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Fuelling The Fire

20 November 2013 | 6:00 am | Tom Hawking

"The story is a very different story than the first one; for me, it’s where everything kind of opens up."

It's strange to feel anything approaching sympathy for a well regarded Hollywood director who's just taken the reins of a gazillion-dollar franchise that'll probably furnish him with enough cash to buy a small Pacific island... but still, it's hard not to feel for Francis Lawrence, just a little bit. He came to the Hunger Games franchise when it was already fully established as a commercial and critical juggernaut – the first film, directed and written by Gary Ross, was a resounding success, and Ross seemed well established as a sort of Panem Peter Jackson for the foreseeable future.

Then he jumped ship, and why he did so remains open to question. Ross spoke at the time of The Hunger Games' release about how much he was looking forward to Catching Fire, and one certainly got the impression that his actors – especially his star, Jennifer Lawrence – loved him. He cited the film's tight production schedule as his reason for leaving, but it's hard not to suspect there might have been going on behind the scenes – surely a director would make time to direct a sequel to one of his most-loved films unless there was a compelling reason not to?

(For what it's worth, one also gets the impression that this mightn't have been the easiest group to become a part of – pretty much all the actors involved in the first film give variations on a chummy statement about how “tight-knit” they were, and there's a certain air of... well, dickishness, to be honest, about the Year 9-esque way that Woody Harrelson and Liam Hemsworth, paired for a round-table session at the press junket for the film, giggle and try to outdo themselves in giving sarcastic and/or nonsensical answers to journalists' questions.)

Anyway, in light of all this, you can argue that for all it was professionally (and, presumably, financially) rewarding to take command of such a high-profile franchise, Lawrence was on a hiding to nothing taking this job – if Catching Fire is as successful as the first film, he's continuing his predecessor's good work, and if it isn't, then he gets to carry the can. Which it'll be remains to be seen.

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Still, sitting at LA's swanky Four Seasons hotel, three days into the journalistic onslaught that surrounds his film's release, Lawrence is determinedly chipper. Yes, he says, he felt that he could bring something new to the franchise, and he was excited to do so. “I didn't find it hard to make [the franchise] my own, actually,” he says. “It was the thing that I had to think about when I got the call. I was a fan of the books, and [the film has] a great cast. It's a project that's hard to resist. I re-read the book when I got the call about meeting with everybody to make sure there was enough material for me to make it my own. And I really quickly saw that there was, because the story is a very different story than the first one; for me, it's where everything kind of opens up.”

Lawrence is fairly light on specifics as what in particular he felt he could bring to the project, preferring that his film speak for itself. But watching Catching Fire, you see what he means about “everything opening up” – unlike the first Hunger Games, which centred around what happened in the arena, this film focuses more on the dystopian society that gives rise to the Games in the first place (so much so, actually, that the presence of another iteration of the Games in this film feels like a weird afterthought.) “I think the thing that really hooked me the most about Catching Fire,” he agrees, “is that for me, it's the movie that the real themes and ideas really start to kick in. And that's one of the things I wanted to sell.”

For their part, his actors also speak warmly – and, it must be said, diplomatically – of the transition. Josh Hutcherson, for instance, says, “I like how Francis took the world that Gary had created and worked with it and kept it, like the continuity of the world. But also, sort of, built upon it and made it bigger because the story becomes a larger scale story. You get the opportunity to see a lot more of the Capitol, a lot more of the districts. And I think that the way Francis built upon what Gary had already done was really smart.”

Jennifer Lawrence, for her part, is as endearingly blunt as ever. “Of course I was upset [that Ross wasn't returning],” she says, “but I completely understood. And I was really, really impressed – I admired why he didn't take on the movie. He didn't think he had enough time to be able to give his best. As upset as I was to see him go, I do admire that about him. And then Francis has been absolutely wonderful.”

It remains to be seen whether audiences agree, although for what it's worth, Francis Lawrence has already confirmed that he'll be returning to the franchise for the adaptation of the final book, Mockingjay, which will be split into two films, Deathly Hallows-style. Filming is already under way, and will last until July next year. What can fans expect? “I don't want to give too much away,” the director says, “but I will say that we're making these books and we're making them true. We're making Mockingjay, we're not reinventing Mockingjay.”