Red Sparrow is not Atomic Blonde. This is something that director Francis Lawrence will be screaming from the top of every hill before you get a chance to see Red Sparrow. It’s true, Jennifer Lawrence at one point wears a blond wig, but that’s where the similarities end.
This is the fourth collaboration between Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence and the first that isn’t a Hunger Games film. Red Sparrow is a gritty, grim, deliberately paced movie about Russian espionage and features Lawrence in a role like we’ve never seen her before. Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika, a Russian woman who is forced into a Red Sparrow training program where its students are taught to use sex as a way to extract information. Her target is Nate (Joel Edgerton), an American CIA agent who has been in contact with an unknown Russian traitor. It’s a cat and mouse game where no one is really sure of who is working for whom.
And it’s important that these two have worked together as many times as they have, because a movie like Red Sparrow needs complete trust between its director and star. It’s a movie with intense violence and it’s a movie in which Jennifer Lawrence appears nude, about which she’s already commented that doing this film is a response to what happened to her when personal photos were stolen off of her phone. Lawrence told 60 Minutes, “I feel like something that was taken from me, I got back. It’s my body, it’s my art, and it’s my choice. And if you don’t like boobs, you should not go see Red Sparrow.”
And as Francis Lawrence wants to make clear, Jennifer Lawrence was the first person to see this movie after it was finished. She saw it before the studio and before the producers and had full authority to remove any scene she didn’t want in the movie – which she didn’t exercise. It’s clear with Red Sparrow that Jennifer Lawrence has something to say and Francis Lawrence, as he says ahead, had a duty to make sure these scenes work in a very specific way.
I met with Lawrence at a Midtown Manhattan hotel here in New York City. In my experience, he’s always been a straight shooter when it comes to interviews and is not against criticizing his past work to make a point. (Which he does here with a scene from I Am Legend.) Ahead, Francis Lawrence explains just how delicate a movie this was to make when it comes to tone, and explains how he came up with a disturbing torture scene involving a skin-grafting machine. Also, with a couple of years hindsight, we talk about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay being divided into two films, a decision he still 100 percent defends.
Red Sparrow is not what people will be expecting, which I assume is by design…
I mean, partially by design. I’m not doing it on purpose. I’m not doing the J.J. [Abrams] magic box thing. I don’t want to throw people off. I get very nervous about setting the table appropriately because I want people to be surprised because they find the movie unique. I don’t intend on people going in thinking they’re going to get a shit ton of action. I’m not intentionally doing that at all. I saw early on that people were starting to try and put it into a box. They see Jennifer in a blonde wig and the go, “Oh, it’s Atomic Blonde.”
Atomic Blonde is the movie I think a lot of people think this is going to be and it is not.
Exactly. And what that did for me, mostly, it just made me keep going back to the studio – this wasn’t a fight, it was a discussion that we had; they’ve been great, honestly – in that we have to be super careful how we sell the movie because I don’t want to miss-sell it. I don’t want people to think it’s an action movie.
This feels like a gritty Cold War movie from 30 years ago.
Look, I read the book and I fell in love with it. I was in love with the character and the dilemma – that she was a very unlikely hero and also reluctant hero and I find that really interesting. And also selling the brutal side of espionage, versus glamorizing it, which is also very interesting to me.
Speaking of, this movie uses a skin-grafting machine in a unique way…
That idea came from me.
I saw a documentary years ago and a special effects stunt guy had been burned on his arm and his neck and seeing how they deal with the burn and part of it is a skin graft, to put skin over the burns eventually. I remember seeing that tool and being horrified by the tool. And I stuck that memory in a dark place in my brain and pulled it out for this.
Is that the most disturbing scene you’ve ever filmed?
When I shot it I had no idea it was going to affect people the way it seems to.
It’s a tough one.
On the day, I have to say, it’s actually kind of silly. You’re basically sitting on set, we all know each other, we all get along and there’s a bunch of the crew from Hunger Games. You’ve got Joel Edgerton in his underwear tied to a chair, squirming around, and Sebastian [Hülk], who plays the assassin, has this little rubber tool. So there’s part of you going, well, I hope this has the intensity I want. And when I see it, I see the silly version. Clearly, the sound helps and Joel really sells the pain, which are the keys to that scene. But it’s actually silly, we laughed a lot shooting that stuff.
That’s weird to know.
You feel like you’re 10-year-old doing a little movie in your mom’s kitchen.
A floppy disk plays a big role in this movie and its set in present day. I haven’t seen a floppy disk in awhile.
It’s fascinating. The floppy disk thing comes up a lot and there’s a scene that was cut that had a little bit of exposition.
A thumb drive wouldn’t have been as exciting…
Well, these departments like DOD and CIA, places like that, have important information and don’t want them on thumb drives. So you have to have bulkier stuff, that’s what they like. So it’s actually more accurate to do what we did but it makes people think we are in a different era.
I would have liked that exposition, that’s interesting.
Yeah, we had it, but it was just something we didn’t need. It’s funny because I remember when I did I Am Legend, looking at the reviews at one point a quarter of the critics decided I made some idiotic mistake and left the power on in the city because he has power in his house. I have a shot of the generator in the pantry. But what I realized was it’s not a long enough shot and I didn’t do the thing I needed to do because I assumed people knew what generators were. I needed to show him pull the thing, start the generator, and then see the lights come on. And because I didn’t do that a quarter of the critics think I’m an idiot who left the power on in New York City three years after an apocalypse.
Jennifer Lawrence has said that doing this movie is a reaction to what happened to her after her account was hacked. When an actor says that to you after this bad thing happened to her, as the director what is your responsibility?
I mean, look, when I got this book I loved it and I called her and said, hypothetically, would you be into doing a character like this? I didn’t think she was going to want to do the movie as I was developing it, because has said before she wasn’t interested in doing anything with nudity or sexuality, but that was years before. So we talked about it a fair amount, she read the script, and she decided she wanted to do it. And we started conversations immediately about how we were going to approach anything that was violent, or sexuality or nudity, she became a partner in that. And we were really vigilant in making sure all of those scenes were going to fall in line with the character and the tone and the narrative. We were not making an erotic thriller.
No, it’s not. Any time there’s anything like that in the movie it’s horrifying.
And so that was always the intention. We talked about it from day one. I literally drove to her house the second she said she wanted to do it and we sat in her backyard for three hours and started the conversation that day. And we talked throughout production how to make sure that all of those scenes were really, really super specific. And, so, that’s part of the way I felt responsible and in terms of taking care of that responsibility.
This seems like a movie that there needs to be a lot of trust between the director and star.
One of the things I did that really helped her, I promised I’d show her the movie before anyone saw it – before the studio saw it or before the producers saw it.
Is that at all normal?
No. Usually with a movie like this, with this kind of content, there’s a clause that’s a legal contract, where it’s like, “in this scene what is the actual thing you’re going to do?” And it’s a whole legal document that has to get signed off on and that’s what you agree to do. Because the big fear is that somebody is going to, once you’re like a week out from release, get cold feet and want to have something cut. I promised her she’d get to see the movie before the studios and producers and everybody knew this – and she could pull anything she wanted. So she would have the control in the end if she was uncomfortable with something on screen. And the studio and producers didn’t see dailies from any of those days.
And she didn’t want anything removed?
She didn’t ask me to cut anything.
That also shows trust…
I don’t think she would have done this movie with a stranger.
Looking back, was dividing the last Hunger Games movie into two the right decision?
I still 100 percent totally back it.
The Divergent series just gave up and never made the last movie.
I know, right?
Obviously, those movies aren’t as good as the movies you made…
Well, that’s a whole different ballgame than what we did. But there was something that I saw, the way that I see it when I look back – look, the world is a very fucking cynical world that we live in right now, right? So people look at that and see a cash grab. All I can tell you is that me, Suzanne Collins, Nina Jacobson, if we thought it was just a cash grab we wouldn’t have done it.
Well, I see “the first one doesn’t have an ending” more than that it was a cash grab.
Does that matter?
I mean, you can make the case The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t have an ending…
See, that doesn’t matter to me. The truth is, each have very individual dramatic questions. So they’re each telling a different portion of that. What I saw, if you look at box office the numbers dropped, right? So my first one, which was coming off the success of the first, still had all the elements of what people loved about the first. It had an arena. It had a bunch of silly capital costumes. It had the humor. And it still wasn’t very political. Now I wouldn’t say its universal, because I love the books, but I will say the third book is not everyone’s favorite.
I have heard that a lot, yes.
There are a lot of people who never read the third book, or they started it and tossed it. So we had that going in. We already had a loss of audience of people not loving the book. And now all of the fun is suddenly gone. It’s not the arena; it’s not the fantasy anymore. Now you’re into a fucking war movie. And they are more political and they are kind of a bummer. And it’s bleak and it doesn’t wrap up all that nicely with a little bow. And you can see it starts to dwindle.
But that’s the book that gets two movies…
I don’t know how to do that last book in one two-hour movie.
So it would have been a four-hour movie?
You’d have to have recused Peeta by the end of act one. So it’s like, huh? Do you know what I mean? And then you get none of the stuff – which I love, and it’s why I think the movies and books are important – about propaganda and the use of her image and using her as propaganda. That whole thing goes away.
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