Following a six year marathon making four Hunger Games movies between 2012 – 2015, director Francis Lawrence did not expect to find himself back in the arena again.
But, that all changed when he received a call from Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins.
“When we finished the Mockingjay movies, there were no other plans for books. Suzanne had been working on the stories for about ten years and was kind of done and wanted to do other stuff. And Nina and I too, wanted to go do other stuff. But, we always said that if Suzanne wrote another book, we’d probably come back,” says Lawrence, referencing his longtime producing partner Nina Jacobson.
“In 2019 Suzanne called and said, ‘Hey, guess what? I’m almost done with another book. I can’t wait for you guys to read it’. And it was very exciting because we’d had a chance to do some other things, and then – right before the pandemic – we read the manuscript and fell in love with the story and decided we wanted in and spent the majority of the pandemic working on the adaptation,” recalls the director on the eve of the release of franchise prequel, Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
Collins’ novel examines the early days of the Games, the origins of Panem’s authoritarianism, and the invention of rituals that create an obedient society.
Looking back at a young Coriolanus Snow and his days as a student, we see him as a man who has not yet chosen the path of cruelty that will ultimately lead him to the presidency of Panem.
“I was very taken with trying to understand the allure of why a person, like the young Snow, might choose authoritarianism,” says Jacobson. “You’re not born the person you become; you’re shaped into the person you become. I could see how a country can turn towards authoritarianism when people decide that they feel safer when the state is in control.”
Set 64 years before Katniss Everdeen volunteered as Tribute, and decades before Coriolanus Snow became the President of Panem, Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows a young Coriolanus (Tom Blyth), not yet the monster we see him become, as personified by Donald Sutherland in the earlier films.
Snow’s once-proud family has fallen from grace in a post-war Capitol, and he is eager to reclaim some of their former dignity and protect his grandmother and cousin.
With his very livelihood under threat, he reluctantly accepts the assignment to mentor Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) – a Tribute from the impoverished District 12 – in the 10th Hunger Games. But, after Lucy Gray’s charm captivates the audience of Panem, Snow sees an opportunity to shift both their fates while apparently falling in love in the process.
Lawrence immediately approached West Side Story breakout musical star Zegler to portray Lucy Gray, and saw hundreds of actors for the pivotal role of Snow before finally landing on Blyth.
Best known for his roles in TV’s Billy the Kid and The Gilded Age, the brown-haired Brit submitted to the indignities usually heaped on female actors.
“We wigged him and ultimately buzzed his hair and bleached it and then wigged him for the longer hair,” recalls Jacobson with a sly smile.
“But Tom really is an extraordinarily sophisticated actor for somebody of his age. He also has this kind of composure, a stillness that felt consistent with the person that he would ultimately become; you had to imagine that this person could grow up to be Donald Sutherland. So, obviously that meant he had to have enough physical similarities without ever falling into the trap of mimicry or impersonation. They have to make it their own. Tom is not a showy, scene-chewery kind of an actor. He is very subtle and brought a certain essence, so you can believe he could grow up to be that villainous, older version of himself,” she says.
Talking about his screen chemistry with co-star Zegler, Jacobson hopes for audiences to take away a certain disbelief about Snow’s romance with Lucy Gray. “I would say some people will call it a love story, and some people won’t – and I hope that’s the case; that some people will question whether they do ever fall in love. Or, whether one of them is or the other one is…”
In this new Hunger Games chapter, Lawrence was eager to unearth Panem’s rich history that Collins referenced in the previous novels. “When we were making the original movies, Nina and I would often talk about the dark days and wars that led to the Hunger Games, and to their very creation. Suzanne had built such an incredible mythology and history to that world. The stories in The Hunger Games films are all about the consequences of war. They investigate its different aspects, and as you go through the series, you get further and further into concepts like PTSD, propaganda, the loss of people you love, and the disappearance of a way of life,” says the director.
Considering the high calibre of actors who starred in the original films, the team was able to attract important talent to this new prequel, including Peter Dinklage and Jason Schwartzman, luring Viola Davis to the project with the promise of playing an unhinged evil genius.
“I think part of what drew her in was not just the themes, but it was also the opportunity to do something that she hadn’t really done before. She hadn’t really been in a movie like this or played a character like this,” Lawrence says.
Given how Jennifer Lawrence was burnt out by the end of The Hunger Games films – her popularity as Katniss made her a global star – did the director have any words of wisdom for his new stars who are about to be catapulted into the spotlight?
“We’ve talked a little bit about it, but I haven’t given Tom the big warnings or things to watch out for. I hope he really takes off from this movie and has lots of opportunities. But, if the fame really skyrockets, then maybe we’ll have conversations after that, from what I’ve learned watching people over the years,” says Lawrence.
“I do think Tom is very lucky that he is playing a character whose colouring is so different than his own. Tom is not a blonde. Jen Lawrence and Katniss Everdeen really look quite a bit like each other – and Rachel Zegler and Lucy Gray also look quite a bit like each other. Tom, in his day to day life, does not look like Coriolanus Snow. So, for him, being able to hold on to that little bit of incognito; to have some privacy or the chance to still go run an errand or take your dog for a walk is important,” adds Jacobson.
“And he’s also a little older than Jen was when she first did the movies and has a little bit more of a chance to know who he is before the whole world decides that he belongs to them. I think that was something that’s very jarring for anybody, but especially when you’re so young, to have people want you to belong to them when you’re still really figuring out how to belong to yourself,” she reflects.
“Tom is very grounded, and so I hope that he’s able to enjoy it. He also has the benefit of the fact that we’re not doing a series; this is one movie until Suzanne writes another book which I don’t know that she will. So, Tom gets to do this really wonderful role that is not as consuming in that way of feeling like everybody wants something from you, which I think is a lot to ask of anybody.”
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is in cinemas 16 November 2023