Interview: ‘The Hunger Games Mockingjay’ director Francis Lawrence on the dark conclusion of the series

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‘Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2’ director Francis Lawrence. Photo by Gabriel Sigler.

The shadow of the recent Paris attacks looms large over the fourth and final film in the Hunger Games franchise. The crux of the film focuses on a brutal battle for the capital city of Panem, with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen on a mission to kill the ruthless President Snow (played with maniacal glee by the great Donald Sutherland).

With scenes of horrific mass murders, including the bombing of a large group of children, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is one of the grimmest tent-pole blockbusters in recent years. As Katniss and her team of rebels trek through the bombed out capital in search of their target, it becomes apparent that the senseless violence purported by President Snow in the film is not that far off from troubling events in the real world.

“The film deals with the cycle of violence repeating itself, which will always be timely,” says the film’s director Francis Lawrence, in Montreal for a press day ahead of the film’s opening. “We never seem to learn our lesson.”

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Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) Photo credit: Murray Close

While the violence in the film is harrowing, the true cost of the war for the capital is felt not through gratuitous gore, but from the impactful deaths of a handful of fan-favourite characters. Portraying the true cost of war was vital for Lawrence, as opposed to most Hollywood blockbusters, where the consequences of major battles are rarely felt. “The violence is felt emotionally; there is actually very little blood in the film,” he says.

This is the third film Lawrence has directed in the $2 billion-grossing Hunger Games franchise based on the best-selling book trilogy by Suzanne Collins, following Catching Fire and Mockingjay — Part 1; both of which are regarded as a marked improvement over the initial film directed by Gary Ross. When word came that Ross would not be returning to helm the future films in the series, producers moved fast to secure a replacement; cue Lawrence, whose deft hand on 2007’s I Am Legend, proved he could handle a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster.

“I went to go see the first Hunger Games film; it was actually on my birthday of 2012,” says Lawrence. “We all went to see a matinee…and like two weeks later, I was back in LA and the news came out that the director left, and was moving on. And I just clocked it as entertainment news, and a few days later I got a call from my agent saying that the studio wanted to meet with me. And a week later, I was on the movie. It was crazy and fast.”

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Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) Photo credit: Murray Close

Taking over a beloved franchise with a rabid fan-base did pose some challenges for Lawrence, who admits that he had his fair share of reservations early on. “I had to be sure I could put my stamp on the movies,” says Lawrence. “What if Catching Fire bombed and I had to face the cast and make two more movies? I had never done a sequel before. But (series author) Suzanne Collins really helped with that. And the more I thought about it, I thought about all new characters we would get to add (the book’s cast expands exponentially in its second and third volumes) so that was exciting.”

This final installment of the series also bears the designation as the final Phillip Seymour Hoffman film, who passed away from a drug overdose during filming. Due to some clever editing, Hoffman does make a few appearances throughout the film as Plutarch Heavensbee, although a pivotal scene with Katniss at the film’s climax had to be tweaked to account for his absence.

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President Snow (Donald Sutherland) Photo credit: Murray Close

Another change from the book is the increased presence of President Snow, played with perfect malice by Donald Sutherland. “We had a lot of fun with that character,” admits Lawrence. “He is definitely more fleshed out than in the book, which is very Katniss-centric.”

Although no actual Hunger Games battle takes place in the film, there are still several huge action set pieces, including a crushing wave of hot oil descending on a courtyard, and a claustrophobic battle through the sewers that took a full three weeks to film. “It wasn’t the most pleasant part of the shoot,” Lawrence admits. “You just power through it and hope you’re making steady progress. If you were under 5’5” you had to crouch the entire time. And they had to act and perform the stunts totally drenched in water.”

Fan expectations for this final film in the series have been sky high, with many wondering if the film will deviate from the book in any significant ways. As tempting as it must be to delve into the world of online fandom, Lawrence prefers to stay out of the fray. “I have Twitter, but I don’t use it much,” he says. “I do know [from being online] that fans really like to write about Katniss and Peeta having sex with each other.”

Apart from the proliferation of some questionable fan fiction, Lawrence readily acknowledges the support and appreciation of the rabid Hunger Games fans, many of whom dressed up in Panem-styled garb and face paint for the Montreal premiere on Wednesday. “They’re all genuinely very nice and supportive,” says Lawrence. “But you do start to recognize some of them from events in different parts of the world and think, ‘Don’t you have to be in school or at work?’”

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 is in theatres now.

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