With The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, the young adult franchise continues with its fifth film, a prequel to the previous adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ original dystopian adventure stories.
This time the action takes place 64 years before the first book and way before rebel talisman Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been born. Instead, we have the origin story of Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth in the role played in the early films by Donald Sutherland), a teenager from an affluent family fallen on hard times in the rich Capitol.
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Snow is forced to mentor one of the ‘tributes’ (that is, a forced volunteer) for The Hunger Games – a televised fight to the death in which only one of 24 young people plucked from the poor districts around the Capitol will survive. Luckily for Snow, he is landed with Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a country singer with the verve to go all the way in the games and maybe even catch Snow’s romantic attention.
The Balled of Songbirds & Snakes is an impressive and intriguing prequel, shaded with unexpected moral ambivalence and featuring a striking retro-dystopian visual aesthetic that’s occasionally reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). It’s also full of memorable supporting characters such as the Snow-hating accidental creator of the games Dean Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), host of the games Lucky Flickerman (played by Jason Schwartzman in hilarious, oddball fashion) and Viola Davis’s mischievous head gamemaker Volumnia Gaul (more on her below).
A Hunger Games veteran, Vienna-born Hollywood filmmaker Francis Lawrence has directed each of the films since the second, Catching Fire (2013). As such, he’s the perfect person to explain how to go about making one of these adventures work on screen, so he sat down and did just that in London earlier this month.
1. Find your underlying theme
Francis Lawrence: I was a fan of all the books because they’re thematic. It’s not just [for] young adults, it’s about real stuff. The idea of writing a series of books about the consequences of war and not pulling any punches, then creating really compelling characters, emotional stories and dynamics, I think was really exciting.
What I really loved [with Songbirds and Snakes] was when you suddenly discovered that you’re watching a story about a young man’s descent into darkness, the origin story of a villain.
The idea of doing a movie that’s about the state of nature debate – the Hobbesian view of “are we savage and horrible and brutal?” or the more Lockean view, where we are innately good as humans and deserving of rights and freedoms – was really interesting to me. There’s a whole other aspect too. It’s not just an origin story of the villain, it’s the origins of almost everything we know or think we know about the original stories, the origins of songs like ‘The Hanging Tree’, the origins of characters like Tigris and Snow, the origins of the games, how they change – all of that is what I fell in love with.
2. Put yourself in your protagonists’ shoes
[On Katniss:] She’s a much easier character to get behind, partially because she makes a very heroic sacrifice very early on. The younger sister is getting chosen for the games, [Katniss] knows she’ll never survive it, and sacrifices herself to save the sister. Instantly you’re empathising with her. Then it’s a survival story, so you know what she wants. You hope she’s going to get it, because she’s deserving of it. I think audiences imagine what they would do in those situations. I think some of the best stories are the ones where you try to put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes.
[On Lucy Gray:] What she and Katniss share is they’re both very smart people. They’re both survivors, but she’s very different. There’s an effervescence to her at times. She’s a performer, she likes to sing, she’s an extrovert, but she also knows how to manipulate. Performers aren’t necessarily always truthful. I think people will like her but there should also be some distrust too.
3. Combine a mix of performing styles
Even though [Jennifer and Rachel] are very different people, oddly they share similar working approaches. They’re both very instinctual actors. Whereas somebody like Tom Blythe is trained and really knows his craft and makes lots of notes and works a bunch of things out, I think both Rachel and Jen are more instinctual and they know what they’re doing. They’re prepared on the day, but it turns on when you call action. They’re usually really good out of the gate and right away, they fall in it and become very present and they have an amazing ability to listen and to feel and to respond instinctually. I found that really interesting that they’re both very much that way. Then, as soon as you say “cut”, they can snap out of it in a second.
Whereas you have a lot of other actors who are also very good who have to go off in a corner and think about anything they’re going to do in the next scene. When you’re ready for them, they walk back in silently, thinking. You say “action”, they try something again. Often those people, it takes them seven, eight, nine takes. But Jen and Rachel are very similar in their approach.
4. Unveil your villain’s darkest side
I spoke thematically that this movie is really about the state of nature. You have those two sides, and in the darker one, the Hobbesian view is that we are, at our core, horror, brutal and savage – and that’s what Snow believes humanity is. That’s why he believes society needs to be ruled the way he wants to rule it. When I worked with Donald [Sutherland], he and I never considered him the villain because even the villains feel like they’re the heroes of their own stories. The truth is he really believes that society’s like this and if you believe that, you’re going to want to rule that way. So, he and I never judged Snow.
As a young man, it’s very different. He’s not fully formed. He certainly isn’t formed philosophically. He’s struggling, and that’s how we can get the audience behind. He’s part of a family that’s fallen from grace. He’s an orphan. He doesn’t have as much money as all those entitled kids that he goes to school with. He needs to win this prize to try and get food for his family. You can get behind that. You actually root for that guy, but you’ve got people pulling him in those different philosophical directions.
5. Don’t forget a shadowy head gamemaker pulling the strings
For Volumnia Gaul, Suzanne and Nina [Jacobson, producer] and I talked a lot about characterisations of women in power. The big one that we had in ours is Julianne Moore’s Coin. What you don’t want is to have a very similar depiction of somebody who’s in power in a dystopian world. We wanted to do something very different. Suzanne created somebody that’s quite odd and quite quirky and quite gleeful, and that’s what I pitched Viola. I thought she’d think it would be fun to do something really different.
The weird reference point that I was very nervous to pitch to her was Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka – the idea that these are both characters who find joy in the creative aspect of their work. It just so happens she doesn’t create candy. She’s creating these horrors for these horrible games, but she finds joy in the creativity of it. We ran with that, and the truth is, once she locked onto that and was really into the idea of playing somebody that’s a little quirky and very different than anything she’s done before, she became very game and was really collaborative with the hair, the makeup, the wardrobe.
6. Build an arresting world with a strong visual identity
One of the fun things about this book was the new world-building possibilities for me, because it’s a period piece to the other films. Because it’s so close to a war, production designer Uli Hanish and I started to focus on the reconstruction era of Berlin in the late 40s, 50s; the rubble in the streets, the rebuilding of classical buildings, the putting new buildings up, with nods to the Panem that we might know. We looked at how that era could inform the hair, makeup, wardrobe, auto design. We also knew that we needed to keep technology in the games at a very rudimentary level. So, we looked at that era for the technology too.
When I did Catching Fire, most of the games took place in the jungles, under the canopy. I was watching a lot of movies about Vietnam – Platoon (1986) and Apocalypse Now (1979) and things like that. But this one, I didn’t look to a lot of movies. We did look at some reconstruction-era movies, The Third Man (1949), Germany Year Zero (1948). That’s a tough one to watch. I looked at that primarily to look at the cityscapes.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is in cinemas, including BFI IMAX, from 17 November.
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