The ‘Red Sparrow’ and ‘Hunger Games’ director gives advice on getting started, appeasing fans, and more.
Perhaps best known for his work on three of the Hunger Games films, Francis Lawrence has had lots of experience directing popular book-to-movie adaptations, especially within the sci-fi/fantasy genres. Before making his feature directorial debut with Constantine in 2005, he attended Loyola Marymount University and went on to work on music videos for artists including Aerosmith, Brian McKnight, and Shakira. Since becoming a filmmaker, he has also found modest acclaim with I Am Legend as well as his latest film, Red Sparrow, while continuing to direct music videos on occasion for big-name artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga.
In recent years, Lawrence has begun sharing some tips to help guide others toward similar success. Below, we’ve gathered pieces of advice that are helpful whether you’re set on also starting out in the music video format or want to jump right into making movies.
Practice Making Movies
There’s the old saying that “practice makes perfect.” Lawrence isn’t exactly promising “perfect” but in an interview at Loyola Marymount University, he did stress the importance of practice, and suggests making movies consistently to get better. He said:
“Just make. Kids can be out there every weekend making movies. Ninety-nine percent of those movies are going to suck — I know mine did — but you have to get that out of your system. You have to copy movies you like and fail. You have to go out and shoot and shoot and shoot. You have to practice every weekend, and redo it when it doesn’t work.”
In the below video, Lawrence also tells the audience during a Build interview (starting around the 25 minute mark) how music video directing gave him a lot of practice that prepared him for making movies. Especially when it comes to copying others and experimenting, but also just clocking a lot of hours of experience in production.
Work with a Great Team
When working on a series of films as large as the Hunger Games franchise especially, things can get overwhelming. In an interview with ComingSoon.net in 2014, Lawrence mentioned that having a good crew can really make a difference:
“Get really good people. If you have really good people, you can do it when you’ve got a family of smart people. I will say, the tough time, again, was the end of ‘Catching Fire,’ because we were working on these scripts while we were shooting ‘Catching Fire.’ While we were posting ‘Catching Fire,’ we were prepping the ‘Mockingjay’ movies. We actually started shooting the ‘Mockingjay’ movies before ‘Catching Fire’ was released.
“We had a break to do the release and press for ‘Catching Fire’ and then go back. Once we went back, I think we still had 115 or 125 days left. That’s a lot of movie left to shoot. So it’s a lot. Then when you got to the end of that, you come back and now you’re in editorial. It’s much more civilized. You can sort of compartmentalize a little bit and it’s really nice, I think.”
Cultivating a great team includes being on the same page with your cast and crew and establishing expectations from the start. As Lawrence told Inquirer.net in 2017, honesty is essential for success:
“It’s important to be as blunt and upfront as possible. So, I was clear with everybody involved from the beginning—what was going to be needed, what the scenes were going to be like. Because then, once you’re there and on the day, everybody knows what’s expected. There are no questions, no surprises—and you just do it.”
Surprise Your Audience
Invoking surprise from an audience may seem rather easy, but it is no simple feat. To best accomplish this, Lawrence advises finding a balance between building up anticipation and paying off too early. In an interview with Collider in 2015, he said:
“For me the idea is surprise. So if you sort of keep setting up that expectation, and then not paying it off, you know, you’ve ideally found that spot where people don’t know what to think and feel for a moment, and then they actually get surprised. Because I think where it doesn’t work is if you sort of lead up to that anticipation and then you give the surprise because then it’s sort of expected. If it was right around that first corner, it would have been expected, but you also don’t want to bore people because it can go on for too long, and so you have to find the right balance in editorial.”
See more of that interview here:
Make Timeless Movies
One way to make sure your film is still cherished years after its release date is to consider its appeal to future generations. In an interview with Den of Geek from 2018, Lawrence noted that he makes timelessness a priority:
“No, what was deliberate was to make it feel timeless, I always want to try to make films feel timeless, because one of my biggest pet peeves is that there’s a movie you love, and then you revisit it twenty years later, you show your kid or something, and it’s like, “Oh my God!” with hairstyles and clothing and all that kind of stuff. Ideally it’s timeless. The way the movie looks, really, is from reference material. So we worked with the production designer, Maria Djurkovic, who had done ‘Tinker Tailor,’ and a bunch of other great stuff. She and I just pulled thousands and thousands and thousands of photographs from Russia and Budapest and did a lot of work, especially thinking about ‘What are Dominika’s living conditions?’, and based everything, color palate included, on that kind of material. What I found interesting was that you’d have something like that, but then you’d have a modern car, you’d have a cell phone, and so you’ve got that variety.”
Don’t Be Pressured
Pleasing large audiences is often a primary goal for a director, but at the end of the day, you try your best with the hope that you can reach as many viewers as possible. In an interview with Hey U Guys in 2015, Lawrence suggested focusing on that:
“You just want the movie to be the best it can be for everybody. You know, it’s kind of the filmmaker’s job to use visual, cinematic language in a way possible to tell a story that reaches and touches as many people as possible. That pressure is always there. The fans to me have always been really supportive. I’m not worried about the people that are camping out for 5 days. I know they’ll love the movie. I adore them and I love the support and I feel that support and that actually helps me. But I definitely don’t feel pressure because of them.”
See the rest of that interview here:
In our own interview with Lawrence from 2013, he mentioned this point, noting his fans as a motivating factor for him.
“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.”
What We Learned
Becoming a successful director does not happen overnight. It involves years of hard work, practice, and dedication until you reach a place where you feel prepared enough to tackle big projects. Having a great crew working alongside you can help immensely, but you should always be upfront with those working with you. Worrying about pleasing audiences with your film is important, but it shouldn’t be your only concern. Just focus on what makes your film special and that in and of itself will attract viewers.