Spring 2018

Dystopian Visions

Director Francis Lawrence and DP Jo Willems tackle the fanciful with a naturalistic eye


Director Francis Lawrence, center, DP Jo Willems, right, and camera operator David Thompson on location in Budapest for Red Sparrow. (Photo: Murray Close/20th Century Fox)

Director/producer Francis Lawrence and his go-to cinematographer Jo Willems cut their teeth making more than 100 music videos for such A-listers as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Pink, Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez, as well as high-end commercials for Diet Coke, Maybelline, Svedka and Calvin Klein, among many other clients.

After reteaming on a couple of TV projects (Gotham, Touch), the duo saw their careers turbo-charged when they took on the last three Hunger Games films and helped steer the sci-fi dystopian series into the record books as one of the most successful franchises of all time. Their latest collaboration is Red Sparrow, a twisty, steamy international spy thriller that reunites them with Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence, playing a ballerina who turns Russian operative after an injury aborts her dance career.

In a recent conversation with DGA Quarterly, the pair talked about their shared visual approach, simpatico temperaments, teamwork and how they submerge ego for a common cinematic goal.

Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow. (Photo: Murray Close/20th Century Fox)

DGA: How did your years of doing music videos and commercials help prepare you for directing large-scale features?

LAWRENCE: It allowed me to build different worlds and experiment with various techniques. Music videos are like this laboratory, from telling mini-stories to doing pieces that were completely visual, [from] things that were very real [to] things that were very stylized. I messed around with a lot of visual effects and shot all over the world, so by the time I did my first film, I was very experienced working with crews and scheduling and on-set problems and weather and budgets. All that [became] second nature to me. I could just focus on the storytelling, tone and pacing.
WILLEMS: And we shot a lot of different styles—something superglossy one day to something very gritty the next, so you learn how to quickly adapt. It's not like a painter who's got one style for 20 years. You're constantly trying different things.

DGA: How do you typically prep a new project together?

LAWRENCE: It varies. Conversations on music videos were pretty brief, and then they got more elaborate with the movies. Usually they start with images. I might show Jo some research and we'll start going into more detail, going over the script, talking with the production designer.
WILLEMS: For Sparrow, [production designer] Maria [Djurkovic] had an album of over 1,500 images we could look at, and I remember on [the Fox TV series] Touch we looked at a lot of stills as it was set in a lot of different locations—Iraq, Tokyo—so I made a sort of visual library of how I saw things.
LAWRENCE: For The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, we watched Vietnam films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now and they were a big inspiration for us as I saw Catching Fire as a war film. I loved how sweaty everyone was in those Vietnam films, so I made everyone sweaty in the arena, to give that sense of tropical heat. But we usually look at stills mainly, and Jo scouts a lot with me too, and we take a lot of location pictures, and even early on we talk about how we'll shoot scenes, and possible blocking.

DGA: Do you storyboard?

LAWRENCE: Not usually, but on Hunger Games I'd storyboard and [previsualize] the big complicated VFX sequences, mostly as people need some sort of reference point when you have a big production meeting on how you're technically going to do it. That way you can show them and inch through it.
WILLEMS: It's like chewing a big elephant. You have to take a little piece at a time, or you'll never get through it.

DGA: The Hunger Games made great use of both real environments and stage work.

LAWRENCE: Almost all the interiors were sets—and pretty massive ones, like the Control Room.
WILLEMS: I think the key to our look is that we both like something that looks naturalistic and real and authentic, and we both always go after that.

DGA: Is it fair to say that despite all the complexity and many moving parts of those films, you both took a very unfussy, un-showy approach?

LAWRENCE: Yes, I call it "faux-naturalism." It was all handheld with Steadicam, and we have this great operator, Dave Thompson, who's a key part of the team as he's done a bunch of movies with Jo, and he did I Am Legend with me, and funnily enough, he's also done movies with Jennifer, as he works with David O. Russell.

DGA: So how much freedom do the actors have on your sets? Can they improvise on the spot or do they have to hit their marks?

LAWRENCE: They have a little bit of freedom, mainly before we start blocking and rehearsing, and Dave also has some freedom, which is part of what makes it feel naturalistic. But they are planned shots. We don't just send him in, saying "Grab what you can." On Sparrow, I'd say we did the opposite, and we'd have naturalistic lighting, but the framing was very different. Everything was on dollies and photographed in a much more formal way, and we'd shoot much wider and hold on things a lot longer.

DGA: What was the toughest scene to shoot in Sparrow?

WILLEMS: There were a few. One was the opening ballet. We shot at a working opera house in Budapest, so we could only get in at 11 p.m., start pre-lighting at 2 a.m., and start shooting at 6 a.m. And shooting at the airport was very hard, and then we shot nine days and nights at this apartment on the sixth floor of a derelict building. So you're dealing with a lot of logistics and language barriers with the locals.
LAWRENCE: And in terms of tone and our aesthetic approach, I saw it very differently from The Hunger Games. I tend to think in images, so I imagined a very different photography and bold color palette for Sparrow, something more classical, with more symmetry, and a bit more graphic. Hold on shots a lot longer.
WILLEMS: You don't want to get stuck in one thing. Some people want to shoot every movie handheld—that's their style. And you see lighting where it's always the same. But my approach is always to be as honest as possible, and to try and make whatever world we're creating feel as real and authentic as I can. It's not glossy and fancy with showy lighting. It's always grounded in reality.

(Top) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; (Middle) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1; (Bottom) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2. (Photos: Photofest)

DGA: It's interesting that you shot some of Catching Fire on IMAX, but instead of typically using it for wide landscapes, you went for a lot of close-ups.

WILLEMS: Yeah, and people were like, "You can't do that!" Why not do it? Some of the nicest shots we got were those IMAX closeups, where you see every little drop of sweat.

DGA: You shot your first Hunger Games movie on film, and then switched to digital with the ARRI Alexa. Talk about that decision.

WILLEMS: It was because we wanted even more naturalism, and it's easier and far faster to light. And there were so many scenes in the sewer lines, where they had ceilings and there's barely any light, so we discussed various options and then we just decided to go digital all the way, and that's been the case ever since. And we always shoot anamorphic as we both love the look.
LAWRENCE: I think our digital work has a very cinematic look, partly because of the way Jo lights it. We also use a lot of atmosphere, which helps flatten the image out and takes away some of the bite of the digital contrast. And the color palette works really well.
WILLEMS: The thing about anamorphic is, it isn't perfect, and you get great depth and a great look.

DGA: You're obviously both big digital fans.

LAWRENCE: People still love film, but I have to say I'm really happy with the way we make digital look, especially for the kinds of movies I do. I think it looks very cinematic and filmic, and I don't think it's worth all the problems of shooting film now just for a little bit of grain. And I love how quickly you get dailies and start the editing and how quickly the editors can get into the VFX pipeline.
WILLEMS: And I'll color all day long. On a commercial, I'll operate, but on a movie, we'll have one or two operators, and I can stand by the monitor and color as I go along, and change color and contrast at will. And I can also check focus right there and then, so we can instantly decide if we need another take. Or someone can say, "It's too dark," and you can make an adjustment. So it's far more efficient than working with film and sending stuff off and waiting for it and so on. Over the years, our method of working is all about efficiency, not wasting time, not having too much gear to slow you down. And the truth is, you could show Red Sparrow to 100 people and maybe five could tell that it's digital, not film. There's this nostalgia for film, but I can get the exact same look digitally.

DGA: How early do you integrate post and VFX into a shoot?

LAWRENCE: With these kinds of films you start post in pre-production, so from day one, usually, and we're thinking about post all the way through, especially on the big, VFX-heavy films like Hunger Games. The editors were on very early, and the VFX supervisor and even some of the VFX houses like DNEG (Double Negative) were on from the start. They're all involved in the planning in terms of the scheduling, the location choices and so on. Red Sparrow was a smaller film, but again, we had to deal with shooting the opening ballet sequence and getting a principal dancer and doing a bunch of face replacements.

DGA: How closely do you collaborate on the DI process?

LAWRENCE: Jo works a lot with the DI on set, and usually he goes in and does the color with [colorist] Dave Hussey, who's been part of the team for years, going back to doing music videos and commercials with us, and then I'll come in and do a pass and give some notes.

DGA: How has your relationship with Jo evolved?

LAWRENCE: We always got along and saw eye-to-eye, and I really enjoy Jo's taste. We've done four films and two TV pilots, and it's a cliché but we have a shorthand together. On set, communication's very fast and easy, and there's a groove we're used to.
WILLEMS: There's no big surprises. We have similar tastes and similar visual instincts. And there's no ego. If Francis says, "I think you should turn up that light a bit," it's no problem.
LAWRENCE: The prisoner exchange scene on the runway in Sparrow was tricky, especially the lighting, as it's at night and it's the climax. We wanted it to look realistic but also dramatic, and even though we discussed it a bit, in the end, I had to let Jo go off and figure it all out and trust that he'd come up with something great and appropriate—and he did. And it's all down to trust. Trust is key.


Our new series involves a three-way conversation between the interviewer and a director and his or her frequent collaborator—whether it be a cinematographer, composer, editor, costume designer or production designer—about their creative alchemy and the process by which they bring out the best in each other’s artistry.

More from this issue
Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring articles about the craft of directing feature films, documentaries, television content, standup specials and commercials. In addition, we explore of the theatrical experience in the cinematic age and discuss the net neutrality conundrum.