Hunger Games Director Francis Lawrence Feels ‘Really Lucky’

The director of the last three Hunger Games films talks about the dark yet hopeful Mockingjay, Part 2.

Francis Lawrence has directed three of the four Hunger Games movies, including the concluding chapter, Mockingjay, Part 2, which arrives on screens this Friday. After taking over the series from Gary Ross (who helmed the first film), Lawrence has proven to be a steady and strong hand at the wheel.

As the movies have turned darker, he hasn’t shied away from its more grim narrative turns nor as he lessened the impact of some of the story’s more emotionally traumatic moments. He’s also guided his young stars — like the blazing Jennifer Lawrence and leading man Liam Hemsworth — through their characters’ turbulent arcs even as their own lives have become the focus of celebrity media.

All of those elements are eerily present in Mockingjay, Part 2, which finds Katniss Everdeen complete her transformation from symbolic figure to full-fledged revolutionary leader as she and the other rebels attack the capital in a last-ditch attempt to overthrow President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Mockingjay, Part 2 concludes The Hunger Games saga with a story about war and its costs, and Francis Lawrence spoke about that and more when Den Of Geek sat down with him exclusively in Los Angeles recently.

Den Of Geek: What has this meant to you personally and professionally to guide this franchise along to the finish line?

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Francis Lawrence: Wow. I don’t know. I feel really lucky, I have to say, that things kind of ended up the way they did, the fact that Gary didn’t want to continue on and that they wanted to meet with me, and that my approach kind of married up to what they wanted to do, and that the material is so great, and so fun to work with, and so popular, and that the gang of people involved — actors, studio, everybody’s been fantastic.

It’s been an amazing three years. You can’t ask for any better. So to be able to play as a filmmaker in this world and work with amazing people like this, to make three movies, it’s been great.

There’s this idea that these franchises are not necessarily director’s films because there is the author of the original material, there are the producers, there are so many people involved and so much money on the line and all that. People look at the Marvel movies that way, for example. Do you feel like you had that opportunity to drive these and own them in a way as a filmmaker?

Absolutely. Quite honestly, I don’t think I would do a Marvel movie. I’m not an expert in the way the Marvel movies work, but I don’t think that I would. Although, I do think that James Gunn, his voice sort of pokes through with his movie, maybe more than some other people. That movie had a voice. But (Lionsgate) met with me. They wanted to know what my approach would be.

I laid it out: “This is the way that I would make the movies.” And they went, “OK. Great.” I was not coming in and doing what they wanted. I was coming in and they luckily agreed with what I wanted to do.

It was the same (with the cast). I laid it out for all the actors. They were all cool with it. So everybody was game. So it was really great. And I had a great collaborator with Nina (Jacobson), the producer. She’s very smart. We developed all three scripts together with the writers and Suzanne (Collins, author of the books). Suzanne was another great collaborator. But yeah, I never for a second felt kind of controlled by anybody.

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You said this movie was going to be the war film. And it really is a war film. Did you have inspirations in in terms of older or classic war films?

No. I mean I can’t say…on Catching Fire there were definitely times where the cinematographer and I would watch Vietnam films: watch Apocalypse Now, watch Platoon and look at the films that are set in jungles. We didn’t do that for this. I won’t say that some of the scenes or sequences aren’t somehow influenced by war films that I’ve seen before and whether it’s in a newsreel or filmmakers’ stories. But there was nothing specific that we looked at for these movies.

I love some of the architecture you found for the capital. It looks so totalitarian and sort of oppressive, but also beautiful in a way. Was it hard to find the right balance of what you wanted for that?

No. When I signed on and went and did Catching Fire, the majority of it was done in Atlanta for rebate reasons. Luckily, that worked because there’s forest. There’s old rail stations and factories and lots of stuff we can use and sound stages. For the tropical stuff we went to Hawaii.

So for this we knew, “OK. We’re going back to Atlanta. But there’s no way we’re going to be able to find large, immersive environments that will feel like the capital. So we know we’re going to have to move to find those environments.” So we did a search around the world for what would be the best and most immersive, large-scale environments that had that kind of brutalist, classical mixed architecture. And our production designer found a few spots in Paris and a few spots in Berlin. And there was sort of enough in both places that that kind of landed us there.

There was an old 18th Century chateau that we knew we could use for President Snow’s mansion, to sort of expand on that. So we did that. We found a place just about 10 kilometers east of Paris that we used for the oil sequence. There were apartment complexes in the suburbs of Paris. And then, in Berlin we knew, “OK, we can use Tempelhof for the outskirts of the capital and for District 2,” which is the old airport that was built in the ‘30s. A certain place that we could use for the other outskirts of the capital and the subway tunnels. So we just found lots of things we could use to sort of help grow out the world.

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The movie has its own look that’s different from the other films in the series…

Yeah, it does. But that’s part of the fun of the world building, is you get to go into the capital and now see different things. It’s also great to try and find real places. So that place where the oil spills out, that’s a real place, an apartment building. It’s incredible large and imposing and kind of beautiful at the same time. I’ve just never seen anything like that, which is really exciting.

You’ve had the chance, with Jennifer, to work with someone who is becoming one of our great movie stars. How has she grown over the course of these films in her working methods, her development as an actress and her ability to keep her head on straight?

She’s definitely kept her head. God, it’s hard to say. She just sort of feels like the same Jen to me. I think most of her growth has been in her normal life and learning how to cope with the craziness around her. I’d say that’s where most of the change has taken place.

I mean to me she’s the same old Jen — you know, down to earth, easy going, funny, silly, super talented. She doesn’t have much obvious craft in her work, which is part of what’s sort of surprising and amazing. It’s kind of instinctual and from the gut. It’s very immediate. That was the same when I first started and when we last wrapped. So I think, yeah, probably most of the change that I’ve seen has been how she deals with the craziness of her life.

Was there any actor in the films who surprised you in terms of — not giving a great performance, because obviously everybody worked hard — but in terms of maybe taking what was on the page and doing something different with it than what you expected?

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Oh, Jen always surprised me. She would always surprise me. When somebody is really good you expect a lot from them, but she was surprising every day, which was kind of the fun thing to watch. I mean it’s such a good cast. Everybody was always surprising. Donald was always so great. Jena Malone was fantastic and always kind of fun and exciting to watch. There’s some people that are just exciting to watch. It was just filled with great actors.

You are also the custodian of the last film we’re going to see with Philip Seymour Hoffman in it. Can you talk about knowing that this is the last time we’re going to see him onscreen, and also what you had to do to make sure that his character got his due in the picture?

I think the movie works in terms of his character. It’s not in its most ideal form in terms of dealing with his character. But, you know, our hands are a bit tied in that situation. He had two major scenes left to shoot, one for each of the Mockingjay movies, and a handful of scenes that he would appear in. How you measure how different the movie would be had he been around, I mean, it would have been different.

There’s the scene with the letter that Haymitch brings at the end. That was supposed to be Phil with Katniss. He was supposed to really be at the execution and at the wedding. We had to take old footage and put him in there. Again, it’s real footage. We’re not manipulating it, but we’re just using it somewhere else.

It’s hard to say. And it’s weird knowing it’s the last film because there’s somehow a pressure on it that you’re like, “There’s only so much I can do,” when you don’t have what you wanted to get.

What’s next for you, a long break or do you have some other things lined up?

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Ideally not a long break. I’m developing a few things. I’m working on an adaptation that Nina and I are working on, The Odyssey for Lionsgate. We’re trying to crack that. There’s a few things I’m developing that could happen with Jen, which are exciting. You know, just a few things. But I don’t really know what’s going to land next yet.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is in theaters this Friday (November 20).