‘Mockingjay’s’ Mastermind: Francis Lawrence on the Book vs. Movie, ISIS Parallels, and More
The acclaimed director of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 opens up about the final two chapters in the Jennifer Lawrence-starring film franchise.
“One of the big themes—if not the big theme—of Mockingjay – Part 1 is the battle of the airwaves,” director Francis Lawrence tells The Daily Beast. “I don’t think teenagers really understand the role propaganda has in our lives in terms of politics, advertising, and the general manipulation of imagery.”
The first of two final chapters in The Hunger Games saga, based on Suzanne Collins’ book of the same name, opens with our heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), in the nursing ward of District 13. She’s shell-shocked by the events of the third Quarter Quell, which saw her shatter the games’ force-field with an electrified arrow, and her diminutive lover-boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) be kidnapped by The Capitol, led by the irrepressibly evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
District 13 is serving as the de facto base of the rebel uprising, and is led by President Coin (Julianne Moore), a resolute, Hillary Clinton-esque leader, as well as her consigliere, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). They convince Katniss to serve as their “Mockingjay,” or symbolic leader, and have her make a series of propaganda videos to incite the other districts to fight back against The Capitol. She agrees to be their Rosie the Riveter under one condition: they save Peeta.
Mockingjay’s opening, with its heroine suffering from PTSD and trapped in this rebel colony, is very similar to that of Alien 3, directed by another former music video director of note, David Fincher.
“I never referenced Fincher’s Alien 3, but there are some definite connections to Ripley, for sure,” says Lawrence. “They’re both very lonely, isolated characters who are really strong and act from the gut. They’re also really resilient, and feel like real women. They don’t feel like they have superpowers by any means. And they’re skeptical of the establishment and not quick to trust.”
The two final Hunger Games films that comprise Mockingjay were shot back-to-back from September 2013 to June 2014 primarily in Atlanta, as well as Paris and Berlin for shots of The Capitol. Going into filming, Lawrence was aware of the mixed reaction that Collins’ final book in the series received from fans and critics alike.
“I was aware of it,” says Lawrence. “You follow sites and listen to people. Personally, I was excited about this book because I think it’s where the series gets it’s meaning, where all the themes come into play, and where it finishes.”
Some of the things Lawrence had to alter from the book involved President Coin, played by Julianne Moore. Since much of the novel is “very internal” and a lot of what we know of Coin comes via Katniss’ thoughts, the filmmaker had to not only add an introduction sequence between the two characters, but also work with Moore to flesh her out.
Ultimately, though, Lawrence relished the challenge of the Mockingjay films because they let him put his own stamp on the franchise, whose first installment was helmed by Gary Ross.
“With Catching Fire, I was dealing with a structure that was very similar to the first movie, where you had reaping, girls called in, train ride, get to The Capitol, meet the other tributes, go to training, ride the chariots. There are the beats,” says Lawrence. “I had to figure out how all those things could feel different. But here, there are no games so this is a continuation of the story that goes in a new direction.”
One of those new directions involves PTSD, torture, and propaganda. To combat the pro-rebel films featuring Katniss, President Snow reprograms Peeta, and creates a series of interview segments with his gaunt-looking captive where the baker’s son calls for a ceasefire and speaks ill of the pending rebel uprising.
According to Lawrence, Peeta’s treatment—and the videos of him regurgitating The Capitol’s words through intimidation and torture—are eerily similar to those of ISIS.
“I think there are parallels with ISIS,” says Lawrence. “We made this film before the videos were released, so it’s a chilling reminder of what can happen in the real world. Suzanne Collins wrote a series of books specifically about the consequences of war, and one of the facets we get to explore in this movie is the use of propaganda in war, and the manipulation of imagery and people in the use of propaganda. Unfortunately, this kind of thing has been happening for a really long time. Now, due to technology, it reaches people in a faster, more immediate way.”
Lawrence, 43, entered the filmmaking world while attending film school at Loyola Marymount University. He was 19, and managed to snag a summer internship with New Line Cinema. While he was there, they were about to film the movie Pump Up the Volume, and Lawrence ran into the film’s director, Allan Moyle, in the copy room and said, “Hey man, I think your script is awesome… best of luck.” He replied, “Want to be my assistant?”
During shooting, he hung out with the camera crew who taught him how to load mags, and for the film’s reshoots, worked as a camera assistant. Then, one of his college pals who ran a tiny record label out of his apartment hired him to shoot the music video for Michael Blakey’s “A Man Rides Through,” which Lawrence pulled off for a mere $3,000. More music videos folloed, including Wyclef Jean’s “Gone Till November” and “Ghetto Supastar,” from the movie Bulworth—which marked the first time he’d work with A-list actors in the form of the movie’s stars, Warren Beatty and Halle Berry.
His big break, he says, came when he landed the gig directing Aerosmith’s music video for “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” a ballad from the film Armageddon. And it turns out it all happened because of Michael Bay.
“I’d come up with the idea for the video, turned it in, and Jerry Bruckheimer said, ‘Nah, I don’t think he’s the guy for this. I don’t think he can pull it off,’” Lawrence recalls. “So, I was fired. Then, the next night, I got a call saying, ‘Michael Bay thinks you’re the only guy who can do this video.’ So I went in, met Michael Bay, and did the video, and it won an MTV Video Music Award and got me a ton of work. It changed my career.”
After that, he got signed by DNA, which reps many of the top music video and commercial directors, and more videos of note followed, including Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting For Tonight,” Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U,” and P.O.D.’s “Alive.” One of the more notable videos from his pre-feature filmmaking period is Lopez’s “Jenny From the Block,” featuring then-couple Lopez and Ben Affleck being stalked by paparazzi.
“It was at the time where that paparazzi thing was just reaching that feverish pitch where it is today, so I thought it was very fitting to do this spy footage and paparazzi footage-style video,” says Lawrence. “Ben [Affleck] was along for the ride! Although I think the non-narrative aspect was strange for him, and the speed of it was strange for him, and the glamour of it all—which Jen has in a lot of her videos—was a bit new to him.”
The only music video of Lawrence’s that’s ever been shelved, he says, was one he shot for the Nine Inch Nails song “Every Day is Exactly the Same,” because “Trent [Reznor] wasn’t happy with how he looked in the video.”
After helming the Aerosmith video, Lawrence also got representation for movies and began taking Hollywood meetings, which led to his 2005 directorial debut, Constantine—a noirish comic book movie featuring Keanu Reeves as a chain-smoking detective dying of lung cancer who’s caught in the middle of a war between God and Lucifer. While the movie wasn’t met with critical or commercial acclaim, it’s since gone on to build a cult following among fanboys.
“It’s a supernatural comic book movie, so I didn’t think it was a movie everyone was going to love, and it got mixed reviews,” Lawrence says. “At the time, I was coming off 12 years of music videos and was a little more focused on style, and not on story. It was a learning experience for me.”
You’ll have to wait ‘til November 20, 2015, to catch the final film in his lucrative franchise, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. Asked whether or not it includes that much-derided flash-forward sequence in the book, Lawrence laughs.
“I don’t know!” he exclaims. “It’s a spot where all the fans are going, ‘Is the epilogue in?’ and you’ve got to keep people guessing.”