Movies, music, TV, arts and entertainment, straight from Southern California.
Hosted by John Horn
Airs Temporarily on hiatus so that our staff can help out our colleagues in the KPCC newsroom and on our other shows.
Arts & Entertainment

'Hunger Games' director Francis Lawrence knows the pressure is on

Francis Lawrence, director of
Francis Lawrence, director of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1."
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 5MB

Just in case you weren't aware, "The Hunger Games" is a global phenomenon. The latest installment, "Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One," opened to an estimated $ 121.9 dollars at the box office, the best American debut for any film this year.

That said, the domestic totals were down about 22 percent from the opening of the previous "Hunger Games" movie last year. It’s not a complete surprise, as “Mockingjay Part One” barely has any action. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Katniss Everdeen, shoots only one of her famous arrows in the entire movie.

But even if the film isn't as action-packed as its predecessors, its revolutionary message has so inspired protests in Thailand that using the three-finger salute from the film is an illegal act. When Francis Lawrence was interviewed for The Frame, host John Horn asked his opinion on the political impact of the film, how he handles criticism, and how the film managed to continue shooting after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Interview Highlights:

By the time the next "Hunger Games" movie comes out late next year, you will have been working on the series for almost four years. At a certain point, do you start dreaming like Katniss? Does it start permeating other parts of your non-professional life?

No, not really. I mean, I think you have to train yourself to be able to shut it down a little bit at night. If I weren't able to, I don't think I'd be able to have conversations with my wife. I'd be drifting off while she's talking and thinking about it, and it would be really unhealthy for my relationships. [laughs]

I went to a theater with my 14-year-old son, and the film was playing on nine out of 12 screens. For all the 14, 15, 16-year-old kids there, it was almost like a Beatles reunion. Are you able to experience any of that? Do you wander around theaters and check it out as it's opening?

No, I mean, I've debated about it this weekend. It's funny, because "Catching Fire," the last film, was my first film in the franchise and we were making the "Mockingjay" films at the time, so we were running around so much at that point that I didn't get a chance.

But my problem is that it's hard for me to watch the film at this point, because I've seen it so many times. And, quite honestly, going through the release of the movie is such a vulnerable moment for me that it's tough to sit in an audience and enjoy the moment.

The producers of the film and the studio behind it decided to split the third book by Suzanne Collins into two films. When they presented that idea to you, what was your reaction? Did you have a voice in the decision, and what were the conversations like?

I did not have a voice in the decision; that decision was made before I was asked to join the sequels. It really interested me, because it's always very difficult to take a 400-plus page novel and whittle it down to hopefully a two-hour movie while making it something for the fans. They like to keep as much of the books as possible in the movies, and I think this afforded us the opportunity to keep more of the book in the movie.

It also means, because you're splitting the book up, that most of the action is going to be in the second film. So how do you create action suspense when most of the action comes in the next film, particularly when this is the first film without any of the competitive "Games" in it?

I have to say, in all honesty, that I was a little nervous going into the release of this movie because, yes, it is a quieter movie in the sense that there are no "Games," and people have certain expectations. But it's a really different kind of story; I think it's really emotional, I think the scope of the movie opens up because you see the rebellion starting to spread. The stakes ratchet up and you get to see the more political sides of these stories and get to explore things like propaganda, battling over the airwaves.

Do you pay attention to reviews and what they say about films, and what they might have said about this film?

Yeah, I do.

And what do you take away? What hurts?

I mean, certain things definitely don't hurt. There are certain things that I sort of expect, like I knew that there would be criticism for splitting the book.  I think there's a perception that some people have going in that it's a money grab, and it's not for storytelling purposes. And I understand people go in thinking that way so they'll view the movie a certain way. And that quite honestly doesn't hurt. Occasionally people label me, and that sometimes hurts, even in a good review.

How do they label you? What do they say?

I remember seeing in one review that I was called "serviceable," and that really annoyed me, I have to say. And it was in a very positive review. But when you spend a year away from your family, working really hard and putting everything you've got into a movie, and you get one word stuck next to your name, it's annoying.

But what you're describing is something that I think is interesting: no matter how or what you do on these films, they are ultimately, fairly or unfairly, going to be seen as Jennifer Lawrence movies, not Francis Lawrence movies.

Yeah, and by the way, that's fine by me; I really don't mind that. I don't make movies to be a star. I'm behind the camera for a reason; I don't like being in front of the camera, and I don't need to be on the cover of a magazine. There's just something about the amount of work that gets put in, and when that gets whittled down to a word, it's a little disheartening.

You dedicate the film to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died earlier this year while you were still in production, almost done shooting his scenes. What did his death mean to you personally and emotionally?

It was a horrible, horrible time. It caught everybody by surprise. It was a Sunday when he was found, and it was probably a few hours later when we found out. I found out from texts from people who were watching the news before we were called by anybody. It was a complete shock, with so much sadness, and it was such a strange experience, because he had become a friend. He was great to work with, he was part of our film family, and there's a certain bonding that happens when everybody's away from home and working on something, and it's the middle of winter and it's freezing. And for him to be taken away was tough on me, the cast and the crew.

Logistically, he was almost done with his work, so there wasn't much to figure out in terms of story and shooting, but emotionally it took a long time to get any kind of groove back. We had to shut down for a little while, and we had to re-shuffle the schedule so we could ease the actors back into work.

We started very small, very quietly, just some scenes with Jenn and Liam; we didn't want to be around a bunch of extras. We shot half-days, and we had to slowly work in the other cast members again, and everybody needed time to ramp back into work. And honestly I don't think that we got any kind of the fun back in the shoot until we left Atlanta and went to Europe and had a complete change of scenery.

Were you one of the people who felt very strongly that, even though you have amazing digital tools, the scenes that Philip hadn't finished should be given to other actors?

Yeah, very strongly. There was never a debate. Very soon after his death there were articles saying that we were debating whether or not to create him digitally; that was never a conversation, because we knew he only had two scenes left to dialogue, and he was absolutely one of the best living actors.

There was no version of us trying to recreate a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance by chopping up his dialogue and creating a digital, animatronic version of him. That was never going to happen.

A large part of this film is the use of an image, or Katniss, as political propaganda, and your film is stirring up controversy in Asia. China has delayed the release to next year, and some theaters in Thailand have canceled the screenings after five students were detained for using the "Mockingjay" symbol. How does it make you feel that your film has become a political tool in the real world?

My feelings are a little complicated on it. We first started seeing this where people were using the three-finger salute in Thailand while we were still shooting "Mockingjay." And at first there's sort of a thrill to it, where you say, Wow, the imagery in these movies has real meaning for people, and they're connecting to the ideas in them.

But when suddenly that becomes illegal, and the three-finger salute is banned and people are starting to get arrested, the thrill goes away for me. It's a tricky thing; I don't make movies to incite people to go out and incite people to risk their lives or their family's lives. I don't want people to be getting arrested and killed because they watched one of these movies. It's a tough thing.

Does that mean you actually fear that the film could somehow escalate unstable situations around the world?

No, I don't in general. There's just no way that I can be happy about the fact that people are protesting while using this symbol and then getting arrested. I think that one of the strong aspects of these stories is that they do mirror things that are happening in the world, now and in the past, and I think that some people pick up on that and connect to it, and see the connection to the world and some of the environments that they live in.

But I just think one of the big messages of these movies is that there's a consequence to violence and war. Even if sometimes a revolution is needed, it's not going to be pretty; people will be damaged forever, people will die, and people will get arrested. Even if you survive, you may be psychologically damaged forever, and so it's really important that people think about things before they do them. I just want people to be careful.

Get more stories like this

Delivered every Thursday, The Frame weekly email features the latest in Movies, music, TV, arts and entertainment.