Exclusive: Francis Lawrence’s Emails Reveal ‘Catching Fire’ Secrets

Following his film's record-breaking debut, the director emailed MTV News to talk key scenes and the upcoming 'Mockingjay' sequels.

The least surprising news development of the box-office season may be the huge opening of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” But the stellar reviews and the general consensus that the sequel upped the ante from the much-admired first film was a pleasant surprise for millions of devoted fans.

Many agree the credit goes to director Francis Lawrence (of “I Am Legend” and “Water for Elephants” fame). As the huge box-office receipts flooded in, I traded some emails with Lawrence, even as he scouted locations for the final two films in the series.

To: Francis Lawrence
From: Josh Horowitz
Date: November 23, 2:37pm

Dear Francis,

I know you thought you were rid of me for at least a few months but no, I’m back like a bad penny (or Caesar Flickerman’s creepy grin). First of all congratulations again, the film is great. You’ve achieved that rare feat of pleasing the fans and the critics, so I hope you’re enjoying the moment.

The box-office numbers are pretty insane (in the best possible way). I’m curious if you’ve snuck into any screenings since the opening and what parts of the film you’re loving that the audience reacts to? Do any scenes elicit a reaction that surprise you?

We’ve talked a lot about the challenges of assuming the reigns of a franchise Gary Ross so ably launched on the big screen. But I was hoping you could talk a little about the “Empire Strikes Back”-ness of this particular story. It certainly feels self-contained as a story and pushes the narrative along, but it also ends on a very provocative note. Were films like “Empire” on your mind? And was the final shot always the one you had or did you experiment with others?

Best,

Josh

From: Francis Lawrence
To: Josh Horowitz
Date: November 24, 2:00pm

Hey man… nice to hear from you. The numbers are a bit crazy. Sort of hard to comprehend really but this franchise does have an amazing fan base. I will do my best to answer your questions below:

I have not been able to attend any screenings other than the premieres because I went straight back to Europe for scouting and am there right now. I will probably run to a theater with some of the crew on Thanksgiving weekend. We’ll be back in Atlanta getting ready to kick into shooting again. It will be great to see it with a real audience.

I am really pleased with the crowd reactions to certain moments in the film… I am really happy that the Johanna scenes get great laughs. I think she’s one of the standouts in terms of new characters and am really proud of her scenes.

I think the reaction that surprises me the most is the cheer at the moment Katniss shoots the forcefield near the end of the film… It’s such a tricky moment (story-wise) and is such a risky move for her character that I was never quite sure that it would get that kind of response, but it makes me very happy.

I always wanted to make sure that this film could stand on its own, especially in terms of backstory. I wanted people to be able to fall in step with the movie easily whether or not they’ve read the books or seen the first film. The trick is not over-explaining and that was a fine line that I think we were able to tread appropriately.

“Empire Strikes Back” was not on my mind while working on this adaptation with everyone… not until others started to compare it during the press tour. Now, I look at some of the parallels in the story and am amazed by them.

The final shot actually became a moment that both Jen and I discovered on set. The scene was always in the script and it pretty much plays out as it does in the book except for the final moment. In the book, Katniss breaks down at hearing of the loss of District 12 and that’s what we started to shoot. Then around take five or six of a close-up of Jen, she did something very cool. She went through an entire range of emotions. She started to break down and then became angry and defiant. I thought it was an incredible choice that she had made and it was at that moment I decided to add a shot with the camera straight overhead and with her look very nearly into the lens.

Hope that helps. Send over another batch anytime. Thanks.

F

From: Josh Horowitz
To: Francis Lawrence
Date: November 24, 6:08pm

Francis,

Fascinating how you discovered that final moment in the film. It really works. And it’s a testament to Jennifer’s performance that you can read so much into that single shot.

The film is quite faithful to Suzanne’s book. This isn’t your first time taking on beloved source material. I was wondering if you can you cite any lessons learned on films based on previously published works like “Water for Elephants,” “I Am Legend,” or even “Constantine” (which probably most notably divided fans)?

Also, I know you were in the middle of “Catching Fire” when you agreed to finish out the series by directing the final two installments. Were you able to plant any specific visual cues or moments in this film that you think will have even greater resonance once the next two films are seen? In terms of characters, folks like Plutarch obviously figure more prominently as the series progresses for instance.

From: Francis Lawrence
To: Josh Horowitz
Date: November 26, 7:47pm

Josh,

Each of the adaptations were very different from one another. “Constantine” already existed as a script and had Keanu in the lead role when I signed on… so the part I played in that development was very different. My gut is always to try and be as truthful to the source material as possible but that wasn’t possible by the time I signed on. So I tried my best to maintain a tonal spirit from the graphic novels.

“I Am Legend” was more of a story inspired by characters and ideas from the novella. In that case, I was really interested in the lone survivor aspects of the story and we decided to really focus on that.

The adaptations of “Water for Elephants” and “Catching Fire” were probably the closest in process because I truly wanted to make as faithful an adaptation as possible for both. Although, I worked much more closely with Suzanne Collins than I did with Sara Gruen.

Once I signed on for the last two films, I definitely started to think of how the story was going to affect the upcoming chapters. But most of what I would have dropped in was already written in the book. I find that in working on the “Mockingjay” films that I constantly go back to “Catching Fire” and pull things from that film and story to inhabit these stories… locations, characters, and some certain aesthetic choices.

F