The High Stakes Behind 'Hunger Games'

 Joe Pugliese

Director Gary Ross and the cast on the behind-the-scenes drama of the $90 million Lionsgate epic that should bring young people back to the movies, propel Jennifer Lawrence into the stratosphere and launch another (fingers crossed) "Twilight"-sized franchise.


Ross came as prepared for the shoot as he'd been for his initial meeting with Lionsgate. He spent weeks working out a shot list -- not a storyboard, but the camera setups he needed.

He knew this was necessary for the kind of guerrilla filmmaking he planned, especially for scenes shot in the woods at altitudes of 4,000 feet and above, where he was adamant the material be filmed with handheld cameras to give it "urgency."

And yet he stayed calm, despite the pressure, even when Lawrence was rushed to the hospital in North Carolina, days before shooting.

On the last day of her six-week training phase, in which she'd become an expert at using a bow and arrow, climbing and jumping, she hit a wall -- literally. "I had to do 10 'wall runs,' where you run at the wall as hard as you can to get traction," she recalls, explaining that her trainer would make her race at maximum speed to gain the momentum needed to propel her up. "I ran at it and my foot didn't go up, so I caught the wall with my stomach. My trainer thought I had burst my spleen. I had to get a CAT scan and go into a tube where they put this fiery liquid in your body."

Fortunately, she was in great shape from her previous film. "I was still pretty bulked up from X-Men: First Class," she says. "So a lot of the training was getting muscle back, heightening the muscles without building them. I loved the archery -- well, I have a love-hate relationship with it." With her trainer holding her hand, Lawrence learned she was badly bruised but nothing was broken -- and work could continue.

That was good news for Ross. "There's such a power and a truth to her acting," he says. "She has absolute, total control over what she's doing. I've never worked with anyone more talented than her -- ever. A talent like this comes once in a generation."

He speaks admiringly of Lawrence's courage as she kept going in the woods that he'd fought to use as a location, despite being pushed to shoot in a state with larger subsidies. Of course, there was a price to pay -- he had to trudge to isolated locations and deal with the fact there were no trailers this far from real roads. Not surprisingly, Ross lost 25 pounds in the process -- though he says he wanted to do that anyway.

"The pressure is always to go where it's cheapest," says Jon Kilik (Babel), who joined Jacobson as a producer, citing Eastern Europe, Louisiana and Georgia as possibilities that came up. "But we wouldn't have found the Americana that gave Gary the verite he demanded. It's like he carried a lie detector around with him and could tell if the look was contrived."

Then there were the bears, some 300 living in the woods, that would come out at the slightest scent of food. And there was the 100-degree heat and rain that showered daily, almost precisely at 4 p.m., at least allowing Ross an opportunity to give his team a break. Between the rain and losing light early behind the trees, "we'd only get to shoot four or five hours a day," he says.

But Jacobson (who'd obtained the book's rights against fierce competition from the likes of Ridley Scott) says Ross was never ruffled. Adds Hutcherson, "He always had a smile on his face" -- even during the hardest moments.

One scene, in which Katniss climbs a tree to cut down a nest of super-wasps (or "tracker jackers"), meant dismantling a crane and putting it back together high on a platform in the conifers. Another involved staging real-life fires in the woods, through which Lawrence had to run -- not easy when she confused which trees would explode.

But Ross relished it all, even filming in a spooky former cigarette factory that had been converted into soundstages, where the second half of the shoot took place.

"It was like going to work on a Stanley Kubrick film every day; the creepiness actually intrigued me," he says. Still, he admits, "all of us were done with it by the end of the shoot."

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