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

by Anne Thompson
November 29, 2013 4:23 PM
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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

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'

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. 


  • Markus | December 9, 2013 2:05 AMReply

    The articles reason for the movies success is flawed. Pop culture is making so many people dumber & dumber, and Hunger Games IS a pop culture tinsel-hype. I watched it and by mid point there was nothing new about it (from the first one). It was boring. But, as I've said, the masses, pop culture, will stop at nothing to get their way and wanted this mediocre movie to do well. Pop culture DECIDES, at least the overwhelming majority of the time. They decide who becomes famous and who doesn't, many times based on the actors looks, background/origins/name, race, etc. Dumber & dumber. Unfortunately, Hispanics but namely Mexicans, have become the target of discrimination by the pop culture masses. Easily mostly.

  • Lisa Rechsteiner | December 6, 2013 10:38 PMReply

    Loved the article. It was really great to hear from Nina. I appreciate the glimpse producers give. She has done such a wonderful job with bring a hugely popular book series to film. And then keeping a sense of cohesion as we move through the story arcs.

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