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Early on, Suzanne Collins made the decision to entrust Katniss and the re-creation of her life in Panem to Lionsgate because she liked their hands-on approach, accessibility and commitment to the spirit of the story across the entire top tier of Lionsgate’s film group.
“Everyone we needed to get the movie going was right there on the phone,” she recalls. “The studio was small enough for that to be possible and I felt it would be our best chance of seeing the story become a film.”
Lionsgate made it their mission to show Collins that they would be faithful to her vision for how to bring the book to the screen. “Suzanne thought we were the House of ‘Saw’,” recalls Joe Drake of his first phone call with the author, “but we convinced her that we could sensitively and accurately handle the material, citing our work on such films as the Academy Award-nominated ‘Precious’ and Best Picture winner ‘Crash’.”
Nina Jacobson was equally impressed with Lionsgate’s passion for the project. “I felt so connected to it and I was certain that there was a great movie to be made — but one that had to be treated with care,” she explains. “I made a very passionate case to Suzanne that her vision needed to safe-guarded and Lionsgate gave us their full support for a faithful adaptation that would not be about blood and gore, but thematically driven.”
Collins was likewise gratified by Jacobson’s contributions. “Of all the producers we met, I felt Nina had the greatest connection to the work,” says the author. “I believed her when she said she would do everything she could to protect its integrity.”
From the beginning, Drake, along with Lionsgate’s President of Production Alli Shearmur and marketing head Tim Palen, had lovingly referred to Suzanne as ‘Mother Hunger Games.’ Their most important aim was to stay true to their word to her about how the book would be treated, and their choice of director was the first – and maybe the most important – decision they’d make on the path to honoring that commitment to Suzanne and her book.
The process of safeguarding the story and the character of Katniss began with choosing a director that would bring the story to life technically, but more importantly, emotionally. Their choice was sealed when Gary Ross showed up for the first meeting with Lionsgate prepared with extensive storyboards, and a video presentation of real kids talking candidly and passionately about why they love the book so much.
Explains Shearmur, “After this show of tremendous understanding and sensitivity, we all agreed that Ross was the man for the job. He’s known both for the fantastical vision of ‘Pleasantville’ and the visceral emotions of ‘Seabiscuit’, and it was that balance that was so essential to this film.”
For Jacobson, Ross had the perfect blend of epic and intimate storytelling skills to immerse the audience directly into Katniss’ most subjective experiences. “Gary is not just a director but a writer/director and that was an important distinction for this movie,” she says. “Getting the book right was such a big responsibility, and Gary’s understanding of how Katniss’ POV had to be the heart and soul of the story was spot on.
He really connected with Suzanne, and they ended up writing the script together. Most importantly, while Gary has amazing visual ideas, he always knew this story had to come from a character place. So he approached it in such a way that characters drive the suspense at every turn and the audience has the chance to experience this world completely through their eyes.”
Ross then brought on board producer Jon Kilik, with whom he had collaborated on ‘Pleasantville’. He, too, was won over by the book. “It has elements of classic movies that I’ve always loved, from ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ to ‘The Breakfast Club’, blended with a dystopian vision of where our society could be headed.
I found that to be an amazing mix and as soon as I read it, I told Gary I was in,” Kilik recalls. “I’ve known Gary since 1997 and I knew he was the right choice for ‘The Hunger Games’ because he has children who love the book, and because he has this very rare and unique ability to evoke both teen angst and alternate worlds.
Even though this story takes place in the future, I think Gary perceived that it’s more reflective of today than you might think – and that’s why people, not just kids but adults too, really connect to Katniss and Panem. Katniss is trying to survive a tough world of game playing and manipulation, just as we all are.”