I’m on the set of “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is making me nervous.
“Can I get some powder or something so I don’t look like I just jumped out of a fucking sauna?” he yells to no one in particular, his shirtless torso covered in (faux-)tattoos. Moments later, a makeup artist scurries to his side.
The Irish actor is in terrific shape, his lean physique standing out above a pair of black leather pants. Thin braids hang on either side of his head, swaying to and fro as he prowls the set like an uncaged leopard. There is the sense he might just blow his top at any moment.
The scene being filmed is a confrontation between Meyers’ character Valentine Morgenstern, Lily Collins’ Clary Fray and Jamie Campbell Bower’s Jace Wayland – all three featured players in Cassandra Clare’s bestselling fantasy book series “The Mortal Instruments,” of which “City of Bones” is the first installment. The set itself is a room in the so-called New York Institute – the meeting place of the “Conclave,” i.e. the New York branch of the Shadowhunter government. Described in the book as a cathedral invisible to human (i.e. “mundane”) eyes, the interior is a dimly-lit Gothic lair punctuated by a single spinning blue light.
“Take out the cup, Clary…I want my cup!” screams Meyers as he holds a grip of Collins’ long dark hair in one coiled fist.
“That’s enough,” says Bower, stepping forward protectively.
“Can we say that louder!” Meyers yells, out of character.
There is a pause.
“Keep rolling, keep rolling, keep rolling guys!” the shirtless actor directs.
“That’s enough!” Bower obliges, his voice rising.
There is more dialogue here, but seeing as it contains spoilers for those not familiar with the books, I’ll skip it.
“You said you wouldn’t hurt her!” pleads Bower.
Wham! Lightning quick, Meyers slams Collins’ head down onto a table before flinging her backwards to the ground. He then swings out with one of his fists in Bowers’ direction. Bowers returns the favor with a spear, which he lashes out with once, twice, three times. Meyers ducks and weaves, then swings again. They give off the impression of dueling male supermodels, which can’t be helped: both actors are blessed with runway-ready cheekbones.
This bit unsurprisingly takes awhile to get right. For Collins’ part, there is some sort of a pad attached to her forehead to keep her insulated from harm during the table slam. The stunt actress that takes her place when it comes time for real-deal flesh-to-table contact isn’t afforded the same luxury.
Wham! Ow. The stuntwoman flies backward to the floor. The fight begins. This is all mapped out with a stunt director, who takes the performers through each step of the sequence. Meyers and Bower practice their ducking, weaving, swinging and punching in slow motion. Meyers is impassioned. His crystalline blue eyes are focused, piercing.
Meyers will not be available for an interview, we are told. There is a reason given, though I can’t remember what. Instead we have Jamie Campbell Bower, a sort of junior version of Meyers with the same pouty lips and diamond-cut jawline. He wears a paperboy cap above a mane of long blonde hair and red-rimmed eyes. His thin forearms sport a number of rune-like faux-tattoos.
Bower’s credits include supporting roles in films such as “Sweeney Todd,” Roland Emmerich’s “Anonymous” and three of the “Twilight” sequels, in which he played a member of the fearsome Volturi. He also portrayed King Arthur in the Starz miniseries “Camelot.” This is his first top-billed role in a studio film.
“I walked into that camera test knowing that I wasn”t necessarily the person that they wanted to go for, and that”s a hard room to walk into,” he told us of booking the role. “So I had to go in there and I had to be able to a) prove myself and b) there had to be something more; there had to be this, like — it was funny because it happened without sort of looking for it. Like, Lily and I just automatically clicked and these two characters just came out of us and it was like we had known each other for years, it was so weird. We watched back the camera tests… gosh, when we first started shooting, so maybe three months ago. And we both looked — I was bloated, I was fat, I”m surprised anybody wanted me to walk into that room.”
Bloated? Fat? I seriously doubt it. What I don’t doubt is that “The Mortal Instruments” presents a major opportunity for the on-the-verge young actor to prove his leading-man chops – and Bower knows it. Smartly, after booking the role he even calculated which body type might best appeal to the series’ target audience – a strategy whose success or failure might very well be judged by how many Jamie Campbell Bower-devoted Tumblr accounts are opened in the wake of the film’s release.
“Physically, I”ve trained really hard for [the role],” he says of sculpting the right look. “I sort of toyed around with different physical forms…we”ve seen this sort of big jock kind of character before and I didn”t want that, I didn”t really think that that was something that I believe, particularly, you know, with my younger cousins or whatever — the 15-year-old markets — I don”t know if that”s as sexy as it once was anymore. I think it”s more about the rock star…the 15-year-old girls they”re into, like, skinny motherfuckers from bands and the sort of lost souls and all that kind of shit.”
Campbell’s character Jace (whom the actor refers to as a “Class A wanker”) is what’s known in the “Mortal Instruments” universe as a “Shadowhunter,” a race of half-man, half-angel warriors invisible to humans whose sole purpose is to protect mankind from “interdimensional” demons capable of sowing chaos in the physical world. The formers’ powers come from a specific set of rune tattoos of the type Bower sports on his forearms.
“Each tattoo has a specific power [in the film] so I”m covered in them,” he says. “I have real tattoos as well, so my real tattoos have to get covered and then runes get put on top of my real tattoos. I think I should just get runes tattooed all over me [for real], then at least I wouldn”t have to spend three hours in the makeup chair. I”d spend fifteen hours in the tattoo parlor and be done with it for the rest of my life.”
Seeing as “City of Bones” is the first book in a series of six (the last as-yet unpublished), should the film prove successful Bower will no doubt be sitting in that “Mortal Instruments” makeup chair for a good number of years to come. For their part, Sony/Screen Gems is clearly hoping to strike “Twilight”-style paydirt here. And if the ploy should fail? There’s plenty more where this came from, for both the studio and Bower; with his delicate, almost elfin features, the actor is keenly aware of his suitability for the realm of young-adult fantasy – not a bad place to be in given the current Hollywood feeding frenzy.
“Maybe it”s just the way I look,” he grins. “‘Mortal Instruments is a great series of books that taps into a genre that is very popular and I think that a lot of studios are making those kinds of movies now. So is it that there”s opportunities? Yeah, of course there”s opportunities.”
I’m standing in a cavernous “library” before a large statue of Raziel, an angel known in Jewish mysticism as the “Keeper of Secrets.” In the “Mortal Instruments” world, Raziel mixes his blood with that of a human man named Jonathan in the 11th century. This action is undertaken to create the Shadowhunters – a race of warriors whose sole job it is to protect humankind from demons.
In one hand Raziel holds the Mortal Cup, a mystical relic capable of creating an entire army of beings known as “Dark Shadowhunters” should it fall into the wrong hands. In the other he grips the second of the three “instruments,” the Mortal Sword. The third and final item is known as the Mortal Mirror – or, more specifically, Lake Lyn, which serves as a portal to the Shadowhunter’s home country of Idris.
The set, a library located inside the aforementioned New York Institute, is magnificent – on all sides, walls filled with books and artifacts rise like monoliths. Artifacts contained within the massive circular space include a jagged sculpture made of spears, swords and other sharp weapons; a richly-detailed miniature “floating city”; a large hourglass; and a portrait of an unknown-but-seemingly-influential man wearing a colonial-style wig.
It’s a lot to take in; everywhere I look I find new little worlds to explore. Though we’re given only a few minutes here before moving on, I linger a bit longer than the others, drawn in by the compelling intricacies of the impressive production design by Francois Seguin and crew. No matter how the actual film turns out, there’s something to be said for the superb level of craftsmanship on display here.
“The Institute set, which is where we”re shooting today, the second I walked on that about two weeks ago, I got emotional,” says Lily “Clary Fray” Collins, who assures us that “City of Bones” is more high-octane adventure flick than “Twilight”-style romance. “It literally is exactly how I pictured it in my head.” The actress, an avowed fantasy junkie who was a fan of the books even before being cast in the lead, stares out at us from wide doe eyes set in a round, angelic face. She has a warm and open energy, very different from Bower’s. Her frequent smile never feels like a put-on.
“What they”ve done with this project,” Collins continues, “is really acknowledge the fact that [because] it is such a fantasy world, that if we don”t make it real in some way, you”re going to lose the audience in the CGI stuff. So making these sets so intricate and so deep, and the colorization on screen, it kind of evokes this emotional state that normally I wouldn”t associate with a fantasy piece. As a fan, I think the world is encapsulated really, really well.”
So, working with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers…
“He”s so intense. Yeah, Jonathan, oh my gosh,” she says quickly.
He’s a nightmare to work with, I imagine her saying. That’s in my head.
“This is my second scene I”ve done with Jonathan, and the one I did a couple of days ago last week, is when I first met him,” says Collins. “It”s the most heightened situation in the movie. Then yeah, you yell ‘Cut,’ and [he’s] like ‘Are you okay?’ Just playing around and fake fighting and stuff… It”s nice to be able to have that because it”s rare that on a set where you have emotional scenes like this, that the other person will want to interact normally with you afterwards.”
Translation: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is a grounded human being with a wonderful sense of humor. He’s loose and loving and…completely friendly and normal. Well, okay.
“With this movie, all the cast have an amazing rapport,” she goes on. “No matter if we”re laughing in a scene and then we continue laughing after, or it”s a crazy stunt-action done at four in the morning, where they are pulling me up a fire escape and I”m bruised and bloody…afterwards we”re like, ‘Ha ha! That was fun!’ It actually makes it really cool because we”re all going through this together. Even someone like Jonathan, who is so incredible and so intense and so seasoned, he still likes to have fun as well. And that makes it a group experience and very family-like.”
In the world of “The Mortal Instruments,” Collins’ Clary Fray is the main protagonist, an “ordinary” teenage girl living in New York City who discovers her true identity only after her Shadowhunter mother Jocelyn (“Game of Thrones”‘ Lena Headey) is kidnapped by Rhys-Meyers’ diabolical Valentine, who is hell-bent on obtaining the Mortal Cup Jocelyn has in her possession. His quest: utilize the Cup’s powers to create a new army of Shadowhunters, then set them to ridding the Earth of “Downworlders,” a race of half-humans/half-demons whose long-standing peace accord with the former would be irrevocably broken were Valentine’s plot to succeed. It’s up to Clary, with the help of Bowers’ mysterious Jace, to stop this from happening,
“I think Clary has become way more proactive since the beginning, since the first script,” Collins tells us of the screenplay’s various iterations. “She really fuels a lot of the scenes. It”s less about being thrown all this information and floundering. She gets thrown a lot of information now and she”s actively pursuing an outcome. I really liked that about her in the books. I felt like she”s gotten stronger and stronger in the rewrites.”
Something else that’s gotten stronger? Collins’ forehead.
“On that last take, I actually did smack [my head] against the table,” she tells us of filming the scene we’d witnessed earlier. “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. When I was [faking] carving this rune in my hand, the machine that had smoke coming out started to burn my skin. I started yelling ‘Ow! Ow! Ow!’ but I didn”t stop the take. And when they finished, they were like, ‘Was that…?” And I was like, ‘No, I really had burn marks on my skin.'”
“I have a scar, which I didn”t have before,” declares Jared Harris, the you’d-know-him-if-you-saw-him British actor best known for his roles on “Mad Men” and Fox’s now-defunct “Fringe.” “A good prosthetic scar, a wig, a white wig. Kind of a grey hair wig, stuff like that. Which is a bit shocking. You look in the mirror and you see what you might be like a couple years from now.”
Of course, this rather involved hair-and-makeup process just comes with the territory of playing Hodge Starkweather, a duplicitous Shadowhunter in the books who in a past event referred to as the “Uprising” teamed with Meyers’ Valentine in an attempt to kill off every demon and “Downworlder” in existence. As punishment for his transgressions, which resulted in a war that caused many Shadowhunters and Downworlders to lose their lives, Starkweather was cursed to remain within the walls of the New York Institute for all time, and what’s more to serve as a teacher to young Shadowhunters coming up through the ranks. Call it a lifetime sentence of community service, “Mortal Instruments” style.
“You don”t know which side he”s playing on, which is always interesting to do,” Harris says of the character, who in the actor’s words “drip-feed[s]” information to Clary throughout the film without ever revealing the whole truth. “He does a couple of 180s in the story.”
Not surprisingly given his demographic, Harris was unfamiliar with Clare’s book series prior to signing on but was drawn to the film by what he saw as the “moral conundrum” faced by Starkweather.
“That”s what was interesting about the character, is someone who knows what the right thing to do is, but for his own reasons, is making a different deal, because he”s trying to change his circumstances,” says Harris, his neck “tattooed” with a large rune. “But he knows the difference between the right thing and the wrong thing to do, and he”s not delusional in the sense that he [thinks] that he”s doing something for the betterment of mankind or some bullshit like that. He knows that what he”s doing is purely to get his own ass out of the situation that he”s stuck in.”
But who gives a rip about thematics? This is “The Mortal Instruments,” for crying out loud. What we really care about is seeing Harris go mano-a-mano with, say, his 7’1″ “Sherlock Holmes” co-star Robert Maillet. “What”s great fun is I get to fight Dredger from ‘Sherlock Holmes,'” says Harris of the WWF star-turned-actor, who plays the role of Valentine henchman Samuel Blackwell. “He”s a fucking enormous man. So it”s been fun, because really, when you do all these fight scenes, you try and jazz ’em up and everything. And then I sit there and I go, ‘Listen, if this guy hit me, I”d collapse. I”d crumble if he actually managed to connect with me.'”
Harris’ extensive filmography is certainly made up of a wide variety of genres, but 2012 proved to be the year of the occult for the actor, who in addition to his role in “The Mortal Instruments” filmed the final season of “Fringe” (reprising his role as the power-mad David Robert Jones) as well as an upcoming supernatural horror movie entitled the “The Quiet Ones.”
“This year, I”ve done three, for fuck”s sake!” he says of his recent string of horror-and-fantasy-themed projects. “What”s going on? I”ve done three. I did a movie called ‘The Quiet Ones,’ which was about a guy who”s investigating paranormal events…but of course, because it”s a horror movie, it all goes terribly wrong. And then I played the Devil. And then now I”m in this film, which is all about demons and shit, so yeah. It”s been a weird year for that.”
We’re being led through the interior of Clary’s home, and I decide I’d like to live here. It’s cozy and large, the type of spacious New York City apartment only available to middle-class folk in the movies. In the living room there’s a fireplace, and off that an alcove with an easel (in the book both Clary and her mother are artists).
Upstairs, we tour Jocelyn and Clary’s bedrooms – the former’s relatively spare, the latter’s filled with elaborate fantasy drawings and occult artifacts (among other things, I catch sight of a horned skull). We’re on a soundstage, but the place feels lived-in. With pots and pans and canned food cluttering the cupboards in the kitchen, it’s easy to overlook that we are, in fact, on a movie set. But I don’t care; I want to live here.
“Grounded.” It’s a word that’s bandied about pretty often by Hollywood types in this post “Dark Knight” age, and “Mortal Instruments” director Harald Zwart is not immune.
“What I liked about the project was it was a good opportunity to really ground it,” says the filmmaker, whose previous credits include “Pink Panther 2,” “Agent Cody Banks” and the “Karate Kid” remake from a couple of years ago. “I”ve been trying to somehow see how can I take all of Cassandra”s magical ideas and somehow almost scientifically explain them. How could we make sure that — do these demons exist on a different frequency? Is there a vibration thing? That”s when I started thinking maybe there”s a music thing and we brought in Bach”s music and we thought maybe there”s something hidden. It”s a little like ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ where you take already existing phenomenon and you back into a solution.”
Zwart wears a two-toned zip-up sweater and has a head of thinning grayish-white hair. Born in Norway, his Wikipedia profile claims he has been making short films “as early as age eight.” Cutting his teeth as a commercial director, his first feature was the little-seen 1998 action film “Commander Hamilton” starring Peter Stormare, Lena Olin and Mark Hamill. Not the most auspicious of debuts, surely, but Zwart continued chugging along, emerging three years later with the 2001 “Rashomon”-style comedy “One Night at McCool’s” starring Liv Tyler and Matt Dillon. That film came and went, and it might have been the last we ever heard from Zwart had he not somehow landed a job directing the Frankie Muniz ‘tween-action vehicle “Agent Cody Banks.” While not a monster success, the film was successful enough to spawn a sequel (which Zwart did not direct), giving him the necessary cachet to land two subsequent studio movies: the commercially unsuccessful “Pink Panther 2” and, just in the nick of time, “The Karate Kid,” which brought in a massive $350 million-plus worldwide while racking up better-than-expected critical notices.
And now “The Mortal Instruments,” which clearly hopes to be another “Twilight” or “Harry Potter” but given the crowded state of the YA marketplace may just as well settle for being the next “Percy Jackson.” In any event, it’s Zwart’s first real venture into the fantasy realm, with all of the attendant effects work and stunt sequences implied by the genre. He claims not to be so focused on that part of the equation.
“Effects and stunt work to me is often where you bring in the professionals and it”s more mathematical solutions than it is unsolvable problems,” he says of tackling this new and untested genre in the scheme of his career. ” I find that finding the emotional tone in a scene, what level they should be at, and getting great performances is much more of an unknown challenge than actually working with effects and stunts.”
When you’re talking about current Hollywood trends, two rather unusual aspects of this production are both its lack of 3D and the fact that Zwart is shooting on film – a decision the director tells us he lobbied hard for.
“I still think there”s any argument to be made for film,” he says. “I fought really hard and the producers were very supportive of going with film. I still to this day think there”s a distinguishable difference. And to me this was not a monster movie, I went as far as, when I spoke to the composer and the designer I said, ‘Think of it as an ‘Amadeus.’ It”s much more an ‘Amadeus’ than it is a monster movie.’” Because, you know, [production designer] Francois Seguin, the D.P. I have [Geir Hartly Andreassen], and the composers, they”re all people who don”t do monster movies necessarily so I wanted to really approach it from a different direction. And the romantic idea of this movie, the love story, lends itself a lot more to the skin tone, the romance, and the imagery that we can do with film that I still think is much more forgiving with film than when you use digital.”
As to the question of future installments, is the speculative headline “Will Harald Zwart return to direct ‘The Mortal Instruments 2′” jumping the gun just a tad? Of course it is. But will he?
“I haven”t thought of this as a franchise at all,” he says. “It”s obviously out there, but unless this movie’s great there is no franchise. I think it”s been important to make sure that the movie has an emotional closure, because the book is very cleverly set up so that you almost have to read the second book in order to get answers to a lot of the questions that are raised at the end. We”ve been really working hard on making sure that the movie at least had an emotional closure to it. It”s almost a little try to not think of the franchise as much as just focusing on one movie at a time.”
And if “City of Bones” goes the way of “The Spiderwick Chronicles”? “The Golden Compass”? “City of Ember”? “Eragon”? “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant”? “Inkheart”? “The Seeker: Dark Is Rising”? Well, let’s just not think about that yet, shall we?
“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” is set for release on August 23.