Director Francis Lawrence will keep making 'Hunger Games' movies as long as writer Suzanne Collins has a story to tell

Director Francis Lawrence will keep making 'Hunger Games' movies as long as writer Suzanne Collins has a story to tell
  • Warning: There are some spoilers ahead for "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes."

  • Director Francis Lawrence spoke about returning to direct his fourth movie for the franchise.

  • Lawrence said the third act was the trickiest to nail.

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"The Hunger Games" franchise director Francis Lawrence didn't expect to return to Panem a fourth time, but the odds were ever in his favor.

"When we finished the last 'Mockingjay' in 2015, there were no other plans for books," Lawrence told Business Insider over Zoom in October.

Lawrence wanted to work with "Hunger Games" author Suzanne Collins and producer Nina Jacobson again, but only under the right circumstances. Only if Collins wrote another book. Eventually, he got his wish.

"We weren't interested in a studio-driven rehash of a 'Hunger Games' thing. It had to come from Suzanne. And at the time, there were no plans," Lawrence said. "I think it was the end of 2019 that Suzanne called me and called Nina and said, 'Hey, surprise, I'm almost done with a new book.' We were shocked because she had no plans when we last spoke to her."

Set 64 years before the events of the first movie, "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" follows the origin story of how and why Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) turned cold and eventually rose to power only to be defied and dethroned by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Spoiler: It's because of a girl.

The prequel features another romance, albeit an ill-fated one, between the straight-laced Snow and a "Hunger Games" tribute he's assigned to mentor, the extroverted, free-spirited singer Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). It also stars Viola Davis as the head gamemaker and Peter Dinklage as Snow's standoffish dean.

Business Insider spoke with Lawrence about the movie's ending, casting Zegler as Lucy Gray, and what he enjoys most about the filmmaking process.

Was it odd to return to "The Hunger Games" without Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson after spending so much time in this world with them? Did you reach out to either of them or did they reach out when you were starting work, even just to wish you luck?

I talk to Jen all the time. I mean, she and I have remained friends and stay in contact and see each other every once in a while and all that. So it wasn't specifically reaching out about it. She and I certainly spoke about it.

I think she's really excited for it and happy we're doing it.

"The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" is the longest of "The Hunger Games" series by over a hundred pages. Did you know what you were going to cut or what needed to be tweaked since this wasn't going to be two films like "Mockingjay?" What was the trickiest thing about adapting this one?

Tom Blyth as Coriolanus Snow in "The Hunger Games" prequel movie.
Francis Lawrence said moving into the third act, which shows Snow sent to District 12 to work as a Peacekeeper, was tricky to work out.Lionsgate

We knew the general structure of the book. Initially, I felt like the biggest and sort of trickiest area was going to be the first act because, in the book, there was a lot of going back and forth between the classrooms and the zoo, and in the movie, we're not going to want to just be: "Classroom, zoo, classroom, zoo, classroom, zoo." So we were going to have to combine ideas and scenes into smaller doses of zoo and classroom.

The other one was moving into the third act. People are so conditioned to think that these movies are over at the end of the games — that there's this whole other section of story out of the games, I knew that was going to be tricky to ease into that transition and ease people into an act that they're not used to with these movies.

Was the bow Lucy does in the film meant as a call back to Katniss?

Katniss Everdeen and Lucy Gray Baird in "The Hunger Games" franchise
Katniss Everdeen and Lucy Gray Baird in "The Hunger Games" franchise.Lionsgate; composite by Kirsten Acuna/Insider

They should definitely draw parallels, but it was actually an improvised moment.

I came up with the idea on the day for her to do it, to do the curtsy bow. We were always looking at any given moment, through the process of making this film, of nodding to the origins of certain things, right? So Lucy Gray writes "The Hanging Tree." Great. So we see the Hanging Tree for the first time. People meet at the Hanging Tree. She sings it for the first time.

But I thought it could be really interesting if Katniss had done it because she's heard that, generations ago, there was a woman who sort of irreverently did this curtsy bow after this performance on stage when she's dragged off to the games. I just liked the idea that Lucy Gray was actually the first one to do it and that there was a history of it. Same with the Hanging Tree.

Rachel Zegler originally turned down the role of Lucy Gray because she was filming abroad for another production, "Snow White." Was there a backup idea if Zegler wasn't cast?

No. We were really struggling. The problem was that, when she passed, she hadn't even started filming. I was in London doing the score for my previous movie, and she had pretty much just gotten to London and it was still the pandemic, so she was quarantined and wasn't going out a lot. There's not a huge cast in that movie.

So she was feeling pretty isolated and alone and had this whole sort of prep period and shoot period ahead of her. When she discovered our production was going to start three days after the wrap of her production and she was going to go further into Europe, further away from her boyfriend, further away from her family and friends for another five, six months, I think that really freaked her out.

We met for four hours and she asked the schedule at the end of the meeting. I told her and I saw her go pale. She really wanted to do it, but it was more of an emotional issue.

Then it just happened that we cast Josh Rivera to play Sejanus on his own merits and discovered this is Rachel's boyfriend. And I'm like, "I wonder, we're at the end of her production, maybe she's seeing light at the end of the tunnel with her boyfriend already going to be out in Poland, in Germany with us, maybe..."

Sure enough, she came back and said, "Is the job still open?" I was like, "Yes." We got very lucky.

Are you concerned about how fans may react to the film's ending and the fallout between Lucy and Snow?

Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler in "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes."
Lucy Gray starts to distrust Snow toward the end of "The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes."Murray Close/Lionsgate

I'm not worried about fan reaction. We work with Suzanne and we stay true to the spirit of the book and the spirit of the characters. What we really tried to do was make the movie as emotional an experience as possible.

We have to, ideally, get the audience rooting for and empathizing with the guy who's going to become the antagonist and the villain of the original series, and I think we did do that. Part of that is Tom Blyth is a great actor, but I think we did succeed in getting people to root for him.

We still have to do it in a way where there's tension between the two of them and his turn into the Snow we know by the end is believable. So it's riding that line. That was probably, honestly, one of the trickiest things for us to figure out, but we wanted it to be as emotional as possible.

Is Lucy's story over?

That's entirely up to Suzanne. Not just with Lucy Gray, but with any of the characters. To me, it's always up to Suzanne whether or not there's more story.

There's a statue or monument in Heavensbee Hall, named after the family of Philip Seymour Hoffman's character. Is that a little nod to him? There's a face on it.

Francis Lawrence didn't realize his face was going to be so large in the "Hunger Games" prequel.
Francis Lawrence didn't realize his face was going to be so large in the "Hunger Games" prequel.Lionsgate

The face is actually me.

Oh, get out.

Yes. The face is actually me, and I will say, either my voice will be in it or a picture is somebody's grandfather or a little sort of relief, a statue. I'm always happy to do a little thing like that.

I thought when the art department was building this thing, it was going to be 12 inches tall or something, this teeny thing. I walked on set for the first time when it was dressed, and this face of mine was like four feet tall, and I was like, "Oh my God." I never wanted to be this featured. I wanted to hide it.

So, if you notice, Peter Dinklage is always kind of blocking it, so it's not too clear. But it's my face.

You have a packed schedule ahead. "Constantine 2" (which you're working on with Keanu Reeves and producer Akiva Goldsman), "I Am Legend 2," "BioShock." What are you most excited for?

I'm definitely excited to do a "Constantine" sequel because we've been talking about it for so long, and we've had so many hurdles in getting some control over the character again. So the idea that the three of us are sitting in rooms batting around ideas, it's really feeling like we could make it at some point.

I'm now attached to "The Long Walk," the Stephen King book. Very excited about that. "BioShock." There's a Sublime movie that I've been developing that we have a great script for.

You once said you originally thought you would graduate film school, make a movie, and win an Academy Award, but you were "ill-prepared" at the time. Is the goal still to win an Oscar one day and do you feel prepared now? Is that time coming?

No, I don't think — That's not the goal. The truth is that was the dumb 17-year-old that's starting film school that just thinks, "Oh, you go to film school. You'll learn how to direct. You graduate. Somebody hires you to make a movie."

I certainly don't have awards in mind when I make things. The truth is, over time, and having made movies for 20 years, I've discovered the end result is weirdly such a small percentage of the time. The real time spent is the actual journey of making something — so the development, the prepping, the shooting, the finishing.

The truth is, I just want to love and believe in whatever it is that I'm making and want to live in that world with this crew, this cast for two-to-three years of my life because, at the end of the day, that's what I'm going to be thinking about and remembering.

I'm not going to be looking at a shelf of DVDs of my movies, and I'm certainly not going to be looking at a shelf of awards for videos I did. I'm going to be thinking about the friends and the collaborators and whether or not people were moved by things that I made.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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