Katniss is “A Wreck”: A Conversation with Suzanne Collins and Francis Lawrence

TIME talks to the writer-creator of 'The Hunger Games' and the director of 'Catching Fire' —  the first in an exclusive five-part series

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Francis Lawrence, director of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games Trilogy
Peter Hapak for TIME

Francis Lawrence, director of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games Trilogy

With The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opening in theaters on Friday, Nov. 22, TIME book critic Lev Grossman recently sat down for a long and wide-ranging conversation with Hunger Games creator-writer Suzanne Collins and Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence.

The interview has been divided into five parts, running Monday through Friday. This first installment starts with Collins and Lawrence describing the mental state of our favorite heroine…

Compare Katniss at the beginning of Hunger Games and Katniss at the beginning of this movie. How is she different now?
Francis Lawrence: Well, Katniss is different because she’s been through the games. I think that was one of the things that really interested me most about the material and about this book was that we get to start to see the kind of effects that the games have on people, the effects that violence has on people.

How do you show that change?
FL: Even though she’s in the place she loves in the forest, I think that there’s a look to her, I would call it the thousand-yard stare. She’s still disturbed by things, and can’t get certain thoughts and images out of her head. And pretty quickly she has flashbacks to the games, within minutes of the opening.

Suzanne Collins: She’s got a lot of classic post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. She has nightmares. She has flashbacks. And in the beginning you can see she’s practicing avoidance. She’s completely pushed Peeta to arm’s length, you know? She’s trying to stay away from him. Why? Because everything associated with him except some very early childhood memories are associated with the Games. She’s conflicted to some degree about her relationship with Prim because she couldn’t save Rue. So she’s dealing with all that, and her method of dealing with it is to go to the woods and be alone and keep all of that as far away as possible, because there just are so many triggers in her everyday life.

But of course, what happens right at the story is it’s beginning of the Victory Tour, and that means that she’s going to have to go to every district and stand there and look at the families of the dead children. Some of them in some districts, like District 1, she killed both tributes. She killed both Marvel and Glimmer. So it’s this nightmare waiting to happen. And then just to make it extra awful, Snow visits her with the threat, so she’s something of a wreck at the beginning.

I have a daughter who’s 3 who’s super-obsessed with Little Bear, and I always think it’s funny that you wrote both those and The Hunger Games, too. Where is the overlap between the Suzanne Collins who wrote Little Bear, which is so sweet and warm and cozy, and the Suzanne Collins who wrote the Hunger Games books?
SC: All the writing elements are the same. You need to tell a good story. Even though the Little Bears are 7-and-a-half minutes, I wanted them to be well structured. You’ve got good characters. You want to tell a compelling story that will reach that audience. All the elements are the same. You’re just writing a different story, and sometimes you shift a little bit because the concerns of the age group that you’re writing for are different. People think there’s some a dramatic difference between writing Little Bear and the Hunger Games, and as a writer, for me, there isn’t.

My two favorite characters from the series make their debuts in Catching Fire: Finnick and Johanna.  Tell me about them—they’re so complex, so right on the edge between unspeakably awful and incredibly appealing.
SC: They’re two of my favorite characters too.  Finnick and Johanna are people who have now lived the victor life.  They haven’t only gone through the horrors of the Hunger Games, they came out on the other side of it, which was supposed to be a life of luxury and pleasure for the rest of your life, and found out it was anything but. They’ve been prostituted by the Capitol.  If they try and resist in any manner, they’re punished by people they love being killed or tormented in some way.  So they’ve both developed these kind of personas which are their Capitol personas, which is all Katniss has ever seen of them.  But of course underneath – they’re sort of onion characters, and as you peel back the layers you find more and more about what they’ve experienced. Haymitch is another one – all of the victor tributes are, really.

What was the casting process like? How did you find your Finnick and your Johanna?
FL: We saw loads of people for both.  It was a really tricky casting process, but Sam, who plays Finnick – he was one of the first people I saw.  And we kept seeing more and more and more people, and I ended up choosing Sam in the end more for what we know about Finnick as the story progresses rather than just what we think of him in that first scene.  Sam can be very charming and very flirtatious and he’s handsome and in great shape, so I knew he could do that.  But what I really liked was the real emotional side of him.

SC: They had him read both scenes – scenes from the entrance and scenes later when he’s broken down.

FL: Exactly.  And then I was seeing a bunch of girls for Johanna, and there was a bunch of these girls who were just coming in and acting bitchy.  And I didn’t buy them.  Johanna is supposed to be, or feel, a bit unhinged and unpredictable.  You can’t really act that; you kind of have to just be it. I knew Jena Malone was coming in and I knew some of her work before, though I never met her.  She walked into the room in character.  Her eyes were red, she was mad about something – I mean, she intimidated me when she walked into the room.  And then she did the scenes and it was unbelievable.  She just owned the character in a way that nobody else had come close to.  And she got the role really pretty quickly after that.

Suzanne, you work on the script and you see some of the casting, the auditions.  Are you on set?
SC: I visit on set, but I feel like –I go to visit and to watch, but there’s nothing really for me to do in terms of work. It’s like, you get to the set and everybody has a job but you. I feel very comfortable about whatever’s transpiring on the set whether I’m there or not, which is nice.

Hawaii though, right?  It must have been tempting.
FL: We tried to get her down there.

SC: I get sun poisoning in three seconds.

In the second part of the interview, running tomorrow, Lawrence explains what drew him to the project.