This interview contains some spoilers for Mockingjay Part 2, though we’ve tried to keep them to a minimum. That said, you may prefer to read this after you’ve seen the film/read the book.
Even the most devoted fans can’t say they’ve spent quite as much time thinking about The Hunger Games as director Francis Lawrence has. After taking over the franchise from Gary Ross, he’s directed Catching Fire, Mockingjay Part 1 and Mockingjay Part 2, with each movie released just one year after the last. It’s a massive undertaking, but it’s all about to reach its climax as the final movie hits cinemas and he’s free to take a break.
Although before he can get there, there’s one last hurdle to jump: the dreaded press junkets. We caught up with a slightly under-the-weather Lawrence the day after the London premiere. Sitting in a posh hotel in London, he told us he had a cold, but a few germs aren’t enough to put us off, so here’s what we talked about:
Congrats on the movie, first of all! I saw it yesterday, and it’s great. How does it feel to have it all out there?
Thank you! Well, it’s not entirely out there yet. I’ll feel better once it’s out there out there. I’m always a little anxious at this time.
To see what the reaction’s going to be? It’s been pretty good so far.
So far, yeah!
It must have been quite intimidating to take on a franchise like this, way back with Catching Fire. How did you approach that?
It was exciting, you know? When I signed on, I had only signed on to do Catching Fire, so I thought I was doing a movie…
Little did you know!
Yeah, little did I know! I loved the book, I loved the people, and I instantly got together with Suzanne [Collins] and Nina [Jacobson] and we started working on the script with a great writer. I knew it was going to be complicated, but it seemed do-able, and part of the fun is the challenge.
Where it got really challenging was a few months into the prep for Catching Fire. I was asked to stay on for the next two, and I agreed. We decided to do them back to back for the right kind of release schedule, and then we had to be prepping them while we were finishing Catching Fire, and that overlap is where it became really challenging. It’s been a pretty intense three and a half years.
Was there anything in particular where you thought ‘We have to get this right, we have to make sure we nail this’? In Mockingjay Part 2, or in any of the movies, really?
The one thing that sticks out for me in Mockingjay 2 is the voting scene that’s near the end of the film. That was a very important moment. It’s a big moment for Katniss; it’s a big piece in the puzzle to make things clear for her, but it’s where a lot of the history of the characters, their journeys, their dynamic all comes into play and it has to lock together in a very certain way. So that, for me, was a scene that’s really important.
Yeah – well, I mean, why does she vote yes?
Why do you think?
I don’t know. I always wondered that in the book.
I actually like that you can make a choice. I thought differently than the author, and the choices that we made with the actors leans towards the author’s direction, although you can still read it the other way as well. I originally thought that she had had enough and was angry enough that she was just fine getting vengeance. And I thought that was really interesting because it’s a very flawed view of a person, to go through all that and then to say yes. But I understood how one could be angry enough, right?
The other version is that it’s a long-con. Do you think if she’d voted no, she would be allowed to go out there with the bow and arrow and kill Snow? If you look at the movie, there’s a real look, when she looks over at Haymitch, and they decide. And the look is not the ‘I’m voting for vengeance’ look. It’s ‘I’m up to something’ look.
The other scene that I was really invested in was [spoiler]’s death. During that whole scene, where he’s fighting the mutts, there was a little bit of me that thought “Maybe they’ll change it. Maybe he won’t die.”
Were you ever tempted to change it?
No! Aww, so he was always dead.
I didn’t want to change any of that. It’s part of the story, and part of the appeal is that there’s a lot of loss in them and a lot of damage done, so no, we never wanted to save [spoiler].
But one of the fun things is keeping people guessing. There’s enough people hoping we might save [spoiler], and there’s enough people wondering what’s going to be in the epilogue, so you can even keep the fans who’ve read the books over and over again kind of guessing as to what could happen.
I liked that you gave him a bit more of a hero moment before he died, he gets a bit more than he does in the book.
We definitely choreographed that so he had a big save before it happened.
And then the other major character death – that’s more of a question of, you know, can you get away with this in a film? Is it too dark?
A lot of people think it’s too dark for a book. But again we wanted to make the book and thematically it’s very, very important.
It would’ve been a very different ending if that hadn’t happened.
For everybody, yeah. The movie would not play out the way it does if that event didn’t happen.
What was the most fun thing to shoot?
I think the most fun we had was when we moved to Paris. A real second wind kicked in for us, to get out of Atlanta where it had been so cold, and we’d had the loss of Phil [Seymour Hoffman]. Our time there was tainted by the weather and by that, so to move to Paris and it was spring and beautiful and the food’s incredible and we were shooting at this chateau an hour outside of Paris on two hundred acres, that stretch was really good. We did a bunch of stuff with Donald [Sutherland] there and stuff with Jen [Lawrence] coming to his palace after the war ends, and all that kind of stuff.
This is a sensitive question, I know, but how much did the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman affect you guys?
It affected a lot. It affected us emotionally, big time, and it was something we never really got over. It helped to move to Europe. Logistically, he had finished most of his work.
He’s in the film quite a lot.
Yeah, a fair amount. I would’ve made him a bigger presence if he had still been around. The scene with Woody [Harrelson] bringing Jen the letter at the end was supposed to be Phil, and so we had to make those kinds of changes. He would’ve been a bigger presence at the execution and the scene after the execution…
There would’ve been more of him.
Your whole cast is pretty incredible. I know you had a lot of the major ones already in place when you came on board, like Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson, but who are you most proud to have brought in in the later movies?
I love all of them! In Catching Fire we brought in people who are still around, Sam [Claflin] and Jena [Malone] and Jeffrey [Wright], and Lynn Cohen, who played Mags, was great. Amanda Plummer I was a huge fan of, and then obviously Phil, of course, who joined in Catching Fire. Julianne [Moore] was big for us; Natalie Dormer was great; Gwendoline Christie, even though she only worked for about two days with us, she was great. Mahershala [Ali] is also amazing…
And you could go on. There are so many amazing people in these movies.
Yeah, the cast is just insane.
I particularly love Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, she’s just brilliant.
Yeah, you know, originally, I wanted Johanna to be black or Hispanic. We were looking and looking and looking, and some Caucasian girls would come in too, but I just hadn’t found anybody who was believable, who you felt was strong and genuinely angry and a little unhinged.
I don’t know what was going on, I think she was in a bad mood, but Jena came in and she was so intimidating. I was scared of her. Her eyes were red and she was pacing around and she looked like she was pissed off, and her read was so great. All the others girls who’d come in were just acting bitchy, and you can tell the difference between someone who’s really angry and someone who’s just sort of acting bitchy. She just killed the audition. I ran back and showed Nina and Jon [Kilik] and Bryan [Unkeless], the other producer, and everybody. And Jena was it.
It is a very bleak and angry story in a lot of ways. Did you feel that atmosphere on set?
There were times. The sewers were really a miserable time, it was a really hard stretch of shoot, but even then there was some joking and some fun. They’re a great group of people and they all like to have fun and they all like to do their jobs, and they’re all pros, and they all have fun together and love one another so for the most part it’s actually not bleak at all. They’re also a group of people who can turn it on and off, especially Jen.
Jen is like, on/off. No matter how intense and dramatic the moment is, there’s no recovery time or building into it. She can be telling fart jokes and you call “action!” and she’s in and doing that scene with the cat. And you call “cut!” and she’s out of it and talking about lunch.
Was it tricky to balance the tone of the movies, when you’ve got those dark and intense scenes, but you know that kids are going to be watching this?
I mean I think we underestimate kids sometimes…
Yeah, I think we do too. I think that’s why the books were so popular. Suzanne didn’t get scared in the telling of the story for kids. I think she respected kids and they respected her for it, and I think it’s also why the books crossed over to the adult world. And we have to do the same with movies.
We had to find a way to make them as unflinching as the books but without getting so gory and so graphic that we would get the R rating or the 18 rating that alienates the kids who are the targets for the books. I think this is important for kids. This isn’t glorifying violence, at all.
It’s actually the opposite.
Okay, so what’s next for you now?
Nice long break?
No, not a long break, a little break!
I don’t exactly know which of my things will be next, I’m developing a few things and we’ll see what pops. Hopefully something in the New Year. I’m developing The Odyssey with Lionsgate, and I’m developing two things, hopefully, for Jen. There’s one story in 14th century France about the last judicial duel. There’s one about free divers… And another one about a Russian spy. So completely different genres and types of stories.
Finally, we ask everyone this, so – what’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?
Jason Statham! I’ve never seen a Transporter movie. I’m trying to think… Oh, you know what, Spy! I liked him in Spy. Spy was great because he was really funny in that, so I’ll say Spy.
Perfect, thank you very much!
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is released in the UK on 19th November.
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