The installments of The Hunger Games film franchise directed by Francis Lawrence (which is all of them except the first film) have been greeted, for the most part, positively. That was especially true of Catching Fire, and the reviews for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 have been very good so far. The outlier is Mockingjay — Part 1, which received a comparatively more lukewarm reception – with the film being criticized for being mostly setup for Part 2. Francis Lawrence has read the criticism, but doesn’t quite see it that way and defends Part 1, “I still stand behind it. I really do think it was sort of a cynical perspective on splitting a book into two movies. And the people who thought it was a cash-grab didn’t like it, and other people really got the idea and themes and really grabbed onto it.”
Regardless, if you do still think the first half of Mockingjay was setup, the second half, which hits theaters this week, is your payoff – a movie that involves much more action, an underground zombie fight, and payoff scenes that the whole series has been leading us towards. Unfortunately, some of these scenes had to be filmed without the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Plutarch, a central character in this last film. Ahead, Francis Lawrence explains what he wanted to accomplish with this last chapter of The Hunger Games story and just how he worked around losing one of his beloved stars.
You’ve mentioned before how you were inspired by Breaking Bad in the way you do cliffhangers for these movies. Mockingjay Part 2 definitely has the Breaking Bad beginning. It jumps right in.
It assumes you’re up to speed.
Absolutely. I like it when you can do that. I think it was pretty easy. And the interesting thing, in the making of the two movies, for awhile, Part 1 was going to end with Peeta [Josh Hutcherson] getting knocked out while he was choking Katniss [Jennifer Lawrence]. And it was going to cut to black and that was going to be it.
People would have loved that.
I think it would have made people angry.
I was being sarcastic.
[Laughs.] Okay, good.
People would not have liked that.
And that was my fear. And while we were shooting and starting to cut it together, we had already shot what was supposed to be the beginning of Part 2: Katniss waking up in a hospital bed, and then the speech that Coin gives to District 13 about unification of the districts and now we’re going to go after the capital, then Katniss goes and sees Peeta strapped to the table. That was originally going to be the open for Part 2. So, when we moved that to become the end of Part 1 – which happened while we were still shooting – it became very clear that, oh, Part 2 is going to open, rip, that collar comes off, and we see the damage Peeta did and Katniss is trying to get her voice back. It became very clear and it stuck that way.
Last year when we spoke, you were still very emotional about Philip Seymour Hoffman. Now a year later, is it different? Has it changed to that it’s nice we get to see him again?
Yeah, I think it changed to that. In the beginning, it was really difficult to look at footage. At first, I didn’t know how I was going to look through footage and sift through stuff and work on scenes with him. And then that became easier. And then it becomes normal. And then it becomes a movie. You know, actors playing characters. And every once in awhile, I’ll see it and sometimes it’s the change in format; when I was looking at an IMAX version of the movie a couple of weeks ago, suddenly there’s his face huge on the screen. And it sort of hits you again and you’re reminded of him. And, yeah, that happens. But it’s sort of a changed experience over the last two years.
There’s a scene in which Haymitch reads a letter to Katniss that’s from Plutarch. Was that originally Philip Seymour Hoffman’s scene?
Yeah. He had two major scenes and a sort of handful of appearances in scenes left when he died. There was one major scene for each movie. Elizabeth Banks took over a scene for him on Part 1 and this was the scene for him in Part 2. It was supposed to be Plutarch coming to her and having a conversation with her and saying these things to her, not a letter. So, it became very clear that it was going to have to be Woody coming to her, Haymitch, and reading the letter from Plutarch. And what’s interesting about it is that some of the ideas are not from the book. The majority of it is, but some of them were actually Phil’s ideas. So, in rehearsal before shooting, when he and I would sit down and talk about the character and talk about the scenes, he had some ideas that got incorporated, but he was never able to say them.
And it still makes sense narratively that he would write a letter, because Plutarch is mysterious.
Yeah, it does. I mean, there are moments where he wasn’t there [for a major scene], so we had to use footage of him and figure out how it feels like he’s there. You know, we’re not manipulating it, it’s real footage of him. But, had he been there, we wouldn’t have shot him that way. He would have been much more incorporated. He would have been a much bigger presence there. So, it’s stuff like that because when you have the real person playing a real character on the day, on the set, in rehearsal and blocking, it just becomes a whole different thing.
With Mockingjay not being about a Hunger Games tournament and having a kind of complicated ending, was there anything in the book you didn’t think worked cinematically?
Not the stuff that’s in the movie. There were some complicated moments, so there was a lot of tracking characters and objectives and things like that to make the voting scene really work. So, that’s complicated, but I didn’t worry about it cinematically. I think anything we worried about narratively got excised and didn’t make it into the script – because there’s quite a lot that happens. There’s a trial of Katniss in the book that we just knew would never work.
How did you know?
I just think at a certain point you have to streamline the beats and what needs to happen and what needs to get wrapped up. And you just kind of realize a trial for Katniss feels like a whole other story unto itself.
Gale [Liam Hemsworth] in Mockingjay has, let’s say, a complicated and vague resolution that comes from the book – which I’ll be vague about, but people who read the book will know what we’re talking about. Did that create challenges for making the movie?
No, because I think, quite honestly, he’s not positive. I don’t think he’s been told. I don’t think it’s him being vague as much as I don’t think he knew about the specific plan. You’ve seen him planning traps like that, right? And those were probably put into play. So, for me, what’s happening is, yes, clearly there’s a connection, he’s just not sure because nobody has told him, “Hey, we took your design and used it and that’s the thing that did it.” So, it’s not being vague, but I think he questioned it himself when he saw it.
In the middle of this movie, you basically get to make a zombie movie.
We haven’t seen something like that in a Hunger Games movie.
We’ve seen the Muttations in the first one. And we had the monkeys, but they feel more organic to their landscape than human-lizard mutations in a sewer. But it was definitely a fun sequence. It was one of the hardest to shoot in the series.
Cramped, dark tunnels. Everyone ducked down. Water, fire, fighting. A month in that? Nobody was very happy shooting that sequence. But, it was still fun to do and a fun sequence on the movie.
There were opinions that Part 1 was setup. Are you glad this is finally here, in a, “Well, if you think that was setup, here’s your payoff,” kind of way?
There is a lot going on. I don’t know if it’s relief yet. It’s interesting, because when I look at criticism, for the most part, I sort of take it to heart and try to learn something. It’s interesting, with Mockingjay Part 1, I still stand behind it. I really do think it was sort of a cynical perspective on splitting a book into two movies. And the people who thought it was a cash-grab didn’t like it, and other people really got the idea and themes and really grabbed onto it. And I don’t know how to have made this book in one movie without excising a huge amount of story.
I was talking to Suzanne Collins the other day, and you’d have to get Peeta back by the end of act one. An entire story: The propaganda idea, and media manipulation, and the manipulation of people would have had to happen within 25 or 30 pages. I mean, God, I just don’t know. The evolution of Coin, the evolution of Peeta coming back from that moment and coming back all the way around again: I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to make it feel earned in another hour and a half. It’s just tricky, so I still stand behind it. And I knew going in it was going to be a tricky one because it would be the first of the series that was going to be completely, tonally different. No Games, Katniss — who is shooting arrows left and right in the other movies — is suddenly sidelined. It’s her second act low point in the series. It’s a much more political and thematic movie than the others. I get it, and I stand behind it.
And people loved Catching Fire, which, like you said is tonally different
Yes. And it’s that step that I think we needed to take to continue the story and see her hit that low through another gauntlet, a political gauntlet. And to get into that and come out the other end into this movie — and everybody earn those journeys.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.