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Breaking Down How ‘Catching Fire’ Became A Record-Breaking Blockbuster

Breaking Down How 'Catching Fire' Became A Record-Breaking Blockbuster

Never underestimate producer Nina Jacobson, who once ran production at Disney and knows how to surround herself with smart people, from “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins to indie producer Jon Kilik. It wasn’t easy to turn Suzanne Collins’ first book in her “Hunger Games” trilogy into a global blockbuster, nor was it easy to navigate through the departure of director Gary Ross to find his replacement, Francis Lawrence, amid a change of management at the studio, Lionsgate.

But Jacobson carefully steered the $140-million “Catching Fire” to its takeoff last weekend, when it broke records, and is soaring into the holiday stratosphere. We spoke on the phone during a break on her breathless round of premieres around the world in London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Paris, LA and New York.

Anne Thompson: How did you manage to take this movie through a departing director?

Nina Jacobson: Simon Beaufoy [“Slumdog Millionaire”] was writing for Gary Ross, they were collaborating on the Gary version of the movie. Four months out Gary wasn’t doing the movie anymore. I was looking at the daunting prospect of a start date on something that first and foremost was my responsibility to not screw up, knowing that rushing is often the surefire way to screw up. We had a great book, that helped, many things in the book have to happen in movie, as far as preparing. 

So why did Ross leave, exactly? He needed more time?

The real reason? He is a writer-director. He actually needs time to direct through writing. He needed time to disappear into the writing process and then come out on other end, there was not time to do that. You can’t write by proxy. He has to do it himself. He had to write and prep at the same time. Yes, he wanted more time, whereas on the first book he knew what wanted to do, he had unlocked the key which he had not put in the lock yet for “Catching Fire.” He had time on the first movie. I don’t think he knew exactly the vision of the second movie. But really, 18 months is plenty of time to wait between installments. I wouldn’t have wanted to wait longer. He loved the first book and knew what to do. Here there was a mystery as to how he would approach it. He has a history of developing things that he doesn’t make. Without that certainty and momentum, he pulled out. 

How did you find Francis Lawrence?

I have never encountered a filmmaker — every single person who had worked with him went out of their way to speak of him in warm and glowing terms. I get it now. When I sat down to meet, he was not intimidated: “While we are working on the script, I’ll prep the sequences we love from the book that have to be in movie.” Beyond the practical, he was drawn to these damaged characters who were broken by the consequences of violence, and that none of these people escaped unscathed. 

They don’t behave like traditional movie heroes and bounce back and strap on their guns. They’re suffering the consequences of war, at a time when we’re a country that has been at war for a decade, with all of our soldiers coming home. That he was interested in that spoke to me right way. It’s what interests Suzanne– it was a big red flag that they were going to be likeminded. The other thing was that he had a notion that every set piece had to have a tonal emotional value, which was key to making the arena not feel like a VFX extravaganza, to stay rooted in the character and theme of each set piece so that each had a distinct emotional value.

Take for instance the sequence in the fog about the loss of Mags: it’s about camradery, alliances, looking out for each other. As an example, Francis knew how he wanted to spin the cornucopia, which was designed for the movie, not in the book. He had ideas for what sequences ought to feel like to keep us emotionally engaged and not just watching some cool shot. 

How did you know that Lawrence was the right director not only for “Catching Fire” but the last two installments as well?

It was so early, literally two months into prep, watching him work as we were casting the movie and working on script, I thought, “this guy is the real deal, we will never do better, he’s the only guy who will know what movie two is. Any other filmmaker would be reacting only to the first movie without having time to see the second movie. He’s a collaborative partner, one of the kindest most gracious humans I’ve ever worked with. If humanly possible it would be better to have him direct them all. Jon [Kilik] and I talked to the studio about it, and Francis, who had to think about what he could physically do. He gave it thought and talked to wife. We spoke to studio; they were receptive, they saw the caliber of the work and of the human being. We all took a leap of faith early on, before we had shot a foot of film.

How did Ross and Lawrence approach the material?

They’re very different filmmakers, they approach the work differently. Although Francis was a fan of the first movie, he wanted a more fluid camera as he opened up the world. He wanted something very intimate and visceral, a POV piece in which everything we get is from inside Katniss’s head. And yet the second movie, which Suzanne [Collins] calls the colorful one, we spend time in the Capitol, go to big parties, the colorful arena, and you cross the whole county on a victory tour, so we needed to open up the lens and see a lot more beyond the intimate urgency of what’s happening with Kat, who we still want to be rooted to emotionally. But it’s Katniss’s POV that grounds these stories, that’s what allows these stories to be felt and not watched.

In the sequence after they form alliances, in the part where the cornucopia spins, Francis made a set piece out of it. You see how suddenly they are fighting so hard to hold on to each other. In that sequence the theme is allies vs. enemies. We spent a lot of time with Michael Arndt–who was an amazing collaborator for us, an essential ingredient–on this whole idea of keeping this thematic thread running through the movie. 

Francis is the rare fellow who is as gifted visually as he is attuned emotionally and thematically. Actors adore him, he takes time with them and is respectful to integrate their thoughts and ideas. He’s able be both certain in his own vision and receptive to new ideas. He is playing with a lot of high cards in his hand.

How did the budget wind up at $140 million?

Obviously, our actors had to be paid more. And we had significant above-the-line as we added cast members who are grownups–Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright–a lot of key players joined the cast. The first time we had a movie in which the action was taking place in a wooded naturalistic setting. This time it’s a deliberately man-made arena. All of those things placed demands on us to expand. 

We had the same number of days 77-80, in Atlanta and Hawaii. We came in at 2 hours 15. We knew, and Suzanne was brutal, saying “hey we have a dead zone here, when we get back to the capital after District 12, before they get reaped again, where we have to be efficient and not get sentimental about what we need to cut.” She was always game to do what needed to get done.

At the very last stages Arndt worked tirelessly round the clock for four weeks, a super Herculean effort, as we prepped as we got close to production. We wanted to add, but we were brutal on length, and cut out a lot. And we added a little more dimension as we were less hard on ourselves on running time. We went to Scott Frank [“Minority Report”], who I love and respect and adore, to give us more character breathing time, like the scenes on the train when they are getting to know each other again. When I saw Michael at the premiere he loved things the things Scott added. We were so ruthless with each other about the pace. Coming back to it with more breathing room allowed Scott to add a few weeks work to it.

The movie really rests on Jennifer Lawrence’s shoulders.

There’s two sides to that. Suzanne wanted for us to say, “Let’s not treat these characters like heroes. Ask yourselves what would you be like as humans if you were subjected to brutality of this kind of violence, if a girl died in your arms, and you were forced to fight for your life against other kids, if it felt like at any moment the person who claims to love you might betray you, as you choose your life over his. In real life how would you be at the beginning of the next stage? You’re not going to be fine. It’s important that she not just be fine. At the same time she’s the hero of the story and has to be active. Finding a way for her to be both damaged but active was a big challenge.

The other side of it: we wanted to advance the love story, so she has the time to see what both men represent for her. 

I love it when she tells Gale that she has no time to deal with a relationship right now. 

That’s honest and true: ” I can can’t think about anything other than about how scared I am.” Gale says, “people are looking to you.” She says, “I don’t want people looking to me.” That’s so right on the money, how would you feel? Look at how hard these young actors work to promote those movies. People are looking to them. It’s interesting on so many levels, in real life as in the movie Jen and Katniss. Always when push comes to shove they step up to do the right thing. Jen I admire, she takes her public role as someone girls look up to seriously, even though she is not at all the kind of actress who grew up holding a hair brush in front of the mirror as she imagines the future: “first I want to thank the Academy!” That is not Jen, she loves the work. It takes enormous maturity, the way she handles the fact that people are looking to her. That scene is important, telling Gale that she can’t deal with that right now, how scared she is. We wanted to get that right.

The other challenge is that the character needs to evolve and grow, you can’t rush her forward to the end of movie four. You have to take your time. It’s worth the growth of the character to not rush forward. 

She can handle it with great grace. Their parents have raised them right: all three are very normal and nice and attached to each other and root for each other, really love each other. There are moments when it’s hard to miss all the meta levels when they’re walking down the red carpet in Rome as fans are chanting their names. Then you look at the Romanesque parade in the tributes beginning of the games as people are chanting their names, It’s all freaky.

What did you need for the pivotal role of Finnick?

The key was, there are a lot of good looking guys who can do cocky arrogance but can’t do emotional soulful. And knowing where he has to go as a character, we needed an actor with both of those qualities, in equal measure. That’s very hard to find actually. Sam [Claflin]’s a fine, committed, hardworking actor who takes preparation seriously, he clearly wanted to bring it to this. And get the emanation and the charm and mysterious opaque quality of “what’s on this mind? I don’t really know.” He does a great job of keeping you guessing.

In a world where movies about strong women are hard to find, “The Hunger Games” was in your wheelhouse.

It does represent everything I stand for in so many ways. I sometimes I wonder how anything will ever speak to me as completely as this does on so many levels. Although at the same time it helps when I’m out with “Where’d You Go Bernadette” that it’s not just a chick flick. It’s a mainstream female driven movie done as well as any male-driven movie. It’s not the reductive chick flick bullshit. It helps to have the “Hunger Games” wind at my back to try to keep advancing those adaptations.

What’s next?

“Where’d You Go Bernadette.” Maria Semple has finished her own rewrite of her current draft. The polish is wonderful, we’re actually gearing up to go to filmmakers. The book did remarkably well in paperback, and is holding strong on the best-seller list as it’s continuing to grow. So many interesting women have let us know that they are excited to play the role in the film. Now comes the fun part, now that we have an intact script, we get to find the right filmmaker and go forward. Megan Ellison is financing. We have studios bidding for it who love the book. We’ll go back to them later and partner the same way we did with Lionsgate. I’m committed to getting the movie right and getting it made. Megan felt about “Bernadette” that we should make the version of the movie we most want to be itself, as opposed to forcing it into being as something that met the criteria of a studio. 

You’re also developing for cable with Brad Simpson Jeffrey Toobin’s best-seller “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson”?

The Jeffrey Toobin FX mini-series is going, we got a great got draft from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski [“The People vs. Larry Flint”), we took it over to FX for Fox, who are gonzo on it. We’ll move forward relatively soon. 

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