Director Francis Lawrence didn’t just fall into one of the largest movie franchises in recent years by accident, having spent many years directing a series of movies of varying sizes and genres before finally taking over “The Hunger Games” with last year’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
The latest installment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, follows right after the end of that movie with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen being saved from the bloody finale of the Quarter Quell and brought to District 13, which most thought had been destroyed. She’s reunited with Gayle (Liam Hemsworth) but separated from Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), as she gets caught up in the world of politics and propaganda as the rebellion goes up against Donald Sutherland’s President Snow and the Capitol’s military might.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Lawrence for the following interview during the New York junket for the movie this past weekend in which we touched upon the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the sad fate of his NBC show “Kings” and the “one that got away”—an upcoming movie the director had to pass on to finish “The Hunger Games” series.
ComingSoon.net: I haven’t seen you since you brought “Kings” to Comic-Con, which feels like a long time ago.
Francis Lawrence: That’s a long time ago. That was a really fun show, and NBC freaking blew it on that one.
CS: You know what’s funny? I think that “Kings” would probably do really well right now. I feel like maybe it was ahead of its time.
Lawrence: It was. Also, I think it would’ve been better on like HBO or Showtime or FX or something not NBC. The funny thing that happened was at NBC, when they did that show, there were all these people that loved it, that championed on both the production side and the network side. We got the order for the series while we were making the pilot. Everybody’s great, the pilot’s done, and we’re about to start the series and every single person that championed it both on the production side and network, gone. Everybody was gone, and we’re like, “Uh…” There’s a new head of the network and new people and nobody got the show. Everybody was like, “What have we just been handed?”
CS: It came out before its time. A lot of people are getting int the biblical stuff now, too.
Lawrence: I know, I know. It was so fun, and it was a great time in my life.
CS: I feel like that and “I Am Legend” were good preparation for you to do “The Hunger Games,” so did you find that was the case and doing those projects made it easier to take this one?
Lawrence: I wouldn’t say it was an easy thing to take on. I mean, I think that I’m quite lucky that I was invited in, because quite honestly, “The Hunger Games” series has all the elements of the things that I truly love in movies, especially for my own things. I think something that I discovered recently—it was pointed out to me by somebody that I really respect at the studio, actually–and that’s that a lot of my movies focus on sort of these kind of solitary, very lonely characters. If you look at “Constantine,” obviously “I Am Legend,” but even “Kings,” you’re looking at this guy who’s very alone. There’s a guy who’s sort of pulled into this world, and he’s kind of by himself in this kind of crazy world. It’s the same as with Katniss, you know? She’s surrounded by all these people, but she’s a very isolated character. And then, within that context, I’m getting to do a lot of really fun world-building and dealing with different kinds of themes and ideas and things like that. So it’s a fun world.
CS: I think it might surprise some people how different this movie is. You’re in a completely different location with District 13, and a lot of what happens in the first two movies, like the Hunger Games themselves, don’t happen here. Did you know while you were doing the second movie, you wanted to stay on to continue and finish the story?
Lawrence: I did. I signed on, and I don’t think it was official until we were shooting, but I was asked to do the sequels while we were prepping “Catching Fire.” I honestly loved the stories, but I also saw that working with everybody–the studio producers, actors–that was all working. The chemistry was right, so committing another two years of my life to the family was going to be a good thing. But it was very exciting because to me, the last book is sort of really where themes of the entire series come into play, so that was really exciting for me.
CS: Did you know very early on that the final chapter was going to be two movies?
Lawrence: Yeah, I already knew it was two when I was asked to do them. That decision had already been made, and you know, partly, it was Suzanne. I think Suzanne knew that there were two distinct stories within the book, and that they each had their own themes, they each had their own dramatic question and each had their own Katniss arcs, so that was pretty clear.
CS: It feels somewhat like “Deathly Hallows,” where there’s a lot more setting up the emotional connections and relationships, and the next movie will be all actions and craziness. Is that kind of the case?
Lawrence: I think there’s still some other material in there. It’s not all action in the next one. I mean, the one we’re in now is the more political of the two movies, right? So you have a story about a girl who’s sort of really truly realizing for the first time how important she is to the people in the districts, and that she finally has to take on some responsibility and a role in this revolution. We’re starting to explore the propaganda side of things and the battle over the airwaves here. The next one is war, so yes, there’s a lot of action. The stakes get ratcheted up again. I’d say the scope even gets bigger than in this one. But the next one’s really about Katniss going to war.
CS: What was the take on building sets versus CG? Obviously, there’s a combination of the two of them, but some of the sets are pretty vast.
Lawrence: They are. Yeah, I had a great production designer. He’s been on all of the movies, and I chose to work with him again on “Catching Fire” and then he’s stayed through these. Really, the goal was always to sort of be as honest and real as possible, so if you’re thinking about the settings and locations, we try and do as much as we can in real places. If you can find a location that is as immersive as possible for the movie and for the actors, great. If not, and we have to build it, we have to build it as much as we can, so it’s still as immersive and as real as possible. So the sets were enormous. They were the biggest, most impressive sets that I’ve ever seen. Every three or four days, we’d have shot one out and we’d move to the next, and the actors would always walk in and would be knocked out, whether it’s the living quarters or the Collective, which is part of that silo where Coyne’s always giving her speeches, or the crater after the bombing. They were all just massive things. So you never had to pretend you were somewhere, you actually could be somewhere interesting.
CS: It seems like it would be more soundstage work on this one. I’m not sure, but was the core of the main arena for the Quarter Quell was that built on a soundstage?
Lawrence: Yeah, but I mean, we’re shooting in Atlanta. They’re building more soundstages now, but at the time, there weren’t a lot of soundstages and not a lot of soundstages big enough for some of the sets that we built. So we were on some soundstages for like, the Everdeen house and things like that and the control room. But something like the Collective, where we had all the big meetings, that actually, we found a big factory that built – God, I want to say vats or something, these huge things – and so, we actually had to find this really massive space. The problem was that we were in Atlanta during a really, really cold winter, and they had all their Arctic vortexes going on. You’re in these giant spaces that were open to the elements and couldn’t be heated. So it was a cold deal.
CS: I was bummed no one asked about this at the press conference, but one of the biggest tragedies of the year was Philip Seymour Hoffman passing away. He only had a couple scenes in “Catching Fire,” but in this he’s doing amazing stuff, so how did it affect production when he died so suddenly?
Lawrence: Yes, it happened during production. It was, obviously, really, really horrible, and I think everybody was shocked and horrified and very sad. It happened on a Sunday and he was supposed to shoot the next day, so we immediately decided to shut down production and we had to figure out what we were going to do to sort of help everybody ease back into work emotionally, but also, what we were going to do with his remaining scenes. He was almost done. He had two substantial scenes left with dialogue, one for each of the movies. We knew instantly there was no way we were going to try and create some kind of digital recreation of Phil, so we rewrote the scenes and gave his parts to other actors, one to Elizabeth and then the other one to Woody. The rest of his work were sort of appearances in other scenes where there was no dialogue, so those were sort of easier to figure out, obviously. But, emotionally, we had to take a little time off, and we re-shuffled the schedule and started really small and just started with scenes with Jen and Liam and shot for half a day, and then did a little more the next day and sort of slowly worked everybody in. It took a long time to get any kind of energy and get some of the fun back. It took a while.
CS: I can imagine. Since he was a New York actor, we obviously love him here. I think just seeing what he did in this and what he did in “A Most Wanted Man,” I feel like he could’ve been like Donald Sutherland’s age and still be doing amazing work.
Lawrence: Yeah, I think quite honestly, he was one of the best actors that ever existed. I mean, I just think everybody was blown away when he joined. I remember Donald Sutherland was like a little boy, he was so excited that Phil was going to do these movies and Jen was so excited. I mean, so for him to have been a part of it, I think we all feel really blessed.
CS: Had Julianne worked with him before?
Lawrence: I think this was their fourth movie together.
CS: Right, I thought they might have worked together before. Let’s change the tone a bit. So how do you feel about doing three movies in a row back to back in order to finish the franchise? How do you feel about that as opposed to doing “I Am Legend,” where you basically just did one movie and then afterwards you can rest or do something else and switch gears?
Lawrence: I have to say, I loved it. I mean, there was definitely a tricky time at the end of “Catching Fire” and the beginning of these movies… when I did “Catching Fire,” I was the new guy on the block and there was a lot to prove. Obviously, I wanted to live up to the fans’ expectations. The first movie was really good and did really well and was well received and made a lot of money, right? I have to like, ideally, match that. But we started the “Mockingjay” movies before “Catching Fire” was even released. So, there’s that weird period where you’re like, “Oh my God, fingers crossed this doesn’t disappoint anybody.” Once we got through that, it was great, because then, the actors really liked “Catching Fire.” The studio was happy. It worked and now we’re making these movies and everybody gets along so well and they’re such great stories. So, it’s great to just be living in a kind of “Hunger Games” bubble for three-and-a-half years, you know? It’d be horrible if the people sucked, but they don’t.
CS: You’ve done three big movies in the course of three years, which is amazing because the only directors who can do one per year these days is maybe Woody Allen and he’s not working on this scale at all. So how do you manage that?
Lawrence: Get really good people. If you have really good people, you can do it when you’ve got a family of smart people. I will say, the tough time, again, was the end of “Catching Fire,” because we were working on these scripts while we were shooting “Catching Fire.” While we were posting “Catching Fire,” we were prepping the “Mockingjay” movies. We actually started shooting the “Mockingjay” movies before “Catching Fire” was released. We had a break to do the release and press for “Catching Fire” and then go back. Once we went back, I think we still had 115 or 125 days left. That’s a lot of movie left to shoot. So it’s a lot. Then when you got to the end of that, you come back and now you’re in editorial. It’s much more civilized. You can sort of compartmentalize a little bit and it’s really nice, I think.
CS: You’re obviously in post on the second movie, so have you thought at all about what you want to do next? Obviously, you have a couple of things in development and right now you’re at a nice point where you can do whatever you want.
Lawrence: Yeah, when I took these sequels, I sort of cleared everything off my plate, development-wise. There was one thing I was really sad to see let go. There was a movie, “Unbroken,” that’s going to come out this Christmas. That was my movie before I took the sequels. I didn’t feel it was fair to try and hang onto it for the studio and for Louis, also, because I had hoped that he would see the movie before he passed away.
CS: Had they already found Jack O’Connell to play him or was this before that?
Lawrence: No, I was just still in the script phase of it, working on a draft of the script with Richard LaGravenese. But then I took these sequels, which meant I was gone for three-and-a-half years. I just couldn’t do that, and they obviously went off and I think and hope made a great movie.
CS: Are you going to go see it?
CS: I always wonder when a director has to leave a movie whether they’d still go see it.
Lawrence: I’ve had very, very few projects that I’ve regretted sort of moving away from, and that’s one of them. So I have that weird mixed thing, where I hope it’s great, because he deserves to have a great story made about him, but I know I’m going to be envious. I know I will. But from what I’ve seen, it looks amazing.
CS: Did you say there was another thing that you had?
Lawrence: No, I had that in development, but I cleared the slate because I was gone for so long, so when I finally came up for air after shooting and I basically made it through the cut, I’ve just now really started reading books again for work, and looking at scripts and thinking about stuff and starting development. I still have another year on these movies, so I’m just now starting to give it some thought.
CS: Do you want to go back and try to get into television again?
Lawrence: Oh, I totally would. I mean, I really liked it. I’ve had a couple of great experiences doing pilots and “Kings” is one of my favorites, so I’d love to, if it was the right thing.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 will open on Thursday night, November 20, for previews and then be available everywhere on Friday, November 21. Check back soon for video interviews with some of the newer cast members.