The Game is Afire: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes director Francis Lawrence on the still blazing legacy of The Hunger Games

Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler enter The Hunger Games universe. — Photographer… Murray Close
Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler enter The Hunger Games universe. Photographer… Murray Close

As The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes soars into theaters, Annie Lyons asks director Francis Lawrence about his Hunger Games prequel period piece and the franchise’s wider legacy—including that Catching Fire aspect-ratio change.

We made something, a series of movies that are so important in people’s lives and are imprinted. So you hear the whistle or you hear ‘The Hanging Tree’, and it brings back memories. That’s very meaningful.

—⁠Francis Lawrence

Don your Mockingjay pins and fashion your side braids—it’s time to head back to Panem.

By the time The Hunger Games arrived on screens in 2012, fans were already well-versed in Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy about a futuristic regime forcing children to compete in annual battle royale-style games and the ensuing revolution. Fandom engenders a shorthand language all its own, and Gary Ross’s adaptation and the subsequent three films all helmed by Francis Lawrence only furthered the phenomenon. Jennifer Lawrence’s defiant curtsy at Katniss’s training session. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta disguised as a rock. Stanley Tucci’s wigs. “If it wasn’t for the baby.” The IMAX aspect ratio change as Katniss enters the arena in Catching Fire—more on this one later. Elizabeth Banks unexpectedly pouring everything into an Effie/Haymitch flirtationship.

Down to the final book getting the two-film treatment, what Twilight represented for supernatural YA romances, The Hunger Games did for YA dystopian fiction, leading a wave of similar fare throughout the 2010s. The franchise seemingly ended in 2015 with Mockingjay – Part 2, and the wider teen-dystopia trend puttered out with the decade. But odds ever in fans’ favor, Collins announced a prequel book in 2019. Even before the book’s release, plans for a new film were already in development, with Lawrence once again in the director’s seat.

Set 64 years before the series’ first installment, The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes explores how a teenaged, impoverished Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) eventually rose to power to become Donald Sutherland’s Big Bad, President Snow. The tenth Hunger Games are a far cry from the all-out spectacle that Katniss suffers. As something of a last-ditch effort to prove the Games’ viability, the Capitol’s most promising students are assigned to mentor the incoming tributes.

Enter Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a District 12 tribute who was only a passing reference and an unnamed mystery in the original series. The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes leans darker than previous entries as it explores Snow’s pull toward fascism. And though there are plenty of tie-ins and new insights into just exactly why Katniss managed to get under Snow’s skin so much, the adaptation more or less stands on its own.

In a four-star review, Carrie M shares that the film “may begin my regression back to 12 years old and being obsessed—time will tell.” “Went home to my very first fandom tonight. This watch was for the Brandon that begged his Mom to buy the books at Costco, that stayed up past midnight to see the first movie on opening night, that got in trouble at school for playing Hunger Games tag during recess,” reflects Brandon, who currently has all four of the original films proudly displayed as their four faves.

Brandon’s not alone. The first three films have all cracked the Letterboxd One Million Watched Club, with Mockingjay – Part 2 left just outside at 976k and sure to get a bump following the prequel’s release. All four films clock in at a 3.1 or higher average Letterboxd rating, and Catching Fire, the highest-rated with a 3.68, has a comfortable foothold in our Official Top 250 Films with the Most Fans list. (I’ll concur with ranking this entry at the top. Again, “if it wasn’t for the baby…”)

I have my own memories of attending The Hunger Games’ midnight premiere and sitting in the very front row, all the way to the right and craning my neck at impossible angles to see all my favorite scenes lifted from the page. I taught myself how to play ‘Safe & Sound’ on the piano to audition for my middle school talent show… and panic-switched to Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’ when I learned that multiple other people had prepared the Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars ballad, because, of course. Never had my inability to whistle cut so deep than at age thirteen.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, I chatted with Lawrence about crafting a Hunger Games period piece, drawing visual inspiration from Doctor Zhivago and honoring District 12’s Appalachia connection—and, naturally, I snuck in a question about Catching Fire for my teenage self, too.

The author’s own Hunger Games cupcakes circa 2011.
The author’s own Hunger Games cupcakes circa 2011.

I wanted to start by looking back on the original films, because I imagine when you were in the thick of it, releasing three films back to back to back, you’re so focused on that task. Now that you’ve had a little distance from doing Catching Fire and the two Mockingjay films, what do you make of the franchise’s legacy?
Francis Lawrence: There’s something very fulfilling. I feel honored to have been invited in to be a big part of it. I feel happy that we made so many fans happy around the world. It’s an interesting thing, and it’s sort of twofold. One is that you’re right, I was in the middle of it and it was so fast and furious when we were making my movies. But there was a moment at the end of Mockingjay Two when the museum opened, the Hunger Games exhibition.

It’s that museum that traveled around and now it’s, I think, permanently in Vegas. Me and Jen and Josh and Liam got a tour of it. And, you know, the music’s playing and you see all the costumes, you see all the sets, and all the work that went in and thinking, like, “Wow, millions of people are going to come through this museum. We’re part of something that’s deserving of this museum.” I had never thought of that. It was really, really moving.

And there’s another sort of weird story that ties into my first movie [Constantine]. When I made my first movie, I went each day on the weekend to a different theater and saw it around town in LA. I remember on this Sunday, I went [in the] afternoon to Westwood, and it was a rainy Sunday and the theater wasn’t very full, and I was a little bummed about it. Sitting in front of me was this couple that was making out through the whole movie.

At first, I was sort of annoyed, and I was, like, “God, you’re not even watching the movie!” And I realized movies mean more than just what we intend when we make it, right? It’s more than just the story; it’s more than just the actors; it’s more than just the spectacle. It’s part of a cultural, emotional experience, whether it’s growing up or getting old or whatever it is. There’s something else. That first movie of mine—whether that couple’s together or not, they’re gonna remember that they made out during this movie. It’s the same thing with Hunger Games. You realize, like, we made something, a series of movies that are so important in people’s lives and are imprinted. So you hear the whistle or you hear ‘The Hanging Tree’, and it brings back memories. That’s very meaningful.

Lucy Gray Baird (Zegler) was a District 12 tribute long before Katniss Everdeen. — Photographer… Murray Close
Lucy Gray Baird (Zegler) was a District 12 tribute long before Katniss Everdeen. Photographer… Murray Close

Rachel just fit right in, totally got the tone that we were going for instantly and also ended up singing everything live. Everything that you hear, she did live on the day on set.

—⁠Francis Lawrence

I understand Suzanne Collins reached out to you when she was actually still writing The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. What was your reaction when you learned that the prequel’s focus would be on Snow? When that book got announced, it felt like a bit of an unexpected choice. People were maybe expecting Haymitch or Finnick.
She called me [at the] end of 2019—it was out of the blue and a very big surprise because we didn’t know she had planned on writing something—to tell us that she was almost finished. She didn’t want to say what the book was about. All she said was it’s set 64 years prior to the first movie, and there’s one crossover character, which we could kind of guess who it was going to be, and there’s a big music element to it.

I have to say I wasn’t surprised because I know that Suzanne always writes from a thematic foundation, right? What she wanted to do was she wanted to write a [story] that’s about the nature debate, this idea of: “As humans, are we innately savage or are we innately good?” She took that idea because she was seeing this polarization of the world, which unfortunately, always seems to be the state, and she wanted to write a story about that. So what she did was she chose Snow, who obviously ends up believing very strongly with one of those philosophies and writing an origin story about him. So to me, it totally made sense. I know that fans loved Finnick and fans love Haymitch, and so they would love to see those [stories], but I just know that she comes from theme and this made sense to explore that theme.

Going off of that, we see how these greater systems and traumas shaped Coriolanus. But at the same time, those factors aren’t an excuse to absolve his individual choices. Tigris [Hunter Schafer] has a very similar background, but she doesn’t develop that same worldview. How did you want to approach planting the seeds of Coriolanus’s tilt toward totalitarianism throughout the film?
There’s a lot there, right? I think that he’s a young man, who hasn’t really found his footing philosophically yet. He’s being pulled in different directions. You have people like Gaul [Viola Davis] that are kind of grooming him to, let’s say, the dark side, and you have people like Lucy Gray and Tigris and Sejanus [Josh Andrés Rivera] that are pulling him to, “No, no, no, people are good, you can be good.” He has the genetics of both his father and mother in him, so there’s a push and pull there. He is a young man with ambition, with some greed, a need for some power, a need for a place high up in the hierarchy. So you get all those seeds that are sort of planted, and then when things start to go wrong, you understand why he turns the way he does in the end. And part of that is also heartbreak.

Euphoria’s Hunter Schafer joins the franchise as Tigris Snow, cousin of Coriolanus. — Photographer… Murray Close
Euphoria’s Hunter Schafer joins the franchise as Tigris Snow, cousin of Coriolanus. Photographer… Murray Close

Considering how this is a Hunger Games period piece in a way, what were your priorities in figuring out the film’s distinct look, compared to your work on the original series?
We worked with Uli Hanisch, who’s an amazing Germany-based production designer. He did [German neo-noir television series] Babylon Berlin and The Queen’s Gambit, among many other great things. It’s not long after the Dark Days and the war, and so we decided to look at Berlin after World War II, that reconstruction era, where there’s still some rubble on the streets, and putting together the old classical buildings, the construction of some of the new buildings that might nod to the Panem that we’re used to. Because we focused on that era, we started looking at that era for hair, makeup, wardrobe. There might be some slight nods to the style and fashion of Panem that we’re used to, but it’s definitely influenced by the ’40s and the ’50s, including technology. 

Touching on District 12’s look specifically, it feels much more vibrant and bustling than in the original films. With Rachel’s accent and the musical style of Lucy Gray’s songs, it felt like there was that very prominent Appalachia connection.
Yeah, there’s always been that Appalachia connection. It’s just that from the first movie, which I didn’t do, and the other ones, we’ve always shied away from the Southern qualities. And, you know, ‘The Hanging Tree’ itself has a little bit of the feel of a song that could come from that era, from the era of the ’30s and Appalachia. But when we went to do it this time around, we were not having to shoot in Atlanta, so we had more at our fingertips in terms of locations we could find. We found some real coal-steel places in western Germany that gave us so much more scope for District 12.

But also we decided, let’s go with the accents! Let’s give them the Southern accents. My reference for Rachel was actually Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter and looking at the accents from people living in the hollers of West Virginia. We did that with most of the inhabitants of District 12, and that also influenced the music. That’s what Suzanne was going for when she wrote the lyrics, creating lyrics that felt like they’re part of stories and ballads that had been passed down from England, Scotland, Ireland and through generations. We hired Dave Cobb to do the music, and he’s so great at it. Then Rachel just fit right in, totally got the tone that we were going for instantly and also ended up singing everything live. Everything that you hear, she did live on the day on set.

Were there any other films that you had on the mental back burner, whether as visual inspiration or maybe another film you looked to as having immersive world-building?
Geez, you know, we looked at a fair amount of these post-World War II movies. I looked at The Third Man. Weirdly, this is not a postwar, this is a pre, during and postwar movie, but Doctor Zhivago was a big influence for me, partly on the scope of the story.

What I really loved—and we only did a little bit of it here—was David Lean’s color-coding of the love for Lara. He used the color yellow for her. One of the first times you see her, there’s this yellow candle that heats this frost in the glass as Omar Sharif is watching her. Then when he’s thinking of her, you see the yellow flowers, and it’s yellow, yellow, yellow. We have that here with Lucy Gray in the rainbow dress. And I don’t know if you noticed, but at the second-to-last shot of the movie, of the statue, a little hole breaks in the sky and the sun comes down and it’s snowing, but there’s a rainbow in the mist, which is my sort of nod to the end of Zhivago, the rainbow, the color-coding for that.

Before we wrap up, I want you to know how many Letterboxd members shout out the aspect-ratio change in Catching Fire when Katniss enters the arena, like Sarah, who writes: “My life is separated into two eras: BTCFARC and ATCFARC (before the Catching Fire aspect ratio change and after the Catching Fire aspect ratio change).” I have to do my due diligence on their behalf. Tell me about that crucial sequence and that choice looking back.
[Laughs] It was still relatively new around that time to do portions of movies in IMAX, and so it seemed clear to me we had the opportunity to do IMAX. It was the last film I shot on film. We were going to use the IMAX cameras and I decided, you know what? We’re just going to do the games in IMAX. That’s what makes sense—when we’re in the arena only. We’ll shoot these sequences with the IMAX cameras, these sequences with spherical lenses and 35mm, and we’ll blow it up, which meant that the transition was going to happen because our first time in the arena is as Katniss comes up.

There was just something magical that happened. We have that shot that’s swirling around her and it’s right after you see Cinna [Lenny Kravitz] get the shit kicked out of him and he’s probably been killed. She’s wildly upset and banging on the glass, and then there’s that music that’s ascending and the elevator starts to ascend, and it goes into darkness and then brighter, brighter, brighter, and you see the mats just start opening up. I think it’s a combo of her emotional state—the anticipation of seeing the beginning of these games again, the elevator rising, the music rising, the stuff opening up, and also feeling like you’re seeing it and experiencing it through Katniss’s eyes—that I think all just came together in that moment and made it so satisfying.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’ is now in theaters, courtesy of Lionsgate.

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