the Hunger Games ballad of songbirds and snakes

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes gets to the evil heart of the franchise

We spoke with franchise producer Nina Jacobson about recasting Hunger Games’ iconic villain, choosing politically engaged projects and more.

Since its release in 2012, The Hunger Games, an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ popular book series, has become a major movie franchise. It’s been over five years since the last film, though, and with the upcoming release of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, the series returns to the past and the origin story of the villainous Coriolanus Snow before he became the tyrannical president of Panem.

The film’s events occur during the 10th annual Hunger Games, when the fight-to-the-death tournament is waning in popularity. The populace of the Capital sees the games as increasingly barbaric and is no longer entertained by mere bloodshed. Over the course of the film, we watch Snow (Tom Blythe), along with his tribute, Lucy Gray Bird (Rachel Zegler), help reshape and modernize the games, renewing their popularity with the citizens of the Capital.

Producer Nina Jacobson has been involved since day one. Jacobson has had an illustrious and hands-on behind-the-scenes career for over three decades. She sat down with Cult MTL to discuss The Hunger Games and her work. 

Justine Smith: As a producer, you’ve worked on many literary adaptations. Of course, The Hunger Games, but also Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Goldfinch and Crazy Rich Asians. How does it work to bring a book to the big screen? 

Nina Jacobson: I’m a huge reader. I am always listening or reading. I just have to have a lot of stories. Any time that I read a book or a manuscript that I can’t put down and I can’t stop thinking about, my ears perk up, and I think, ‘Is this just an amazing book? Or is there a possibility that this would make a great adaptation?’ At that point, it’s about speaking to the author and ensuring that your vision and ideas align with theirs. With Suzanne (Collins), she is the North Star. She is our backbone. 

Any adaptation requires choices. You have to decide what to keep, what is essential, and what is compressed or even omitted. Are you making sure to stay true to the soul of the book? Suzanne is very open and collaborative. The process is about figuring out those priorities and making sure you’re aligned with an author and holding onto them through the adaptation process, and never losing sight of what made you love the work in the first place. From hiring a writer to putting the finishing touches on a cut of the film and getting it ready for the audience, you are thinking about holding onto that soul and how you protect it. 

JS: With your production company, Color Force, you’ve chosen a lot of projects that are politically engaged, including the Hunger Games, but also things like American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson. How important is it for you to choose politically engaged projects? 

NJ: For one, I think that audiences are really smart and want to be treated with the respect they desire. I think audiences want to be challenged. They want something to talk about, to argue about. 

When I was in college, I started to study film theory and was very interested in documentaries. I wanted to make experimental films or experimental documentaries. By the time I graduated and started my professional life, I realized I didn’t want to preach to the choir. I don’t want to just get the ten people who already agree with me. I want to be able to tell stories that have a broad reach and are open to interpretation so that audiences can bring their own ideas. I want (to work on projects) that are not prescriptive but open-ended and open for debate and engagement because, ultimately, television and film are empathy machines. Once you identify with a person, you will never look at a person like that in the same way. It’s not about political content as much as it is, and I love this quote by Jean-Luc Godard: it’s not about making political films but making films politically. So, a movie like Crazy Rich Asians, to me, is not about politics but is made politically. 

JS: One of the more compelling elements of The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is that it engages with questions of media literacy as we watch how they learn to “market” the games. How important is it to communicate these ideas to the young audience the films are geared towards? 

NJ: Young audiences have always loved these books but I think that they are really general audience movies with young adult protagonists. By the time we get to the tenth Hunger Games, the war is in people’s rearview mirrors. They want to move on. They don’t want to dwell on something that upsets them. Snow’s rise to power, we learn in the movie, is rooted in what he sees with Lucy Gray. 

In the movie, he starts to care too much, and it turns everything upside down for him. It sets him on a course that might have been very different. It even sets him on a course to becoming a better person but instead, it sets him on a course to turn into the villain we all know and love to hate. 

JS: Can you talk about casting Tom Blythe as Snow? 

NJ: It was a very hard role to cast, as you imagine, because it’s much easier to play a hero or a villain, but to play both and express through performance the internal war inside of him, you need an actor who can have layers, complexity and depth. We knew we had to cast our young adults to aspire to the calibre of actors we ultimately got [in this case, Donald Sutherland]. We also needed actors who could hold their own against icons like Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage. It’s a lot to ask. We found people played him too much the villain, we didn’t believe he might be good. On the flip side, some actors tried to make a hero out of this guy, which is not our intention. He is our protagonist, but he is not our hero.

With Tom’s audition, we saw the nuance and subtlety, as well as the command over his craft, that took our breath away. We auditioned a lot of really good actors, but we had to also cast someone who, in terms of physicality, could also grow up to be Donald Sutherland. At the same time, we never wanted an actor who was just trying to impersonate Sutherland. It had to be more than mimicry, which would be wrong for various reasons. 

When we first put (Tom) and Rachel (Zegler) together, it was a Zoom, and Francis (Lawrence, the director) had a kind of sidebar where he told Rachel to start singing to him. He had her sing a great June Carter song to Tom and watching the way he responded to her, then going into the scene and working from there, it really showed how they fed off each other as scene partners. Sometimes with young actors, they might think they know their lines so they’re reading to go. They think they know how they want a scene to go, but a scene should change based on the person in the scene with you and that was something we saw Tom do masterfully from the beginning. 

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 17.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

This article was originally published in the November issue of Cult MTL.

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