Director's Chair: Francis Lawrence - 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2'
Issue: November 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Francis Lawrence - 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2'

Director/producer Francis Lawrence got his start — and honed his skills — directing music videos for such A-listers as Beyonce, Jay Z, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, Pink, Britney Spears and J. Lo, and commercials for Pepsi, Coke, L’Oreal, Bacardi and Calvin Klein, among many other clients. In 2005 he made his directorial debut with Constantine, starring Keanu Reeves, and followed that up with 2007’s I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, and 2011’s Water for Elephants with Reese Witherspoon.

Over the last few years, Lawrence has helped steer the Hunger Games series of films — and directed three of the four — to become one of the most successful franchises of all time (over $2 billion and counting, so far). And now he’s back for the final installment of the sci-fi dystopian series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, in which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) realizes the stakes are no longer just for survival — they are for the future. With the nation of Panem in a full-scale war, Katniss confronts president Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the final showdown. Teamed with a group of her closest friends, including Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss goes off on a mission with the unit from District 13 as they risk their lives to liberate the citizens of Panem, and stage an assassination attempt on president Snow, who has become increasingly obsessed with destroying her. The mortal traps, enemies and moral choices that await Katniss will challenge her more than any arena she faced in The Hunger Games.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Lawrence talks about making the final film, dealing with all the effects, and his love of post. 

How did your years doing music videos and commercials help prepare you for directing these huge, complex movies?

“The main thing I learned was through experience. Doing videos and commercials for 12 years before I even did a movie allowed me to try a lot of things and experiment with various techniques. Music videos in particular are like this experimental paradise — as long as they say ‘yes,’ you can try anything, and I tried a lot, from telling little mini-stories to doing pieces that were completely visual, and things that were very real, and things that were very stylized. I tried and messed around with a lot of visual effects, and worked with a lot of different personalities and shot all over the world, so by the time I did my first film I’d already spent hundreds of days on the set. So I was very experienced working with the visual side of things and all the equipment and VFX, and the basics of dealing with crews and scheduling and on-set problems and weather and budgets and so on, and by the time I got to these films, all that was a no-brainer for me, and I could just focus on the storytelling and pacing.”

For this final installment, what sort of film did you set out to make, and how much pressure did you feel to top yourself?

“With the concluding chapter, I think tonally and emotionally this is a war movie. That’s what I set out to make, and Katniss is back into action. Pressure-wise? I guess with each of them I’ve felt the pressure to try and top the one before. You want to try and exceed expectations as much as possible. But I think there was definitely more pressure with this one, as it’s the final one, the conclusion, and you want to go out in as epic and emotional way as possible.”

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together? 

“We had so many physical production challenges, as we shot the final two movies back-to-back and did them in a sort of block shooting pattern where they’d share sets and we’d shoot both movies simultaneously. And we were prepping this as we were finishing the last one, which was a little tricky. This one has some pretty large set pieces, such as this big sequence down in the sewers underneath the Capitol. And there are quite a few up in the streets of the Capitol, that all needed a lot of vigilance in terms of the stunts, choreography, safety, visual effects and so on. So it was a very technically-challenging shoot.”

How tough was the prep and shoot?

“Parts of it were very tough, although parts were really fun. We tried to shoot in as many real environments as possible, so there was a lot of location shooting — from Atlanta and Boston to Paris and Germany — and you have to deal with very complicated sequences, not on a controlled soundstage, but out in the elements where you have to deal with weather, changing light and all of those issues. So it’s tricky, but the pay-off in the end is that we’re in these large, immersive environments that add all this reality to the visuals and story.”

How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot?

“Right from the start and we’re thinking about post all the way through. So the editors were on very early, and Charlie Gibson, the VFX supervisor, and even some of the VFX houses like D Neg [Double Negative], were on from the start. So during prep they’re all involved in the planning in terms of the scheduling, the location choices and so on.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I do and it’s actually one of my favorite parts of the whole process. The prep phase is kind of fun as you have it all in your head and you’re trying to figure it all out, but shooting to me is like a battle. It’s tricky and tough, and you’re dealing with a lot of different personalities, and you’ve always got the clock ticking and the meter running, and all the pressure of the cost and worrying about it all and what might go wrong. And then you sit down in post and it’s so calm by comparison and civilized, and you actually get to see the movie you shot come together bit by bit. So for me it’s definitely the most gratifying part.”

Where did you do the post? 

“We were based in LA after we wrapped, at Tribeca West, where we did the last three movies.”

The film was edited by Alan Edward Bell and Mark Yoshikawa. Were they on the set? How did that relationship work?

“It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with two editors, and it was mostly because we had to turn around the first Mockingjay film so fast. Then we had the chance for a while to have them both working on Part 2, and during the process Alan’s assistant, Jennifer Vecchiarello, was promoted to an associate editor, so she actually cut some scenes as well. So the three of them were all with us on-set in Atlanta, and then when we moved to Europe for the end of the shoot, Alan came with us with an assistant. One big advantage to having three editors essentially was that they all knew each other. Because of the time constraints, I brought Alan, my editor, in to help find people to work with, and then we whittled it down to Mark. They knew and liked each other, so as we shot they just traded scenes and then each would show me various scenes, and as the footage built up, and reels came together. I’d typically sit in a room with Alan and work really diligently on whatever reel we were on, and I’d then sit with Mark and I might give notes to Mark. So we’d split it up that way, and it worked really well as they weren’t competing against each other. They were sharing material and we were able to leap-frog ahead and get a lot done simultaneously.” 

Talk a bit about working with Charlie Gibson, your VFX supervisor.

“I’d never worked with him before the Mockingjay films, though we’d met years ago when I was looking for someone for my first movie. Charlie did all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and is so talented and is very smart, and he has an amazing eye. I also find that with these VFX supervisors, some of their best work is in prep. So when you have the challenge of a specific sequence, like the lizard fights down in the sewers under the Capitol, and you start to work on it and figure out how to actually do it, to have someone there that has such a vast knowledge of VFX technologies and companies really helps you plan it all out well in advance. It helps you from the very start solve the puzzle in the best way — with the right vendor, the right artist, the right technical approach — and Charlie’s really good at that.”

There are obviously a huge number of visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?

“About 1,100, and we used a lot of vendors from all over the world, including D Neg in London, Weta in New Zealand, MPC in London and Vancouver, The Embassy, Lola, Cantina, plus others. I like dealing with VFX, and now I’ve done enough effects movies I’m pretty used to the psychological and emotional arc of the VFX process. Because you have all these ideas in your head, and you then try to figure out exactly how to do them, and you talk to everyone and then it’s always much harder — and far more costly — than you expected. Ideally, you get the right people and you have a good plan and you shoot it, and then it never goes quite as planned, and the VFX companies never have exactly what they need in terms of bluescreen coverage and so on. It’s never ideal. Then you cut the sequences, you turn them over, and with good companies you tend to get some pretty amazing images back. Then you’re super-excited for a while. Then at the end, what happens is that you whittle down past all the things that are really cool and working, and you end up at the very end with all the trouble shots. And no matter what, it’s interesting. You think you’ve done everything right, and you have great, talented people working on it, and you feel you planned it all out perfectly — but no matter what, there’s inevitably always that tricky handful of VFX shots at the end that you just can’t wrap your head around. What happened? What went wrong? Why are they harder? Why are they trickier? So it’s interesting, but just really unfortunate that it always happens right at the end of post (laughs). But all in all, we have some really cool shots and the companies did great work for us.” 

What was the most difficult VFX sequence/shot to do and why?

“Definitely the whole sewer sequence, which is now [at press time] done and all the VFX are complete. It was tricky because it’s a combination of creature animation and creation, which is always tough to make it look real and organic, and the locations. We shot it in all these sets we built on stages in Atlanta — all the sewers and antechambers — and they were all filled with water. So we had to deal with water and fire and darkness, and it was basically lit by the flashlights on guns, and we also had a lot of stunts and fight choreography, and it was a truly miserable environment to film in for three weeks to a month. And then we had a lot of very heavy-duty VFX work by Weta, but they did a phenomenal job.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?

“They’re huge for me, and this is my fifth movie with composer James Newton Howard, who’s done all the Hunger Games movies. This is the first time I’ve done a franchise, and by now, on the third one together, there’s such a wealth of material to pull from, and such a close relationship with the story, the characters, the world, that it makes the process really fun and fairly easy. We recorded the score at Abbey Road, and we’re mixing the movie on the lot at Warners with a great team — my mixer Skip Lievsay and my sound designer Jeremy Peirson — the guys I’ve worked with since my first film. We actually bring Jeremy on pretty much as I start my director’s cut, so he’s there right from the start, waiting for reels as I’m working with the editors after we’ve wrapped. Then he starts building the sound immediately, so there’s a real development process through the cut of the movie and you can make a lot of the creative decisions ahead of time. By the time you get to the mix stage, it’s more detailing and getting into nuance, rather than having to make the big creative decisions.”

The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 

“We just started at Efilm and it’s a huge deal. What’s interesting is that because of my background in music videos and commercials, I’ve never done a lab timing. And on my first film, Constantine, the DI was this new process and I actually had to convince the studio to allow me to do it, as they’d never used it before and were a bit nervous of this new digital technique. So for me, the DI is a crucial part of post. We shot this and the last film with the [Arri] Alexa, so that helped as well, as we had the DIT on-set, and so the DP and DIT and me could come up with looks on-set that become the looks for dailies. So in terms of the pipeline, the look of the movie is much closer from the day we start shooting through to the end of the DI than it is with film, where the dailies never quite look like what comes out after the DI.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would? 

“It did and I think it looks really good. The DP, Jo Willems, did a great job, and [at press time] we’re still waiting on some of the final VFX shots, but I’m very happy with it.” 

What’s next?

“I’m trying to figure out what I want to do next after spending the last few years on The Hunger Games. I’ve been developing a few things, and one is The Odyssey, another huge production I’m really excited about. And I’m developing this project at Fox with Jennifer Lawrence called The Dive, which is all about free divers, a true story. So there’s a lot on the horizon.”