Ever since word got out that Francis Lawrence is taking Gary Ross’ place as the director of the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire, we’ve all indulged in judging him based on whether or not we enjoy his previous films – myself included. While a director may get most of the praise should a movie play well or take the brunt of the criticism should it get banned, the fact of the matter is there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen when it comes to making a feature film.
The director is essentially the conductor, but that doesn’t mean every element of the filmmaking process lies in the palm of his or her hand. That being said, there’s really no judging Lawrence’s capabilities without both disconnecting his directorial work from the other creative entities, but then also considering the collaboration to a degree.
In order to better assess Lawrence’s potential as the director of Catching Fire, here’s a closer look at his work in his two most recent features, I Am Legend and Water for Elephants.
(Warning: I Am Legend and Water for Elephants spoilers ahead.)
I AM LEGEND
Opening with the Plot vs. the Main Character: Rather than begin I Am Legend with Will Smith’s character, Lawrence puts the focus on Emma Thompson’s Dr. Alice Krippin and how she cured cancer. Gary Ross actually opted for a similar start to The Hunger Games, kicking off the film with a chat between Seneca Crane and Caesar Flickerman rather than opening the story from Katniss’ point of view. While that was an appropriate start to the first film of the franchise, now that we’ve got most of the introductory material out of the way, putting the audience right back in Katniss’ shoes might be the smarter move. Then again, he could approach Katniss’ current position from a different stance, sticking with the I Am Legend TV tactic and begin with the opening credits playing over the full coverage of Katniss and Peeta’s big return home from the Hunger Games and then roll right into their Victory Tour prep.
Vast Landscape Shots: After the New York City population succumbs to the negative effects of Dr. Krippin’s cure, the city is left in ruins. Thanks to The Hunger Games, we’re already familiar with the primary locations, but in Catching Fire, the arena is a whole new world, just like this new version of New York City. In I Am Legend, Lawrence does a nice job of introducing us to the new terrain, but still leaves much to be discovered once we’re firmly in Robert Neville’s shoes. That duality is going to be key in understanding the mechanics of the new arena, but also keeping the audience eager to learn more, just like the tributes.
Intimate Coverage: While Robert Neville is our main man, Lawrence successfully puts us in Sam’s head as well. Yes, Sam the dog. The dog lover inside of me would have put me on Sam’s side regardless of Lawrence’s tactics, but it’s Lawrence’s shot selection that makes Sam a universally engaging character. It’s a dog that can’t emote quite like Will Smith, but it’s Lawrence’s shooting and editing choices that puts us in Sam’s place at the most opportune moments, ones that use the material before and after to help us understand how Sam is feeling. Of course he gives similar attention to Smith, keeping us close enough to always experience the story from his perspective, but reserving hyper close-ups for the most profound moments, like right after waking from a dream during which the infected horrify his young daughter.
Camera Movements: Not a fan of Ross’ super shaky-cam? In I Am Legend, Lawrence does go the handheld route, but in a much more controlled way. Many of the wider shots, as expected, are secured, but when Smith is the focus, he tends to go off his sticks, giving the material a looser and more realistic sensation. As far as movements are concerned, in this film, Lawrence generally sticks to motivated moves, not just moving the camera for the sake of moving it, but doing so as dictated by a character’s movements. However, one unmotivated move I find particularly effective is when a heartbroken Neville can’t drive any further and Lawrence lets the camera quickly track back, showing how truly alone he really is.
The Action: I know people have their gripes with those white vampire-like creatures, but before they’re revealed, when Smith is looking for Sam in that dark building, Lawrence achieves a lot with very little. There’s something about the creatures' noise that make them particularly unnerving, which makes me think Lawrence will know exactly what to do with those eerie Jabberjay sounds to make that scene particularly horrifying. When it gets to the more active material, unlike in The Hunger Games, Lawrence opts to go with a mix of shaky-cam and static shots, something that’s equally effective, but far less dizzying.
The Effects: Until I was aware of how disappointed some moviegoers were with the I Am Legend digital effects, I never minded them much. On first watch, Smith and the situation were both engaging enough for me to simply accept the world Lawrence presented. However, when watching the film with a keen eye on the digital elements, there’s no denying that those creatures are cartoonish.
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
Framing: Lawrence has some very full frames here. Even before we get into the meat of the story, when an older Jacob is chatting with Charlie, they’re either waving objects in the blank space or the background is filled with colorful circus posters. As we move forward, singles on characters usually involve another character obscuring the foreground or some sort of action happening in the background. However, even when Lawrence has just one player to work with, he manages to use his environment in a way that highlights its qualities while also making for a stimulating image, something that’ll undoubtedly come in handy in the different regions of Panem. One of the most striking sequences in Water for Elephants is easily Jacob’s (Robert Pattinson) first tour of the Benzini property during which the employees set up shop.
Directing Actors: Who knows what really happened behind the scenes, but from an audience’s perspective the large majority of the supporting characters here are total clichés, from the man who informs Jacob he’s got no home to the first Benzini employees he meets and more. It’s also a fairly common opinion that one of Water for Elephants’ most detrimental downsides is the lack of chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon and it’s evident right from their very first interaction, as to how she feels about Jacob trying to help is tough to decipher. The Twilight films certainly dug Pattinson a bit of a hole, but I’m hesitant to knock his acting abilities beyond the franchise. Witherspoon, however, simply delivers a bad performance. Her relationship with Pattinson isn’t convincing and neither is her relationship with August or her beloved horse for that matter. Lucky for Lawrence, his love triangle has already proved successful.
Writing vs. Directing: Personally, I’m not a big fan of this movie, but I’m much more eager to blame that on the script than on Lawrence. Again, you don’t know what went down behind closed doors; I’d hope Lawrence would have had somewhat of a say in the script. But, then again, Lawrence also isn’t a writer, and if he did have any influence on the script, it shows. The transitions here are particularly weak. Visually, the film flows fine, but as far as the story goes, certain scene jumps don’t feel natural. For example, rather than leave some time to build tension, the script jumps right from Jacob putting a poor horse out of his misery to August threatening him for disobeying his orders. From the perspective of someone who never read the source material, cinematically, there’s a major missed opportunity there. The dialogue is also very straightforward, most characters simply stating the obvious or ruining surprises by foreshadowing.
Generating Emotion: Not every scene hits as hard as it could, but when it matters -- like during the big elephant reveal -- it works. Lawrence’s choice to literally reveal the elephant is chilling and that emotion bleeds right into Pattison and Witherspoon’s more intimate moment with the animal. Perhaps all this is doing is showing that I’ve got a soft side for animals, but the scene with the bullwhip is particularly heart wrenching, showing off a new degree of cruelty in Waltz’s character and a new level of compassion in Pattinson’s. And this is just for a single scene; the concept is revisited, maintaining a similar if not stronger impact while upping the stakes in the story and at one point, absolutely breaking your heart.
Humor: While Water for Elephants is generally about the drama and romance, Lawrence succeeds in earning a handful of appropriately placed laughs. Any Pattinson fan will undeniably fall for the gag his new colleagues play on him and Lawrence’s shot choices and a natural performance on Pattinson’s part, give that moment a nice hint of honesty. It’s nearly impossible not to giggle when Rosie removes her stake to get a drink and then puts it right back. The entire moment plays out without a single word; merely Lawrence’s narration via the lens and it works.
Lawrence has a solid sense of shot progression and specializes in creating stimulating visuals. With the majority of the Catching Fire cast already proving they can deliver successful performances in their roles, as long as Simon Beaufoy’s (and Michael Arndt) script is in good shape, Catching Fire is likely to be a winner.
The Hunger Games Countdown runs here on Movies.com every other Wednesday. There are 547 days until the release of Catching Fire.