As the final instalment of the Hunger Games franchise hits cinemas, director Francis Lawrence tells Ed Power why quality was as important for him as success
FRANCIS Lawrence responds more sharply than I had expected when I casually bring up his first film, the Keanu Reeves mega-flop Constantine. I’d wondered aloud whether he brought anything from the experience of overseeing that dour comic book adaptation to the three movies he has directed in the Hunger Games franchise, the last of which, Mockingjay Part 2, opens on Thursday.
“Constantine was my first movie but also my first foray into the world of the fanboy zone,” he says. “I was hired after Keanu. The biggest criticism we got was not having a blond Englishman be Constantine. And also because Keanu is not known for the sarcastic sense of humor that John Constantine has. There was nothing to do at that point — Keanu was one of the people hiring me. I embraced it.”
In other words, the lumps he took on Constantine didn’t really impact on the Hunger Games films. While both properties have a vast pre-existing fan-base, the difference was that with the Hunger Games he carte blanche to apply his own artistic vision. It was, in fact, a condition of his taking the job (the first entry in the four-part saga having already been directed by Gary Ross).
“The big question for me was, ‘Can I put my voice in the story?’,” says 44-year-old Lawrence. “I told them that if there were too many parameters I wasn’t going to do it — it wouldn’t have been that interesting. We went into the meeting and I told them how I was going to make the movie. I have a different way of shooting, different way of thinking.”
Adapted from Suzanne Collin’s best-selling Young Adult trilogy (extended to a quartet for the screen), the Hunger Games and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2, are box office juggernauts, cumulatively earning $2.3 billion to date and making a star of Jennifer Lawrence — perfectly cast as plucky heroine Katniss Everdeen.
What’s impressive is that the movies have achieved success — and enormous profitability — while delivering surprisingly grown-up drama. There’s no gore or gratuitousness, yet the films are nonetheless enormously tense, their portrayal of an underclass of scrappy youngsters living under the thumbs of an aged ruling elite resonating in an age of mass youth unemployment.
The Hunger Games and its follow-ups also feature a top-rank supporting cast, including Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who passed away shortly after principal photography on Mockingjay Part 2.
“That was a very difficult emotional arc for me,”says Lawrence (who is not related to Jennifer Lawrence). “Right after he died, I found it hard to look at the footage, to work on his scenes. Over the course of a year you become desensitized. Now, it’s like anybody else – you are looking at the character, thinking about the theme.
“It’s almost two years [since Hoffman’s death], and it makes me happy when he pops up in the movie. I remember my time with him, what I learned from him.”
With their huge pre-existing following, it might be argued that the Hunger Games movies are a can’t-fail franchise. But if they are destined to make a fortune, regardless of quality, how does Lawrence push himself to create the best entertainment he can?
“You feel you have a degree of protection,” he nods. “That said, with Mockingjay — Part 1, I knew it was going to be tougher tonally. It’s more political — it was risky. And it didn’t do as well. We made $20 or $30 million less on the opening weekend. It’s still a huge weekend when you open for $120m dollars. But that wasn’t the headline. It sucks. You never want that. So you want the movies to be as good they can be. That’s all you can hope for.’
The first Hunger Games novel was published in 2008 and became an immediate best-seller. Following a group of teenagers as they are forced to participate in a televised battle to the death in a post-Apocalyptic future America, it featured a strong female character in Katniss and a gritty dystopian setting.
Some critics saw parallels between the novel and the 1999 Japanese movie Battle Royale (as well as the old Arnold Schwarzenegger romp The Running Man). Collins, for her part, cited as inspiration an evening spent channel surfing in which she found herself flicking between a reality show and coverage of the Iraq War. The two, she recalled, “began to blur in a very unsettling way”.
The popularity of the Hunger Games saga is paralleled by the real-world rise of Jennifer Lawrence to the first tier of Hollywood. She was more or less unheard of when edging out the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Emma Roberts and some 30 other actresses to win the part. The rangy 25-year -old has gone on to make the part her own and parlay it into old fashioned stardom.
“It’s simply her talent,” says the Francis Lawrence. “She has a naturalism and a soul that is wise beyond her years. There’s a gravity to her. She has that strange combination of things — a kind of magic. And that is what she brought to Katniss.”
To reduce overheads, Mockingjay parts one and two were filmed together. On balance, this made the director’s job more complicated as it necessitated keeping a huge number of plates spinning simultaneously.
“It’s more complicated because it’s more movie. You are dealing with four, four-and-a-half hours instead of two hours. That means there is a lot more to do — it’s all one big story. On the other hand, it helps the movie — everyone involved is not going to be going off doing other movies in between. It really is useful with the continuity. “
The director was born in Vienna to American parents and raised in Los Angeles. He had his first break directing music videos, for Jay Z, Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and others. He wonders whether the themes he explores in the Hunger Games movies were already bubbling beneath the surface in his pop days.
“It’s never been a conscious thing — but somehow I’m drawn to isolated lonely characters. I can’t explain it. With music, I started doing hip hop and rap videos and was soon leaning towards solo female artists. I’ve always connected — it maybe why I’ve connected to Suzanne the author and the character of Katniss.”
Having finally completed his three Hunter Game epics, Lawrence feels a mixture of relief and exhaustion. He’s thrilled the movies are in the can. Yet he will miss the sense of comradeship among cast and crew.
“The weight’s not going to be fully lifted until I see the reaction of the public. It’s getting close. Knowing there’s nothing else I can do is going to be a relief.”
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay —Part 2 is released Thursday
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