There’s nothing mundane about Freeform’s new fantasy epic Shadowhunters. The show — based on the bestselling Mortal Instruments book series by Cassandra Clare — follows a group of half-angel, half-human beings (all very attractive, of course), who keep the world safe from demons and other destructive forces. If the premise sounds familiar, it might have something to do with the fact that these heavenly bodies have landed on-screen before: There was that 2013 feature film starring Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower, after all. But according to executive producer McG (who also directed the pilot), this sprawling epic might just be better suited for the small screen, where the story can unravel week by week. We talked with the boss about adapting the series for TV, casting star-crossed loves Clary Fray and Jace Wayland, and Nephilim Bootcamp. (Get ready to sweat.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We haven’t really seen something like this on Freeform [formerly ABC Family] before. The network has dipped its toes into sci-fi, of course, but Shadowhunters is much bigger in scope. Would you agree that this is one of Freeform’s most ambitious projects to date?
MCcG: It’s by far the most ambitious thing they’ve done — to say the least — with special effects and the magnitude of storytelling. It’s a big departure for them.
Were you given the kind of budget necessary to realize all of the special effects integral to this story?
Yeah, fortunately, the days of needing staggering amounts of dough to achieve great visual effects — it’s getting a little bit more affordable as the computing power becomes better and better. They’ve been very accommodating regarding the budget, and it’s been a first-class operation all the way through, so no complaints there. In fact, a lot of thanks to them for giving us what we need to be excellent with a very discriminating audience.
What was the toughest effect for you to render?
Some of the complete, start-from-scratch creature creation is difficult stuff. Whether you’re doing Jurassic Park and you gotta make dinosaurs, or you’re doing Shadowhunters and you have to make Ravener demons, those are conceived from scratch and meant to be photo-realistic in a 3-D rendering of how they’re done at the post-production facilities. That’s a big demand. That’s not just, like, taking me or you and extending our jaw or doing something simple in that capacity. … It’s exciting and challenging and some of the coolest stuff in the show.
Let’s talk a bit about the casting. What were you looking for when it came to the lead characters of Clary and Jace?
Well, it’s very difficult to cast Clary because you need a young woman who has room to grow yet has an internal strength that is legible from the get-go. It’s interesting because I just saw Star Wars, and JJ did such a good job with Daisy [Ridley, who plays Rey]. She satisfies the same criterion to say the least. That’s what we were looking for, so I think we had good luck with Katherine McNamara. She’s terribly intelligent, which is always an asset. Strangely, she fit the part physically — usually you don’t get with both hands. … As for Dom Sherwood, he’s got that swagger and that devil-may-care attitude, and he’s clearly very attractive and also has a whole lot of cerebral fire power that I know I can lean on, day in and day out. The intelligence of those two was most appealing to me.
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The most recognizable face among the cast is probably Glee star Harry Shum Jr., who plays Magnus. Was he a big get for you?
He was a huge get, and the guy is just a monster talent. It’s funny — his character Magnus has magic power, and [Harry] as a human being is so magical, at the risk of sounding ridiculous. When I would say in visual effects, “Harry, I’m going to add blue magic to what’s in the palm of your hand,” and what he could conjure as a dancer and the way he could animate his hand, I almost didn’t need to do anything to it. He’s such a freakish talent. He’s a really good guy. The fan base went crazy when we got him, so that’s five stars all the way.
Was there a Shadowhunter boot camp the actors had to go through?
A huge boot camp, and it’s interesting, I made a deal with each of the actors. I said, “You simply must commit all the way with your physicality, with your voice, with your practice, with everything you do as an actor, every element of your instrument,” and that meant becoming a fighter, becoming a warrior. There’s a lot of physical requirements that go into each one of these characters, so they all knew that was a huge part of signing up and they went for it. We had personal trainers and fight coordinators up in Toronto and in Los Angeles and New York long before we ever began. And they committed to the training 100 percent. You can see the physical change in all of them, so it’s nice when actors really, really go all the way and they did.
With the series adapted from Cassandra Clare’s best-selling novels, how often were you able to talk with her and get her opinion?
I talked to Cassie quite regularity. I talked to her over the casting, I talked to her while shooting. She was a great confidant. It’s tricky talking to her. She’s the author of the genesis material, and she clearly has it in her mind how it’s all gonna look and feel and taste and touch because she conceived it from scratch. And then I interface with Ed Decter, who’s the showrunner, so I was a little bit of a bridge between the world of Cassie and the world of Ed, but I think we landed in a really favorable place. We had a great time at Comic-Con out in New York. Cassie was there, and she seems to be very excited about the cast and what she’s seen so far. She’s been a great partner, and it’s just wonderful having an open door where I can ask her, “Hey, how does this play out? What did you have in mind when you were creating this arc with Luke?” So she’s been more than agreeable.
Looking at the first season as a whole, are there elements you would have liked to have incorporated from the book series that you weren’t able to, for one reason or another?
I think more of just a place of ambition. Some of the things that we’re not going to get to until seasons 2 and 3 I wanted to bring forward into season 1, but I also think it’s important to have a little bit of restraint and offer a little bit of tease and definitely keep the audience hungry and wanting to come back for more. It’s something I used to talk to Josh Schwartz about on The O.C. I’d say, “Oh, we gotta round up that storyline,” and he’d say “No, that’s why everybody is going to get so excited.” And he was right, and I learned a tremendous amount from hanging around him, and I hope to have learned as much from Ed Decter.
Shadowhunters debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on Freeform.