‘Catching Fire’ Blazes With Francis Lawrence’s Vision

Director talks to MTV News about replacing Gary Ross and arena-sized challenges he faced.

It’s certainly not a new phenomenon for a director to bow out of a beloved film franchise midstream. Many a series has hosted multiple helmers (“Harry Potter” and “The Twilight Saga” come to mind), yet it was still a bit of a shock to rabid “Hunger Games” fans when Gary Ross decided not to return for the sequel “Catching Fire.” But as they say in Hollywood, “The show must go on.” And go on it did with new auteur Francis Lawrence (“Water for Elephants”), who will also direct the two-part “Mockingjay” finale.

As part of MTV News’ preview of the hottest films of 2013, we sat down with the Lawrence to talk about filling Ross’ shoes, casting Finnick and the challenges of a jungle arena.

Taking Over
With just a year-and-a-half until “Catching Fire” was set to hit theaters, Lawrence hit the ground running. And while he’s had few problems building upon Ross’ vision, stepping into an already-established film family was another matter.

“I liked what Gary did a lot, but I have a different style than he does,” Lawrence explained. “So it was very easy for me to come in the room and sit down with the people involved in the movie and sort of say, ‘Here’s what I like about what Gary did that I would latch on to and hold onto and embrace, and here’s the way I would do it differently.’ The trickier thing, honestly for me, was sort of stepping into a world, and there’s crew members that were on the first movie, obviously an entire cast, all the people that are returning that I inherited. I was nervous about what they were going to feel… I think everybody in general was really gracious and worked really hard and ended up being really fun to work with. I think there were a couple of people that were really bummed that Gary wasn’t doing it, and it had less to do with the choice of me coming on than just Gary not doing it. They signed on with Gary; they’re friends with Gary; they like Gary. And I think there was definitely some sadness there.”

Finnick Is More Than Fine
When Lawrence inherited “The Hunger Games” franchise he also inherited the responsibility of casting “Catching Fire”‘s most anticipated dream boat: District 4 tribute Finnick Odair. For a while there, it seemed every working actor under the age of 35 was rumored to be in contention, but it was “Snow White and the Huntsman” star Sam Claflin who would ultimately wield the trident. Many fans were none-to-sure about Claflin’s casting, but Lawrence ensured the 26-year-old will live up to expectations.

“[Claflin] is very athletic, which is great. He’s in great shape. He’s very charismatic,” Lawrence said. “But I was also looking in the long term. There’s kind of a rouge-like quality to him in this book. And long term, he’s actually an emotional character and a very loyal character and a character who’s in love; a character who experienced quite a lot of sadness. And he was really able to tap into that, as well as being really charming and sexy and handsome as hell.”

Honing Haymitch
Another item on Lawrence’s to-do list was to sit down with actor Woody Harrelson to further refine his approach to alcoholic District 12 mentor Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson had previously told MTV News that he had pushed for more drunkenness than Ross would allow—something which, along with Haymitch’s post-traumatic stress disorder, the director and actor took a closer look at.

“One of the things that we wanted to dive into a little more… is the whole idea of PTSD, and one of the big things for [author] Suzanne[Collins] is just sort of the idea of the consequences of war as kind of one of the backbone theme of the entire series,” Lawrence said. “One of the things I really like about this book is you start to see kind of why Haymitch is the way he is, why people are the way they are, so he and I did a fair amount of work in terms of that, in terms of understanding PTSD and how to work with somebody with post-traumatic stress. Also we started messing around a lot with some real humanity in Haymitch because he can be quite cynical and sarcastic at times. But I think there’s a more human side to him in this one as well.

Arena Rumble
Though “Catching Fire” finds the tributes returning to the arena, it’s an arena of a very different sort, which posed its own problems for Lawrence.

“The arena stuff is pretty tricky… just because the sort of center of the arena where the cornucopia exists and the water and the spokes. The circular beach with the jungle around it doesn’t exist, so we have to sort of piece it all together,” he explained. “And you know even though shooting in Hawaii sounds like a lot of fun, it’s pretty tricky when you’re in the beach and waves and tides. Our set got washed away one day by the tide, and then… shooting in the jungle where there’s bugs and mud and rain. The days are short, so you don’t have much time, and you’re starting to lug around 100-pound IMAX cameras.”

Final Cut?
After shoots in Georgia and Hawaii, production on “Catching Fire” wrapped in December. Lawrence has already begun the long process of piecing the film together, though he’s far from finished.

“There’s sequences that are cut,” he said. “There’s still some stuff that’s missing that I haven’t seen yet, just because there is a lot of footage and because we’re doing six-day weeks it was really tricky for [the film editor] to completely keep up with us as we went along. There’s a fair amount cut, but I haven’t sat down and watched it front to back.”

“Catching Fire” hits theaters November 21, 2013.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”