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Director Francis Lawrence attends the premiere of Lionsgate's 'The Hunger Games: Cathching Fire' at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 18, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Francis Lawrence.

the vulture transcript

Catching Fire’s Francis Lawrence on Inheriting a Franchise and Fixing Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘Stupid’ Running Face

Director Francis Lawrence inherited a surefire box-office hit with Catching Fire. But would he deliver a quality movie, and one without quite as much shaky cam as Gary Ross's Hunger Games? The pressure was certainly on to do so — and, thankfully, Lawrence didn't crack under it. The movie is quite good. (See for yourself when it comes out this Friday.) We spoke to Lawrence last month, as part of our YA package, about taking over the franchise. Now here's our much more complete conversation about what that was like, how he's immediately readying the final two Mockingjay installments, and Jennifer Lawrence's "stupid face," made while she was running.

Before you embarked on this project, how familiar were you with the books? How did they come into your orbit?
My agent would send me things to read, and she had sent me The Hunger Games, and I thought it was really cool, but I was pretty hooked up for about a year. It wasn't on my radar in terms of real work, but that's how I came across it.

The Hunger Games escaped the post–Harry Potter and Twilight curse. Everyone adapting a popular YA series hoped theirs would be a franchise on that scale, and every one so far has failed, except The Hunger Games. Why do you think this one worked, when the other series, which had also had built-in fan bases, didn't translate in the leap to the screen?
I think that the thing that is really strong with The Hunger Games is just that it comes from a very strong idea. Suzanne [Collins] was raised in a military family, and her father was a military academic and always taught her about war, and so she grew up learning about the consequence of war, and she created a series of books to talk about those ideas. And I think that the story and the world and the ideas in it are all sort of built around that one central theme. And I think that's one of the key reasons that it's been successful and that it's crossed over into adult as well, because you can really feel that it's about something. And then I would also just say that I think that there's a pretty amazing character at the center of it. And I think it's a character that whether you're a guy or a girl, you can kind of relate to the kind of decisions that she makes, what her objectives are, and what she wants. She's very relatable, and I think that makes for a classic character.

Do you think part of it is also that it escapes the supernatural stigma? You can't say, "Oh, it's just another vampire story, another magical story, another mystical story."
Yeah, I think that's definitely some of it. I know for me, personally, I have a much harder time with fantasy than I do with science fiction, and this science fiction is much more relatable, especially when you start to translate the book into something visual, and suddenly you find that there's a girl who's basically living in Appalachia, in an old mining town, and everybody can sort of relate to that. And so visually you're telling the right story, that it's not the nicest place to live, right? And they don't have very much. But you get it, and you understand it, and it doesn't have to be something that's completely made up. I think that gives The Hunger Games an edge.

For both Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments, if you haven't read the books, you might be lost.
That's really hard, with supernatural things and fantasy, that you suddenly have all these names that you might not understand, and rules you may not understand, and then the mythology. Look, Hunger Games has a mythology, it has a real history, it's just that because it's so much part of a relatable world, it's quite easy to follow. It's very easy for other books and stories and movies for that mythology to suddenly sound like gobbledygook to an audience. That's really tricky. I know [J.K.] Rowling did really well with Harry Potter — like somehow, that just worked. Somehow, she made magic and wizards and all that stuff really work. That's really, really tricky.

Luckily for you, you're stepping in the stage where you don't have to worry about winning over an audience, but where it's already too big to fail.
Oh! [Laughs.] I hope so! I hope it's too big to fail. You're right; I didn't have those same worries. You're not worried whether the general idea is going to work, or if it's going to appeal, but every time you're telling a different story, the worry is always like, "Wow, do people really just want to see a bunch of kids go in the arena?" I really hope they love the ideas in the book as much as I do, because as you go forward, it becomes more and more and more about what the story is about, the consequence of war, and post-traumatic stress, and loss, than [the arena]. I worry about that.

One of the criticisms that the first film faced was that the PTSD, and the sense of horror, weren't quite there as much as it was in the book. Are you bringing that to the forefront, then?
Yeah, for sure. I think that's definitely something we start to explore, and I think you can see the change in the characters, for having been in the games, and for having just witnessed what they witnessed, and being a part of what they just had to be a part of. It absolutely is. I think this is sort of the springboard for the rest of the stories, that now you start to really get into it. You start to get into the political side of what's happening in Panem — the beginnings of the rebellion and the uprising, the beginning of the responsibility that Katniss is going to have but doesn't want, and the beginnings of being traumatized from what they've been through. They've only been through one games at the beginning of Catching Fire, but by the start of the third movie, they've been through two games. And it only gets worse from there. So we've definitely started to go down that slope.

Since you're doing Mockingjay parts one and two, what are the advantages and disadvantages of seeing the rest of the series through from this point out? You get to plan ahead, but the pacing and the schedule must be excruciating.
I have to say, storytelling-wise, it's absolutely fantastic, because you can see it all through, you can think ahead, you can plant the appropriate seeds, you can platform the right ideas to payoff later. It's just really, really great. But yes, the hurry-up of it all has been a little crazy. But the cut went really well for Catching Fire, so the post-process was really smooth. The effects went well, the cut went well, the music went well, so it would have been much harder if it had been problematic while trying to prep. Right after I went to Europe for the score, there were a couple of weeks where prep for Mockingjay was really kicking into gear, and everybody was getting ready to go to Atlanta, and I'm still every day going in for Catching Fire — approving visual effects shots, listening to the mix, looking at color, dealing with the music — and then having to drive across town and deal with concept illustrations and storyboard artists and trying to meet with the new visual effects supervisor about the effects in the next two movies, because we're doing them back to back. It got a little insane. And then finally, when the mix was finished, and the color was finished, and the effects were finished, then it felt like, [sigh of relief] "Okay, now I can just focus on just Mockingjay." It was nice.

Are you going to shoot any of Mockingjay one and two at the same time?
There are two separate scripts for Mockingjay parts one and two. It's definitely one story, but there are two totally distinct and separate scripts. We're going to frontload shooting part one up front so that cut can be worked on while we're shooting part two. There's a little bit of overlap, and a little bit of peppering of scenes. We're going to shoot a scene before the first initial shoot day, a prep shoot day, where we'll shoot one of the final scenes of Mockingjay part two, so that's actually the first thing that we're going to shoot, and then we'll pretty much start at the beginning of Mockingjay part one, and do our best to stay in as linear order as possible. Certain characters have pretty extreme character arcs, and so, it'll help them.

You have all these pedigree actors coming in, from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee in Catching Fire to Julianne Moore as Alma Coin in Mockingjay. You could have had no-name actors for some of these roles, and the fans would have accepted that. So what is it that these prestigious actors bring?
I just think that Gary [Ross] put together an amazing cast for the first one, and the story worked really well, and the performances worked really well, so the cast that was already put together and the quality of the material, and the ideas in the material, just attracted a really fantastic quality of actor. For certain roles, there's no denying that if you could have Philip Seymour Hoffman play Plutarch, get Philip Seymour Hoffman! He was my first choice for that role, and I went after him, and he and I had a good talk about the character, about the approach to the character, and he loved the books and the ideas in the books, so he signed on. He really loves the books. Same with Jeffrey Wright, who plays Beetee, another fantastic American actor, who was just connecting to the material and to the other actors he'd be working with. Same with Julianne. She was really after it. And I think, if you can just get those amazing actors, then that's 80 percent of my job — just getting people who are so good at what they do.

You inherited Jennifer Lawrence, since she was already cast as Katniss, but did she become more valuable as the series becomes a potential billion-dollar franchise? At least in terms of insurance? Is it more problematic to have her do her own stunts?
Oh! You know what, I don't know! That would be a question for the producers. I'm not sure if it's trickier for insurance or anything like that. She's got a great stunt double, so Jen doesn't do too many of her own stunts. I mean, she'll do a fight scene if she has to do a fight scene, but if it suddenly transitions into true stunt, she has a stunt person to do that stuff for her. I mean like a giant roll down a hill, or something crazy.

She's still got to do the karate-running on her own, though.
Of course.

She hated how she looked running before.
Yeah, I know. [Chuckles.] We worked on that. One of the first things we talked about when we started Catching Fire was that she said she always made this stupid face when she ran, and I had to specifically watch out to make sure she didn't make the stupid face when she ran. So I was always checking. I would tell her, "You made the stupid face!"

Were there any other things actors want to improve upon or correct from the first film?
People weren't complaining too much about anything from the first movie, especially performance-wise. I think I tried to build out, working with the writers, things that I would like to see. I really love that we brought out a little more humanity for Haymitch. And I think there's a fair amount more in Effie. I just think she brings a certain energy and levity to the movie, and she also has more emotion and humanity in this movie. But part of that also comes from, now that you know who these people are, you can go somewhere else and show a different side of them. So that was the fun thing. But it wasn't because they didn't get to do something or did something wrong. It was just development. I think the main one was just Jen deciding she doesn't like the way she runs. [Laughs.]

And no shaky cam, right?
No! [Laughs.] No shaky cam. Still naturalistic, but no shaky cam. I think a lot of people will be happy to hear that.

The first film shifted perspectives to show us more about what was happening in the Capitol, but skimped a little on showing us the strategy behind the Katniss-Peeta love story. In the first book, when they get home, Peeta is heartbroken. In the film, not so much. So how do we pick up on that in Catching Fire, as Katniss has to figure out her feelings for Peeta and Gale?
Well, I wouldn't necessarily call it all strategy, because I think it's developed. What I will say is that I felt the same. I felt the love story in general was, um, a bit buried, in the first one, more than it was in the book. It was definitely a choice. But looking forward, I wanted to bring the love story up and more to the surface. And when I say "love story," I mean between the three of them, the triangle. Because it's so important, it's such an important aspect of Catching Fire, but also a very important aspect of Mockingjay. It needed to get platformed and teed up in the appropriate way, so that all the right kind of payoffs would happen later. So it's definitely something we made more of a meal out of, but I wouldn't call it a strategy because it turns into something much more complicated, and you know, it's a whole other side to post-traumatic stress. It may have started as a strategy, but when there's a shared traumatic experience, the bonding there almost can't go away. But what happens when you go home? Suddenly you go home and you want your normal life again, and you might start disconnecting from that person, and you might start being into the other person again, right? But now you're going to be thrown right back into those traumatic circumstances again with the other person. So it's more the situations in Catching Fire than actual strategy.

Because of the success of the first film and presumably an increased budget for the second and remaining ones, this will have better CGI?
Uh, yeah. I think the effects are phenomenal. If you know the book, there's a monkey-mutt attack, and I think that turned out pretty great. WETA, who did Rise of the Planet of the Apes and King Kong, did the monkeys for us, and they did a great job. And the arena itself. There's a company called Dneg in London who did all the arena stuff, and there is a lot of digital jungle, which is pretty great. Not when we're inside of it, but when we're outside by the water, and they did a truly amazing job of the jungle blowing around in the wind, and the bugs flying around in the air. It's pretty great to see.

Since it's adults, instead of teenagers, does that change the level of brutality of what you depict in the arena?
Yeah, but I have to say, quite honestly, I've never been really that interested in gore anyway. I'm more interested in the emotional impact of an attack than the actual gore. What's really interesting about this one is that the arena is very different for a lot of reasons. One is that the tributes are all victors. But there's also far fewer human-on-human attacks and deaths than in the first movie. The arena is much more deadly, itself, than the other tributes. And the strategy behind the arena this time around is much different in that it's all about alliance. You saw a little bit of that with other people, the Careers, in the first movie, but this time, Katniss and Peeta have to get involved in that, finding allies. And that becomes a huge portion of it. So the value of the arena is very different this time around.

Right. I was thinking in terms of skirting that line between PG-13 and R.
Oh! With the ratings board, it definitely helps. Children in danger is a huge thing for the ratings board. That automatically helps, just the fact that they're adults. Katniss and Peeta are the youngest in the group. There's even an 80-year-old woman who's in there with them.

If Katniss and Peeta are the youngest, is Peeta still also the shortest?
[Laughs.] No. No, he's not. I would say Mags is the shortest.

Good, so he has someone to help him look taller. It's fine, actors can step on boxes.
[Laughs.] Josh [Hutcherson] doesn't feel like he's the shortest, that's for sure. But that's the truth, he wasn't. And he and Jen get much closer in height when she's in flats, which is a good thing. You throw her in some heels, and it's all over.

You and your star share the same last name, as I'm sure you're aware ...
And she's constantly telling me how we don't talk enough about it! Although I don't know what there is to say about it! I have to say, when she and I first started to work together, I probed a little bit about where her family was from on her dad's side, just to see if there would be any sort of distant connection, because on that side of my family, there's a pretty extensive family tree, but I think there's absolutely zero connection.

It would have been fun if you were like tenth cousins twice removed or something.
Yeah! That's why I was investigating, to see. She's from Kentucky, but I thought if she had some relative way back, like a great-grandfather that came from the Northeast, that there could be some connection, but there's not.

What's been your favorite fan reaction, in all the Hunger Games mania?
Seeing the people who videotape themselves reacting to the trailers! When you see the 16-, 17-year-old girls starting to cry and freak out while they're watching the trailers, that's pretty great.

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images