The Badass Interview: Director Francis Lawrence On THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1

On the realities of war in MOCKINGJAY, Katniss' Jesus moment, and how his BREAKING BAD binge-watching influenced PART 1.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 picks right up from where Catching Fire left off, but it’s a different world from the first two films: it’s bleaker, for one, as Katniss finds herself thrust into District 13, where she’s ignited a rebellion against the Capitol and must continue that harrowing fight. Director Francis Lawrence returned to the director’s chair to helm the two-part finale, and although we’ve now lost the structure of the titular Hunger Games, the film hasn’t lost any of the action, excitement or what makes these films so compelling and massively appealing. I had a chance to sit down with Lawrence to discuss how he approached the grim and war-torn world of Mockingjay, the humanity of Katniss and deciding how and where the first part of Mockingjay should end.

One of the things I enjoy about Mockingjay is the contrast between this film and the first two, both visually, and in that we lose the structure of the actual Hunger Games…

Which is exciting!

It is! For me, too, because I’ve never read the books.

Oh you haven’t?!

No!

Oh it was exciting. I have to say, my worry about Catching Fire was that I was dealing with a very similar narrative structure to the first movie. So I thought it was very challenging actually to get through a structure that everyone’s sort of familiar with, and try and do it in a different way. So to be able to go into a new narrative structure was really exciting.

Without the structure of the games, you’re basically building a new structure for this film. What was the main focus for you while creating the world of Mockingjay?

There’s a few things. One is, I think the big dramatic question is: Are we gonna get Peeta back? So you’ve got that question going on. I think it’s also with Katniss, she wants Peeta back, but this is the story where she finally takes on the responsibility of being the symbol for the rebellion and starts to fight back. And it’s also, on a thematic level, this is the story that deals with the propaganda war, where we actually get to see the kind of war of the airwaves.

Speaking of which, you don’t really shy away from some of the realities of war in this film. When Katniss visits the hospital in District 8, we see bloody corpses and severely wounded people. We don’t see this in other similar Young Adult adaptations, which are typically bloodless.

No, and quite honestly one of the things that appealed to me about Suzanne Collins’ book series [is that] she wanted to write a series about the consequence of war, and she didn’t write to teenagers like they were children. I think she wrote a series of stories as if she were writing for adults and you have a young adult as the lead character, but the tone and the approach wasn’t really for kids and I think they appreciated that. I wasn’t going to back away from it. I think that’s part of what made them so appealing, and I think it’s also why it’s so appealing to adults as well and why it’s crossed over. So our approach is always to try and be as honest as we can. We’re in a fictional world, a science fiction world, and it’s very easy - it would have been very easy - to sort of pull back and kind of use the world and the stylized sense of it all to keep all the realities at arm’s length. But instead, with the actors and the locations we chose - every aspect of our approach in the filmmaking was to try and find the honest version of this. What would our characters be like if they had actually gone through these things, if they had seen things, if they were witnessing these things? What would that actually look like and feel like?

You mentioned the mass appeal, and I have friends who are grown men who are just as much into these films as I am or as a little girl who’s read all the books.

And I think that’s also part of it. I think if it was just about Katniss’ relationship with the boys, if it wasn’t about bigger, more relevant ideas, I think it wouldn’t connect the same way.

I think part of what makes these films in particular so successful, and part of why I love them so much is that it’s not a love story. It’s not a love triangle. Katniss is more concerned with saving lives, and romance is such a secondary or even third priority to her. She doesn’t need it.

Very, very secondary, and it’s never a priority. I mean, of course she cares about them, so in this she doesn’t want Peeta to rot in the Capitol, right? But it’s not just because she’s in love with Peeta and that she wants him back, you know, it’s a different thing. It’s about survival. I think it’s just one of the things that’s made her as a character and the story so great. It’s all so relatable for anybody. You can just kind of put yourself in her shoes and try and imagine how you would deal with these things. You have a little sister that was gonna get sent to the Games, and you got sent to the Games - how would you get through them? What would you do if suddenly you became this symbol of a revolution? She doesn’t want the responsibility. I don’t think any of us would want the responsibility of an entire revolution on our shoulders. It’s pretty heavy stuff.

Something that always moves me deeply, maybe because we don’t see enough of it in real life, is when you have a revolution like the one in Mockingjay, where people unite for a common cause against an oppressive force, regardless of their race or station in life. And when Katniss walks into the hospital in District 8 and they ask if she’s going to fight with them, it’s such a quiet, beautiful moment. 

One of the things I like about that sequence is, I think, and again, about Katniss, what makes her so believable and relatable is that she’s walking in and she doesn’t know what she’s gonna do. She feels like a fool. “I’m gonna walk in to see these people, they’re having a miserable time. They’re injured, they’re dying. What am I gonna do from here, just me?” And it’s the first time she realizes what she means to all these people. Before she sees that reaction, she has no idea that just her presence would make a difference.

Katniss kind of has a Jesus moment there. It’s almost Christlike.

It is! Yeah, I’d have to agree. But she’s so humble. She doesn’t believe that she’s going to be able to do anything for them.

Jennifer Lawrence plays that really well and her performance is so great, but I have to say that Julianne Moore is also wonderful. She always blows me away. Were you heavily involved in bringing her on board?

Yeah, definitely. She actually approached us. She was a fan of the books, her kids had read them, and she read them, and she really liked them, and we received a call saying that if the role of Coin was still open, she would love to talk to us about it. So I met with her and she had some really smart ideas. What was interesting is that it happened early enough that we were still working on the screenplays and Coin’s a huge character in the books, but there’s not a lot of time that Katniss spends with her in the books. Part of our adaptation process, we had to add more Coin. We knew we had to have some scenes with Coin and Plutarch, and we had to create the first meeting between Katniss and Coin, and things that just aren’t in the book. There was some real development that needed to take place, so we were actually able to incorporate some of Julianne’s ideas into the development of the character as well.

I see her in this and then I have to remind myself that this is the same actress from something like Safe or Magnolia. She’s just so versatile and immensely talented.

She’s great. I’m really excited to see her new movie, Still Alice, which is really interesting because she shot with us for months and months and months, and then she had a break. And then she wasn’t going to be with us until we were in Paris, and then she went on the break and she goes and she shoots this movie, and she comes back and she’s playing [Coin] again, and so it’s just incredible that she went off and did this other movie.

So speaking of changes between the books and the film, I had overheard you saying that Effie wasn’t initially a big part of the Mockingjay story - is that right?

Correct, she’s not really a part of the book. She makes an appearance at the end of the book in Mockingjay, which is surprising. Yeah, I see your reaction!

I had no idea! That’s crazy to me. I can’t imagine this without Effie.

Yeah, and Plutarch, in the book, had a new assistant that’s introduced in [District] 13 named Fulvia. And then Katniss at a point in the book also discovers that her prep team, who we’ve met briefly in other movies, were being kept in prison in District 13, and she uses them. The truth is that because over the course of the movies the person that’s been around her that we’ve connected to a lot because of Elizabeth [Banks]’ great performance, has been Effie. She’s just become so much an iconic character. It just felt like a mistake. A giant mistake to not incorporate Effie into the story, to have to spend time introducing a new character for this last chapter when you can actually have somebody we have history with stick with the story. And also she’s so great, fish out of water in District 13, to see how she’s gonna deal with it. So I’m really, really happy. It took a little convincing with Suzanne [Collins], but as soon as Suzanne saw Liz’s performance in Catching Fire, she was totally on board.

It’s become pretty common to split the final chapter of a franchise film into two parts, but how did you decide where to end Part 1? It’s a really strong, kind of ballsy ending. It’s nuts. And it’s not the kind of ending I would expect in such a mainstream, blockbuster film. I loved it.

The decision to split the movies happened before I came on for both sequels, so I was asked to do the sequels and stay on while we were still prepping Catching Fire, and so that decision was earlier - and partly because Suzanne knew that there were these two distinct stories, right? And so if you think about this first one, it’s like, will we get Peeta back? It gives you a general sense, without saying any spoilers, where the ending of the movie’s gonna be. Then, in thinking about exactly where it’s gonna end, Nina [Jacobson] and I - Nina’s the producer - were Breaking Bad binge-watchers. We were really obsessed in the making of these movies with watching Breaking Bad, and Breaking Bad was always pretty ballsy with their endings, and there were a few episodes specifically that had pretty amazing endings. And so we kept thinking, god, how did Breaking Bad end? And I think we’re kind of in that zone, which is sort of fun. The thing I want to be careful about is that with Breaking Bad you only had to wait a week before the next episode, whereas with this you have to wait a year.

That’s not too bad.

It’s like waiting for a new season.

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