The Difficult Sensuality of Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow director Francis Lawrence talks about the spy drama, and his trust with Jennifer Lawrence for her most overtly sexual role.

Director Francis Lawrence drove to Jennifer Lawrence’s home about an hour after she finished reading the script for Red Sparrow. She had already called up her frequent collaborator (of no relation) and told him she was interested in playing the lead part of Dominika Egorova. Still, Francis wanted to immediately get to work breaking down the film, as it would be a picture distinct from anything Jennifer had done before, including in aspects she told Francis years earlier that she had no desire to explore on screen: such as the character’s visceral use of sexuality, and the nudity that comes with that. Which several films later turned out to be unavoidable in a story about a Russian spy forced to use her body to keep the state’s secrets.

“I [went over] so that we could start a series of really frank conversations about the content of the movie… about the violence or sexuality, or nudity, and things like that,” Francis Lawrence says during a phone interview with Den of Geek. “I wanted her to be a partner in that, so that we’re both super-vigilant in how we approach those scenes. Also just to start talking to her about what it’s going to be like on the day, because shooting stuff like that is very different from what the outcome will be.”

This was just the first of an ongoing conversation that continued all the way into post-production, as Jennifer Lawrence was screened an edit of Red Sparrow before even the film’s producers or studio 20th Century Fox had laid eyes on a complete cut; and she had the veto power to remove anything that made her uncomfortable. But she never needed to since, after four films together, the trust she places in her director remains strong.

Of course Red Sparrow is a very different movie for both of them. As a filmmaker known for his precise visuals, as well as his as the quick edits around them, Francis Lawrence came into feature filmmaking after a major career in music videos. Having spearheaded visual extravaganzas like Constantine and I Am Legend, likely his three most popular films remain the Hunger Games sequels, in which he helped direct Jennifer in the role that turned her into a global icon. Yet with Red Sparrow, they both have reached for something a little more nuanced than a Young Adult novel trilogy, and a little more sophisticated than what audiences have come to expect from on screen spy games.

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I wanted this one to be much more formal,” Francis says. “I wanted to stay wider; I wanted to see all locations; I didn’t want to use a lot of visual effects; I didn’t want to use a lot of guns.” He wanted to make a spy film that remembered the dramatic paranoia of the Cold War, as opposed to the action and gunplay that has come to glamorize it.

During our conversation, he talks about the ways he and Jennifer carefully left comfort zones, and how he pushed himself in an attempt to evoke the grandeur of the Bolshoi, as much as the grimness of an East versus West dichotomy that never went away. He even confides there were conversations during pre-production on whether a movie about Russian spies was even “relevant” today. A year later when cameras finally rolled, the 2016 U.S. election had just concluded. We discuss that too.

I know you originally read the book before you committed to adapting Red Sparrow to film. Were you looking for ideas for a film or did this specific story just stick out to you?

Francis Lawrence: No. I mean, it just sort of planted on my desk as something that people suggest that I read, so Fox sent it to me. I wasn’t looking to do a spy film, specifically. It was just recommended. So I read it and really liked it, specifically the story of Dominika and kind of jumped in from there. It just felt like something that I connected to, kind of like a unique way into the spy genre.

What were you looking for in a new project? I know you just got off a franchise and this was certainly a change of place. Were you looking for something a little more measured or adult?

I was looking for something different, that’s for sure. So I read this book while I was finishing the last Hunger Games movies, and so it was a little up in the air [at the time] and I was just starting to process of what could come up next and started to read things again. I knew I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t really have anything specific in mind and then when this came across my desk, like I said, I sort of fell in love with her story.

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And it just, I found it very unique for the spy genre to adapt. Most are sort of political or kind of action and tech-based, and I found this much more human. I also find reluctant heroes very appealing, and she certainly is a reluctant hero. I found her to be a very unlikely hero, just because she has a bit of violence sort of in her, even as a civilian, but [then] she’s pulled into this world. I just thought it would make for an interesting character and an interesting journey for the film.

Did you immediately think of Jennifer for the role of Dominika?

Yeah, I did. Obviously I’ve been working with her pretty much straight for four years. She and I get along, I think she’s a great actress and she was the right age. I thought it would be something that would interest her, so I sort of very briefly pitched it to her. I just said, ‘Hey, hypothetically, would you be interested in doing something like this?’ And she said yes. We started to develop it with her in mind.

I know you’ve commented on this before regarding Jen, but in general what is the sort of je ne sais quoi for someone to “look Russian?”

Wow, to look Russian. I don’t know, I mean I think part of it was just having, once I was getting into the world, thinking about people and casting people, and all of that. You sort of start to do research and look at faces and the shape of faces, and the shape of eyes, things like that. I just thought that there was something about her face and the shape of her eyes where she could look Eastern European, I would say.

This is an interesting part for Jennifer. It’s a lot more provocative and sensual than audiences are used to seeing her. What were your conversations about that, and did your history over doing three films impact her comfort with trying a role like this with you?

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Yeah, I definitely think the relationship helped. I was honestly in the development of the screenplay when I started to get nervous that she wasn’t going to want to do it. Because earlier on when we first started The Hunger Games movies, I can remember her saying that she actually wasn’t that interested in doing anything with nudity or sexuality. So I thought, ‘Okay when she reads the script, it’s going to scare her away.’

So we kept having conversations about it, but I gave her the script and I really wanted her to just read the script and not even read the book, because I wanted her to decide whether or not she was going to do it based on what I wanted to do. And so I gave her the script, and she thought about it and she said that she wanted to to do it. I said, ‘Okay, great. I’m going to come over to your house.’ So I drove over, I suppose about an hour after she said she wanted to do it, so that we could start a series of really frank conversations about the content of the movie; about what the approach would be to the content of the movie; about the violence or sexuality, or nudity, and things like that—I wanted her to be a partner in that so that we’re both super-vigilant in how we approach those scenes. Also just to start talking to her about what it’s going to be like on the day, because shooting stuff like that is very different from what the outcome will be, right? Because it may be a few moments on screen, but you end up having to do something all day.

We started those conversations very early, so that we were comfortable talking about it, and sort of continued on all the way through the shoot, just making sure that we were always sort of in alignment in terms of approach on all of those scenes. One of the other things that I did too was I promised her that I would show her the film before I showed anybody else, including the producers and the studio. So she had the right to kind of nix anything she didn’t like or wasn’t comfortable with, even if she’d changed her mind or something. Even the dailies of those scenes were only sent to me and to the editor. So the studio and the producers never even saw dailies from scenes of that kind of content until she approved.

What did Jen think when she first saw the early edit?

She loved it. Yeah, she didn’t have any—it was a longer version of the movie, about two hours and 35 minutes when she saw it. So I was getting ready to show people, but I wanted to show her first.

She loved it; she didn’t have me pull anything out. I made my own trims. There was something in there that we had shot that I pulled out eventually within a few weeks of that. But she didn’t have me pull anything out.

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This seems to be a very conscious choice for both of you to have a very stoic, patient quality that’s then punctuated by visceral violence or sexuality. For you is it about shocking the audience or maybe subverting what audiences have come to expect and imagine from spy stories?

Certainly. I think this is the most specific genre movie that I’ve done. Everything else is a bit more of a mash-up, and I think that it’s easier to create unique stories when you’re in this mash-up world. But when you’re in a genre that’s pretty well-worn, I think you have to do something that feels unique. The story was one of the unique aspects, and we talked about that already. I thought the tone also came at me from the book, which is what you’re talking about, and also sort of hit me.

It’s partly something that was driven by the book and what I felt when I read the book, but I also would say just coming off of doing three YA, PG-13 movies, I wanted to approach something in a completely different way. So just in terms of reaction to my own filmmaking, I started to feel like things were really energetic, things were really fast, I was staying too close, too long on people and shooting lots of close-ups and lots of action. A lot of it was handheld, so it’s more of a naturalistic feel.

I wanted this one to be much more formal; I wanted to stay wider; I wanted to see all locations; I didn’t want to use a lot of visual effects; I didn’t want to use a lot of guns; and there’s also not a lot of action, and I still feel that when you don’t have a lot of action, if it’s not an action movie, a movie still needs dynamics. So, for me, the dynamics of the movie come from moments of violence, moments of intrigue, moments of some of the sort of shocking sexuality or nudity. That’s what creates the dynamics of the movie for me.

Could you talk about shooting in Russia and highlighting the sterility of the Communist era on the one hand and the obscene opulence of the Bolshoi on the other?

We did not shoot in Moscow, actually. We shot primarily in Budapest, a little in Bratislava, which is in Slovakia, some in Vienna and London. But we made a decision very early on that we could find everything we needed in Budapest, and basically use Budapest and Bratislava to cheat more, to cheat for Moscow. There’s a little bit of digital expansion in the film, but we could find everything we needed location-wise there.

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But one of the things, I worked with the production designer Maria Djurkovic, and she and I did a ton of research, looking at tons of photos of Moscow and Russia, sort of discovered the color palate, discovered different kinds of architecture that we wanted to explore. I was sort of interested in showing numerous facets of Russian architecture and sort a Russian aesthetic.

One thing was I that wanted to use color, and I’m really sort of pleased with the color, as opposed to what I think a lot of people might think one would do, [using a] sort of blue/gray look, with a story like this all the time. The other thing was I liked that kind of classic, old, opulent Bolshoi look. I wanted to see sort of the socialist architecture, the brutalist architecture, some of the slightly more modern structures, so that you got different kinds of facets, so we just weren’t focused on the super-socialist look.

It wasn’t just Ninotchka. I suppose this was in development for more than the last year or so, but did you feel like you were inadvertently tapping into the zeitgeist with the Cold War in a modern context of East versus West? And to add on to that, what was the reaction like on set as the headlines kept coming in?

When we first started this project, we never intended for it to feel like a political movie in any way. To us that sort of Cold War aspect of it was a sub-layer. It was much more about the people, but we did have conversations about whether that element felt irrelevant. That people would think that it was kind of passé. But it was buried deep enough in the story for us that at least we thought, okay, we’ll just keep going forward. So then we were in pre-production and obviously the news started to come out during the election. And it just got odd that suddenly something that felt really irrelevant felt really topical.

But again, we’re not making a political movie by any means. I think people like to think we’re saying that Russians are the bad guys, but the hero of our story is Russian.

So, very, very interesting and very interesting, obviously, that it’s still in the news two years later almost.

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It is the first of a trilogy. We’d love to tell more of these stories, we enjoyed making the movie. But you know, fingers crossed, we’ve got to see. Hopefully people go to the movie theater.