Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, Water for Elephants, I Am Legend) may be a non-traditional choice considering his heavy background in music videos, but as the following interview suggests, he might be the perfect choice for the job of closing out The Hunger Games. Lawrence showed he’s a director who can paint on a big canvas with a strong character at the center of it, which is exactly what this series needs. Having spoken to Lawrence shortly before he was tapped to helm the remaining Hunger Games films, we discussed his process, career, how he sees his work, and what type of films he’s interested in making.
Jack Giroux: All of your films so far have been adaptations. Do you just really enjoy having fans watch your every move?
Francis Lawrence: No, actually, I really don’t [Laughs]. I have to say, doing Water for Elephants, it was nice because it was out of the fanboy world. My first two movies were in that comic book, fanboy, sci-fi fantasy world, where you have all these guys who live on their computers watching your every move. It was nice with Water for Elephants, because the fans of the book were really supportive all the way through. Usually, it’s the other way around, dealing with every little thing. For Constantine, people said, “He’s not English or blond,” and the list goes on.
JG: Do you ever feel like saying, “It’s a movie,”?
FL: Yeah, all the time. By the way, it is an adaptation, so things have to change sometimes.
JG: How seriously do you take those reactions? I love what Matthew Vaughn once said, “You’ll read a negative reaction online, but it may be from a 10-year-old who knows nothing about making movies.”
FL: That’s absolutely true. Also, usually the people who feel so passionately about a certain comic, especially Hellblazer, which isn’t the biggest comic in the world, it’s a small slice of the moviegoing public.
JG: For Water for Elephants, did you see that as a way of not only being known solely as a genre filmmaker?
FL: No, I didn’t do it specifically for that. I think I’m just interested in certain kinds of stories and building worlds. I’ve always wanted to do a movie about the circus, and then I came across this book, talked to the guys who had the rights, and it was something I wanted to do. I liked the themes in it, the characters, and it was really about trying to make a good movie. I didn’t see it as a way of getting out of the genre stuff.
JG: I’m sure you mostly get offered that genre stuff, right?
FL: The genre stuff? Oh, yeah.
JG: Even though Water for Elephants is different for you, it has a theme that’s been a part of all your films; isolation. What draws you to that theme?
FL: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve never really thought about it for all three movies. I think you’re definitely right though. With I Am Legend, that was the big thing that appealed to me. I loved that character study and the psychological ideas of, “What happens when you’re alone? How do you survive? How do you keep your humanity?” I think the idea of movies which are centered around single people are interesting to me, and being specific with that point-of-view is what makes for the eyes of the audience, carrying them through whatever the world and narrative is.
JG: You said you wanted to make a less nihilistic movie after I Am Legend. Do you still see that movie that way?
FL: Yeah, it is hopefully. The original [ending] is less hopeful. Have you seen it?
JG: Yes. I prefer that ending, actually.
FL: It’s pretty nihilistic in the sense that there’s no hope for humanity; these things have been perceived wrongly, there’s a new society formed on Earth, he didn’t find a cure, and they drive off into the unknown not sure whether there’s any survivors. That’s pretty nihilistic, but not as nihilistic as the original novel.
JG: Was it tough adapting the extremes of the novel?
FL: The book is pretty extremes at times, but this was a very loose adaptation of the book. It takes somethings from the book, The Omega Man, and some things we completely made up. The original novel is vampires and takes place in Compton, so it’s different. Our original ending is what the novella was about, though; the idea of being scared of these creatures we only know as legend, and then we realize they’re the norm; man is the monster. We had some of that in the first ending, not in the theatrical release.
JG: What ending do you prefer?
FL: I like both in different ways. I prefer the original one, because it’s the philosophical ending I enjoy; that what we perceive as the monster isn’t really the monster. I might skew that direction. In tests, people really, really hated it.
JG: I’ve heard filmmakers say that’s a major problem with test screenings, when it comes to dealing with ambitious endings; you’re asking for gut reactions.
FL: Yeah, the endings are always the biggest things with these test cards. I both hate them and like them. I think it’s the most nerve-wracking moment, doing those test screenings. You do learn from them, though; what’s confusing, slow, or too fast.
JG: Making that movie, it must have been nice thinking, “We got 150 million to make a slow-burn character study without much action.”
FL: Yeah, that was something we were all a little nervous about. In our heads, Will Smith, Akiva Goldsman (screenwriter), and I thought it was a weird little art movie about this guy who lives alone in Manhattan. We had to make sure there was enough to warrant it was the big movie it was. My worry was it wasn’t going to be enough of a big movie for some people and not enough a character study for some people — that it would fall somewhere in the middle. It seemed to work.
JG: With Constantine and I Am Legend, you started off going big with features. Why not start small?
FL: Well, it was something I liked. I did music videos for so many years, and I never intended doing music videos. At the point of finding an agent, it was looking for a script I could really sink my teeth into. I wanted to find a world I wanted to build. You know, when you’re going to make your first movie, you’re not getting the best scripts out there. You’re turning toward things you think you could make special. When I found Constantine, I liked the ideas of it; it had nothing to do with size. When you do music videos — and people see your videos — you start getting offered everything that’s music-driven.
JG: Coming from the world of music video filmmaking, how tough would it be finding a music video you could make personal?
FL: Yeah, it is tough. There are so many factors involved in making a music video. The great thing about making a movie is it can be what it wants to be. With a music video, the idea is always going to be dictated by the song. You have a song with a certain tone, tempo, and lyrics, and so you have to build something around what you didn’t create. Also, it’s going to be dictated by whatever artist it is. It’s hard to make something personal when you have parameters.
JG: Do you often get free reign over a music video?
FL: Yeah. I mean, look, Justin Timberlake‘s ‘Cry Me a River’, I had the idea of a performer getting revenge on their boyfriend or girlfriend for a long time. Then, when Justin’s first solo came out, I turned in this treatment. I had turned in ideas before where I got yelled at, like, “There is no way we’re doing this. You’re going to make our artist look bad. There’s no way he’s doing this. Stalk them while they’re in the shower? No.” Justin went for it, and he didn’t change anything about the idea. I don’t really get that for movies often. I’ve never felt forced into doing anything for the studios. I’ve always felt supported for the three movies I’ve done. I think, because of where I came from, people trust the visual side of my work. I don’t think they question that stuff. I think my responsibility comes from being responsible, telling the truth, and not bullshitting people. If I say I can do something for a certain amount of time and money, I do it. That’s what gets you freedom.
JG: When it comes to art and commerce, you’ve made three films so far which have struck a nice balance. Is that something you always hope to achieve with each project?
FL: Yeah, that’s something I really try to do. I always try to make it my own. I think my taste lands somewhere between the commercial and the art, and it is finding that balance. I know I want to make movies a lot of people go to see. I’m not making movies for just critics, or for ten people in Europe who are going to love it. You know, I do think about what an audience might think. The stuff that drives me. Again, when you look at the first hour of Robert (Will Smith) driving alone in I Am Legend, that’s what really hooked me.
JG: Do you pay a lot of attention to what people say about your work?
FL: Unfortunately, I do [Laughs]. Sometimes it’s tough to read. It’s always weird releasing a movie. When you start in the business you think the release of a movie is going to be the climax of it all and it’s going to be so great, but it’s the worst. There’s nothing you can do about it anymore. It’s out there, everyone has an opinion, and all the opinions are so casual, in the sense of — you just spent two years of your life making this, and someone just goes, “Yeah, I sort of liked it…” Great, two years of my life and you sort of liked it! [Laughs]. That’s just one part of the neurosis of making a movie.
JG: For you, after the stress of those two years are over, what aspect of making a movie satisfies you the most?
FL: I don’t know. It’s an interesting question because, like I said, you think the most satisfying thing will be sitting back and watching a movie with an audience. I think it’s the moments along the way. Like, in prep, when you know there’s this fantastic world you can build, where you can see it all. That sense of hope is a great part of it. When shooting, when you get that beautiful shot or a scene which works out perfectly, that can feel great. In post-production, when you see a scene come together perfectly, it’s great. I love being in dubbing with all the sound guys at the very end, where the final movie comes together with all the effects. You’re seeing it without the stress of an audience.
Francis Lawrence has a hefty portion on his plate over the next three years; adapting a beloved franchise is an unenviable task. While many fans want an exact representation of what is found on the page, the practicality of this is often near impossible. often, departures from canon make excellent films. Take the scope of Michael Crichton’s rich and technical Jurassic Park novel, and Steven Spielberg‘s incredible adaptation of that content. While I’m always wary of directors and their “vision” for projects with a lot of source material, Lawrence seems creatively up to the task of delivering the next three Hunger Games films in a satisfying way.
We’ll find out if my instincts serve me well come November 22, 2013, when The Hunger Games: Catching Fire arrives in theaters.