“Seven Hours’ Worth of Movie over Three Years”: Francis Lawrence on The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part Two
Four years ago this month, one of the most successful series in recent film history was launched when director Gary Ross helmed his adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games. An instant phenomenon, the movie turned Jennifer Lawrence into a superstar and provided a bleaker, more political alternative to the Twilight franchise. Ross didn’t return for the sequel, Catching Fire, so the producers entrusted the series to director Francis Lawrence, who stayed on for two more films. In Lawrence’s hands the allegorical aspects of the series grew more pronounced, the visual style more diverse and elaborate, and the emotional resonance more complex, building to a climax in the harrowing but ultimately hopeful scenes of the final film. In addition to having directed modern genre films like Constantine and I Am Legend, Lawrence is one of the most accomplished music video directors of all time, having done superb work with Lady Gaga, Nine Inch Nails, Britney Spears, and countless other iconic performers – but his three Hunger Games films are his magnum opus, a seven-hour epic that fights the usual trajectory of sequels by getting better as it progresses. The final movie in the series, Mockingjay: Part Two, arrives on Blu-ray March 22 as part of a spectacular package featuring five hours of special features that delve into Lawrence’s process. I sat down with the director the day before the movie hit VOD to ask him to reflect on the whirlwind experience of the past few years.
Filmmaker: Let’s go back to your initial involvement with the Hunger Games series. How aware of the books and first film were you when you came on board?
Francis Lawrence: I was very aware of the books – I had read and really enjoyed them, and I had just seen the movie. I was in New York shooting a pilot for a television show that didn’t get picked up, and my assistant and I went to see the movie on my birthday in 2012. While we were in post I got the call that Gary wasn’t coming back, so I reread the books —
Filmmaker: What did you respond to at that point, and did it change over the course of directing three films?
Lawrence: It never changed. The thing that made me want to do the movies is that I saw the first Hunger Games as a sort of stand-alone genre or exploitation movie – something you might find in the ’70s. But in the grand scheme of all the books there was something thematic about the consequences of war and violence, and the second story, Catching Fire, was where that started to blossom; the world was opening up, and those themes and ideas rose to the surface before reaching their full potential in the final movie. That’s what drew me in, and it’s what I talked about when I first met with the producers. Luckily, everyone was on the same page and wanted to truly make the books without making them more “fun,” which I think a lot of people might have wanted to try with a project like this.
Filmmaker: What were those initial conversations with the producers like? Did you feel a lot of pressure to live up to what had been established with the first film, given that it was hugely successful?
Lawrence: Quite honestly, I never felt any pressure from the producers or the studio – I was very upfront and frank with them about what my approach to the movies was going to be, and they embraced all of those ideas and changes. The biggest pressure came on Catching Fire, and the pressure was that I was the new guy for the fans. Here are these people who love the books, who loved that first movie, and suddenly I’m there and they don’t know what I’m going to do. Hoping that they were going to like my take on these stories was really stressful, especially given the timing; originally I signed on for one movie, and in prep they asked me to stay for the next two. I said yes, and then realized that Catching Fire was going to come out after we had been shooting the Mockingjay movies for about five weeks – which meant there was still nine or ten months of shooting left. So there was a moment where I thought, if Catching Fire bombs, or gets panned, how am I going to show up on set? I was hoping people would accept Catching Fire just so I could make it through the shoot! Luckily, the world was happy with the movie and that gave the cast and crew a great energy going into the final two movies.
Filmmaker: Speaking of the cast, you inherited most of them from the previous film. I presume they already had pretty strong ideas about their characters, so what was your role in terms of helping them shape their performances? And how did you put them at ease with you after they had started the series with another director?
Lawrence: Certain people did have firm ideas about the characters, but there was still the journey those characters take, which changes from movie to movie. So my approach was to talk about each particular story and what was different about it – the character of Effie (Elizabeth Banks), for example, goes through very different things in Catching Fire from what she experienced in the first Hunger Games, so that gave Elizabeth and I a lot of ideas and material to discuss.
To answer your second question, when I got the job and started prepping I called all the actors and started meeting with them. I chatted with Jennifer while she was in Prague shooting, and then when she got back to LA we had breakfast together and had a great conversation. Elizabeth and I got together, Josh and I got together, Liam…everyone welcomed me fairly quickly, and I was thrilled because I was inheriting a lot of great actors. The only one who was a little tricky was Woody [Harrelson], who is very loyal but takes longer to warm up. I think he was uneasy with the situation of having a director thrust upon him; he had signed on to do these movies with Gary and suddenly Gary left. He was feeling disoriented and wanted some time with me, so I flew to New York where he was doing a play and we hung out and talked about the character until he was more comfortable. Everyone else got on board right away, which was a nice surprise.
Filmmaker: Your visual style is quite different from Ross’s. The first Hunger Games is all chaotic handheld camerawork, whereas your films – though they certainly use handheld – have a more precisely composed approach. Was there ever concern about altering the look of the films midstream?
Lawrence: No, the producers were okay with my approach right from the first meeting – and that approach wasn’t any kind of reaction against the first Hunger Games, it’s just that Gary is one filmmaker and I’m another, and I have another way of shooting things. I have my own way of framing and blocking and certain lenses that I favor, and I’m not going to copy someone else’s style. On a sort of default level I tend to like wide-angle to medium focal lengths, because I think the camera should be closer to the actors, especially when you’re in close-up. I think the audience can sense the intimacy, as opposed to long lenses that force the camera to be too far away, and I want the audience to feel like they’re in those environments with the characters. I also like world-building, and long lenses tend to throw things out of focus and compress space too much – it makes things claustrophobic, and you lose that sense of place, whereas with wider and medium format lenses you can be in a close-up and still retain the scope of where you are. You gain the best of both worlds just on lens choice alone.
Filmmaker: It also allows you to contextualize the characters not only in their spaces but with each other.
Lawrence: Exactly. For me movies are all about relationships, and I’m always going to tend toward characters relating in the frame as opposed to close-ups where you don’t see anyone else. Even if I’m trying to isolate someone in a close-up, it’ll probably be an over the shoulder where they’re sharing a frame with another actor.
Speaking to your other point, I did do handheld like Gary, but my approach is very different – it’s a kind of faux naturalism that comes from the immediacy you can have with handheld camera while still using a more formal approach to the frame. When you use dollies I think you can get kind of boxed in by stands and things, but if the camera is in your hands you can shift and adjust and give the actors a little more freedom. That said, I still try to block and compose in a more classical way so that the camera could have been locked down, we just happen to be throwing it in the operator’s hands. So you get this mix of naturalism and classicism, as opposed to just throwing the camera onto an operator’s shoulder and hosing down the scene, which is what some people do when they go handheld.
Filmmaker: It’s a very unique look, and one that I think has been imitated by a lot of other films in the last year or so. Did you have any visual references in mind, like other movies, or was the approach more intuitive?
Lawrence: I didn’t have anything that I relied on heavily, though on Catching Fire cinematographer Jo Willems and I looked at a lot of Vietnam films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, both because there was a lot of story in the jungle and because these are, in a sense, war films. Jo also brought a number of lighting references in that influenced our approach.
Filmmaker: Which was?
Lawrence: Again, I’m a fan of naturalism. I think audiences are pretty savvy, and they can sense when someone’s got a key light that isn’t coming from any motivated source, and a backlight just because someone’s decided that they need to be separated from the wall behind them. My tendency is to lean toward a more realistic direction and away from that old-fashioned studio lighting, and then think about the emotional value of a scene and how the light relates to color and production design and how those things can bring out the ideas and emotions I want to express. The production designer and cinematographer and I had long discussions about things like District 13 in the Mockingjay movies – we didn’t want it to be just gray, so we came up with this notion that the characters would be creating their own colors underground and forming circadian rhythms for the people living below. There were night looks and day looks so that during the day there would be this bright, clinical way of seeing things and at night it all went amber and dark but not black. We wanted the color underground to really contrast with what it looked like outside, so that you really feel the air and the green of the leaves when you emerge into the forest from a claustrophobic, industrial environment.
Filmmaker: These movies are such a huge undertaking, and I’m wondering how you retain your stamina over a shoot that literally takes years – and how you retain your focus on what’s important and what’s not to make sure you get what you need and prioritize the right things.
Lawrence: The stamina partly comes from working with great people – there are definitely tiring days, but when everyone is on the same page making the same movie the stamina takes care if itself because you’re excited to go to work every day. The other part of it is a little trickier, because on the one hand my job on a movie like this is to have an enormous appetite, but it’s also to be responsible – it’s a weird line, and I have to rely on the line producer and department heads to be as self-aware as possible about their budgets. You want a creative collaboration with people where you’re getting as much as you can out of them, but you obviously can’t break the bank. So for example, when you have four or five hundred extras like we did in the hospital scene, you don’t put them all in prosthetics. You map out a path where Jenn is going to walk and put elaborate prosthetics on that row of people, then the next three rows behind them will be really extensive makeups, and then beyond them will be lower-quality, and in the back you don’t do anything other than dirt. You need to work within your financial parameters, and you also don’t want to kill people – they can’t possibly do that many prosthetics in one day anyway.
Filmmaker: How about the actors? You’ve got such different levels of experience here, from newcomers who literally grew up on set to veterans like Donald Sutherland. Do you have to modify your approach to suit each individual performer?
Lawrence: Yes, but not because of experience but just because each actor has a different approach. Julianne [Moore] comes in with very specific ideas and doesn’t need to talk about it that much, but she’s happy to talk a little bit, especially about blocking; Jen is very instinctual and hates to rehearse but needs to discuss her emotional arc ahead of time. On the other hand, Philip Seymour Hoffman loved to rehearse and talk about it and grind away at the character.
Filmmaker: Did that create problems when you had one actor, like Jennifer Lawrence, who hated rehearsal, and another, like Hoffman, who loved it?
Lawrence: No, because this group was really good…with the wrong people you would definitely have that kind of problem, but it wasn’t the case here. Jenn hates to rehearse, but she would do it with Phil because she loved him and respected him. She wasn’t going to deny him.
Filmmaker: Getting back to the idea of what a massive, all-consuming endeavor this has been…now that you’re literally at the final stage of the process, putting the last movie out on Blu-ray and VOD, have you had any time to decompress and reflect on what the experience has meant to you?
Lawrence: It’s a long process – I don’t think there’s any one moment when you figure that out. There’s a lot of processing that one does when a movie is released; it’s a very vulnerable time for a filmmaker when the movie’s out there and everyone starts sharing their opinions, good or bad. You’re reading reviews and watching box office numbers come in and all that, and you start to think about this object that you’ve made and what it means to you and what it means to other people and what you could have done differently and how it’s perceived in the world…and was it worth it? That’s the strongest point of self reflection, the moment of release – there’s probably a thirty to sixty-day window when you’re thinking about it constantly. But I still think about it a lot. It was an unbelievably fulfilling experience for me doing three movies of this size so close together, directing basically seven hours’ worth of movie over three years and working with a story that I really believed in, with a cast and crew that had massive filmmaking talent and were wonderful people to be in the trenches with – you’re lucky in your career if those things can come together on one movie, let alone three.