For a variety of reasons, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is considerably unlike its predecessor. Structurally the sequel isn’t a 180-turn, but the world itself, while keeping in touch with what director Gary Ross achieved with the first film, has a different texture to it. When the girl on fire is on fire, it actually looks like fire. It’s a sequel, but also a new direction for the franchise, in both small and major ways.
That’s what clearly piqued director Francis Lawrence‘s interest. Catching Fire is only Lawrence’s fourth film, but he’s faced considerable storytelling and technical challenges in the past, making him an obvious choice for the franchise. From his films, music videos, and television work, the director behind I Am Legend and Constantine is more than up to the challenge of adding new shades to an already established world.
We discussed adding new building blocks to author Suzanne Collins’s creation, along with fandom, subversive blockbusters, and more:
The games in Catching Fire are much more horrific than the first film, making the movie verge on horror at times. Did you want to achieve a different feel than The Hunger Games?
Yeah. I just approached it as its own story. I really like the book, the mythology, the opening, and how all the stakes open up. You also get to explore what I think are the real themes of the story: the consequence of war and violence. To me, all those elements start to make it different. This came from the book, but I wanted to make sure that, because the story at times does mirror the first movie with the chariots, interviews, and all that, that there had to be a different emotional value to it. I never specifically looked at as a separate genre, because it’s not quite like Alien and Aliens. I do look at Mockingjay differently, because that becomes a different thing. The later Mockingjay is a little of a war movie. I wouldn’t say I looked at is as a different genre, though.
The scene with the fog gave me that impression. That’s pretty rough.
Right. The thing I like about the arena is that it is so different. It’s less about human on human violence, because the arena is much more of a threat this time. I have to say, I thought there was more opportunity to create more emotional value in certain sequences in the arena: the fog is about loss; the monkeys are about terror; and the spinning island is about alliance. I was trying to be mindful of that.
With the arena in the first movie all we got were the woods. As a visual storyteller, is it much more exciting having all these different environments to play with rather than one specific location?
Oh, yeah. I mean, the big thing with me taking on the sequel is I had to really think about what my parameters were going to be. I had never done a sequel before. I was inheriting a great cast, but I had to think about what from the first movie I had to take on. What do I have to use? The truth was, there were certain aesthetics to District 12 and The Capitol that I liked, so other than that, I could create the other districts, the new parts of The Capitol, a whole new arena, and since it’s an anniversary year, there’s a new tribute and training center. There was tons of new world-building for me.
For Water for Elephants, we talked about the idea of you telling these stories about lonely figures on huge backdrops right before you got attached the series. It seems you keep coming back to that idea.
Oh, for sure. Sometimes I think it’s a subconscious thing. I never specifically think about that, but it is true Katniss kind of is that. Whether it’s the arena or that little figure within the tree, the idea of loneliness and isolation is an important theme.
Your films, especially I Am Legend, subvert what you’d expect from your average blockbuster.
Have you just lucked out or is there a natural trust the studios have with you?
Well, it’s weird, because with something like this it’s already been proven people are into the difference. I will say, I Am Legend was more of a fight. Even looking back now, there was a lot of fear involved in the making of that film. The original novel is pretty nihilistic, and we didn’t go that route. I think we could’ve just done the novel and done the first hour the same way in New York, but really have taken the story from the novella. It would’ve done the same business, right? I think it probably would’ve been more interesting. Now, even with that in mind, the studio and all of us were doing something kind of different. We were making a weird movie with the first hour following a guy and a dog dealing with the psychological effects of being a lone survivor. You know, that’s the most fun thing to do in the world. Taking those kind of risks is never easy. I don’t know if the studios are always filled with trust on those kind of things [Laughs].
[Laughs] Right. It just comes off that way.
Yeah. Definitely after the fact. I think there is some concern before the movies come out. You know, that movie was tricky, because Will [Smith], Akiva [Goldsman], and I thought we were making this $150m art movie. It kind of freaked us out because we thought, “Do we not have enough thrills and action? Will it make the kind of money it needs to make to pay for itself?” That’s what we love about it, so you also don’t want to dumb it down a bunch. It’s tricky and scary, but luckily people saw it.
In this case, coming into a movie you know will do well, does that increase confidence or pressure?
It gives you confidence, for sure. It takes one kind of mysterious element out of it. With I Am Legend, you’re like, “Oh my God, is anybody going to show up?” I know people will show up for this movie. Ideally you get your audience to grow, with people talking about the movie and more people seeing it. Really, the pressure there is that the fans are really rabid for the material, so I want to make them as happy as possible.
For Water for Elephants you got a lot of fan support. On Constantine, fans couldn’t get over the fact he wasn’t blonde.
How are Hunger Games fans?
I have to say, they’ve been really supportive so far, at least with the responses I’ve seen. I’ve been listening. When we were in casting I looked at fan lists, and I’d really think that through because sometimes you get great ideas for fans.
When it comes to building worlds, what part of the process is the most appealing?
Researching stuff and finding the elements that make it as real as possible. This is a weird one, because when you start to think about The Capitol and the Districts, you think, “Well, if we’re going to cast these background people, what’s the breakdown of society in these places?” We created these pyramids where if a District had 10,000 people, how many people are representatives from The Capitol? How many people are working in the mines? How many people are bakers or doctors? How many of them are kids? How many of them go to school? You start to do that kind of thing. In the end, when you do that breakdown for 500 extras, now everyone starts to dress accordingly. Certain people are dressed for work, whether it’s a government office or not. It’s a very subtle thing, but it starts to flesh things out and you start to feel the reality of it. If you can do that on many different layers for the creation of a world, I think it’s really useful.
I agree. Even though there’s an audience already in place for the film, your biggest still may be for Lady Gaga. Watching your “Bad Romance” video last night, it’s amazing that has over 550 million hits.
I know. You know, it was a weird one, because I think it got reduced. I remember reading it had gone way up there in, like, the 800 million views, but then there was some scandal. It was either with the record label, Gaga, or whatever where YouTube went in and audited views. People get paid when they’re stuff is viewed a bunch of times, so I think they audited views and it dropped way down. Still, it’s a crazy amount of views.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is now in theaters.