Before the rebellion, before the Mockingjay, there was a young Coriolanus Snow. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows his journey of becoming one of the first mentors enlisted to help tributes in the 10th Annual Hunger Games and examines his fall and eventual rise to becoming one of Panem’s most diabolical leaders.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes release date will soon be here, and eight years after the last installment, fans will be thrust back into the dystopian world. (And gratefully so — you can check out our The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes review to see why.) Director Francis Lawrence returns to lead the franchise to success, and while talking to The Digital Fix, he let us in on why he came back and what he loves most about the prequel.
The Digital Fix: I read that it was Suzanne Collins who reached out to you about adapting the prequel. When you read the manuscript, what was it that intrigued you the most about it in terms of coming back and doing another movie?
Francis Lawrence: When she first called me to tell me she was almost done with the book, she didn’t tell me what the story was. She just said it takes place 64 years before the first Games and she said “There’s one real major crossover character and there’s a music element to it,” so I was intrigued. But then when I read it, what I fell in love with is that it’s really an origins movie. Not just an origin of a villain, but origins of the Games and of songs and behavior and lines of dialogue.
And even though I think it’s a great standalone piece — like, you don’t have to know the other books to get in and watch it and enjoy it — I think for the fans to then be able to come back and learn all these new things, and it may even make fans rethink characters and dynamics and lines of dialogue and things from the other movies, I think that was really exciting.
Based on all that, if she called you up again in eight years’ time and said, ‘I’ve got another book for you to adapt’, would you be up for it?
Yeah, I mean, look, I think she’s a great writer. And I think she always starts with a really strong thematic idea and creates great stories with great characters around those ideas. I love working with her and with Nina [Jacobson], so I would 100% be back.
Talking of great characters, this one focuses around President Snow when he’s younger. It’s such an incredible character and Donald Sutherland back in the original series did such an amazing job with it. Was there anything specific about his previous iteration of the character that you discussed with Tom [Blyth] to keep consistent?
I really just wanted to start from the beginning. I was looking for some physical attributes in the casting, but the truth is that I really wanted the best actor and I wanted somebody to just own the role on their own.
I didn’t want it to be an imitation of Donald Sutherland in any way, because we’re meeting a young man that’s not fully formed, and Donald Sutherland is playing the guy that’s been fully formed for a long time and running a country and the Capitol in a very specific way for a very long time. And here, we’re meeting a young man that doesn’t really even know who he is completely.
Rewatching the whole franchise, one thing that really stuck out compared to other movies of its kind at the time was just how completely stacked the cast was. You definitely have the same thing going on in this movie as well. Peter Dinklage in particular as Dean Highbottom is so good. Was he someone you had in mind for the role from the very beginning?
I mean, he was my first choice. He and I had met about another movie before, so we had a little bit of a relationship, but I’m such a huge fan of his and I was late to the game for Game of Thrones, but he was just so phenomenal in that. And so the idea of him playing Highbottom was great because he brings a lot of weight, a lot of gravitas, a lot of pathos.
I still don’t really know how he does it, but he also can bring this weird, kind of dark humor to stuff, that like if you read on the page you would never find it funny at all. And somehow, he finds the humor in it. He just makes everything he does really entertaining. He’s unbelievably talented.
A character I was so excited to see was Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus because I think anyone who’s read the book would know that even though it’s Snow’s story, [Sejanus] is at the heart of it. A lot of what he does impacts what goes on. How did you guys approach that character?
Well, what was interesting in the casting of this character was we did this big casting and nobody was getting it right. All of the actors were feeling sort of pathetic, in a way. I think what we realized was that it was actually not an actor issue, it was a character issue on our part in the adaptation.
And it made me and Nina and Suzanne and the screenwriters go back and really dive into who Sejanus is and the kind of person he is, and we rewrote the character in the script. Then we went back and Josh came in, and he read our new version of Sejanus and just really nailed it.
I think part of what we were looking for is we wanted to add somebody that has this almost blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth quality. Somebody that has this conviction and passion and courage to stand up for what they believe in, even though they’re completely surrounded by opposition, but at the same time doesn’t really have any street smarts.
There’s a naivete to his decision-making, which is why he’s constantly getting into trouble. What he believes in is actually morally correct, so if you’re looking at the story on a moral level, he’s actually the hero. That’s like something that we had to struggle to develop correctly, but that Josh could just come in and nail perfectly.
Returning to the franchise eight years after it was last at its peak, when the target audience has had the time to grow up and get closure from the overall story, did you feel any pressure or hesitancy to take it all back on again, or did you just have faith that the Hunger Games will always prevail?
I’ll tell you that when I felt hesitance was when [Suzanne] first called me and said ‘I’m almost done with the book.’ I was excited because of the possibilities, but I was nervous because I was unsure of what the appetite would be for a Hunger Games movie without Katniss. But then when I read the manuscript, I just fell in love with the story, with the world that she built, what it was all about, and then for me, everything else vanishes.
The truth is I just have to fall in love with the story. I love working with these people, and I love the world, so then I’m all in and all those fears go away and I don’t think about that anymore.
The audience for the first movies were young girls and women like Katniss who could see themselves in her, and for this part of the story, you’re focusing on the guy who tried to take her down. It’s such a turn. What was your creative priority in terms of turning the lens onto the biggest movie villain of the whole thing?
I think the biggest priority was just trying to make it the best movie that it can be. Again, Suzanne writes from such a good cinematic foundation and writes such great compelling characters. You know, it’s to go in and, you know, I guess maybe surprise people and get people sort of rooting for somebody that they’d never thought they would root for, ever. But, you know, just tell the most compelling story possible. I think that was really really the goal.
Someone that really stuck out was Jason Schwartzman as Lucky [Flickerman], who is so funny. Was that an intentional discussion with you guys to say, “Okay, everything that comes out of this guy’s mouth is going to be the funniest thing we hear in this movie”?
Some of it comes from the book. Some of it comes from the fact that I’ve tried over the course of my career to get better, because there are certain kinds of movies that I’ve done where there’s like absolutely no levity at all, and the truth is even the darkest stories need some opposing force. Some lift, some joy, some levity. He was obviously the character for it, and there was a basis for him and the kind of person he was in the book.
But then when we got Jason, who was also my first choice, I enlisted him and I said: “Listen, I think your character is sort of underwritten, and I think there’s more meat on the bone. There’s more we can do. Let’s research, you know, weathermen and magicians and vaudevillian actors and talk show hosts, and pull the things we like and create this character. But let’s brainstorm with the screenwriter and you and create a document of ideas that we can bring to all the scenes.”
And that’s kind of what we did. And the truth is, most of what you see in the movie came out of all that work and not really from the original screenplay. Sometimes we would just shoot for hours at the end of the day, just shoot stuff with Jason and make it up. So like the scene where he’s making restaurant reservations was just made up on the day.
That was really fun. And we have hours and hours of footage of Jason trying different things. We shot commercials with him where he would be talking about the Games and then sell Capitol toothpastes, like we had all kinds of things.
I love that. Will we get to see them as deleted scenes at some point?
I don’t know, maybe!
First reviews have been incredible, and from people who are fans of the franchise as well. Has it been interesting as a director to already start to see the appreciation that people hold onto for a legacy of a movie series after all this time?
Honestly, I don’t really look at reviews or anything like that anymore. It just makes me too anxious. But what I did like, and I started to feel this in the process of making the movie, is that as we were starting to finish the movie and the first teaser came out and the original movies were put out on Netflix and people dove back into them…I just liked feeling that the fandom was still alive.
There’s this nostalgic return to the world of Panem and the Hunger Games. I appreciated that, and then when we started to test the movie, it was really just fascinating to see how the fans of the movies and books were embracing this, embracing these characters and embracing the story, and I found that really fulfilling.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will be in theaters from Friday November 17, 2023.
To prep for the new movie, check out our guide to The Hunger Games movies in order. You can also check out the Hunger Games cast, and see what other dramas are hiding in our list of the best teen movies. To see what’s ahead, make sure to bookmark our guides to the Wonka release date and Dune 2 release date.