It’s a December day in paradise, and Jennifer Lawrence is neck-deep in a swamp. She’s gasping for air, moaning in agony.
Katniss Everdeen, reluctant heroine of a blighted nation, has just barely outrun a toxic fog meant to bring her down — all in front of a rapt Panem television audience — in the eagerly awaited The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (rated PG-13, out Nov. 22). Soon Lawrence is joined in the fetid water by costars Josh Hutcherson and Brit actor Sam Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman), all of them crying out in ecstasy as the water finally drains the poison out of their characters’ blistering boils. When director Francis Lawrence (no relation) calls “Cut!” the 23-year-old
Oscar winner clambers out of the muck wondering if their yelps of pain sounded weirdly sexual, as if they were shooting a bizarro porn version of Suzanne Collins’ best-seller. The large crew, gathered in a scrum in the Hawaiian jungle, breaks into easy laughter.
You’d expect the set of Catching Fire to be a little tense. The Hunger Games, based on the first installment of Collins’ series about a teenage girl who single-handedly threatens the fascist structure of her dystopian society, made more than $400 million at the domestic box office when it was released in spring 2012. And yet mere months before Catching Fire went into production, the high-stakes sequel was without a director or a script. Enter I Am Legend director Lawrence and screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3), who sought a cinematic way to tell the story of a broken Katniss being cruelly tossed back into another Hunger Games alongside an entirely new group of All Star tributes played by the likes of Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Jena Malone.
Back in the jungle outside Waikiki, Hutcherson, who plays Katniss’ staunchest ally, Peeta, huddles close with his costar and their new director. You might think they’re obsessing over the next scene — a doozy in which they are chased by CG howler monkeys — but in fact they’re snickering over a viral video of an unlucky gentleman who jumps into a pool that turns out to be frozen. Francis Lawrence has such a calm but commanding presence on set that midway through production Lionsgate announced he would stay aboard to direct the remaining sequels, Mockingjay, Part 1 and 2. And Jennifer Lawrence’s easy, playful rapport with her costars — and everyone else on earth, more or less — is well documented by now. So the set is loose and fun. At one point, Hutcherson stands to the side with his visiting father. He teases his costar, telling her she’s going to get trench foot from the murky water. The actress, who grew up with two older brothers, responds by punching him. Hutcherson dodges to avoid her blows, then gets her in a headlock.
There’s so much happy energy in Hawaii that it’s somewhat jarring months later to see Catching Fire footage up on screen. The director says two of his greatest aims when he came aboard the franchise were to amp up the visual effects and the high-art garishness of Capitol scenes. And the film promises to be a feast of spectacle — from the tidal wave that washes out a segment of the Hunger Games arena to the magnificent plumage and outrageous wardrobe of handler Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). But at its pained heart, what we’ve seen of Catching Fire suggests a profoundly moving look at the ravages of battle and the ruin it inflicts on a people and culture.
In August, EW sat down with Jennifer Lawrence, Hutcherson, Claflin, Francis Lawrence, and producer Nina Jacobson in Santa Monica for a freewheeling conversation over many rounds of sake and sushi.