When Francis Lawrence was chosen to replace Gary Ross as the director of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a monumental task was put in front of the filmmaker. Not only would he have to live up to and work from what was established in the first Hunger Games film, he had to find a way to also place his own personal spin on it and make it his own. Lawrence stepped up to the plate, however, and created a sequel that not only understands its predecessor, but builds on it in an important and meaningful way.
At a recent press event for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire I had the great opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Lawrence to talk all about how he constructed both the story and the aesthetics of the new blockbuster movie. Read on to discover what it was about his view that got him the job, how Gale and Peeta are used to show Katniss’ fractured mental state, and even a few details about what he has in store for both The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2.
Take me back to the beginning. Hunger Games Catching Fire doesn’t have a director. You get a call from Lionsgate. You go in. What was the pitch that you kind of first initially sold them on?
Well, the news had broke out that Gary wasn’t doing the movie. I was working on a pilot. I was cutting a pilot in LA. I didn’t think twice about it. It was like, "Oh, that’s interesting." A couple of days later I got a call from my agent saying that Nina [Jacobson] and Lionsgate wanted to know if I was interested.
Had you seen the first film by that point?
I did, because I shot the pilot in New York and me and my assistant went on my birthday, which was only like a week or two before this all happened. So, I had seen the movie. I had read the books before and I said, "That’s interesting. Let me reread Catching Fire." So, the call was on a Thursday. I read it over the weekend, decided to meet with Nina, met with Nina for breakfast on a Tuesday, met with some Lionsgate people on Wednesday, then had the big meeting with all the guys at Lionsgate, and Nina, and everybody on Thursday and that afternoon had the job. So, within a week.
What was your pitch?
I mean, the thing that I wanted to think about, and why I wanted to read the book was that I had never done episodic TV. I’ve only done pilots. I’ve never done a sequel to a movie before, and I wanted to make sure that there was going to be sort of enough for me to kind of bite into creatively, and I, quickly rereading the book, discovered that there weren’t many parameters, quite honestly, because there was so much new stuff in the book. The characters were all going to be going completely different directions with brand new sort of facets being revealed. There’s a whole bunch of new cast members that we could bring on. There’s a brand new arena. A ton of new districts to see, you know? There was loads and loads of stuff and then I’m thinking, "Okay, well, what am I going to be stuck with?" Well the look of District 12…. I like the look of District 12 and I can explore it even further! I like the architecture in the capitol and I can explore it even further. I loved the cast. So, okay!
Just kind of walking into a gold mine.
So, my pitch speed just kind of became a what my version of the movie was going to be, and I pitched that I wanted to make sure that there was a visual unity, aesthetic unity, that I’d like to work with the same production designer, keep the same look of District 12, work with the same architecture of the capitol. I talked a lot more about how we wanted more of a sense of place; that I wanted to see more of District 12; that I wanted to see more of the districts. I wanted to see more of the capitol. I talked about how the arena should look, which was brand new. I said that I wanted to stick with the kind of naturalist style that Gary had in terms of photography, but I kind of pitched my version of it. I tend to like slightly wider lenses up closer so you feel more intimate with characters, but it’s still got more of a sense of geography and you can keep a sense of place while being up and personal with people. I talked about my use of color and the opportunities we had because of the seasons and because of the districts.
That’s a lot to get in your mind immediately right off the bat.
Yeah, so I went on and on and on about that stuff in terms of visuals and I talked about visual effects and how I approach visual effects and I talked about some changes in wardrobe that I wanted to make in terms of the games and the training and some of the capitol stuff and Effie and again, it wasn’t really changing the aesthetics. It was just sort of shifting the kind of angle on it a little bit and taking advantage of opportunities that I saw that we could take advantage of this time around.
Throughout the film, there are these interesting mirrored elements. In the beginning, just like the first film, you open up with Katniss and Gale in the woods and like you have the progression through the Hunger Games, but at the same time, it’s not the same as the first movie. There is that darker twist that comes with each of those mirrored scenes and the presentation of a new context. So, when you were approaching those parts of the story were you just immediately thinking, "I need to make this distinct and different"?
There is a structural similarity in some places that Catching Fire has to the first movie, and that’s that at a certain point they’re going to be reaped. At a certain point they’re going to go to the capitol. At a certain point, they’re going to go on to training. At a certain point they’re going to ride on chariots through the capitol, right? So, on any of these kind of moments, where you could possibly feel like you’ve been there, done that in the first movie, it was really important for me not to tweak it visually as much as the important thing for me was that it had to have to have a completely different emotional value. So, if last time the training is sort of assessing the threat, like, "Oh my God, who are these people? Who’s going to be killing us? How do we use these weapons," and they’re sort of deer in the headlights, this time it was like a scouting mission, right? It’s all about alliance and this time it’s like, "Ok, I don’t like this, so I’ve got to go find people." It’s going around to see if you can find the people you want to ally with. The chariots the last time was, "Oh my God, what is this?" and you’re sort of freaked out and people are crazy, right? This time, you’re a pro. You’re not going to wave to anybody. It’s a face-off with [President] Snow, right? And so, the feeling is entirely different. As another layer, then you can say, well if last time it opened at night, let’s go see the opening of the tributes during the day. Let’s open it up. Let’s see some scale. Let’s see all of the people. Let’s see more of the capitol and more of the pomp and it just kind of made that stuff fun for me.
One thought that stuck with me watching the movie is the idea of the consequences of war. It’s not just the consequences of the war in the past and the world in which they’re living, but it’s also looking towards the future and understanding what war would mean for that future.
That’s also one of the reasons why I was really excited to take this movie on. It’s because this is the movie where all the stuff starts to kick in, and you start to see the damage that the games have taken on Katniss and on Peeta and you start to understand the reasons Haymitch is the way he is. When you meet the new victors, you start to see how they’ve all been affected by the games.
This is a great post-traumatic stress aspect in that.
Oh yeah, huge. I mean you see it in the opening sequence in the movie, and we play that throughout. It’s a big part of it, and it’s just the escalation. It’s the beginning of the escalation of that and we only get deeper and deeper into it in Mockingjay, but, you know, there’s a warning very early on from President Snow. Do you want to know what real war looks like? And it’s like, that’s where we’re headed, and it’s the real deal. It’s a great thing for young people to know that sometimes it only takes that voice. Part of what’s great about the movies is that no matter what, it’s not set up as this kind of idealistic thing. There’s consequences.
There’s no revolution without blood.
No, absolutely, and sometimes by the way, the good guys aren’t always so good, and it’s you know, it’s the great thing about Suzanne [Collins]’s novels and the exciting thing about the stories.
Did you take any kind of historical reference?
No. There’s certain movie reference that I’ve used for certain things and with Mockingjay we’re looking a lot of World War II stuff. With this I looked at a lot of Vietnam stuff. Suzanne, I know, was influenced very heavily by the story of Spartacus and the Third Servile War and you know, gladiator games and there’s a lot of parallels through all of these stories. That come from that.
How much conversation did you actually get to have with her?
Oh, lots. Yeah, I think Suzanne is really great. She’s the first person that I wanted to meet with when I got the job, and within days I flew into New York and spent three days with her in a room at her publisher’s building in Manhattan creating a beat sheet for the stories that go all through the book.
And how did the conversations affect your approach? Did they have a big effect?
No, not really. I mean, I had my take and she seemed to really like it and no, but it was really just about when you get into the head of the author, when you’re going through the book you’re just sort of learning about things on such a deeper level. It’s just great to sort of get in and understand her point of view and her point of view on the characters and things I might not have picked up on the first two times that I read the books. So it helps in that way a lot.
When you’re reading the books, it’s coming from the first person perspective of Katniss, and a key part of that, especially in this film, is the relationship between Katniss and Gale and Peeta. Those relationships mean very different things in different contexts, with Katniss embracing Gale and rejecting Peeta away from the arena and vice versa when she has to go back. Could you talk a bit about approaching that aspect of the story?
I think you picked up on it, which is I think that Katniss doesn’t necessarily have the time or the interest in real relationships, so I don’t think she’s thinking about it at all. I think it’s all instinctual, but I think that you get through the games and you might have bonded with Peeta, but you get home and you know, somebody who’s been through that kind of a traumatic experience wants to leave it behind. So, leaving it behind also means leaving Peeta behind, which is why they’re more disconnected in the beginning. But suddenly you’re thrown back in and now you’ve got this person you shared this sort of traumatic experience with and that you find comfort and solace with, right? That’s when they start to sort of come back together again. But it’s very confused and very innocent and it’s all kind of about survival, which is what I really, really liked about it. I find it to be very true and believable and honest.
I have to ask about the future too. How much does the tone change when it comes to Mockingjay, because things have progressively gotten darker. We’re entering into a much different situation of Panem, when the third movie begins. Is there going to be a marked tone shift when that story starts?
Ideally, I mean, ideally, for me, it’s not like a jagged change as much as it’s like this sort of gradual progression, you know, that if there was a change in tone from the first movie to this movie, that starts the shift, then you come into Mockingjay and Mockingjay 1 and Mockingjay 2, that there’s that sort of gradual shift of tone. But I just think that as we go through the stakes get greater and Suzanne pulls less punches and things get tougher. It’s what’s exciting about the stories.
Just following the arc, are you looking at a macro scale in addition to a micro, just in a sense of making sure the movies stand on their own, while also being part of this bigger picture. Where’s the balance in that?
Yes. You know, we tried to do that with Catching Fire. We’re doing that with Mockingjay, just trying to ideally set each one up as an entirely sort of individual piece. I mean, they all end in a way, where they want more story, because it is one big story, but you should be able to sort of understand each one on their own, without having read the book and without having necessarily even seen the other ones. It’s not ideal, because I think one would have a better experience having seen the other ones, just emotionally and all that, but it should be able to work as a sort of standalone piece.
With the book being split into two parts, how much is being added into it story-wise or how much is being expanded on what’s already in the books?
Well, I mean, even if you look at Catching Fire, we did the little sort of world expansion, right? There’s no scenes in [the book] Catching Fire where you see Plutarch and Snow together. In our movie there are.
Those scenes were fantastic.
Really fun. So, we’re doing some of that in Mockingjay as well, and that’s the fun thing about being able to split in two. We actually get more of the book in. So, if there were some good chunks of Catching Fire that couldn’t make it, then in this there’s more of the book that’s in, plus more world expansion as well.
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Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.