Director Harald Zwart was in a forest outside of Toronto on Friday, looking for a possible home for fairies to live. After finding a proper wooded locale, he would have to quickly shower and change into a suit and tie for the Canadian premiere his new movie, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.”
It’s not unusual for a director to be promoting one film while setting up the next. But in today’s risk-averse Hollywood, it’s rare for that next project to be a sequel before the first film has even proved itself at the box office.
As the first “Mortal Instruments” arrives in theaters this week, targeted at the millions of adolescent girls who have made the five-book series by Cassandra Clare a global phenomenon, Zwart is already in pre-production on a second installment.
His situation is even more remarkable given that young-adult novel adaptations have a mixed record migrating to the big screen. Their fans’ squeals have catapulted some movies and their stars into the stratosphere, a la “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight.” But they’ve rejected movie versions of popular series like “Beautiful Creatures” and “The Host.”
“Mortal Instruments” has sold 24 million copies worldwide, and Zwart and the German company that bankrolled the $60-million movie, Constantin Films, are confident that the combination of a strong female protagonist and a slew of fast-paced action sequences will lure in both fans of the books and those who have never cracked a cover of the novels.
“I don’t think people go to see a young-adult movie. Nobody went to ‘The Hunger Games’ thinking ‘Oh, I’m dying to see this young-adult movie.’ They were just really interested in that particular movie,” said Zwart, 48. “I never really set out to make a young-adult movie. I wanted to make a great scary movie with a strong female character.”
Set in New York City, “Mortal Instruments” centers on Clary Fray, an average teenage girl played by “Mirror Mirror” star Lily Collins, whose mother is kidnapped from their home. Forced into a quest to find her, Clary learns along the way that she is part of a family of demon chasers called shadowhunters. She must use her newfound powers to rescue her mom.
Of course, a teenage drama wouldn’t be complete without a love triangle, and Clary is forced to choose between her best friend and trusty companion Simon (Robert Sheehan) or the mysterious shadowhunter Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) who saves her life and teaches her the underworld trade.
Despite the familiar terrain, Zwart, who most recently helmed “The Karate Kid” remake set in China, found the film’s source material to be an attractive combination of “Harry Potter” and “The Exorcist.” After making “Karate Kid” for his now 11-year-old son, Zwart was happy to turn his attention to a female protagonist he would be proud to show to his 8-year-old daughter — even with the scary creatures.
“There is plenty of media that my daughter is exposed to that I don’t think is great,” said Zwart, who prior to “Karate Kid” made family films including “Agent Cody Banks” and “The Pink Panther.” “What is rare is to find a female character that is there on her own principles: not as one of the boys, not as a victim and not as an object. That is what I loved about what Cassandra has written. Clary is a very strong girl.”
Zwart, whose mother died when he was a young boy, also connected to the idea of losing a parent. Clary’s need to uncover the truth about her family felt like a reasonable coping skill when dealing with a sudden loss.
“I could relate to how a girl would react when she finds out her parent is gone. Going into a rational, emotionless mode. Dealing with reality. Then I imagined throwing supernatural things into that reality, where that reality is not what you thought it was. That’s when it got really interesting to me,” he said.
In the early stages of the film’s development, Zwart was slavish to the fans and the source material, even watching scores of fan-made trailers on YouTube to better understand how they envisioned Clary’s world.
But he also inserted some of his own world-creating that he believed would better ground the project in reality, and in the end he, screenwriter Jessica Postigo Paquette and producer Robert Kulzer made some significant changes. The characters are older, the ending is different, one character is removed and another’s storyline is changed.
Plus, Zwart, both as an homage to his composer father and in an effort to base the film in reality, ties shadowhunting to German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, making him one of the original demon fighters who uses music to thwart underworld dwellers.
Even with all the changes, author Clare still believes it’s a film that the fans will clamor to see. But as the creator of this world, she said there are differences in the movie that are tough to swallow.
“I feel like I’m the worst person to be objective. It’s my book, and it feels very personal. I think fans are going to like it. The characters look right. The interactions between the characters look right, the settings look right. But there are book purists out there, and they want everything the same. It’s a lot for Harald to take in,” said Clare.
“But there are pieces of the world-building that I love that they couldn’t fit into the story. It’s called ‘Mortal Instruments,’ but you are only introduced to one. I miss the other instruments.”
Constantin Film produced the movie on its own, securing distribution deals with Sony’s Screen Gems division for its U.S. release; an estimated $60 million has been spent to market the film worldwide. Kulzer, Constantin’s co-president, conceded just days ahead of the movie’s release that “we are all super nervous.”
Box-office forecasts project that the movie will take in about $18 million in its first five days of release stateside. Kulzer is hopeful that the film will not only sell tickets but also propel ancillary products associated with the movie (the soundtrack and merchandise), other chapters in the series and the prequel book series, which Constantin also owns. That would boost the overall “Mortal Instruments” brand — and improve sales for future “Mortal Instruments” movies.
“For us as an independent company, it’s more about managing expectations,” Kulzer said by phone from Berlin. “Even if the movie performs moderately, it will still warrant a sequel. Now that $60 million has been spent worldwide on prints and advertising, you can already see how the book sales are accelerating, the soundtrack is hitting the charts. Even if the first one doesn’t become a gigantic success, we will have a profitable track ahead of us.”
It’s a strategy similar to the one the company used for its “Resident Evil” horror franchise, which is aimed at young men. No movie in the five-film series opened to more than $26 million, and the total franchise gross for five films was only $244 million, but the movies were still profitable products that have prompted Constantin to contemplate a sixth installment.
“With the ‘Resident Evil’ franchise, they were never that big theatrically but they made their money, and believe it or not we might do a ‘Resident Evil 6' because all the distributors and Sony, in particular, really want it,” Kulzer said.
Clare, who was involved in the casting process, played an extra in a scene and was consulted all the way through, also wants another one of her books turned into a film. She’s a bit skeptical it will happen, though.
“I still actually can’t believe it. I keep going up to them saying, ‘Really, you totally sure?’ And they keep saying they are sure. My wisdom on this is the same as everyone else’s. It doesn’t happen that often,” she said. “I tend to reserve my feelings of rejoicing until they are actually rolling camera. Things can fall apart at the last minute. I know these things, I watched ‘Entourage.’ ”