When Hunger Games director Gary Ross stepped down as director of the the follow up films in the franchise, fans had every reason to be concerned. Ross didn’t have a problem with the material, and his initial movie in the series opened to great box office numbers and a positive response from both critics and fans alike. You can imagine our relief, then, when it was announced that Francis Lawrence would be taking over the series with Catching Fire and the two-part Mockingjay finale. The director has shown a flair for balancing complex emotional tales with stunning visuals and action in projects like I am Legend and NBC’s Kings. And anyone who’s seen Kings knows that Lawrence was the director meant to reveal more of the Capitol’s machinations.
Francis previous works have dealt with isolationism, post-traumatic stress disorder, political strife, war, family and love, the perfect mix for what the director needed to tackle in Mockingjay Part I. When asked why he wanted to be the director to bring this story to the screen, the director responded thoughtfully, “Well, I think there’s a bunch of things. I, quite honestly, I knew the series. I knew what they were building to. What I really appreciated about the series was that they were built upon an idea. They were built about this idea of the consequence of war. That’s why Suzanne Collins wrote the stories in the first place. She wrote a series of books about war for kids, and then she decided to write one for teenagers. So within those stories, there are all these different sort of facets of it. We deal with PTSD, we deal with propaganda, manipulation, torture, death – all kinds of things. So that was definitely subject matter that I wanted to kind of dive into, and that I thought that I could explore, and that I thought could start to elevate the stories.”
The plot and mechanics weren’t all the director was interested in though, he knew he could take the reigns of the series because Lawrence had his eye on scale, and how the pacing of the final films needed to balance the growth of the series scope. The director explains, “The first movie, for me, even though it was well-done, felt very small, right? And I don’t mean it as a criticism or anything else. But I go, ‘Forget about the rest of the books!’ If you get rid of the rest of the books, and even if you look at it as, let’s say, it’s a perfectly made movie, it feels like a genre movie. It feels like a movie that’s designed so that you can have kids go kill other kids. Once you break out of that which is what starts to happen in part two, everything else gets bigger. The themes start to kick in, you start to see the consequences of the games; you start to see the politics that are behind everything; you start to see the beginning of a revolution; you start to see the imagery that’s being used. It’s where it all began.”
“So that was really exciting to me.” The director continued, “It was really exciting that the world was about to blow open, and so thematically it was really exciting for me. Emotionally, because I’m getting to start to deal with damaged people, and discover why people like Haymitch are damaged. Visually it was exciting because I was going to get to see a lot more of the places – a lot more of District 12, a lot more of the other Districts, a lot more of the Capitol, a brand new arena. So the sort of world built inside of movie making was going to be really fun for me. Plus there are new cast members, so there was a lot that I saw as opportunity for me.”
With an extended shooting schedule to accommodate shooting two films for the prices of one, the director shot the film as close to in order as possible to allow the actors to build on their own performances and not chop up the emotional arc. “We did shoot it as linear as possible,” Francis begins to explain, “for a few reasons. One is if, quite honestly, if you could officially shoot a movie in order, you should. It’s the easiest way to track, especially a character’s performance, because you know exactly where you just were, and you always have that to measure up against. So you never have to sort of question, ‘Wait, how are we going to be in that scene? There’s that really important scene where I have breakdown. We haven’t shot it yet.’ That gets tough. So you can do that.”
The reality of the current hollywood business model is that even the blockbusters are being made with very little overhead. The outlandish salaries and marketing costs may drive up the studio’s final cost, but ultimately The Hunger Games is still a modestly budgeted film series for what it is achieving at the box office. How do you make a movie of this scale while watching your budget is something not a lot of people talk about, but it seems to be the going currency in getting work as a director and producer. Lawrence describes the financial responsibilities directors are asked to manage with his producers, “No, you definitely have to be responsible. I mean, yes, they’re expensive movies, but the truth is after the rebates and getting above-the-line costs, we did not have much money to make these movies with. The truth is for each of these movies, yeah, we had a 152-day shoot, but what is that? That’s 76 days per movie. So, 76 days per movie, I mean, is actually not a long time when you consider that people like Fincher shoot 120 days for Dragon Tattoo.”
And while the obvious suspected enemy of an organized, on-budget film would be improvisation, Francis left room for the actors to play and find some really defining character moments in the process. The filmmaker described the process, “In all honesty, there’s all different kinds of things that happen over the course of 150 days. So there’s definitely scenes that are written, you walk in, you do them, done – they work. Then there’s the ones – you walk in, you try it – hmm. That’s a little weird. You work on it a little bit, rehearse it again, rehearse till you figure it out, OK, then you shoot it. Then there are scenes where she’s acting badly – she’s in the studio, she’s onstage, and Phil’s in there – we shot that over two days. It was fun, but that we improvised a lot. But that, because it’s comedy, because it’s very different from the rest of the movie, there was a lot more improvisation. We let Jen go all different kinds of directions, so she did really broad things, very naturalistic things, Phil was improvising a lot from the room on responses to her – like, it wasn’t scripted that he was going to yell at her. So there was a lot of back-and-forth, and a lot of trial-and-error, but mostly not to see what worked, but mostly so I had choices in the edit. This movie doesn’t have a lot of humor, so I wanted to make sure that we got the kind of humor that the movie could handle, so it didn’t feel like it was a scene that was stuck out.”
The humor in the film feels very humanistic in that it’s the type of humor that comes up when someone can’t deal with the severity of a situation. Haymitch was a great release that valve in the earlier films, but Francis Lawrence let other characters carry that weight as well this time around. In the case of one character, she had to be reinserted, as the book doesn’t have her arriving until Part 2. The efforts pay off for both Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson, as one of the best moments of the films comes from those two reaching important moments with their characters. Moments that happened because of Lawrence’s willingness to improvise. “Effie, by the way – Liz Banks – she almost always improvises. There’s always dialogue, and she says it, but then she usually improvises around it. And inevitably we end up using a bunch of her improvisations. That was also one of the things that I wanted to do, too. And again, the trick with, when you just do one movie, so you just look at the first one as a piece, you have these characters, and you go, ‘Oh. Haymitch the drunk.’ ‘Oh, Effie, the high society Capitol guide.’ My job, and what I found also interesting in moving forward was to really start to humanize them. So with Haymitch in Catching Fire, now is the opportunity – you can explore new territory. You can go ‘Oh, he’s damaged! I get it. He’s been through the Games.’ With Effie, you can go ‘Oh, she’s gotten attached to these kids.’ And finally having winners, this was her time to shine, and now it’s being taken away from her. You can start to see the emotion. You can start to see the crack in the veneer, even though she’s the most Capitol person around us. You get to start to explore all of that.”
The Hunger Games series, with its memorable characters and altruistic heart on its sleeve, have definitely come at an interesting time in world history. Just weeks ago, here in the US we had one of the lowest voter turnouts since World War II. Thanks to the 24 hour news cycle we’re now more aware than ever of the NSA’s activities, corporate personhood, Net Neutrality, police brutality and the suppression of American’s civil rights that have made a generation of Americans distrustful of and apathetic to their government. In Thailand, screenings of Mockingjay Part I are being canceled for fear of students using the movies as a rallying point to protest their governments actions. When the British monarchy shut down Shakespeare’s fierce criticism of the crown in his plays based on actual British royalty, Shakespeare quietly started setting his works in foreign lands to continue mocking the establishment. Francis Lawrence and Suzanne Collins may not be the Wonder Twins that combine to form Shakespeare, but they are giving people a blueprint for a backbone.
Class warfare, drones, and insurgencies are all in the mix on this film, also all topics we hear covered on the news nightly. We asked Lawrence how he processes making a film that openly calls for defiance against those that would keep a populace down through fear. The director responded, “We worked with Peter Craig, who wrote The Town. He’s a great guy – a great writer. He had amazing ideas. I was still shooting Catching Fire when he came on, and I remember I was in Hawaii on a phone call with him, and he started pitching his ideas. Because the big thing to tackle, again, was sort of how to bring the rebellion to life, and how to visualize that. He right off the bat had the idea of those lumberjacks and the dam. There was another sequence that we started shooting, but we ended up cutting, in a corn field. I will say I don’t think that, other than certain technological advances and things like drones, I don’t think that we’ve ever been that far away. I think that it’s been around us. I was actually just talking to Suzanne about it, about the sort of eerie timing of some of the ways that this movie mirrors what’s happening now, and things you see in the news. She said, ‘You know what? It’s been mirroring the news for thousands of years.’ It’s kind of the truth. We just, you know – there’s a line later in the book that Plutarch’s character has, that we – I’m going to get the line wrong – but we’re a fickle bunch, and we don’t learn very much from history. And it’s kind of true. We just haven’t learned that much. We’ve always been at war, we’ve always been damaging people.”
Watch our 30 minute Q&A with Francis above for more on Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, including the effect of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s passing on the film, the importance of keeping Effie Trinket in the film, and more.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I is in theaters now.
Featured image courtesy of Deviantartist Endless Limitations.