In 2012, when director Francis Lawrence was hired to take over The Hunger Games franchise from director Gary Ross, critics and fans raised some eyebrows. Ross had achieved a thoughtful and grounded adaptation of the first The Hunger Games book and, most importantly, set the tone with some inspired casting, including Jennifer Lawrence as conflicted heroine Katniss Everdeen.
Francis Lawrence was primarily known for his visually arresting music videos for artists like Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, and the films I Am Legend and Constantine. The question many pondered was whether the director was up to the task of adapting Suzanne Collins' novels into films that adhered to the book's unflinching themes exploring the price of war and not glossing them up for a mainstream audience.
Over the course of his three installments -- Catching Fire and Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2 -- Lawrence has certainly answered those critics with a resounding "Yes." Based on box-office success alone (a whopping $1.6 billion globally for just the last two films), The Hunger Games movies are a success. But perhaps more importantly, through these films Lawrence has come into his own as a cohesive filmmaker, marrying his visual prowess with an assured handling of the tricky narrative that has made the films far more resonant than just empty YA adaptations.
With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, Lawrence brings to a close three years of exhaustive work of which he is remarkably proud. No small feat for a blockbuster franchise. When we sat down with him in late summer, the director spoke in detail of crafting a war film with some very bleak themes and bringing Katniss Everdeen's journey to a hopeful close.
[WARNING: Spoilers for the book and film franchise follow]
A lot of fans balked at Suzanne Collins' last book, Mockingjay, being split into two films, labeling it a cash grab to keep the franchise going. However, you wanted it to happen. What was your reasoning?
Francis Lawrence: One of the reasons the book was split into two was it was very clear there was too much story in the book for one movie. We all, especially Suzanne, understood that there were two very distinct character arcs and dramatic questions. One was, will we get Peeta back? And will I become the Mockingjay, with its own themes to explore in terms of propaganda. This one is, will I kill Snow, which is very different from the first one.
With Mockingjay Part 2, you are not only presenting the climax to the entire story, but you are landing the themes that are core to Collins' book. For you, what was most exciting about crafting this installment?
The thing I really enjoy about this movie, and part of the story, is that it's where everything comes together. The themes come together, the visual ideas come together, all the character who remain come together. One of the things that happens is the idea of war -- which is the overall picture of the movies -- and the idea of the arena come together. The blending of real war and war in the Capitol being the new arena was interesting. It also presented new challenges for us, because it's a strange idea that these sort of defenses would be used in war. Some of the new material in the movie, which was really fun to develop for Snow (Donald Sutherland), is the idea of, what does a guy in Snow's position do when you are sitting in the throne of a crumbling empire? We use that to play into the idea of turning war into entertainment while it's all crumbling around you.
The last film is a more aggressive war film, with Katniss and her allies breaching the Capitol. You shot a lot of those exteriors in Europe. How did that influence your visual approach?
The story in itself dictated that it was going to look different. One of the big, large, visual aspects of Mockingjay Part 1 is District 13, where we were underground for two-thirds of the movie and it's a specific, grim, claustrophobic feeling. In this one, we start out in 13 but you go outside very quickly into other districts and then into the streets of the Capitol. Just by the nature of where the story takes us, it's a very different-looking movie as we get our first real glimpses of the streets of the Capitol. We are now outside in the air around architecture we haven't seen before, the Brutalist, classical aspects.
Snow turns his entire city into a trap for the rebels, and there's a particularly nasty foe in the lizard mutts that thrive in the sewers. They are terrifying. How did you develop them from page to screen?
They needed to be really horrible, and it was inspired by the book. They are lizard mutations and so we went with that idea and were looking at, and designing, these humanoid lizard-like creatures. They were white in the book because Snow likes white, but the idea is they would be pale because they weren't exposed to any sunlight, and they live down in the dark and don't need eyes, which are skinned over. They are aggressive and blind and desperate and agitated. We came up with some cool designs and choreographed a great sequence with our stunt coordinator. WETA did the effects and did a great job on those guys. It's a very cool sequence and the lead up to that sequence is also very cool and I'm really happy with that.
Despite a lot of action in the first two acts, there are also moments of quiet between the characters, especially between Katniss and a recovering Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). How did you create a balance to allow those moments to breathe amongst the chaos?
Part of the idea is that it's important to have those moments of quiet where the characters can be with one another. It's also important for me that the action sequences have some sort of emotional value and are pushing the story forward in some way so it's not action for action's sake. I try to maintain that quite a lot. There's a sequence in the book that's also in the movie with the oil [trap] where the events that are happening with the oil and the traps and Boggs (Mahershala Ali) set Peeta off. There is a lot happening, but the truth is, it's also about what's happened to Peeta and what Peeta is trying to do to Katniss, so there is a lot of other things happening aside from the spectacle and we try to maintain that throughout.
You add new material to this film's narrative. Where and why?
We found that, typically, adding world expansion is with the antagonists. There's a little bit of Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman), very little with them, actually, but some of the Snow scenes that have been added in before Katniss comes into contact with him had some real development. And with Coin, for people that know the story, the development of her as a character from the beginning of Mockingjay Part 1 through Mockingjay Part 2 was a big development process, because there's not very much of her in the book. You think of her as this huge character and you go back to the book and there aren't many moments with her. But Katniss has her mind made up about her very early on so we had to shift that so we can see her blossom into what she's going to become in the course of two moments.
Katniss is assigned to a combat unit known as the "Star Squad" which really allows you to utilize the actors you cast like Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson and Mahershala.
Yes. The group we created for Squad 451 was really fun. What was most fun for me was there were certain people, like Mahershala Ali, who were really hired for what they were going to do in Mockingjay Part 2 and spent a lot of Mockingjay Part 1 being silent, quiet, strong types sitting in the background in scenes with Coin. But I am happy with that, because Mahershala is so great and does a really good job of feeling like he is Coin's person and then slowly seeing the shift and reveal of who he really is and what he really believes in, and it's really moving.
Mockingjay the book has some really stark scenes that were devastating to read, let alone see. Have you pushed your own boundaries in this film to make sure the violence of the war really has impact?
It's mostly blocking choices, because we made the book. We hit all the things the book hits, so it was really about blocking and presentation. My intention from the beginning is, because this is about the consequence of violence, I really wanted to focus on the emotional consequence of it and not the shock and splatter value of it. Some of it happens in the distance and, oddly, sometimes there's more of an impact when you don't see it and its implied and you can imagine yourself what it looks like and feels like and smells like. I am really happy with the approach.
The media has always circled around the love triangle involving Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) but this film delves more into Katniss and Gale's distinct views on war.
Yes. We started those ideas with Gale in Catching Fire. When she says, "We have to get out of here," but he wants to stand and fight, you start to see the fighter in him. All of those ideas come to blossom at their fullest in this movie. You see the way that Katniss and Gale come up against one another really starting in District 2 and The Nut, and how he wants to take care of the problem there. There is a difference in their morality choices in the approach to District 2.
And, in turn, Peeta, his hijacking and path back to himself is representative of some other potent themes about hope for Katniss?
You get to some of those scenes in the last half hour of the movie and you feel all of that coalescing and the history of the characters and their relationships. Having gone through Mockingjay Part 1 and the damage to Peeta, it all comes to a head and is really exciting.
The book epilogue was not satisfying to a contingent of the readership. How did you tackle it?
I'm really happy with the epilogue. I find the last half hour of this movie very satisfying. The last scenes I really wanted to do and I didn't have to convince anybody, but it was about figuring out how to do it. In the book, [Katniss] is thinking, and I'm not a huge fan of voiceover, so it was figuring out how do we get some of these ideas across and I think we were able to do it.
You went back to shoot the very last scene in the film just this past June. Was that to keep the magic going a little longer?
No, the weird thing is I wanted to shoot in a field in Atlanta and it was the field we had shot on the first day, a preproduction day of Mockingjay. We probably could have done it then, but it felt too weird to shoot the last scene of the entire movie on the first day of 155 days of shooting. I couldn't do it. We scheduled it for the end of winter in Atlanta, which was mid April, and we had a horrible winter with ice storms and freezing temperatures. April comes around and we're like, "Wow, it's not getting green." We had to go to Paris and Berlin and luckily the scene was for the second movie, which was more than a year away and so we punted the scene. We went to Europe and moved the scene and decided to get everyone back together.
Was it hard to assemble Jennifer and the rest of your crew who have moved on?
Everyone was fine doing it partly because after a year down we would be happy to get back together for something not that complicated and keep the crew minimal. We went back in June in that same field and it was nice and green.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 opens November 20, 2015