For the first time in 8 years, there’s a new The Hunger Games film in cinemas this week. We spoke to director Francis Lawrence about returning to Panem.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes takes us back to Panem, 64 years before Katniss Everdeen fearlessly takes her sister’s place in the feared Hunger Games. The Hunger Games franchise, consisting of three books and four, now five, film adaptations has been incredibly successful, partly because it never talked down to its young audience.
With the new film hitting cinemas, we sat down with director Francis Lawrence to chat about his return to the franchise and exploring the origins of the villainous President Snow.
When finishing up Mockingjay Part II, were there already elements of Panem that you were secretly hoping you could return to and tell more stories about?
Suzanne had no intention of writing any more books. She had been working for 10 years, that was it. Nina (Jacobson, producer) and I knew, if she didn’t write another book, we wouldn’t do another movie.
But Nina and I would chat about if we were to go back into the world, what would be an interesting time to investigate, and we always said the Dark Days. This story is not far off, because this is the origin, not just of Snow, but the origin of the games and the world. We always thought that would be a really fascinating era in the world to explore and that ended up being what Suzanne wrote about.
She contacted you while she was still writing the book. What was that phone call like?
It was great. I remember the phone call very vividly, we had a nice chat. We hadn’t spoken in a while, so we spoke for quite a while. And she said she was almost done with the book, which was really exciting. She didn’t want to tell me much about it, other than it was 64 years before the first book, there was one major crossover character that was the lead. I figured out who that was, which was intriguing, and that there was a big music element to it.
And when you figured out that it’s really a story about Snow, whom we all know as a pretty monstrous character, what about that premise excited you the most?
It was falling in love with the idea that it was not just an origin story of a villain, although I really like those stories, but it was an origin story of everything. We’re seeing the origin of the villain, the origin of the games, songs, certain behaviours, relationship dynamics, character names… Also, in terms of just world building, because it was a period piece, I felt like I had this opportunity to build Panem in a way that we hadn’t seen before.
I always considered the films to be war films. Did you approach the new film similarly?
The original books, the whole intention that Suzanne had for them was, she wanted to write a series of books for teenagers about the consequences of the war. So you’re right, they are war stories. That’s why you get all the different facets of that whether it’s propaganda, PTSD, the consequence of war, loss, whatever it is.
This, I didn’t go in thinking [it] was a war story, because this is an entirely different thing. Suzanne was reignited and inspired by noticing, probably around 2016, this polarisation of thought about people and what people thought of one another, not just in the US but in the world.
She decided to write a story that was about the state of nature debate, that kind of Hobbesian view of, are we innately, as human beings, brutal and savage? Or are we good and deserving of rights and freedoms? And that’s the debate that this whole movie is about. And that’s what we tried to really focus everything on. And that’s part of his journey, he’s getting pulled by Viola’s character into that zone of people are brutal and savage. And you have Lucy Gray, Sejanus and Tigris saying no, people are good, we deserve love and freedom and rights. That’s the battle that’s at play here.
It’s a very similar internal battle to Anakin Skywalker, this light and dark that are pulling you apart.
Some people have said that. I certainly did not go back to those movies to look at that story. But those kinds of stories have always appealed to me. You look at Macbeth or the story you just brought up or you look at Breaking Bad or the Joker, this sort of man’s descent into darkness. I just think [it] is a great story to tell and I think people find it very satisfying, if done well.
You said in an interview with IGN that you’re not telling a survival story, like Katniss’ story was definitely a survival story, but this isn’t as much. And I’m very gently going to push against that. Because what really stood out to me in the film was that every room that Snow is in, is almost like an arena where he has to constantly survive.
Feel free to push back and I’m glad you did push back. In general, when you look at Katniss, just this heroic act of bravery and sacrifice for her little sister, volunteers to be tribute for the games, and is truly surviving for her life, it’s life or death. Is Snow trying to survive? Sure, but I don’t necessarily see it as just a survival story, because I think that there’s other wants and goals, right? Katniss wants nothing more than to survive and go home and live her life. I think Snow wants more than that, in general, it’s more than just survival.
People are going into the cinema, with the notion that this is a horrible character. So for you, what needs to happen in the first 15 minutes of the film, so that you can get the audience on your side, and on Snow’s side, and then you can start playing with that loyalty to a character?
We always knew from the beginning that that was going to be the trick, right? We’re going to take somebody that was this villain that everybody loves to hate in the original stories, and we’re gonna have to get people behind them. They were gonna have to root for them. They’re gonna have to empathise with him, they’re gonna have to be able to relate to him in some way. And I think it was figuring out how to dramatise that and visualise that. Part of that is the hunger and how skinny he is. Part of that is that he’s living in these horrible conditions. Part of it is that he’s from a family that’s now fallen from grace and he’s got to pretend in a world of entitled young adults that he’s just as good or as well off as they are, but he’s not. It’s doing all those things to just shine a different light.
The great thing is, in my experience, it does not take long in this movie for people to shift their opinion, and almost forget that they’re watching a movie about the guy that they hate from the other ones. And you start to relate to this kid and understand what he’s trying to do. And you’re rooting for him and you’re rooting for the relationship.
It’s quite an emotional journey. By the third chapter of the film, it’s almost like a deranged version of the American dream.
I get asked a lot, did I ever want to split this into two, which I never wanted to do. And now looking back and regretting splitting Mockingjay, part of what I really loved about this story is the epic nature of the narrative.
I think part of the spin that I really enjoyed is that I think that we as fans of the movies, and the books have been conditioned to think that the stories are over when the games end. It’s not just about the games, it’s part of a much larger story.
It’s only the 10th Hunger Games versus in Catching Fire, where it’s the Quarter Quell and it’s a very elaborate arena, and here it’s so rudimentary. Was that a challenge? Or did that just make your life easier?
It’s kind of both. It’s not about making my life easier. It’s certainly, in general, less technically challenging than some of the stuff we did on Catching Fire. It’s exciting in that it instantly makes the games feel different. That’s one of the challenges, you want to make sure that visually, aesthetically, and emotionally, each time you return to an arena and to the games, you want it to feel different.
Just the fact that it’s an arena that’s indoors, it’s underground, that was exciting to me, so we’re not outside in a forest or jungle. It gave me an opportunity also to explore moments where there can be real terror, that can almost feel like a horror movie at times and getting scary. That was really exciting to me.
Tonally, I liked that the more fantastical elements were stripped away, the uniforms were stripped away and that the people felt more real. The battle feels more real. It feels more rooted and grounded and authentic, and therefore a little more brutal, quite honestly.
A lot of your work has been adaptations, whether it’s Constantine, Water for Elephants, I Am Legend. When something is based on something this beloved, do you find it limiting?
I think it’s just exciting. When we do something like I Am Legend, we’re not working with Richard Matheson, who was the author of the novella, every day. When we’re working on something like this, we’re working with Suzanne every day. She’s a part of it all the time. She can always be that North Star, making sure that theme is always present, the character journeys are right, the spirit of the book is always there.
You mentioned regretting splitting Mockingjay. Have you prepared yourself for people to say this should have been two films?
I guarantee people will say it, because that’s just the way the world works. The world works is, you split a book into two and people give you shit for it. And then you make a slightly longer movie, even though it’s only 11 minutes longer than Catching Fire and people will say they should have split it into two movies.
We know that Snow lands on top, and you already spoke a little bit about this, you want people to root for this character and almost forget that he will become president at some point. How do you create that tension when we know what happens at the end?
For me, it’s about the journey. It’s not about what the end is going to be. How surprising can the journey be of how you get there? And what I’ve also found, which I find really interesting, is, although we get people rooting for him, and empathising with them, and liking him, I think people are also very satisfied when he does go dark. And I think people actually do want him to go dark in the end. And I think that’s part of why people are enjoying the movie because they’re waiting for it and want to see how and why.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad Of Songbirds And Snakes is in cinemas 17 November.