Francis Lawrence has played such an essential role in The Hunger Games franchise that it's easy to forget he was not there from the start. While Gary Ross directed the first film in the series — adapted from Suzanne Collins' dystopian Y.A. novel of the same name — Lawrence came aboard for the sequel, 2013's Catching Fire, and stayed to helm the climactic two-part finale, 2014's Mockingjay - Part 1 and 2015's Mockingjay – Part 2.
"I thought I was done," Lawrence says, "but not because I didn't want to do more. I thought I was done because Suzanne, the author, was like, 'I've been on this thing for 10 years. I'm going to write plays. I'm going to do other stuff. I'm done.' Which I could totally understand. I'd been on the movies for three, four years, so I certainly wanted to do something else for a minute, too."
In 2019, Lawrence and franchise producer Nina Jacobson received a call from Collins. "She said, 'Hey, I know this is a bit of a surprise, but I'm almost done with a new book.'" That book is The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to the original trilogy centered on a young Coriolanus Snow, set half a century before he becomes the tyrannical president of Panem.
"Nina and I were thrilled," Lawrence, who returns as director and producer for the movie adaptation, tells A.frame. "We had gotten to do some other things, and this was possibly another opportunity to all work together again and get back into the world. We read it and said, 'Let's do it.'"
A.frame: So, it was an immediate 'yes' for you?
As soon as I read it, yes. Because there's different stages. One is you hear there's a book and you're very intrigued and excited at the possibility of getting to do another one. Nina and I read it and were definitely in, which means we're going to try to help crack the adaptation into screenplay form and movie form with Suzanne. And then there's the moment when the screenplay turns the corner and you go, 'Okay, this is a movie.' It goes through those stages.
There is a lot of ground to cover in this movie. Were there ever conversations about splitting it into more than one movie like you did with Mockingjay?
You know, it's a long book. I forget who, but somebody was like, 'I don't know, should it be two?' And instantly, I was like, 'No! I don't care. We'll make this a long movie.' But we got so much s**t for splitting Mockingjay into two movies — from fans, from critics. And weirdly, I understand it now. It's episodic television or something. You can either binge it or you wait a week and a new episode comes out, but to say, 'You have an hour and a half-long episode of TV and now you have to wait a year for the second half,' that's annoying, and I get it. So, that was not going to happen on my watch this time around.
Telling the origin story of a character like this — that villain arc — can be tricky. Obviously, you think of something like the Star Wars trilogy, but were there movies that you looked at as you were prepping this?
Not really, because it was mapped out in the book. The thing that we wanted to focus on the most was that story: Making sure that we got an audience behind young Coriolanus Snow, rooting for him, empathizing with him in the beginning. The tricky thing is you have to seed in the things that make it believable when he turns, so that it becomes a truthful, and honest, and authentic moment. That was actually the trickiest thing.
We looked at lots of stuff, right? You look at Joker, you look at Darth Vader, you look at Macbeth, you look at all the great villain origin stories — the breaking bad-type stories — and see what you can learn. We certainly didn't model it after any of the other stories. We really just tried to make what Suzanne had written work on the screen.
Snow is the connective thread between The Hunger Games movies you did and the movie you're doing now. What were your conversations with Tom Blyth about how much to study Donald Sutherland's performance and where to pull in elements of that?
When we were casting him, I was hoping to get somebody that you could believe could turn into that character — into the Snow that Donald Sutherland played. The big blue eyes as part of it, the shape of the face, a sophistication and intelligence in performance, and the way he holds himself. The physicality, that was all important. And Tom already had all that. I said, 'I don't want you to go and study his stuff and mimic his performance or the sound of his voice really in any way.' I wanted his performance to be his own. I would bet he probably did his research, because he's a very trained actor, and he went to Julliard. I'm sure he watched a bunch of stuff, but it definitely was not mimicry in any way.
After casting Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger Games, the pressure was on in casting these roles. Was there a moment when you saw Tom and Rachel Zegler together and realized, 'Yes, this is my Snow and my Lucy Gray?'
Yes, Rachel was one of the first people I spoke to in casting in general, and she was my first choice for Lucy Gray. But it was a process, because she was working on another movie and had been away from home for a long time, and she really wanted to do the movie but was scared about staying on in Europe for another four or five months. So, that took some time, but we found Tom and Tom became our Snow, and then Rachel came back into the fold, which was fantastic. The moment that you're talking about, what we did is we actually put them on a Zoom. Tom was in New York, I was in France, and Rachel was in London. And I got them on a Zoom, and everyone turned off their cameras except for them, and I had her singing the song "Wildwood Flower" acapella, which is this old song that comes from the era that inspired the sound of the music in the movie. Seeing her singing to him and him watching her, you could just see that they had the chemistry. We knew instantly that it was going to work with the two of them.
Another delicious casting choice is Viola Davis as Dr. Volumnia Gaul. She seems like she had a blast with this character. What conversations did you have with her about how she was going to embody this woman?
Most of our conversations were ahead of time. I was already in Berlin. She was back in L.A. We had had a little bit of a relationship, because we'd been and still are developing another project together. I needed to educate her a little bit about the series. This has happened a little bit over the years; it happened with Phil Hoffman, where he had heard of it, but he didn't really know that much about it. Same with her. I just educated her a little bit on the series, the themes, the ideas, where her character stands philosophically within those ideas and themes, and then I talked about my reference for her, which, weirdly, was Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka.
One could consider her a villain in this movie, but she does think she's doing the right thing and what she's doing is important. She certainly is a very specific voice, philosophically, in the movie. But the Willy Wonka reference was more that her joy is actually in the creativity of the work that she's doing, which informs the hair, the makeup, the wardrobe. That joy and the odd, creepy creations reminded me a little of the sinister underpinnings of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka. That was my reference for her, which she totally got! I have to admit, I was a little nervous bringing that up to her, but she totally got it and completely went for it.
Now that you say it, that references makes complete sense. She's taking some big swings in this, which I appreciate!
I think that was part of the fun for her. I will say she had a tough job in that she came in for a couple of weeks, she had a lot of dialogue, she had a lot of makeup, so she was jet-lagged, and she basically had four hours of makeup every day. She was a real trooper to pop in, do all the scenes, all that dialogue, all that makeup, and bring her quality of performance. She's just phenomenal.
How did your first day on the set of this compare to your first day on Catching Fire all those years ago?
It was definitely more complicated. We had to start this movie in the arena, because the arena that we got, which was in Poland, was only available at the very beginning of our schedule. The first day was a sequence where Tom, as young Snow, is going through the newly-damaged arena and inspecting it. The scale of it was big. Whereas my very first day on Catching Fire, all I did was this one scene in the field with Jen and Liam before she went off to the Games, where they're sitting together and they share a kiss. That was a very quiet, outdoor, natural setting, and it probably took us an hour to shoot the whole thing. Whereas this one was a much bigger deal with the whole circus of crew and effects and rubble and all that. Very different first days.
Well, good thing it went that way and not your first day on Catching Fire being the arena and something easy on this one. At least you were prepared. You had a couple of these under your belt.
Yes, for sure. Rachel's first day, she came straight in from London, got suited up, and her first day was the opening sequence of the arena. She got thrown into the Hungry Games immediately. No ease in for her.
I was particularly struck by the beginning of the Games themselves in this movie. There is no grander to it. When the alarm goes off, it's violent, it's brutal, and we're right there in the mix. How did you approach bringing that sequence to life?
We're going back to more of the rudimentary base, where there aren't sophisticated elevators popping the tributes up into the arena. They're marched out at gunpoint. Some people dragged out. We've got the rubble everywhere. It's dirty, it's dusty, it's still relatively basic, and it's really hand to hand. We used really wide lenses and got in there and did fairly long takes. That's Dave Thompson, who I've been working with since I Am Legend. He did all the other Hunger Games with me. He's awesome. It's pretty immersive and pretty great in IMAX too, I will say.
The other thing that really struck me when we started shooting it was, the other Games — especially Catching Fire — when you're in the arenas, there's hovercraft that pluck the bodies out or they get hidden in trees and bushes. But here, when people fall, they're out in the open. You really feel the body count and you really feel the individuality of the characters, because they're still wearing the clothes they left their hometown in, as opposed to getting put in uniforms. There was just a grittier, more grounded, violent sensibility to all of it that we were trying to embrace for emotional impact.
You seem to have figured out the right balance to conveying the brutality of these movies — these are children dying, after all — but not so much so that it's impossible to watch. How did you find that point?
I've always been going for emotional impact, versus the gore, or grotesqueness, or the utter violence itself. That's always been the goal. And part of that is just because I think that's more interesting in storytelling, and part of it is also we can't alienate an audience and get so violent that we get the R rating in the United States and alienate the 13, 14, 15, 16 year olds that all want to see the movie.
Off that, Jason Schwartzman's darkly comedic moments are very effective at balancing the death and despair. Was that something that was on the page, or that you found on set and in the edit?
That was a process. Very little of it was on the page. When Jason was cast, I got on a Zoom with him and said, 'Hey, listen, I think your character is very underwritten, and what I would love to do, if you're game, is I'd love to involve you and develop more stuff.' If you look at the first scene at the zoo, he's interviewing them — that was in the script — but I said, 'We have much more of an opportunity here for Lucky's introduction. What does he say to the camera as the tributes are rolling out, and how does he introduce himself, and what are we revealing about his character, and what's the levity that we can find in it, and what's the outro to the scene, and can we tweak the way he talks in interviews these characters?'
He was down for it, which was great. So, he came out early, and he was hanging around set a lot, even on days he wasn't working. He was working with the writer, and working with me, and really coming up with a lot of the facets of the character. He did a ton of research and probably ended up with 50 pages of ideas that we would shoot most of, and then we whittled it down in the edit for the moments that now exist in the movie.
Is there more Panem in your future, whether it be more of Snow's story or another story set in this universe? Do you have a sense of, 'I'm not quite done yet'?
I would totally do another one, but it's all up to Suzanne. It's the same as after the Mockingjays. I said, 'I would come back 100 percent if asked.' But it's got to come from the mind of Suzanne, because she truly is the author of these things. But also, she writes from theme and writes from a real idea, and I think that's what gives these stories their substance and their relevance.
By John Boone