“Red Sparrow”: Director Francis Lawrence on His Espionage Thriller with Jennifer Lawrence (Interview)

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After making three movies in The Hunger Games series, director decided to continue working with the series’ star Jennifer Lawrence, as the two ventured into the world of Red Sparrow.

Based on the novel by former CIA agent Jason Matthews, Jennifer Lawrence plays acclaimed Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova, who is seriously injured in a fall. She’s convinced by her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) to attend a school for “sparrows,” a program that teaches young men and women the art of seduction that can be used in their espionage efforts. At the same time, CIA agent Nate (Joel Edgerton) is trying to infiltrate the Russian government and the newly-trained Dominika is sent to uncover whom the CIA mole is that’s infiltrated them.

Red Sparrow is very different from the previous Lawrence collaborations on The Hunger Games, maybe because it’s a slower and more deliberate espionage thriller that doesn’t rely on abundant action scenes to keep the viewer captivated.

Related: Drew McWeeny’s Review of Red Sparrow

The Tracking Board got on the phone with the director last Friday to talk about his most grown-up movie to date, and a movie that’s definitely not for the squeamish or easily-disturbed.

I think many people are surprised there isn’t more action in Red Sparrow, considering that you did action for so long with The Hunger Games movies. Was that a conscious decision to do something quieter and more subdued?

Yeah, a hundred percent. I had never done a spy movie before and I always loved the genre, but I think partly because it’s the most specific genre thing that I’ve done, I just wanted to do it differently. I think so many people are used to Bond, Mission Impossible, Bourne, things like that. Or super political things like Tinker, Tailor and so trying to find a new way in. When I read this book, this for me was a very human way in. I loved the character and the dilemma, loved portraying the more brutal version of the espionage world versus glamorizing it, but that also meant very little action. I was much more interested in the tension and the intrigue and the character dilemma and the world.

Had [producer]Peter Chernin already bought the rights to the book and was developing something before you got involved? 

Yeah, yeah. There had been a development process, but it was nothing that I used. Basically, when I got involved, I was sent the book by Fox. I read the book, called Emma who is the president of over there, sort of made my pitch. The book was a little bit more of a two-hander. I was much more interested in telling the story of Dominika. I did my pitch. I called Jen and asked if she’d been interested, hypothetically, in a story like this, and she said “yeah.” Then, I hired Justin, who wrote the script, and we just started from scratch using the book, but it was something that the Chernin Group had tried to develop for a while, but it was nothing that we used in any way.

 I haven’t read Jason’s book, so when does it take place?

It’s present day.  People have a hard time placing it, which I find kind of interesting, and I understand. My goal is always to make movies as timeless as possible. I have that pet peeve of you love a movie and you look at it 20 years later, and you’re like, “Oh my God. Look at that hair and those clothes and all that.”   And so, I want to make it as timeless as possible, but when you go to some of these places, some of these countries. We show a fair amount of facets and architecture and things in here, in terms of old classical ornate things and 60s socialist things and government housing. Even some modern structures and things like that. It lends itself, also when paired with a kind of color palette to feeling like it could be from another era, but it’s not when you look at the cars and the cell phones, just all that kind of stuff. It’s modern. People also look at the floppy disks in the once scene. And think that that dates it, when in truth there’s places like the DOD and CIA, places like that, they tend to like to keep important information on larger data storage devices, because they’re harder to move around. Where it’s like thumb drive is very easy to conceal.  Whereas something larger is harder to hide.

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I haven’t seen a floppy disk in I don’t know how many years.

Yeah, I know.

Had you worked with Justin before on something?

We actually developed something together that never got made, but yeah I’ve know Justin for a long while, and we worked on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He had a take on it that I really liked and we worked on that for a while. I just don’t think we ever fully cracked it, but I found him to be a great writer. He had a great voice. He really liked Red Sparrow and we saw eye-to-eye on the take and the changes I wanted to make, and the changes he wanted to make. So, we went for it. It came together pretty quickly, too.

I loved his recent film A Cure For Wellness. I think that was one of Fox’s more daring releases and I think that Red Sparrow is kind of in the same vein in some ways. It’s very daring for a big studio.

I mean, Fox is doing it. I have to say. I give them a lot of credit. From the second I pitched them my take and hard R, they were all for it. They stuck with it. Not trying to talk me out of it in any way at any point. They’re kind of gambling. I feel like they’re one of the few.

Hopefully, they’ll be able to keep bringing that to the mix after merging with Disney.

I know. I still have no idea what that even means.

Yeah, no one does. In your case, it must be nice to have been working with Jennifer, so you can just text her or call her and say, “Hey, how about doing this?” Was it really that organic to get her involved?

Totally. Exactly that organic. I read the book. I called Jen. I said, “Hey, hypothetically would you be interested in playing a character like this?” I mean, she’s not going to say, “Sign me up” without seeing a script, but she was like, “Yeah, hypothetically, it sounds fun.” I did that. I actually remembered having my call with Emma, because I was still working on The Hunger Games. I was standing in the lobby of the Hard Rock Café and Hotel in San Diego at Comic Con. We were promoting Mockingjay 2. Jen and I still had a fair amount of work to do and press to do. We would just chat about it as we were developing it. Yeah, it was great to have that relationship, so it could be that organic and not even have to officially go through all the channels of agents and that kind of stuff.

You found some great locations for The Hunger Games movies, and while this mostly takes place in Russia, there are other locations, too. I assume you didn’t shoot in Russia, right?

No, we shot in Budapest. Yeah, it was sort of a combo of it was going to be a lot of architecture that was going to work with us. I worked with the designer, Maria Djurkovic, who’s fantastic. There’s a lot of shooting in Budapest now, so there’s a good infrastructure there for shooting. Good crews. Good places to stay. Things like that. It felt like the right kind of place. It also had just a wealth of locations that would for both Russia and clearly it was Budapest locations that we needed. But, it was also close to Bratislava in Slovakia, which was also behind the iron curtain and had tons of that brutalist socialist stuff that we could use as well. And then, we shot in Vienna and London. We shot entirely on location. We didn’t build any sets on stages. We didn’t spend any time on a soundstage on this movie.

Even the interiors of the main Russian government building looked really spot-on. 

Yeah, that’s a library in Budapest. It’s this old part of a library that’s just sitting there and it’s incredible. I mean, usually you go some place and you’re struggling to find the stuff that’s in your head and it was the opposite. There was just such a wealth. It was choosing which one of these three things do we like the best, because there was just so much great stuff there.

I can’t remember. Was Constantine rated R or was it PG-13?

Well, we got an R, but we made a PG-13 movie. This is what I consider my first true R-rated movie, because [with]Constantine we sort of got screwed. That we followed all the rules, it should have been PG-13, but for whatever reason they gave us a hard R. Nothing we could do, because of intensity and things like that. Having followed all the rules, I mean having known I was getting an R, I would have really made an R-rated version of Constantine.

It would be hard to make this movie without an R-rating because it involves so much sex and torture. Did you have trouble even getting an R-rating?

No, no, yeah. This was also the first movie that I didn’t have to … Hunger Games we were always pushing it. On all three of the films that I did, I had to make cuts to get the PG-13, whereas this one was just an R every time we showed it to the MPAA.

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What about casting Joel and Matthias as the two men in Dominika’s life? They’re kind of similar types, rugged and quiet, but they have a really good range.  How did you decide on the two of them?

Well, I think Joel is probably the finest actor of his age working right now. I really am such a huge fan of his stuff. I always wanted to work with him. I was really looking for a guy that could bring honesty and honor to a role. Somebody who’s really down to Earth, feels grounded. He certainly does that. I thought he would be great with Jen.

And Matthias I’ve been a fan of since Bullhead and Rust and Bone and stuff like that. He was cast a little bit later, but that was partially because his role was actually a little older originally, and then, we decided to skew it down to add a little edge  — without giving anything away to people who may read this — to the dynamic between his character and Dominika’s character. Once we skewed the age down, then I thought of him, because I just think he’s so versatile. I think he’s handsome, charming, and just a really dynamic actor.

How important was it to get the Russian accents right either for Jen or for Matthias or for any of the other actors?

It was really important. When you’re going to do a movie where you’ve got accents, there’s various choices, right? One is, “Oh, you do it all in Russian and subtitle it,” which is ridiculous and like making a different film.  One is you just let everybody run with their own accents, which I thought would have been confusing and weird. What I chose to do was just do a slight accent. I will say that I was probably a bit inspired by Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo where most people, not Daniel Craig, but most people did a very slight Swedish accent. It really impressed me, because it added to the world and it made it more believable. It sort of levels the playing field in terms of accents in a way, but without getting too heavy-handed. Certain accents, certainly Russian accents, it’s really easy to start laying it one thick. There was a woman we cast, a Russian woman, who had lived in America for a very long time, so she just had the remnants of an accent. We ended up having her just talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk, so we used that for Jen and Charlotte, people like that. Then we also cast some men like that that we could give to Matthias and Jeremy. People had real references that they could listen to. Of course, we had dialect coaches and all of that, but I really just wanted subtle. I didn’t want to go too heavy.

I haven’t seen Black Panther yet, but obviously audiences are fine with accents there, but I’m curious how audiences do with accents versus needing subtitles, which is again, another thing altogether.

I mean you look at things like Apocalypto and it’s kind of interesting, but I don’t know, I’d find it a little limiting and holding people back, know what I mean? In terms of general audiences.

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As far as the look of the movie, you’ve worked with the same editor for a while. Do you generally try to work with different people from project to project or try to work with the same people?

Well, I worked with a different designer. The cinematographer is the same guy who has done my last three movies, Jo Willems. Trish Summerville was the costume designer, she did Catching Fire with me and I’ve known [her]since the music video days. A lot of Hunger Games people came back, but the big change was designer. I worked with Maria Djurkovic who’s done a bunch of great things, one of which was Tinker, Tailor, which I just loved the look of, because it felt very real and very authentic. I know she was really into finding real places. She and her team can really decorate the sh*t out of a spot and make it really feel textured and lived-in. She’s so good at doing that and creating color, like very specific color palettes. She and I got on very well over Skype and sharing visual references that we were finding and researching. We linked up. I think she was a real creative force behind the look of the movie.  Especially, how colorful the movie is, which I think surprises some people considering the subject matter.

Jo, who I worked with a bunch, we wanted to shoot it completely different than we did The Hunger Games. I was thinking all the Hunger Games stuff was handheld and slightly wider lens, but up closer and I was close on people a lot. This one, I wanted to be much more formal and on dollies and sticks and much more graphic, stay wider and hold on shots longer and let things play wide. So, it was a completely different visual approach for this movie, too.

You have a number of projects you’ve been lining up and attaching yourself to and maybe developing over the years, have you thought at all about what to do next?

The next thing that I’m doing is actually a show. It’s called See. S, E, E. It’s written by Steve Knight, this great English writer. Fantastic writer. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. I’m doing it with the producers of Red Sparrow and we sold it to Apple. I think I’m getting started on that this year, and that’s all I can say. I can’t really talk about what it’s really about, but it’s super-imaginative show.

Red Sparrow hits theaters nationwide on Friday, March 2.

  | East Coast Editor
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