For filmmaker Francis Lawrence, getting the opportunity to continue making sequels to one of the most successful movie franchises ever was something he hoped for after taking over for “The Hunger Games” director Gary Ross in 2013’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Completing the series with the two-part final film “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” not only gave Lawrence the chance to see the project all the way through to the end, it also allowed him to explore some of the darker themes of author Suzanne Collins’ third book. In “Mockingjay – Part 1,” Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) reluctantly becomes the leader of a resistance against President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who has taken Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) and turned him into a propaganda tool for the Capitol.
During an interview with Francis Lawrence this past week, I talked to him about whether or not he thinks waiting an entire year for “Mockingjay – Part 2” is too long, the tough decisions he had to make when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away before production ended, and what theme interested him the most from Collins’ book.
I’m sure because this is such a huge franchise and fans of the books and movies were probably watching your every move, things could get a bit stressful for you as a filmmaker. What was the scariest decision you had to make about these last two “Mockingjay” films?
You know, oddly enough one of the scariest decisions was one that I thought the fans would be appreciative of, which was putting Effie (Elizabeth Banks) in the movie. Effie really doesn’t make an appearance in the book [Mockingjay] until the end. We definitely wanted her to be in District 13 with everybody. We really wanted to incorporate her into this movie. That was a big change from the book. It was scary, but I really thought the fans would like to have Effie there.
There is a scene in the film where Katniss is making a propaganda film, which calls for Jennifer Lawrence to act like she doesn’t know how to act. What kind of direction did you give Jennifer to make her look like a bad actress?
Well, we actually tried [that scene] a bunch of different ways. We all knew it was going to be a scene with levity and humor. We spent two days shooting that scene and really let Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and Jen [Lawrence] improvise quite a bit. We had a huge range in terms of the level of levity in the scenes. We went from super naturalistic where she’s not acting badly at all to scenes where she acted really, really bad. In the editing room I had loads of possibilities. I wanted to make sure the tone of the humor fit the rest of the movie.
What about the scene where Katniss sings the song “The Hanging Tree?” Jennifer said recently that she was not comfortable shooting that scene. Was it just a matter of doing it and getting it over with or was it difficult?
Yeah, she was not happy. But Jen being unhappy is a minor issue in terms of the film. I mean, she knew she had to do it. (Laughs) She didn’t enjoy it. But she has a great voice. She sings in key. She sings in tune. She has a great texture to her voice. We had the Lumineers write the melody from the lyrics in the book. It was a nice, simple song, but it was definitely not her favorite thing.
Actress Julianne Moore said recently that she became very popular with her kids for taking on the role of President Alma Coin. Did you earn any street credit with anyone when you signed on for “Catching Fire” and these last two films?
Yeah, I have a nine year old and an 11 year old. They were just getting to that age where they started caring about movies. I remember they had this school camping trip right around the time I had just gotten the job [to direct “Catching Fire”]. The theme of the camping trip was “The Hunger Games.” This pop phenomenon has swept through and all their friends knew the movie and the books. So, the fact that their dad was making the next one, they thought that was pretty cool.
You have to know waiting an entire year to see how the film ends is going to be torture for hardcore fans of this franchise (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” opens in theaters Nov. 20, 2015). I know you don’t make those decisions, but do you think that is too long?
I don’t think it’s too long. I think one of the benefits of shooting back to back is that we can turn another big movie around that quickly since we’re already working on it. I think longer than a year would be tricky. I think a year is about right. I think it really builds up that anticipation and makes people want to go see it. When the movie comes out, you sort of get saturated by it. I don’t think you’d want to come out too soon [to see the next movie].
Google just came out with a study that says moviegoers who are interested in action movies are more likely to care about who is directing the action movies they go to see than moviegoers who prefer other genres like comedy and drama. If that is true, how would you feel if your name starts being recognized as an action film director? Would you like that or would you rather not be labeled in that way?
I’d like to be known as a director of movies people like. (Laughs) I don’t know if I’d like to be labeled as just an action director. I’ve done different kinds of things. I don’t know if I’d want to be pigeonholed as one type of director.
What did you have to tell actress Natalie Dormer to prevent her from shaving her entire head for her role as Cressida?
Ah, well, she and I had a conversation when we hired her and the first thing she said to me was that she was prepared to shave her entire head. Oddly enough, she and I had the same ideas for the look of her character. We started thinking that maybe she shouldn’t have her entire head shaved. One of my references was my costume designer from “Catching Fire” (Trish Summerville). She has the side of her head shaved. She had this great look. It was perfect for tattoos on the side of her head. I always thought of Cressida having this irreverent, sort of punk-like attitude, so I thought it would work. So, we agreed on shaving only half of her head.
What does it mean to you as a filmmaker to continue working on a franchise with such a strong female hero at the center? Do you think characters like Katniss are too few and far between in movies these days?
Yeah, it’s rare to see a female hero. To be a part of that is fantastic. One of the keys to that is Suzanne Collins writing an amazing story with amazing characters. Then, when you have someone as talented as Jen Lawrence and Julianne [Moore], it makes it really appealing.
We, of course, lost a great actor in Philip Seymour Hoffman this year, who was an important part of this series. What were some of the tough decisions you had to make since he hadn’t entirely finished shooting “Part 2” before he passed away?
Well, honestly, he was almost done with his work. He had two dialogue scenes left – one for “Part 1” and one for “Part 2.” We never thought about doing a digital version of him. He was one of the greatest actors, so to try to digitally recreate one of those performances would’ve been really foolish. So, we rewrote those scenes and gave his dialogue to other actors.
Will his character feel complete when the series is over or do you think it will be obvious that things were reworked in the script?
Yes, he feels completed. I mean, would I rather have had the other two scenes with him in them? Yes, absolutely. But I think his character feels complete.
In the film, we see Katniss struggling to decide if she wants to be a part of this resistance. To me, that showed how war really isn’t just a black and white issue. Was that a key element you wanted to highlight in the film and make moviegoers understand there was more to leading a rebellion than what you see on the surface?
Yes. That is definitely straight out of the pages of Suzanne’s book. It was one of the most appealing things about this movie. Quite honestly, it’s one of the reasons I got involved in these films. It not only shows war, but the consequences of it. I think the theme you’re picking up there is something that is even more explored in the next one. So, when I was asked to do these two films it was really exciting because A) I got to see this [franchise] through to the end and B) I got to work with these sorts of themes. What you just brought up is one of the biggest themes for me. War is not always clear and not always black and white. War is really messy. Even if you feel like a revolution is needed, it’s not going to be pretty.