Gary Ross announced he wouldn’t be helming the sequel to the mega-smash The Hunger Games, which set off a flurry of speculation. Who would take on Catching Fire? Who should bring the second book in the series to life? A common request was for a female director. There were also tons of requests for impossible choices like Alfonso Cuarón. Now we have the official choice. Lionsgate has offered the job to Francis Lawrence, a name nobody thought to mention in all the guessing.
The initial reaction to Lawrence being chosen was a mixture of ambivalence and general dissatisfaction. I guess people were hoping for a bigger name. I’m not sure what anybody expected. Due to Jennifer Lawrence’s schedule on the next X-Men film, the sequel to The Hunger Games needs to complete principal photography by January next year. That’s not much time. A script has already been written, but any director hired would need to sit down with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and author Suzanne Collins to shape the film. Then he’d need to get all the pre-production and get a move on with production for a 2013 release. There’s not much time, and it would be practically impossible for Lionsgate to get a bigger name director to agree to those terms. That’s where choosing Lawrence is a brilliant move.
While The Hunger Games was a solid film, it was lacking in two departments. The screenplay was serviceable, but it resembled a cut-and-paste job without much concern for how the story would be paced on screen. The direction, while reasonably competent, failed to breathe life into the world of the series in a substantial enough way. It looked good enough, but only good enough. Even the original Chris Columbus Harry Potter films had a visual splendor of candy-coated cinematography and beautiful production design. The Hunger Games was done on a smaller budget, and instead of pushing the boundaries of that budget, Gary Ross attempted to go for gritty realism. What he achieved was fine, but somewhat boring.
Enter Francis Lawrence. This is a man who started in music videos and fairly recently directed the ‘Bad Romance’ video for Lady Gaga, so right off the bat it’s clear that he’s a visualist. His feature début was the Keanu Reeves comic book adaptation, Constantine. A fun film, but not a very good one. His next film, I Am Legend, was also a very flawed work. Most recently he directed Water for Elephants, another highly problematic film. At first glance, this is a bad track record. That is, until you actually separate Lawrence’s duties on those films from the films themselves.
Lawrence is not an auteur, at least not yet. He’s a visually minded director who has primarily done work-for-hire, and when you consider the direction on each of those films you begin to see just how strong a director he can be. Constantine has a crappy script, a lifeless lead actor and was little more than an attempt by Warner Bros. to break into the comic book adaptation market. All the fun of the film comes from the elements over which Lawrence had control, namely the pacing, the action and the inventive visuals.
I Am Legend is a sad case of a film that could have had it all and ended up totally throwing it all away in the second half. It’s hard to know who to blame for its problems, but certainly the script comes apart in the latter parts of the film, and I suspect that some of the decisions involving the vampiric creatures and how they behave came directly from studio notes. Again, where the film generally succeeds is in its pacing, the action and the visuals. Plus, Will Smith is terrific in the film. Had the third act of I Am Legend properly paid off on the amazing first act, I believe the film would today be considered a modern classic. That’s a product of Lawrence’s vision doing wonders with really bad material.
As for Water for Elements, the problems with that one are perhaps more complex, but again, Lawrence brings the visual chops and the great sense for pacing. There are important qualities, and considering the challenges inherent in the novel of Catching Fire they are immense strengths. The second book in the series has a lot more kinetic action, which Lawrence has proven himself more than capable of, and it’s also going to require a deft handling of structure and pace to clip along without feeling like a rehash of the first film.
One credit that has gone slightly overlooked in discussion of Francis Lawrence is his work on the failed NBC primetime drama, Kings. It was a show that nobody watched, and quite frankly it might have been too conceptually ambitious to sustain what was essentially a cheesy soap opera. Yet, what the show most certainly had going for it was quality world-building. This is, perhaps, the greatest strength Lawrence brings to the table. If you’ve seen Kings, which set in a fictional monarchic state in the modern era, you’ll know that visually the show shares a number of queues with the universe of The Hunger Games. This is true in the books, but it’s particularly true in the design and depiction of the capital city in the film, only Kings actually visualized its world better, and a lot of that was down to Lawrence’s direction on the pilot and some subsequent episodes.
I think this is all good news. Lawrence has proven himself capable of enhancing problematic material with his strong visual eye, and he has also proven himself very strong at building an interesting world on screen. He won’t need to do that from scratch on Catching Fire, but considering how the story and world of the series expands in the second book, he’ll definitely have the chance to show off his talents. Also, being a director-for-hire, Lawrence is great for this kind of high-pressure, high-speed production. I don’t know if he’ll stick around for the third film, but at least for this one, Francis Lawrence is the perfect man to wrangle everything into a tidy, epic and quality film. Let’s hope he succeeds.