quick start. It only takes about five minutes or so for the audience to figure out that Clary has moved to her new home under some not quite ideal circumstances. Now as someone who hasn’t read the books, was that something that the book always did or was it a conscious decision on your part?
HZ: That wasn’t really us too much. The book gets off to a pretty fast start, too, but we changed the order of things a bit. It gets kicking right away. The book gets started in the nightclub sequence that comes a few scenes into the film. So we added kind of that domestic normalcy before that. Because in a book it’s easier through hearing people’s thoughts, inner monologues, dialogue, descriptions of space and time, and longer scenes, to get the reader into it. We had to kind of add that stuff up front to see who the “before” Clary was.
But the movie and the book both do have a good pace. That’s probably because I am honestly the first one to get bored in the movie theatre. (laughs)
DS: Well, I think that fast start helps to hook the viewer in who doesn’t know the books as well to get excited for what’s about to come, because I think the expectation for this kind of film is that the exposition will come right off the bat and it might be the driest thing about the film.
HZ: Yeah! Well, that’s also because audiences today just don’t have that attention span anymore. If you compare audiences today to the great favourites from when I was young with something like The Exorcist or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you can see there’s a tempo shift. Those are great for taking their time to live with the characters. But movies are still quite sophisticated these days.
DS: It’s funny that you should bring that up because the new trend seems to be that movies like City of Bones and Karate Kid are the only kinds of films that you could make and have them run just north of two hours in length. In the past, it was the big studio blockbusters that had to be short and the indie films were long, and that seems to have changed.
HZ: No, you’re right. You’re exactly right.
DS: When you have a bit more freedom with length and material, do you see that as an advantage combined with a property that has a built in following?
HZ: I don’t know. Like I said, I’ve never taken a story based on its potential, but what’s actually on the page. Karate Kid I thought was just an incredibly moving story that meant a lot to me and I wanted to tell to my kids. I think length is a funny thing. I’ve heard on both Karate Kid and City of Bones that people looked at the running time, saw that it was over two hours, and they sat down and they said it was over before they knew it. Length is a perception. It’s not really the be all and end all. Some film critic – and I wish I remembered who it was and what it was for – once said “After an hour I looked at my watch and saw that only thirty minutes had passed.” And that’s the opposite end. And we’ve all seen those kinds of movies, too. That’s the true sign of a BAD movie.
And, I mean, my part of the world has frequently contributed to that stereotype. They think they are being artistic just by being slow.
DS: You’re from Norway originally, and it seems like the trend there has definitely been moving away from that kind of film and towards generally tighter product.
HZ: That’s because it’s been my generation, the younger generation from there, who has kind of come up and influenced the political system and realized that there’s an audience out there and they have an obligation to them. In the old days, in a place where you can get all the money you want to make a movie, there’s never a demand to get that money back, and you can quickly indulge in these self-obsessed affairs where you don’t really have a message to deliver to anybody. Sometimes you watch these filmmakers and they will say “I have such an important movie!” and I just think “Well, if it’s so important, wouldn’t you want everyone to see it?” (laughs)
DS: Well, it could mean it’s important to them and not exactly to an audience.
HZ: (laughs) Yes! Exactly right!
DS: Clary really isn’t the standard sort of female lead that these kinds of films are generally known for. She’s not sullen, she has a lot going on in her life, she certainly has questions, but she’s strong. Even when she’s challenged and her beliefs are put to the test, she always kind of finds a way to roll with it. What was it like working with Lily Collins and Cassandra to bring this character to life?
HZ: You’re pointing out the exact reasons why wanted to do the movie, and these are two people that you’re talking about who understand what you just said perfectly. My wife, who’s an executive on the movie, and I discussed this: our daughter doesn’t have a lot of good role models around her in the media today. A lot of these movies have the girls only being there for the boys’ sake and they aren’t strong on their own. This character that Cassandra wrote is exactly what you say, and she’s never this miserable character to begin with, either. She’s this great, smiling, happy girl who has her own conflicts with her mom and with her realty changing, but she still manages to crawl out from under it every time and just be strong, strong, strong, and she doesn’t weaken, but she finds even more strength.
I think one of the most beautiful conclusions in the movie is when she looks at her mom once she finds out what’s been going on and instead of whining that she ruined her life, she just says that she understands and that she will forgive her. It doesn’t mean she isn’t angry, but it shows that she’s actually thought about everything and what she has been through. That to me shows the largest character that anyone could have.
DS: Well that shows that the act of forgiveness is an act of love, really, and since the film doesn’t focus as intently on the love story, it shows love to those around them in equal ways. It’s something that applies to the male characters of the film as well and what they have to go through.
HZ: Yes, absolutely. That’s really well put.
DS: Cassandra Clare seems like someone who would make for a great collaborator and maybe not as daunting of a personality to work with when adapting one of her novels. What was your relationship like, and I guess will continue to be like since you are starting production on the second film really soon?
HZ: I still have her on one of my speed dials. First, I have been honoured to come and see her and tag along to one of her book signings with fans. And she’s just like a stand-up comedian. She is so funny and so no-nonsense. And her fans are the same way. They can handle sarcasm, and they’re very realistic, and they are often just really tough girls. She also has that same kind of down to Earth, matter of fact way of looking at things, and that’s how she’s always handled this material. She says. “You’re going to make the movie. Not me. You have the material and I trust you.” And with that as the starting point we just had a great time. I was able to come up with all of these ideas on my own and little touches that she thought were great. I wanted to do them because I told her they had a great visual potential and she was always really constructive and helpful. She always expanded upon my ideas.
I remember one of the things that stuck out the most was this scene where Clary and Jace are on the motorbike and Jace says “Hodge says all the stories are true.” Then I started thinking “Is the word actually ‘true’ or ‘real’?” So I had this whole crew of 60 people just stop what they were doing right as we were ready to shoot and I called Cassandra. I think she was in Paris where she was over there writing and I woke her up to ask her, and she just says (acts tired) “Ugh, um, true.” And then I just thanked her and hung up. (laughs) She was so on board and I absolutely adored her.
DS: You guys are really diving straight into the next film right away, with the production starting next month. Do you mind not having that downtime and do you like that you can pick up right where you left off without that much of a gap in the work?
HZ: I don’t mind at all. I just love to work. I could work all the time. I have my family with me. I haven’t seen them much the past few weeks because of all the travelling for the press for the film, but they’re here and will be here again, so that’s always great. I love working, and I think especially on this movie where all the work, and the prepping, and the sets have largely already been done, the second story will be scarier and tighter and a lot more of a psychological journey into the hearts and minds of these characters that I’m excited to explore without having to mount a whole production from scratch again. I don’t mind not having a lot of a break because I like the work, but I definitely admire my producers for having the cojones to go ahead with it before this movie has opened. That’s hugely admirable and no one really does that, so I’m grateful.