Naturally, everyone everywhere knows about The Hunger Games. Some people devote their lives to them, reading, planning, glued to the TV. Things are different in my district, though. Most of us are too worried about getting enough food or making it through the winter to even consider the tributes. That sort of thing only happens out west, past the Rockies, where everyone can afford exotic foods, where they wear clothes that seem unnaturally bright to our snow-drunk eyes.
How, then, did I end up selected to meet, face to face, six of the most well-known tributes? I didn’t
choose to go. The chances of it happening were slim to none. But they don’t call it chance for nothing, so there I was, participating in the Games. The boardroom we were assigned to wait in was once dominated by
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a green marble table dotted with plates of tiny candies the size of exotic frogs that balance on the tips of fingers. However, these graceful appointments were overpowered by cameras, computers, and hands on phones, working as unfeeling circulatory system with an electrical pulse.
The food (sliced vegetables, full-sized candy, small fried pita things) were spread carefully on metal trays. The drinks came in glass bottles. “I’m going to entertain myself,” one man said. “I can’t remember the last time I had sparkling water.” He wore a full suit, black, unbuttoned, and fit in well with the other professionals, all bleached, dyed dusted, molded, and painted. There’s a good chance that I was the least-well put together person in the room.
Interacting with the tributes proved to be a carefully scheduled activity with little room for deviation. Ushered into a xeroxed copy of our waiting room, five of us sat across from Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss), Amandla Stenberg (Rue), and Alexander Ludwig (Cato). We’re greeted warmly by the three of them, each wearing a smile that conveys as
much welcome as all of their handlers put together. My outer layer of cynicism is dented or possibly even cracked. In the conversation that follows, the three of them are anecdotal in relating their time on the set.
To set the scene: a forest, tense and waiting, lush and green even before
post-production gets their hands on the color saturation. Stretching out into blurred, leafy tapestries trickled through with brown, this will be the site for deadly conflict, but it will also nurture a budding friendship. Amidst all the trees, that collective entity of “the woods,” a single man seeks to bring a landscape into his terms.
“Gary Ross is such a visionary,” Lawrence says. “We’re in a forest. Every tree, to me, looks the same. But he can look around and say, ‘That’s where that scene should happen.’ ” And in a forceful zoom, an ecosystem is reduced to a man and his art, object and subject, a camera and a tree.
Of course, in the Games, nothing is perfect. Nothing goes as planned. Stenberg, perched in the perfect tree, is unable to stay in her spot. “We kept sliding down. It was kind of uncomfortable.” Finally, she finds a welcoming divot to plant herself in, a shallow hole to keep her stable. “Ready,” the shooting crew beings. “Set.” But Stenberg is betrayed; she begins sliding again. “Wait,” she says, “I can’t find my butt hole!”
Laughter all around, of course, and Lawrence insists that every day was just as fun. The only speed bumps were technical in nature: look up more, turn this way, alter your pose. “I filmed this movie like any other movie, then we wrapped. I’ve already shot one movie, I’m about to shoot another in a month, and then I have time to shoot another before we even have to worry about coming back and training for the next one.”
“I don’t really have to worry about the next movie,” Stenberg says.
“Oh,” Lawrence says. “Oh, I did that again.” Everyone laughs.
When asked about the death scene, the laughs continue. “It’s actually hilarious,” Lawrence says. “Have you seen that picture of us? Still photography sent me a picture of her in her little grave and me holding her head.”
The view from the outside was, perhaps, a little different. “I was filming another scene,” Ludwig adds, “during the time they were filming Rue’s, you know, scene and I remember walking back to base camp, and I walked past this one guy with, just, tears, and I thought, ‘Oh man, he must be having a shitty day.’ And I keep walking and I see another person crying, and another person, and I realize they’re filming Amandla’s death scene. It was just such an incredible, incredible scene.”
“I just want to bring to life scenes. I want them to be real. I want to have real conversations with people on-screen.” This statement is (at least temporally) unrelated to Ludwig’s story about Rue. It’s also a very dangerous phrase to let out into the world, possibly eliciting laughter, scoffs, or accusations of pretension. Only context can make it okay to say, like if you were crying at a bar with your ex-girlfriend while the waiter puts chairs on the tables around you. You can also say it if you’re Josh Hutcherson (Peta), whose excitement for the project borders on the evangelical. “Thankfully, the actors I worked with on this are so present and so
I don’t consider myself easily taken in, fooled, or manipulated. For instance, I rarely cry at movies (especially when compared to how much I cry at real life). Given that, Hutcherson’s sermon on his fellow actors, Suzanne Collins’s involvement in the project, and his own acting philosophy has done more to enamor me of the movie than any advertising.
Like Hutcherson, Isabelle Fuhrman (Clove) and Jacqueline Emerson (Foxface) also offered more internal views on the process of the film. Another scene: a cafe, perhaps at a time of day and a place in the world where only women of the matronly persuasion fill the chairs, where everything shades toward the coffee brown, tables the color of a cup swirled with cream and wrought-iron chairs hot and black in the sunshine like steeping tea. Amidst all the forty-somethings sits a young woman, French vanilla face and dark chocolate hair, taking a phone call. The message relayed causes her to break into tears which, in turn, causes her mother, seated across from her, to laugh. In a wide shot that takes in the whole dining area, the flock of mavens, silent and shocked, watch the contrary emotions. Fuhrman has just been cast in The Hunger Games and her mom knows it.
Elsewhere, a different flavor of devotion: Emerson has always been a fan of the books. A big fan. When Gary Ross had begin his work on the film, he’d interviewed teenagers about what made the books worth reading. Emerson, a friend of Ross’s daughter, had been among those interviewed. In her opinion, Emma Stone would be perfect as Foxface. Later on, she gets invited to try out for the part.
Once cast, she’s encouraged to create and develop a history for the mysterious thief she’s going to portray. Collins herself pushes Emerson to do what she needs to get in-character. Perhaps unconsciously, she does what Foxface herself might do: she sneaks through the depths of fandom, picking and choosing what she wants to keep for herself from the ranks of fan fiction and online speculation. She even discovers Foxface’s real name, but that’s a secret that, like the character, Emerson is keeping to herself.
The disconnect in these actor-as-character bits is obvious: none of them are acting for their lives. (This is the sort of statement that, if untrue, would be extremely insensitive
for me to make, so let me apologize ahead of time if they are, in fact, saving their families by being in the film.) Ludwig believes that The Hunger Games works so well because it’s about regular people, people without powers, people from differing backgrounds, thrust into an extraordinary situation. Hutcherson believes that show business is a mirror that reflects what’s held up to it, which is often people who are scummy or, “pardon me, but fuck-ups in a lot of ways.” I take this as a challenge, and if that’s all I get out of my Hunger Games experience, I think it’s enough to make it worthwhile.