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Much like the Tributes they portray, the young cast of the film adaptation of the successful book by Suzanne Collins had to immediately jump into the most intensive training of their lives to prepare for the highly physical action of ‘The Hunger Games’.
They beefed up, leaned out and dialed in their skills via a comprehensive but crash-bang, 8-week training program just before production began. Most of all, they immersed themselves into the psychological situations faced by their characters, who each must use everything they’ve got – body, mind and soul – if they have any hope of beating the remote odds against them all.
“We had to take a cast, most of whom had no previous action experience, and turn them into stunt people capable of firing bows, throwing spears and climbing trees,” explains director Gary Ross. “There was a massive training component to making it all real. In the end, we only rarely used stunt doubles.”
Stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and Allan Poppleton began by teaching combat choreography to the cast – with a twist. “The interesting part is that Gary really didn’t want the action to feel choreographed so we tried to create a more spontaneous feeling of wild, emotional struggle,” explains Stahelski. “We looked at each character and talked about their skills, their energy levels, the way they move and working with all of those elements, ran with the action sequences from there.”
Meanwhile, stunt trainer Logan Hood set up a gym program with an emphasis on functional fitness – using everything from free weights to pushups and pull-ups to rope climbs and high box jumps – with each actor given a custom training program specific to their character. The training also included elements of “free running,” the newfangled sport of urban gymnastics, featuring free-form, creative acrobatic moves over all kinds of obstacles.
“The training had to transfer directly to their characters’ personalities and backgrounds,” explains Hood. “We weren’t interested so much in creating ‘gym bodies’ as in creating seamless, believable performances for each of the Tributes.”
Though main actress Jennifer Lawrence is naturally athletic, she says she worked hard at trying to bring out Katniss’ grace under fire. “Since half the movie for me is running, I worked extensively with a running coach. All day long I was running down mountains, through sticks and brush, and doing it over and over again,” she explains.
“I also worked a lot on climbing, both at rock gyms and on real trees, as well as on vault stunts and even more on archery. The training was really rough, but also really fun.”
The Zen focus of archery was challenging for Lawrence to master – as she learned to use both an old school hunting bow and the futuristic “recurve” bow, a twist on current Olympic bows, used in the Games — but very rewarding when she did. “Archery is a real mind game, all about total focus,” she says, “and if you do one thing wrong, you get whipped with a string going like a hundred miles an hour and it’s painful! I developed a real love-hate relationship with it. Ultimately, the bow became my friend.”
As part of her stunt work in the woods, Lawrence also had to confront a wall of fire created by Special Effects Set Foreman Brandon McLaughlin and Special Effects Coordinator Steve Cremin who built steel trees to withstand a forest blaze that was later enhanced by Visual Effects Supervisor Sheena Duggal. Says McLaughlin: “Gary’s idea was to keep everything real as possible. So instead of a ten-foot fireball that defies reality, he wanted a six-foot fireball moving at Katniss in a way that you really feel it.”
By the time production was underway, Lawrence was ready for whatever Katniss would face. “Jennifer was up for anything, bringing a great attitude to the training,” recalls Robin Bissell.
“Every day she would drive out to UCLA to train then head to the Valley for stunt training, then off to rock climbing and then to Santa Monica for lessons with an Olympic archer. She worked really, really hard and by the time we were filming, she had an amazing acumen for all of Katniss’ skills.”