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Return to Panem: behind the scenes of the Hunger Games prequel with its director

In Hollywood, franchises don't rest in peace for long.

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Return to Panem: behind the scenes of the Hunger Games prequel with its director

In Hollywood, franchises don't rest in peace for long. Eight years after the final and fourth installment of The Hunger Games, Lionsgate returns to Panem with The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird. Released on Wednesday, this prologue takes place sixty years before the rebellion of Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the original films played by Jennifer Lawrence. The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird draws a surprising youthful portrait of Katniss's sworn enemy, President Corionalus Snow, and gives a face to the first winner of the games from the disadvantaged District 12, Lucy Gray Baird.

For this return to Panem, Lionsgate turned to expert Francis Lawrence: the director of the last three Hunger Games films. Suffice it to say that the world of novelist Suzanne Collins no longer has any secrets for him. As he confided to Le Figaro, it was impossible to resist this step back. “Like many fans, I really wanted Suzanne to develop the world of Panem even further. When she told me she was writing this prequel, I was delighted. The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird is a quadruple tale of origins: that of Snow, that of Panem, that of the games and that of the folklore of District 12 as we discover the meaning of the name Katniss and her hymn to the revolution The Hanged Man's Tree,” deciphers the filmmaker.

In Suzanne Collins' dystopia set in a post-apocalyptic United States, the Capitol dictatorship governs twelve districts. Following an initial rebellion of the districts put down in blood, the Capitol keeps them under its yoke via annual bloody circus games where two young people from each district compete to the death. The winner is the last participant still alive. “The challenge with this prologue is that the games are handcrafted. They have not acquired this dimension of great spectacle. They are rudimentary, taking place indoors in the ruins of a stadium. Without the slightest special effects or lethal embellishments designed by the organizers of the games. It’s therefore even more realistic and brutal,” notes Francis Lawrence. Lucy is thus released into an arena littered with rubble, metal rods and concrete blocks, with a few weapons offered to those brave enough to brave the initial bloodbath.

To give substance to this Panem, barely emerging from war and instability, the director was inspired by post-war Germany, the Berlin of ruins. Having filmed The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird, he had no trouble finding brutalist-inspired buildings and sets. “It’s not for nothing that the costumes, cars and hairstyles will be reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s,” promises the director.

As in previous parts, Francis Lawrence was vigilant about the intensity of the violence shown on screen. “No question of showing sheaves of blood, the act of killing. What I wanted to film were the emotional repercussions of his actions.” The director is also aware of the crest line on which he walks. All Hunger Games fans know that Corionalus Snow will not remain this mentor hesitant to embrace the dark side of Panem for long. Sooner or later, the pact and the loving friendship that binds him to Lucy Gray will be betrayed.

To keep The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird energized requires another approach. “It’s not the when that matters but the how and the why,” argues Francis Lawrence. “We meet a young man, played by Tom Blyth, who has not yet formed his convictions. He is a thousand miles from the man of power that Katniss will fight,” he deciphers. “This Snow doesn't entirely believe the Capitol's propaganda, he is shocked by the treatment of the tributes. He craves power because he is hungry to provide for his family who have fallen into poverty. What a surprise to discover him surrounded by friends and loved ones and tempted by resistance!” And to emphasize: “By watching Tom in the shoes of this loser, we quickly forget the aging tyrant, played by Donald Sutherland. We even begin to have empathy for him.”

The other crucial element was Lucy Gray Baird. Played with panache by the revelation of Steven Spielberg's West Side Story, Rachel Zegler, who reveals a certain talent for country and guitar, she reveals herself as ambivalent as Snow. A traveling artist, his character earns his living by singing. And owes his selection to the games to the daughter of the mayor of district 12 who is immensely jealous of him. “Katniss was an outstanding hunter, with undeniable physical abilities but very introverted. Lucy is his opposite. An extrovert who enjoys performing on stage. She is an actress. She likes to charm, the truth is incidental. Who, her or Snow, is manipulating the other?” laughs Francis Lawrence.

If Suzanne Collins' original trilogy, published at the end of the 2000s, questioned the weight and trauma of war, The Ballad of the Serpent and the Songbird reflects the polarization of our societies, believes Francis Lawrence. And to conclude: “Is man brutal by nature condemned to trample on rights or can he be just? Snow is torn between these two instincts.

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