Reuniting with his The Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence, director Francis Lawrence’s new film is in cinemas at the end of this week, the spy thriller Red Sparrow. He spared us some time for a natter about it…
In that opening scene of Red Sparrow, you have Dominika, in a cramped apartment, with an old CRT style TV. It felt…
Exactly. I take it that was a deliberate thing?
No, what was deliberate was to make it feel timeless, I always want to try to make films feel timeless, because one of my biggest pet peeves is that there’s a movie you love, and then you revisit it twenty years later, you show your kid or something, and it’s like, “Oh my God!” with hairstyles and clothing and all that kind of stuff. Ideally it’s timeless. The way the movie looks, really, is from reference material. So we worked with the production designer, Maria Djurkovic, who had done Tinker Tailor, and a bunch of other great stuff. She and I just pulled thousands and thousands and thousands of photographs from Russia and Budapest and did a lot of work, especially thinking about ‘What are Dominika’s living conditions?’, and based everything, colour palate included, on that kind of material. What I found interesting was that you’d have something like that, but then you’d have a modern car, you’d have a cell phone, and so you’ve got that variety.
The other thing I was interested in was to see, especially in Russia, different facets. Old, ornate classical stuff with the Kremlin, and the Bolshoi Ballet, and some of the restaurants, some of the socialist, government housing where Dominika lives, to some of the higher end, slightly more gleaming things, so that you have a mix. What I’ve found in talking to people now is that it takes people a while to figure out what era it really is.
It’s interesting that you’re working with the production designer from Tinker Tailor, because it does feel… that’s the closest comparison I’ve got for it, and it is a book written by a former spy, so I guess that’s why there are similarities. It is interesting that you’ve created a world that feels like a successor to the one in Le Carré’s books.
What I loved about that was I went in not wanting to build anything. All the Hunger Games stuff, we had a fantastic production designer, and he built amazing sets. I wanted to shoot in real places, and that’s partly what Maria does. She can build too, and she built little things, but we never shot on a soundstage. Her specialty is to create that very authentic, lived in – she and her set decorator are just amazing at making places look and feel utterly real and authentic, and fitting in the world of the colour palate we’re building in. When you look at that apartment that she lives in with her mother in Red Sparrow, we found that series of rooms, they’re actually offices in an abandoned factory about 45 minutes outside of Budapest. When she first brought me out there, she thought I was going to think she was crazy, but she’s like, “I think this is going to be her apartment”. And she had to break down the wall to build a door and link all the things up, but they’re factory offices turned into an apartment, and she’s just a genius with that.
And then with the bits that are set in obviously Moscow locations, that was Moscow?
No, we primarily in Budapest, we also shot in Bratislava, Vienna and London. And so everything that’s supposed to be in Moscow, we did in either Budapest or Bratislava. We had one digital matte painting where she’s running up to the Bolshoi, and we shot that in Hero Square in Budapest, and she’s running up to a museum, and we then digitally augmented it so that we put in some of the Moscow buildings that are really by the Bolshoi; we augmented, not fully changed, but augmented the building to look like the Bolshoi with horses on top; we changed signage into Russian, things like that, but it was all Bratislava or Budapest.
Do you prefer to work in that practical style, rather than with tonnes of digital?
Yeah, I thought it was fun. On the logistical side it was a huge palate cleanser for me coming off The Hunger Games, because The Hunger Games had thousands and thousands of VFX shots, and very, very complicated sequences. The oil sequence and the big lizard fight in the last one, that stuff was really difficult. This was great, because it was all in camera for the most part, with very minimal effects. I think the biggest effects sequence we had was just the ballet stuff, and getting it to look like Jen is doing all the dancing. Everything is so minimal, and I loved that. I loved feeling like what I was getting home on dailies was the footage that I needed as opposed to just the beginning raw materials to one day look like I imagine.
You’ve done something rather impressive, in that you’ve managed to make a spy film that feels quite original. How?
I think it starts from the material, I think that’s what drew me to it.
I’m a fan of the spy genre, and I’ve had conversations like this with filmmaker friends who make very specific genre pieces, and most of the movies I’ve done have been kind of mash ups, and so in the mashing up it starts to be unique from it’s foundation. But when I read the book I fell in love with the character of Dominika, and her character journey, and I found it really interesting, I found her to be quite a unique character. I love reluctant heroes, all of that. When I found that personal way in to the story, really interesting, and the fact that it’s very grounded, and it’s not based on tech, that it’s not very mission-based, that it’s not very political, that it’s a very personal story to the characters, to me is what makes it truly unique. And then there’s the element of tone, because I think that spy films can be sort of grungy and political, or they’re slick and sexy, so to find something that can feel real, and have a few moments of glamour at times, and also be quite hard hitting.
A character like Dominika, where you don’t know her motivations, tends to be the Macguffin in spy films, and it was interesting to be following that Macguffin. You managed to avoid even hinting at where she’d eventually end up. How hard was that to achieve?
That was part of the fun for me. You have a woman who’s pulled into this horrible world against her will, she starts to train, you start to see that she’s very good at it; there’s also a key scene at the beginning of the film where she beats, quite brutally, the people who injured her and ruined her ballet career, which tees her up to be somebody who’s quite unpredictable. You know that she’s capable of a lot, so as you go in, as she starts to embark on her mission to find the mole, because she thinks that that might get her out, you start to question her motives at every turn. It’s a story that needs audience engagement, I think it’s a story that you need to pay attention, you need to lean in, you need to watch what she’s doing, you need to think about what her plan is… I know I got a little off track.
A lot of spy films tend to be portrayed in a manner where there doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of truth to them. This does feel like there’s a truth, because you seem to focus a lot on the downsides of the job.
Yes, one hundred percent. That was another thing that I thought was unique about it was that it wasn’t a glamorisation of the spy world by any means. That’s married to her journey, because to me it’s a survival story, and clearly you’re not surviving if it’s not rough and difficult and being humiliating at times, so I wanted to make sure that was the case. I also think that the thing that we tried to do, and this was probably one of the hardest things to do, as you’re figuring out what all the characters are doing, what their sub-objectives are – the real thing they want, and then what it seems like they’re trying to do – is to give it all an emotional truth, because I found it very important that before I ever got on set with the actors that I could communicate with them in a way that it felt like real human behaviour. That they’re not these spy automatons that are just on mission, that it felt real.
So you get to a scene with Dominika and Nate at the embassy, I think it’s the second time they speak to one another, and you’re trying to understand what they’re both feeling, and are they really charming one another, and what do they both want, but how is it still really truthful, and that was always the challenge.
I understand the book is written by a former CIA officer, and I presume there’s a lot of genuine spy craft and tradecraft in there. How much of that did you sacrifice to get to an emotional truthfulness?
Not a lot, I have to say. In general, other maybe than the use of some kind of satellite phones and things like that, the tradecraft that people employ today is pretty grounded. We tried to stay true to that, I’d say where we fudged the tradecraft of it is typically CIA officers don’t carry a gun, and we needed Nate to have a gun in the beginning. There’s very few guns in this entire movie, which is important to me, and important to the truth of this subject matter, we needed that.
The other thing is the first signal that Nate gets from his mole was some code over a phone, and they would never use a phone. That was just me in terms of storytelling trying to figure out how to sell the audience that he got code, and how to sell the audience that he knows where to go and what time. Typically what they would do is somebody might leave a little greasy spot of Vaseline under a hand rail in an apartment building or something, and the officer would just know, ‘Oh, there’s Vaseline there, I have to go to this park at eight o’clock’. That’s harder to tell, visually, in a movie, so we made a few fudges like that, but for the most part we tried to be as accurate as possible.
While we’re discussing visual storytelling, in the book, Dominkia has synaesthesia. Did you ever explore trying to portray that?
I think from the very beginning when I started working with the screenwriter we said we were going to throw the synaesthesia out the window, visually, purely because it would instantly change the tone of the movie. I think it would become a fantastical piece if suddenly we’re seeing colourful auras. I also thought fine for the book, but for me, even if I did want to do it visually it would have been too easy of a shortcut to know who’s good and who’s bad. We did make one nod to it, so there’s a scene with Nate and Dominika in bed, and she talks about when she was young, and sort of imagining colours getting painted over the audience when she did her first solo dance. The synaesthesia thing is something that Jen and I spoke about as something the character would have, and being able to be so good at reading people.
I’m curious about your relationship with Jennifer. You’ve worked with one another a lot now, is there a lot of input from her when developing the character?
No, y’know, it’s interesting. The weird thing is on the Hunger Games films she obviously knew – because I came in on the second movie and did three – but she knew the character. She’s also not big on rehearsal, she’s happy to do whatever I want to do, so I learned this on the first Hunger Games film, I brought her in, and she didn’t really want to rehearse, so I just talked. I talked about the script, and I talked about post traumatic stress, and I talked about how she’s feeling, and I gave her little tentpole moments to think about in terms of emotional value throughout the script, and we spent an hour or two or something doing that.
But she’s just really an instinctual actor, and likes to live in the moment on set, and lets me plant her where she needs to be planted, and then just goes, and that stays the same. I think what we spoke about the most on this movie is just the content in general, so once she signed on we started to communicate about that immediately, so neither of us were going to tip toe around it, ever. That we could be as frank as possible. But also so she and I together could be as vigilant as possible about making sure those moments were very specific to the narrative, to the tone, to the themes, to the character, because both of our goals were that we were not making an erotic thriller. None of it is meant to titillate. Somebody’s always titillated by something, the wind blows and somebody’s titillated, but the case was never to film a scene to be sexy, so we together communicated a lot about that.
It’s interesting you bring that up, because in many ways the film is about sex.
I think you think it is, and then it turns into something completely different, and that’s part of the fun for me. She gets drawn into that different world, and I think the genre trope of it would be that she’s going to get glammed up and sexed up, and lots of sexy lingerie and high heels, and all that, and she’ll be able to seduce people. Instead, because she uses her mind, she plays a whole, completely different angle, that the Sparrow thing becomes a lot more sophisticated for her than you would imagine.
You’ve hit a fortunate cultural zeitgeist with this movie.
I wouldn’t say it’s fortunate.
We started the movie thee years ago, and if you look at MeToo, and what’s in the news now, which is something that clearly needed to happen, and I think will be for good, I hope it will be for good, that was not in the news three years ago when we started, but unfortunately all the stuff that’s in the news now has been happening for far, far, far too long, so it’s something that stories are about, and our story happened to be about that, but the coincidence of that I wouldn’t say is fortunate, it’s just, it is. It’s the same with the political aspect, when we started this three years ago we specifically had conversations with the studio where we said, “This modern Cold War thing feels a little passé, nobody’s talking about Russia and America anymore, maybe we should do something to make it more relevant”, but we decided y’know what, we love these characters, we love the story, that’s relateable enough, it’s not a political movie, that’s a very sub, sub level of the story, and continued on. Then as we made it, clearly the election started to happen, and that stuff started to pop up on the news, and the we were all shocked at how topical it became.
Do you think you’d like to do a political movie at some stage?
I don’t know, it’s weird. I never… it’s a hard thing, when I think about projects, I don’t come off something and go, “I really want to make a sci-fi film next”, or “I really want to do a political thriller next”. It’s really coming across – I’m really fascinated, partly by world building, but also about the character and what the journey is.
The reason I ask, the Hunger Games films are rather political.
Well, they’re anti-war movies.
There’s something that struck me in the last couple of days, with the shooting in Florida [this interview took place a day or two after]. I don’t know whether you’ve seen the speech by Emma Gonzales, the girl who spoke at an anti-gun rally at the weekend. This is a 16 or 17 year old girl who has experienced trauma, calling out the president on TV. To me it felt very much like a scene that you had directed.
I’ll have to watch that. [To his publicist] Did you see it?
Publicist: Yeah, I cried.
It was very striking, and there are two things I’d like you to address. The first is how you relate to the culture beginning to resemble these films that you have directed, and the second is do you think that The Hunger Games in particular is in any way responsible for the level of political engagement we’re seeing in people in their teens and early twenties now.
Well I will say that I do think it has had an impact. I’m not positive that she’s thinking about The Hunger Games in any way, I’m not saying that at all, but I do think it’s had an impact.
I remember we were still shooting these movies and there were protests in Thailand where people who were protesting were using the salute, and suddenly they were getting arrested for it. It was a silent, peaceful thing that these people were doing, and they were getting arrested for it. So the way that the movie spread around the world, and the way young people gravitated toward it – and that comes from Suzanne Collins, and not pulling punches, and really writing about something – I think that connected in a big way.
And the first part, seeing the modern world and how it mirrors the stuff that I’ve done, a little bit like Red Sparrow and talking about how it connects to the world today, the unfortunate thing is Suzanne Collins based the structure of the world around the Romans. So these things have happened over and over and over again. So I don’t think what’s happening now is new in any way in terms of what’s going on at home, I just think it’s this unfortunate cycle where things change, and things reappear, and people like this show up. I’m just hoping it activates a whole new generation of people to be active, and be heard. That will be the best thing to come out of this, I think.
Francis Lawrence, thank you very much!
Red Sparrow is in UK cinemas at the end of the week.