Nina Jacobson’s mother wandered into her daughter’s office while we were talking about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which Jacobson produced. It was a surprise visit.
“This is my mom,” said Jacobson. “What are you doing here?”
Jacobson’s mom, Sandy, said: “Sweater sale. Can I listen for a little while?” (There is a sweater store, apparently, downstairs from the Santa Monica office of Color Force, Jacobson’s production company.)
“No! Go on!”
Jacobson’s mom left; they would see each other that night at the Los Angeles premiere of Catching Fire and travel together to New York the next day for another premiere. It had already been an interesting domestic morning: Jacobson’s family hamster — she and her wife have three children — had bitten her finger the night before, and when Jacobson woke up, the finger was clearly infected. She had gone to the doctor, and therefore was running late. The hamster was not rabid, luckily, but Jacobson was told to keep her finger elevated as if she was pointing at the sky. (She did not obey this doctor’s order.)
Jacobson was for years a studio executive, most notably at the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group, where she oversaw Pirates of the Caribbean, The Sixth Sense, The Princess Diaries, and zillions more. After her 2006 ouster from Disney — she was fired, infamously, when she was still at the hospital after her third kid was born — she founded Color Force.
The company’s first successes were the Wimpy Kid movies. But it is Jacobson’s acquisition of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian, political Hunger Games trilogy that has proven to be massive: Variety estimates that Catching Fire could make $300 million worldwide in its opening weekend. There will be two more movies; Mockingjay, the third book in the trilogy, is being split into two, and will be released in November 2014 and November 2015. (They are shooting the movies now, but took a month off to promote Catching Fire.)
Jacobson and I talked about her duties as a producer, what happened when director Gary Ross left the project, why (the divisive) Mockingjay will be two movies, the sneakily radical politics of the books and the films, and Jennifer Lawrence.
There are obviously all sorts of producers. What’s your role on these movies?
Nina Jacobson: I’m just there with them all the time. Suzanne Collins, it was such a big thing for me to make the handshake with her and to say, “You can trust me. I will not screw up your books. And I won’t let them be diluted and softened. And I won’t let them be exploited and made guilty of the sins that are being commented on in the books.” I take that really seriously. And that manifests in a lot of little moments, little details that add up. And you don’t know when those details will come up, so you kind of have to be there all the time.
Where does the process begin?
NJ: I’m super involved in the development of the screenplays. I feel in many respects that’s the most important thing I can do, is to make sure that we adapt them well. And Suzanne is very involved in the adaptation of the screenplays, and that’s what we want, is to have her compass. And then on set, I’m there. I’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had two really talented directors. You mostly let them do what they do, and let them do it well. And then when there’s a conversation that they want to have, or you want to have, you have it. Through post[production], I always give them their space in the editing room for the period that they’re cutting so they have someone to react to their first take. Like in Newsroom, what do they call that, the Red Team?
Wait, we’re referring to The Newsroom now?
NJ: It’s bad, I know. I just had never heard that before.
The Red Team being the ones that are kept in the dark so they can have a fresh reaction.
NJ: I try to do that in post. Stay out. Because it’s easy to get to a place where you’re just seeing scenes and you’re not seeing the movie. Once I get in there, we’re all along for the ride until we’re done.
Things for Catching Fire ramped up quickly after Hunger Games was released and became instantly huge.
NJ: Um. Yeah.
You obviously had things ready to go anticipating success. But how far along was it?
NJ: We were in the throes of releasing one movie and mounting another movie and found ourselves making a big sea change four months out. So that was my focus.
You’re talking about when Gary Ross, who directed and co-wrote the first movie, left the franchise. Was he supposed to write Catching Fire, too?
NJ: So Gary and Simon Beaufoy were supposed to collaborate. Simon was sort of working with Gary, but Gary was focused on finishing the first movie. And I think hadn’t quite had the time to crack the second movie in his head. So Simon was writing, but he wasn’t writing with a vision of a filmmaker driving it.
And so when Gary was no longer going to be directing the movie, we woke up and found ourselves going, We have four months to go and we have a great book. I went out and met directors. I connected to Francis Lawrence right away. He had an extraordinarily good reputation, probably more than anybody I’ve ever checked out. When we met, I loved what he had to say about the material. The idea for Suzanne of these books is that they are about the effects of war, and the consequences of war. And Francis was really attracted to how damaged everybody in this book is. I felt like based on how articulated his vision was, we could start prepping off the book.
So then we hired Michael Arndt, who’s an incredibly accomplished, smart, and fast writer. He and Suzanne and Francis really gelled. So we hunkered down to turn all of that brainpower into a script. And to catch up very quickly, thankfully.
What were the key things from the book to have in this movie?
NJ: For one, it’s the colorful movie. It’s the one where you’re going to spend more time in the Capitol; it’s Rome before the fall, it’s Berlin before the end. But also putting the relationships first. We identified early on the idea of allies, enemies, friends. Every scene had to be about those philosophical stakes. And then allowing the love triangle to breathe in this movie. Because as you know from the books, this is the movie where there’s time to explore her differing feelings about each man. And have time with them to see what each guy represents.
In the post-Twilight age, lots of movies have tried to do the young adult franchise thing. Hunger Games is the only real success. Have you been interested to watch those other movies, like Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments, die horrible deaths?
NJ: I have a theory about it, which is that I don’t think Hunger Games is a young adult book. I think it’s a book that has young adult protagonists. And I think that’s true of Harry Potter too; I think it’s true of Twilight as well. They’re called young adult books because it’s a marketing segment, it’s a niche. It’s where they begin their journey. But I think the ones that have worked cinematically, they’re not actually young adult books, they play one on TV.
Do you want to predict what will happen with Divergent?
NJ: No! I don’t want to predict. Because I don’t know, honestly. I’ve only read the first one, so I don’t know where it all goes.
The thing about Hunger Games that’s been endlessly discussed is the violent premise: children killing other children. Was the movie shooting when Sandy Hook happened?
NJ: Yes, we were shooting. To me, it was one of those things that just ruins you. I could think of nothing else. I found it so devastating and crushing. These books, what I find so successful about what Suzanne has done, and what the movies aspire to: They’re about the consequences of violence. They’re about how ruined we are by it. These characters, they don’t shake it off. They are carrying the scars of it. It’s the thing that so impressed me about what Suzanne has done: she’s written books that are commenting on violence and just how devastating the effects of it are and never, ever minimizing it.
I want to talk a little about Jennifer Lawrence. She’s won an Oscar, of course, since Hunger Games. How is she different now from when you first met her?
NJ: She is a girl whose parents have raised her right. She’s a really normal, decent, goofy person. She was normal, decent, and goofy before she had her Oscar; she is normal, decent, and goofy now.
You oversaw Disney during both the rise of Lindsay Lohan and the rise of Anne Hathaway. Now there’s Jennifer Lawrence. What’s it like to have an important role in sending someone into the adult world like that?
NJ: You have proud mom-ish feelings. Or in some cases, scared mom-ish feelings.
Has the film business had to adapt to how much the gossip business has evolved? In other words, could someone now act on film sets like Lindsay Lohan acted then without TMZ being all up in them?
NJ: No, I don’t think they could. It’s one of the things I’ve really noticed about this cast: They know that people are watching. I love the fact that Jen is so vocal about the body image stuff. She knows she’s being watched and scrutinized. If you sit around talking about this diet and that diet, then all these people are going to look to you like you must really have the answers. They’re very mindful, all of them. During the early Lindsay days, there were tabloids, but there wasn’t internet. And there’s no comparison.
In the social age, fans also get very involved in speaking out about casting.
NJ: Early on, Deb Zane, who I think has cast these movies so well, said, “Just keep your head down.” Because she’d done Twilight too. “Just cast the people you think are the best people and pretend it’s not happening.” What I ended up feeling is after all the sturm and drang is it’s really the fans telling you: Don’t fuck it up! Don’t screw up this book that I love!
With the movies’ popularity, I understand why products would latch on. But I do wonder sometimes whether the people behind the promotional tie-ins know what the movie is about. On Saturday, I was at the CVS and over the speakers they announced a Hunger Games: Catching Fire makeup special that will give you the “District 12 coalmining look.” I almost fell over. You were a semiotics major at Brown. What are your thoughts on that?
NJ: Well, I haven’t seen that one! The CoverGirl stuff is the meta campaign.
NJ: Very meta! As a movie, we always try to be on the side of the Districts in our storytelling. But let’s not let ourselves off the hook: We all have plenty of Capitol in us. So the meta campaign of the CoverGirl stuff and the Capitol Couture stuff — I think it’s great, actually. I think it’s a way to be mindful of our own culpability. But I hadn’t heard of that one specifically; that one freaks me out.
Here’s another deliberately naïve question. Harry Potter started the splitting-the-last-book thing. Then Breaking Dawn did it. Now Mockingjay will too. Does everything have to be about making the most profit all the time?
NJ: If Suzanne hadn’t been on board, I wouldn’t have been on board. Every book when we’ve adapted it we’ve had to lose some things in order to get inside the story and keep the momentum going. Characters fall by the wayside. So here, once you start moving beyond Katniss’ point of view in order to tell the story of a country in a full-scale revolution resulting from what begins as a propaganda war, we needed time and scope to do it. It would have been either one really long and expensive movie or two manageable movies in which the growing resistance turning into revolution can be told and the full-scale war can be told. We were never going to be able to do all that in the course of one movie without accelerating through a lot of the context. Which I think is one of the privileges of doing it as a movie: In the book, she doesn’t know anything that’s going on out there other than what she’s told. As a movie, we get to see a lot more than that.
The politics of the books: Katniss is basically a poor white person from Appalachia who starts a revolution where the poor people overthrow a government. How has that premise become a blockbuster movie?
NJ: My daughter and I have this thing we call a PMA: “perfect moment alert.” I try to really notice when we’re having a PMA. It means so much to me that these books are so political, and that you could have something that’s so popular but that also really means something and really speaks to our times. And what is wrong with us on so many levels. Whether it’s our obsession with celebrity or our casual relationship to violence. The growing gap between rich and poor. And the degree to which all of the bread and circus stuff distracts us from the very real work we have to do socially to be better. I worry, like, when will I ever get a chance to work on something that manages to be both so beloved and popular and so genuinely meaningful?
This interview has been edited and condensed.