[This story contains spoilers for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes.]
Prequels are tough to get right. For every Better Call Saul, there are ten more stories that failed to enrich the works that came before them. However, Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes manages to not only stand on its own, but as a prequel, it also deepens the text of the Hunger Games films starring Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen.
The filmmaker chalks it up to the strength of author Suzanne Collins’ source material, as well as the performances of his two leads, Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler. In one of the climactic scenes of the film, Blyth has to sell Coriolanus Snow’s transformation that would later define Donald Sutherland’s tyrannical version of the character, and Lawrence remains in awe of what the young actor accomplished with minimal dialogue.
“[The forest sequence] my favorite sequence in the movie. It’s where we really see Snow go through this series of emotions for the first time and descend into the darkness that we know will come with the philosophies of the later Snow,” Lawrence tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Tom’s performance was amazing. So, to just watch him go through the fear of the snakebite and the anger of being betrayed to the grief of being left, darkness settles in, and he realizes, ‘If I can’t trust the last person on this earth that I thought I could trust, then Gaul must be right.’”
From the song “The Hanging Tree” to a mocking curtsy, Zegler establishes the legend of Lucy Gray Baird that would go on to influence Katniss many decades later.
“Rachel and I improvised [the curtsy bow] on the day, and it’s one of those things that now informs us when Katniss does it,” Lawrence says. “She probably heard a story about how 65 years earlier, some young woman got reaped and sang defiantly and did this curtsy. So Katniss is actually calling back to something from the past, as opposed to just making it up on her own.”
As long as Collins is able to provide a story outline at the very least, Lawrence would love to pick up where he left off in Songbirds & Snakes and make his fifth Hunger Games film, but for now, he’s turning his attention to developing Constantine 2 with Keanu Reeves and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. The triumvirate have been trying to launch a sequel to their 2005 superhero-horror film for quite some time.
“The regime at DC changed, and they’ve got their plans. But luckily, we managed to wrangle some control and started working on some ideas for Constantine 2, which we’re really excited about,” Lawrence shares. “It’s still the very beginning, as the strike put it on hold for a little bit. So we’re probably going to start getting back together after Thanksgiving, and dig back in to try and crack it.”
Below, during a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Lawrence also explains why he does not recommend two-part stories and titles.
So I love that you left it all on the field this time and didn’t split the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes book.
I’m happy I didn’t split the book either. (Laughs.)
A decade ago, do you think they would’ve had you turn the Peacekeeper section into its own movie?
I don’t know. It’s hard to say with this one. It was a different mindset with that whole [original] series, but as you’ve probably read, I do now look back and regret splitting [Mockingjay] into two. That was not my idea to do two. That idea happened before I was even asked to do them, but there was no way I was going to split this one.
Hollywood fell in love with two–part movies ten years ago, but when the first part of the final Divergent story, Allegiant, didn’t do well at the box office, everybody started abandoning that approach. However, in the last couple years, part ones and twos have started to return again, at least until a few weeks ago when Mission: Impossible 8 decided to drop its part two title. So it’s like the film industry is re-learning the same lesson it learned a decade ago. Do you ultimately advise against two-part titles?
I do. I was really surprised by how much shit we got for splitting it, because we truly did think that there were two distinct stories to tell with their own dramatic questions. But I look back and I realize that there’s a frustration level. It’s different from an episode of TV where you have to wait a week. You build up to a point and you want to know where the story is going to go, but now you have to wait a year to see the rest. So I understand the frustrations involved with that.
I saw photos of Rachel Zegler and Jennifer Lawrence at a fashion show not too long ago, and it got me thinking about torch passing. While part of me thinks that it isn’t Jennifer’s style, did you ever ask her if she’d give Rachel a word of encouragement or pass the torch in some way?
No, they’re just so different. Jen and I have remained friends and we talk all the time, and I kept her up to date on the development and the making of the movie. And weirdly, she and Rachel are both associated with Dior and met at that thing in Paris for the first time. So they had some kind words to say to each other, but no, there was no official passing of the torch or anything like that.
You mentioned that they’re different, but they both had great success at a young age. They’re wunderkinds. But is that where the similarities end? Are they wildly different performers beyond that?
No, not really. Obviously, they’re different kinds of people, but they’re very similar in a lot of ways. They’re both, and especially at the beginning, very young but also very bright. They’re very smart, and they’re both very instinctual actors. It doesn’t feel like there’s a ton of prep and a ton of practice and a ton of rehearsal. You turn the camera on, you call action, and they’re present. They’re present, they’re listening, they’re responding, and it’s instinctual and immediate. So that keeps things exciting and surprising, and both of them are very good at doing that.
I also appreciate that neither is afraid to offer their opinion and tell it like it is.
Did you always know that you’d be using Rachel’s live vocals, or were they so impressive that you canceled proper studio sessions?
No, we still did studio sessions and some of them will be on the album, but weirdly, the studio sessions were almost like a rehearsal. They were really Rachel’s first time singing to the tracks that had been recorded with the musicians, and she was able to work with Dave Cobb, our producer-songwriter, to make sure we got the tone right for the genre of music that we were doing. And luckily, she’s just so talented, and she slipped into it perfectly and immediately. And because singing is so easy for her, my goal was always to have her sing live. So we took the knowledge from the recording studio [to set], but you also can’t recreate some of these scenes that we were doing, especially emotionally, by sitting in a dark recording studio with a couple of candles lit and a big microphone in your face. It’s very different than singing an a capella song in an arena while you’re pushing yourself up a slab of concrete in fear, defiance and rage. So we just wanted her to be more present, and it was great that she could do it.
What I love about prequels is that they recontextualize the future stories we’ve seen. They can create a new dimension or perspective on an existing moment in the future. So did you revisit the original movies and pinpoint moments to add new meaning to via this prequel?
A lot of it came from Suzanne’s [Collins] book. A huge part of the book is the creation of the games, the expansion of the games, the audience participation in the games and the hanging tree. So there was a lot of stuff that was just from the book that we knew we were going to be telling the origins of, and along the way, I knew that I was going to try as best as I could to put in little Easter eggs and also recontextualize things. The one thing that people picked up on very quickly in the teaser trailer is Lucy Gray’s curtsy bow, which was not in the book or the script. Rachel and I improvised that on the day, and it’s one of those things that now informs us when Katniss does it. She probably heard a story about how 65 years earlier, some young woman got reaped and sang defiantly and did this curtsy. So Katniss is actually calling back to something from the past, as opposed to just making it up on her own.
The Hunger Games and your old friend Keanu Reeves [John Wick] are the crown jewels of Lionsgate. Did you ever feel the weight of an entire studio? Could you feel that pressure while making this movie?
No, I tried not to. There’s always a moment in the making of a movie — especially in prep, when you’re still budgeting and you’re trying to hit a number and everything’s becoming real and starting to lock in — where you have friction over budget and where you are, and what my appetite is versus their appetite. It’s all that kind of stuff. But the truth is, in general, they’ve been very supportive of me on the last movies and this movie, in terms of what we actually want to make.
It’d be a real shame to not build on this story and make further use of the impressive cast you’ve assembled. I know you’re taking your cues from Suzanne Collins, but books can take a while. So if she were to hand you an outline of the next story, would that be enough for you guys to pursue a sequel?
Probably. The truth is, if it comes from Suzanne, then I would be really interested. But it’s always because she writes from such a thematic foundation and then builds stories around some idea she wants to talk about. So, if that was there and then she had the story she wanted to tell around that, I would be more than happy to jump back in, even if it was early days.
Has she whispered in your ear where Lucy Gray is?
No, we haven’t talked about it. The whole idea is that it’s a mystery.
And you certainly weren’t going to ask.
I just think it’s so bold that a franchise movie ended with its lead character basically having a mental breakdown in this impressively shot forest sequence. It’s such a psychological ending.
I love that sequence. It’s my favorite sequence in the movie. It’s where we really see Snow go through this series of emotions for the first time and descend into the darkness that we know will come with the philosophies of the later Snow. And I just love doing sequences like this because it has very little dialogue. It’s very visual. It was a great day in the forest, and the light was beautiful, but Tom’s performance was amazing. So, to just watch him go through the fear of the snakebite and the anger of being betrayed to the grief of being left, darkness settles in, and he realizes, “If I can’t trust the last person on this earth that I thought I could trust, then Gaul must be right.” And to sell all of that with just performance was really beautiful and really satisfying to shoot. Yeah, it’s by far my favorite sequence in the movie.
Peter Dinklage’s monologue en route to Highbottom’s death really bowled me over as well. What’s the story behind his performance that day?
There weren’t a lot of takes. It’s always a little nerve-wracking when you have characters with a lot of dialogue. So, whether it’s his opening speech about the games and what the new rules and prize are, or his speech to Snow at the end, there’s always a worry because it can take a really long time for some people. But Peter is an amazing actor, and he’s a quick-out-of-the-gate actor. He knows what he’s doing, so you’re doing three or four takes to just let him play a little bit and to get some variations and options. But the truth is that it was not belabored at all. It was just fantastic.
You and your DP Jo Willems have always done great work, but it seems like you really leveled up on this one. What do you attribute that to in this case?
We’ve been growing our visual style together a little bit. We’ve been using larger format digital cameras with larger format sensors, which have a different lens package. We were using these really wide lenses, but they’re rectilinear, so you can shoot up close to people and not distort like normal fish eyes would. They’re just built differently now. Plus, you have the large format sensor, and that really changes the way things look and feel. In that scene in the forest, the camera was probably an inch and a half or two inches away from Tom’s face. And so the depth of field is very shallow, but the clarity is perfect. So it’s all tack sharp, and if you choose the right time of day with the light in the right spot and you prep it just right, all the things line up.
When Warners and DC changed regimes again, did you assume that your Constantine sequel was dead in the water once more?
No, but we’ve had many obstacles. Me, Keanu, Akiva [Goldsman] have tried over the years to wrangle some control of the character again, because it had been handed over. I think NBC did a TV show, and then J.J. [Abrams] was going to try and do something. And then the regime at DC changed, and they’ve got their plans. But luckily, we managed to wrangle some control and started working on some ideas for Constantine 2, which we’re really excited about. It’s still the very beginning, as the strike put it on hold for a little bit. So we’re probably going to start getting back together after Thanksgiving, and dig back in to try and crack it.
Speaking of Akiva, how come I Am Legend has struggled to get a sequel going all these years?
It’s a tough one. We talked about a sequel or prequel right after we made the original one. Then we all went off and did different things. And then I remember hearing that they were going to just do a reboot of it and remake it with somebody else, but then that went away. I know that Akiva is working on something now, but honestly, my focus is on Constantine 2. So we’ll see. Best of luck.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is now playing in movie theaters.