CS sits down with The Hunger Games franchise director Francis Lawrence
With The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 today coming out on Blu-ray & DVD, ComingSoon.net got a chance to chat with director Francis Lawrence at a press day in Los Angeles. In the film, which is the fourth and final entry in the big screen series, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) must become the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion in the districts against the evil Capital in Panem. Francis Lawrence, who took over the series with the second film, Catching Fire and the third, Mockingjay – Part 1, gave us the scoop about working with author Suzanne Collins (author of the series the films were based on), whether or not he’d like to do a prequel, how emotional it was to wrap shooting, and dealing with the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman before shooting had finished. In the below interview, Francis Lawrence tells us all about the scene they had to shoot right after they heard the tragic news and of the changes they had to make for the things Hoffman had not filmed.
ComingSoon.net: Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games movies have seemed to start a trend of films with strong female leads. We seem to be getting more of them.
Francis Lawrence: Yeah, we are. It’s a great thing. I think these movies are probably a big part of it. I don’t think [they’re] the only part of is, but a big part of suddenly Hollywood waking up to how big a young female audience can be. I think people were relying on that kind of young male audience for too long. And I think, obviously, audiences change over time anyway, and people that are interested in movies are interested in a certain period of time and not so much another period of time, and so it’s always kind of shifting and changing. But it’s a huge audience that I think people were neglecting.
ComingSoon.net: Watching you and the makeup artists up on stage, getting so emotional about this franchise after all this time—do you think it was the subject matter? The bonding over a number of films?
Francis Lawrence: No, I think it was that odd chemistry of a bunch of things at the same time. I think it was stories that everybody believes in. There was an incredible team spirt because everybody—there were no cynics in the bunch, in terms of the movies we were making. Everyone, from Julianne [Moore] to Phil [Seymour Hoffman] to Jeffrey Wright to Donald [Sutherland], everybody believed in the ideas of the stories. And we didn’t have to chase anybody. They all wanted to be a part of it. So that was a huge thing from the beginning with everybody. I think the second thing was, there was a rare combination of people that all got along. They were all really good with what they did. There were very, very few egos. I mean, zero egos on set in terms of the actors and even crew. And so you had this incredible chemistry and that team spirit with that, “Oh wow, we’re doing this with really cool, talented people.” And that drew everybody together. And then you have this thing with, it’s all out of town. Right? If we were all shooting in LA and everyone lives in LA, they all go home to their families and their kids’ basketball games or whatever it is. But you’re in Atlanta and Hawaii and Europe and everybody is basically living together for a really long time, making stories you really believe in. And with people you really like. So it just drew people closer. And then oddly enough and sadly, you have things like Phil dying. And tragedy brings people close together. Now you have this really intense thing that you’re all sharing. And so I think that was also part of it. And the length. So it’s a combination of all of these things that really made it emotional at the end.
ComingSoon.net: One of the things that really stand out about this movie is the way the hero isn’t like, “Hey, I just killed a bunch of people and that’s cool. I’m fine.” It takes on PTSD very realistically. Was there ever any pressure to soften that a bit?
Francis Lawrence: No. Definitely not. Everybody from when I joined going forward, wanted to make the books. Nobody talked about softening the ending. People wanted to make the books and be true to them. Nobody wanted to change the ending. I’m sure Lionsgate is probably kicking themselves a little bit because I think that us being true started to dwindle the audience a little as the stories became a little less fun. But no, everybody was really backing Suzanne’s [Collins] stories.
ComingSoon.net: Yeah, I know what you mean. There are a lot of people who talk about the third book and how dark it is.
Francis Lawrence: The third book was—Suzanne will talk about it—the third book was really hard for people. For me it’s the book that gives the entire series its meaning. So I was really looking forward to telling those stories. But it’s a tricky thing. It wasn’t until even after Mockingjay 2 was out and I was thinking about the box office, it just sort of dawned on me; I never even thought of the first two movies as being fun movies. But people thought of them as fun movies.
ComingSoon.net: People think very strange things are fun! But they’re fascinating to watch. I know there’s been talk of a prequel where we’d be back in the arena. Is that something that you’d like to do?
Francis Lawrence: No. [laughs]
ComingSoon.net: You finished it with this?
Francis Lawrence: No, I mean, quite honestly, if Suzanne came up with an amazing idea and a story she wanted to tell that’s in this world, I would be back in a second. I love Suzanne and I think she’s a genius and if Nina [Jacobson-producer] was on board or if it was with Jen [Lawrence], of course. I just—I’m skeptical of the story that’s going to go back in the arena. I just think that, to make the entertaining movie in an area is the opposite of what these stories are trying to do.
ComingSoon.net: It’s got to be such a temptation because when you read a story where the world-building is so good, you don’t want to leave it. You end up on the Wiki for hours…
Francis Lawrence: Yeah and I mean, I’m saying this all theoretically. I mean, maybe somebody will come up with a genius idea. And if so, great. You know? I just don’t know how to go do a prequel with one of the other victors before Katniss existed and make that a satisfying movie that’s telling a different story. That doesn’t just feel superficial and entertaining in a kind of cheap way.
ComingSoon.net: Keeping a subject matter like this is difficult without going into an R rating. Was there anything you wanted to keep in that you had to modify?
Francis Lawrence: No, I mean—no. Because I think that, quite honestly, the impact—sort of fetishizing blood and carnage isn’t really really my thing. I think that somehow lessens the impact of violence and I was interested in the emotional impact. The trickiest thing about this is the grey zone of intensity. I mean, you can have zero blood and zero carnage but if it’s too intense, the ratings board can give you an R. So I obviously wanted it to be as intense as possible without the blood and carnage, and so that was the trickiest line to ride. So I ended up going back and forth with the MPAA a fair amount, and over some surprising moments in the movie.
ComingSoon.net: Anything you can share?
Francis Lawrence: Well, there is a sequence at the end where Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) are hiding as refugees in the crowd and the shooting starts. A woman is killed and her young daughter in yellow is crying, screaming over the body of the mother. And again, there is no blood, right? It’s a body in a coat and this little girl crying. But they found the little girl crying to be really disturbing. So they kept having me shorten that shot, and that was—it blew me away. Because you’re thinking, you’re dealing with what is not a violent act. You didn’t see the mother get shot. There is no blood. It’s a little girl crying. That became too intense and so we kept shaving it down and down and down. So I probably would have liked that to be a little longer.
ComingSoon.net: Was there anything in the books that you didn’t get to put in that you wanted to?
Francis Lawrence: I think the only thing that I regret not figuring out how to get in was—there was a scene in “Catching Fire,” a scene in the book and Suzanne always wanted it. I never knew how and the writer never knew how to get it in without it feeling like a diversion. There is a sequence with these characters Bonnie and Twill. Do you know the books? Bonnie and Twill?
ComingSoon.net: Yeah, very well.
Francis Lawrence: Yeah, so she goes out to the cabin by the lake and she runs into Bonnie and Twill and she thinks they’re Peacekeepers and discovers that they’re actually from District 8 and they’re going to District 13. It’s where you find out that 13 exists and there are stories about District 13. We did not know how to work it in without it feeling like a complete sidetrack diversion, derailing the motors of the story, so we didn’t do it. We found ourselves struggling a little bit at the end of “Catching Fire” with the sort of mythology of 13 because it hadn’t been set up. So I wish, even today I wish we had figured out how to make that work. But I still don’t know how to have done it.
ComingSoon.net: We saw some of the special features and there was a scene that was supposed to be Plutarch Heavensbee talking to Katniss. Instead we have Haymitch reading a letter from him to Katniss. I know you had to do that because of Phil’s death. Was that the most difficult one to do without him? It was heartbreaking to watch, knowing that.
Francis Lawrence: No, partly because it had been so long. I think one of the roughest scenes with that context was the first scene that he was supposed to do that he couldn’t do. So, he was actually scheduled to shoot on the Monday after he died. He was supposed to come back on the day he died. Obviously we went down that day and reconfigured the schedule and that was a scene we ended up giving to Elizabeth [Banks]. Just getting started again shooting after his death was really difficult, but within about two or three days, Elizabeth came back and she was fairly close with Phil, too. So that was tough. So to come in and take over the scene about four days after his death, that he was supposed to be doing, that was really, really tough. That was a tough time. But that was in early February. So by the time we shot that final scene in Berlin, it’s now late June or early July and we’d had plenty of time to do some healing and just get used to the fact that this was something we did. We had to digitally put him in some scenes. You know, taking footage we had and put him in scenes like the wedding. Obviously when you have your Phil double standing in the scene a week after he’s died, that’s tough.