Based on the best-selling young adult fantasy book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, Freeform’s Shadowhunters follows 18-year-old Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), who finds out on her birthday that she is not who she thinks she is, but rather comes from a long line of human-angel hybrids who hunt down demons. Clary is quickly thrown into the world of demon hunting with mysterious Shadowhunter Jace (Dominic Sherwood) and her best friend, Simon (Alberto Rosende), as she learns more about her past and what her future may hold.
While at the Freeform portion of the TCA Press Tour, executive producer/pilot director McG spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about why this story appealed to him, why the material was conducive to the longer format of a TV series, getting to define the show by choosing the actors who make up the cast, the challenges of pulling off visual effects for television, and what makes Clary Fray such a great hero. He also talked about why he wants to make Ruin with director Wes Ball (The Maze Runner), what he thinks about how Superman has evolved since his involvement with the character, and how he feels about the current talk of a Charlie’s Angels reboot.
Collider: What was the appeal of this story for you?
McG: I liked the pilot story that I read. That got me engaged, so I looked a little deeper and started to read the books and I thought that was interesting. I like youth, and I like stories about feeling things intensely and about transitional moments in human life. I reflect on my life and that’s just a moment when I felt things probably the most intensely. When you’re a kid going on being an adult, everything radiates so deeply and resonates so passionately, and I like the opportunity to tell those stories. It’s what attracted me to being involved with The O.C., it’s what attracted me to Charlie’s Angels, and it’s what attracted me to Shadowhunters. I like that moment in life.
These books have a big following, but the movie didn’t do as well as people thought it would. Did you look at that movie to see what worked and what didn’t, before tackling the TV show?
McG: Yeah. Harald Zwart, who directed the picture, did a good job. There’s a magical mix that goes into making a movie work or not work to your expectation. As a filmmaker, I’ve had films that over-achieved and I’ve had films that under-achieved. You always go in trying to do your very best. But, I did think the material was fundamentally conducive to a longer format. I just think we live in a world where people are so excited about the hot new thing, but you can’t necessarily tell a story in one movie. With this platform, we can really dive deep and go for it. So, I think we are the beneficiaries of the television format where we can do it an hour at a time. Deep diving is where the fun is.
Do you enjoy directing a pilot because it allows you to establish the look and feel of the world?
McG: Yeah, that’s always been my thing. And you get to cast the show. For me, casting is critical. I’m very, very, very pleased with the cast of this show. It’s nice that social media and the passionate fans really corroborated those choices and embraced these kids to be these characters. At first, it was like, “Who’s this person? Who’s Dom Sherwood? Who’s Alberto [Rosende]?” Everybody was like, “Okay, well, lemme see,” and they came to love these individuals. That feels great. That’s one of the primary responsibilities of the pilot. You set up the look, the visual effects and the sets, and that’s awesome, but I enjoy the casting most of all. That’s where you really get to define the show.
With any ensemble, it seems like there’s always one role that turns out to be particularly hard to cast. Was that the case here?
McG: The show was fundamentally difficult to cast, in general. We literally went to the ends of the Earth for Clary. I met every young actor out there, and I really like what Kat [McNamara] has brought. She’s extraordinarily intelligent, and that had to be so. You can’t extract intelligence in an actor. If the performer doesn’t have a fundamental intelligence, you can’t get there. You can’t fake it. It’s nice that she has that. If you look at all the great actors, far more often than not, they’re very, very intelligent people. From Kate Winslet to Cate Blanchett to Christian Bale to [Michael] Fassbender, they’re really intelligent people and you can extrapolate on that, as a director. I was looking for that with this character, and Kat McNamara is extraordinary. Her mind fires at a rate where you marvel at it. The manner at which she streams thoughts, ideas and sentences, and articulates her thoughts, and her poise and wisdom beyond her years, is what was most attractive to me, in regard to her playing Clary. But, I can safely say that every single character was difficult to cast because we wanted to get it right. We knew the stakes were high and we knew the world was watching. Social media is immediate and people will crush you if they don’t like your Jace choice. When you mention the movie, everybody loved Jamie Campbell Bower, who played Jace and did a very good job. Following that is tricky. We cast Dom, and he earned the trust and respect of the community.
How challenging is it to pull off so many effects for a TV show like this?
McG: It’s always challenging. It’s challenging when you have all of the time and money in the world, and it’s more challenging when you have less money. It’s a world creation show, so we’ve gotta work hard in the physical production capacity with the visual effects, the sets and everything. It’s not just the real world with two people chatting in a diner. That’s tough on a television budget. And you’ve seen the bar set so high. What’s better these days, television or film? It’s a dead heat. In fact, one could argue for television with more regularity. You’ve gotta answer that call, and it’s to the benefit of the fans, so I’m cool with it. It’s when I’m at my happiest. I’m at my happiest when the chips are down and things are impossible, and you need four hours but you have one hour, and you need $10 but you’ve got $2. I think necessity creates a great result. Sometimes when you have an abundance of time and money, it’s less conducive to the creative process. I like the urgency of the television schedule and the television price point. It’s fluid. You figure it out on the day, and I love the challenge of problem-solving.
Why is Clary Fray’s story so compelling and what makes her a great hero?
McG: I love stories of female empowerment. I love stories of, “Hey, I’m an ordinary person.” “No, you’re not!” I love stories about not knowing you have it in you, but when called to task, you rise and you find out who you are. That’s the embodiment of what Clary does. She’s smart and she’s tough. If she trips, she gets up. She believes in herself. She doesn’t rely on her sexuality to achieve anything. I love that. She uses her mind, her strength and her physicality. She’s a great example for a stand-up, kick-ass young woman, and I’ve always been interested in telling stories along those lines. I think that’s where I’ve done some of my best stuff. I do my best when I’m surrounded by women. I enjoyed that on the Charlie’s Angels experience. I enjoyed that by being raised by Amy Pascal at Sony for all those years. I enjoy that, to this day. So, it’s nice to work on a show that #1 on the call sheet is a woman.
Are you still working on Ruin made with Wes Ball?
McG: Yeah, I love Wes Ball. We hope to get that going, as soon as possible. He’s been super busy with his Maze Runner responsibilities. Ruin is his baby, and it’s our baby, too. We are so proud of identifying his talent, early on, that we’ll do anything to stand by him. So, the answer is a hard yes. We’re working as hard as we can to get that picture together. It’s always tough, but we like our chances.
As someone who’s been close to the Superman character, what do you think of what it’s morphed into now with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman?
McG: I think it’s great. I blew it on Superman because I was afraid to fly down to Australia and shoot the movie, and that’s that. J.J. Abrams wrote that script. I think that what they’ve gone on to do, and if you look at what Ben Affleck has gone on to do, as an actor and as a director, it’s extraordinary. But if you look back at his career, I don’t think it’s surprising. From Good Will Hunting on down, the guy is a monster talent, and I think talent wins out, in the end. There’s always the ebb and flow of any career, but I think talent wins out, in the end.
When you get so close to being a part of something like that, does that make you more interested in what other people do with the character, or do you regret that it didn’t happen on your end?
McG: I have my own inner shame over my own shortcomings with that, but that helped me combat that and get better and start flying around the world. That was the silver lining that came out of it, which is fine. I’m just interested in all films and characters. I felt a particular attachment, naturally, to the Superman character and really dug deep, but at the same time, I am a passionate fan, be it Star Wars, be it the entire Marvel catalog, be it the DC catalog, or the original thinking at Pixar. I’m a fan first, so I’m always curious to see the way people express themselves and how it’s being done. It doesn’t matter if it’s [David] Fincher or Chris Nolan or an animated picture that seems aimed at children, but that we all know is for us. I love it!
How does it feel to be at a place in your career that people are talking about rebooting Charlie’s Angels?
McG: That’s just life. I always identify as a young person, but I’ve been around a little bit now. I’m not longer the youngest guy doing it. It’s interesting. That one makes me smile and makes me happy because I love Elizabeth Banks (who’s signed on to direct). We’re all stewards of any one given moment. I was happy to be the steward of that moment, and there’s now a new steward. That’s cool. Right now, somewhere, there are three girls striking the Charlie’s Angels silhouette and taking a picture in their high school gym. It’s cool that it’s that archetypal and that eternal. I look forward to seeing what that new expression of it is. We wanted to be deferential to the TV show, so we created our own thing. I’m sure, to whatever degree, they’ll be cognizant of what we did and create their own thing. It’s totally cool.
Shadowhunters airs on Tuesday nights on Freeform.