It’s hard to get a read on where people stand on The Hunger Games these days. Obviously, a decade ago these books and movies were a sensation. So it’s interesting, kind of out of nowhere, here comes a standalone prequel. This isn’t the start of a new trilogy (but, to be fair, that probably isn’t out of the question) that serves as a standalone film whether you’ve seen the other movies or not. And honestly, it’s really good.
Talking to director Francis Lawrence, who has directed all but one Hunger Games movie, he still seems haunted by the decision to split Mockingjay into two movies. Which was an option for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, but Lawrence made it clear he wanted to make this one complete movie. Granted, it is a long movie, but the greatest twist of all is you will leave the theater satisfied you saw a complete story, which does feel particularly rare these days when discussing franchises.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes takes place 60-some years before the events of The Hunger Games. We meet young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) who certainly isn’t evil yet but knows he might, sometimes, have to make compromises to survive. Unlike his peers, he comes from nothing, and he knows at any moment he can return to nothing. The Hunger Games themselves are in their infancy, a very low-rent version compared to what we see in the prior movies. During the events of this film is when it’s decided every participant will have a mentor, with the winning mentor receiving a fortune. And the mentor’s job is to boost ratings by bringing out the personality in each participant. And young Coriolanus is assigned to District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), whose singing voice instantly makes her a star. Coriolanus develops an affection for Lucy Gray, but as Peter Dinklage’s as Casca Highbottom (who hates Coriolanus) often points out, is he doing all this for her or the fortune and glory? What makes the movie interesting is, even as a viewer, it’s difficult to tell.
Ahead, Francis Lawrence tells us why he wanted to return to The Hunger Games.
You’ve said recently you regret splitting up Mockingjay into two parts. Was that actually your decision?
No, honestly, that decision had been made prior to me signing on to do the sequel. So that was done before I was even on. I came on to do Catching Fire. They had this kind of crazy plan. I mean, it was good, but a crazy plan of Catching Fire was going to come out in November 2013, Mockingjay one in November 2014, and Mockingjay two in November 2015. So they sort of had that plan in play already. But I thought I was only doing Catching Fire. I figured, as I’m finishing Catching Fire, they’re going to bring some new director in that’s going to do Mockingjay one. So it was, basically, they hired me and asked me to join for the sequels while we were still prepping Catching Fire. So that decision had already been made before I was even brought on to do the sequels, but I still do regret it. It wasn’t my decision to do it, but I do regret it just because we got so much shit for it.
Now you look at Killers of the Flower Moon, you didn’t realize you could just put out a three-and-a-half-hour movie in theaters and it would be fine.
Yeah, well, I mean, look, this is the longest book of the series. And I was like, “Well, I’m not splitting this one into two.”
Oh, people would not have been happy about that.
No, I was just like, I would rather do a 2-hour and 45-minute movie and have it be one full satisfying piece.
And what you probably didn’t even know at the time when you made that decision was this year Mission: Impossible was going to do a part one. Into the Spider-Verse is going to do a part one. If now this was a part one people would have not liked that.
Although I know the way the world works. And the truth is, and I don’t read reviews or anything, but I guarantee you people are like, “Oh, they should have split it.”
No one is saying that. I promise.
Yeah? Well, that’s good to know. I mean, what I will say though, with the Mockingjays was part of why everybody kind of agreed, and especially I think why Suzanne agreed and she’s very much a structuralist, was that she truly felt that there were these kind of two distinct dramatic questions in part 1, being like, will we get Peter back?
I read the interview we did then. And you were even saying if you did one movie, Peta’s has to be back by the end of the first act, and how do you do that whole segment that quickly?
Exactly. Exactly. So it would’ve been much more compressed. I think it probably would’ve been a movie about as long as this, but even still, it would be compressed because right now you have four hours or so of Mockingjay.
So I went into this one knowing nothing. The only thing I knew was it was a prequel. I didn’t know anything. It really works with little preparation. I did the DiCaprio meme, “Oh, that’s future President Snow!”
No, totally. Totally. That’s the whole thing. I mean, that was the big draw for me — to be able to tell this kind of young man’s descent into darkness, and especially in the Hunger Games world. And I knew Suzanne would come up with some great themes to talk about and to base the story on. And I think I really enjoyed that where you sort of get the meaning of the hanging tree and the meaning of certain behaviors and the meaning of certain characters and relationship dynamics and the origins of the games themselves and how they started so rudimentary.
Yes, I was going to say “low rent,” which is fascinating. They just take place in basically Madison Square Garden.
Exactly. No, and I mean, that was part of the fun of it, is that the first games, it was like they literally just threw a bunch of weapons in the middle of an arena that was walled in. And you shut the doors and the bell rings and it’s probably over in an hour and a half. And this is the chance where you see, oh, things start to change. They create backstories for the tributes. And because of explosions, the landscape opens up and people can go into different places. And the capitol actually starts to intervene in the games and you see the beginnings of all these things. And even with some of the drones that don’t work very well.
Which is great. “Oh, here comes the water,” … smash.
And in this movie the Hunger Games are the second act of the movie and the third act really gets interesting as we spend time in District 12.
Also, something I really, really liked, which is I think that there’s sort of been an epic nature to the story. Partially because I think audiences and people that are used to these books in the movies sort of feel like, oh, when the games are over, the story’s over. And games are just part of the story, of a much bigger story. And that’s something I also really enjoyed and was surprised by when I read the book too.
There are bars in District 12 with live music. When people aren’t lined up to find out if they will be killed or not we see they do have social lives.
We see a little bit of certain aspects of District 12 in the other movies. I mean, they have Victor’s Village obviously by then. I think there are a few moments in the Hob, which was shot in a different location. But yeah, we got to see more of it. We got to see more of the countryside. We got to see more of this true industrial side of the kind of the coal mining and all of that, as well as the live performance by the Covey and Rachel.
So how does this work? Does Lionsgate come to you?
It came from Suzanne actually. So in 2015, we really thought it was done.
There were always rumors of spinoffs and stuff like that.
Yeah, I mean, Lionsgate talked about stuff like that for a while, but it always had to come from Suzanne. And she was done. She was like, “I’ve been working on these books and movies for 10 years. I have to go do something else.” And we wanted to do some other things too.
Which makes a lot of sense.
Totally. And then it was the end of 2019, and she called me and Nina Jacobson and said, “Surprise, but I’m almost done with a new book.” She didn’t tell us the story. She gave us a few hints – that it’s prequel, it’s 64 years before, there’s a music element – but other than that, I want you to wait and read the manuscript. It’s like, okay. So then we’re obviously excited and there was a bunch of anticipation. And that’s when I went and met with the Lionsgate people, and that whole regime had changed basically. So I didn’t really know anybody there. So a completely new group of people. And then when we read the manuscript in pre-pandemic just in the beginning of 2020, we fell in love with it and said, all right, let’s start figuring this out and start adapting it. And that was primarily what I was doing during the pandemic – on the phone with Nina and Suzanne and our screenwriters.
I am curious though, did you have any hesitation? Because I remember distinctly talking to you for that last movie. As we talked about there was backlash to dividing it up. You were also dealing with the death of a beloved actor and I know how tough that was.
What I will say is, look, I love the stories that she writes. And again, I think Nina and I even at the end always felt pretty lucky almost sort of subversively that we were able to sneak in these kinds of thematic stories in some sort of a commercial way where audiences … large amounts of people want to go see them and really enjoyed them. And there’s this amazing fandom, and you feel like you’re a part of something that’s really important to a generation’s lives. It’s a really amazing thing.
Also, the group of people like Suzanne, me, Nina — the team we put together really enjoy making these things together, really enjoy working together. And so I knew and Nina knew that if we could crack the script, that it would be a really amazing two years working together in doing something that we really care about in a world we care about and for fans we care about. And I think that in the end is more important. You’re right though, Mockingjay two was tough because we are feeling the hit still. Although I think we felt it more in Mockingjay one about the split of the books. We were still reeling from the loss of Phil, which you can never recover from. Even though it was kind of still in the middle of the shoot, he wasn’t done. But you kind of never really get the wind back in your sails when something that horrible happens. But, in general, the experience of working with these people and being involved in this world is still just really fulfilling.
You mentioned working through it during the pandemic. I’m sure you realized these movies hit harder at that point than they did during the Obama presidency.
Yes. And I think that’s honestly why Suzanne was inspired. Right?
That makes sense.
Basically, you can point to when we were done in 2015. Then 2016 comes around and she started to see this sort of polarization, not just of the United States, but also the world in terms of sort of thinking about one another as humans. And so she decided to write a story about this sort of state of nature debate – this idea of are we innately cruel and brutal and savage, or are we innately good and deserving of rights and freedoms? And seeing that sort of massive divide and wanting to write a story about that, which is why I think it feels really relevant right now.
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