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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 29, 2013 at 4:23PM

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 producer Nina Jacobson steered the $140-million "Catching Fire" to its takeoff last weekend, when it broke records, and is soaring into the holiday stratosphere.
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Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in "Catching Fire" poster detail
Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in "Catching Fire" poster detail

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.

Francis Lawrence and Nina Jacobson
Francis Lawrence and Nina Jacobson

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. 

Hemsworth, Hutcherson and Lawrence of 'Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
Hemsworth, Hutcherson and Lawrence of 'Hunger Games: Catching Fire'

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. 

This article is related to: Hunger Games: Catching Fire , The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence, Sam Claflin, Lionsgate


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.