'Red Sparrow' Director Francis Lawrence On The Film's Complex Opening, Lessons From Music Videos & More [Interview]

With Red Sparrow, the gloves are coming off for director Francis Lawrence. The filmmaker behind ConstantineThe Hunger Games sequels, and the "Bad Romance" music video has made an often unsettling thriller. Mary-Louise Parker, in a "no such thing as small parts" sort of small part, brings great levity to the movie, but light popcorn fare this adaptation of author Jason Matthews' novel is not.

After the success of the three Hunger Games sequels, Lawrence has served up a pitch dark film about the brutal, unforgiving, and cold world of Russian Intelligence. The story begins with the immersive and eye-catching visuals expected from Lawrence. In an eight-minute sequence cutting between Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton's characters, the director tells a lot of story with such precision. It's a strong hook that we recently discussed with Lawrence along with the film's style, lessons from his music video work, collaborating with Jennifer Lawrence, and more.

Check out our Red Sparrow Francis Lawrence interview to get insight from the director on his latest film.

I walked out the movie thinking this is probably one of the most uncompromising studio movies I've seen in a while.

[Laughs] Well, that's good. There was a ton of freedom. I have to say I feel very, very lucky. No matter how the world embraces it in the end, I will feel very lucky that they bought my pitch on the book and let me do my thing. They knew it was going to be hard-R and nobody ever flinched. They just kind of bought into it and they were willing to take risks. They're a studio that, at least for now, are willing to take risks. I'm very thankful for that.

There are some brutal sequences in the film. Was there a lot of internal debate over what to show or how much to show at times?

There was early on, yeah. The mission from early on was to be uncompromising, but the idea was never to make an erotic thriller, and the idea was never to titillate. It was always supposed to be in service to the story of the brutal world of espionage, not the sexy, glamorous world of espionage, so the decisions were all made based on that. I think most of the conversations I had were both with the writer of the screenplay and also with Jen. Once Jen had read the script, and she signed on, she and I then started to have very lengthy conversations about how to be as vigilant as possible to make sure that all that kind of content was really truly married to the story and the character and the theme and never went too far.

The movie has a patient, old-school thriller sort of pace. As a director, is it refreshing to let scenes breathe and not having to rush to the next action scene?

Yeah. I fell in love with the story and the character and all that kind of stuff, but I think part of what I liked, too, and got from the book was this sense of tone, the world, and I even think that sort of tempo and pace of it emerged from the book, and that was appealing to me. I would say the pace and the visual differences between it and my other films all sort of emerged from just reading the book and starting to picture them. I thought it was really appealing especially coming off of The Hunger Games movies and having sort of to go from set piece to set piece, that gets a bit tricky and complicated and all the visual effects get you a little bogged down at times. It was refreshing to do something completely different and use different muscles.

I imagine after The Hunger Games you had a wide range of options for what you could do next. After spending years making those sequels, was there anything you were specifically looking for afterward? 

No, it's interesting because I was sort of talking about that with somebody else. All you're trying to do is find good material. When you find something good, and sometimes you find kernels of good things or something you think can get developed, eventually one of those things sort of coalesces right where you're super passionate about it, and it seems to come together, the scripts come together, and starts to come together when you get an actor that wants to do it. It just starts happening as opposed to going, "Oh I'm going to do sci-fi next," and then you're just like trying to kind of jam it in because you wanted to do sci-fi. With this, I read the book and fell in love with it, Jen wanted to do it, and a writer that I really know and like had the sort of the same take as me, and the studio liked the take, so it builds up speed and sort of snowballs.

You open the movie with a very intricate sequence with a lot of moving pieces. Was planning the opening, shooting it, and editing it as complicated as it looks?

It was a really complicated sequence. One of the things that was really complicated was we knew it was going to climax with the big ballet dance sequence, right? So you got a dance sequence that you have to choreograph to music that is not actually going to be in the movie. We knew were going to use an interpretation of "The Firebird" by [Igor] Stravinsky, so the choreographer picked these pieces of "Firebird" and choreographed elements to it. We sort of picked up on that BPM and then ended up creating a click track that we cut the opening to, so that the entire opening was cut to a very specific tempo.

When a composer came in, he could compose for that whole sequence because it's one solid piece of music from front to back that sort of fit the right tempo, and then it can blend right into the ballet and match the choreography of that. There were elements of that which were logistically tricky. The other thing is, the way that it was written, every time you're sort of cutting back and forth there's a new scene, so in the first eight minutes alone, there's close to 60 scenes. There's just a lot of work and a lot of running around Budapest putting all those elements together just for the first eight minutes.

When it came to crafting a sequence like and timing it to the music, how much do you think your background in music videos helped?

I think it helped a lot. I think if I had not done music videos, I would not probably have thought as much about how we needed to be precise with the BPM. I probably would have allowed the choreographer to just choose various pieces of music that might have varying BPMs and not cut the sequence to a click track and then sort of left the composer to fend for himself, in terms of all that stuff. I think knowing the way sync works and the way music works and the way tempo works and how that works with an edit, I think really helped keep it all glued together.

With those music videos, I imagine working with some of the biggest stars in the world would teach you a lot about communication. Did it at all prepare you for working with actors?

Well, I think it helps you learn more about how to deal with stars. Communication was a rare thing. It wasn't so often that I was speaking to... Only certain artists I would talk to like an actor when I was doing videos; it was very, very few. Not everybody was really interested in shifting or changing their performances, so very few. Really what you're learning to do is deal with a huge, really wide range of personalities [Laughs].

I think it's getting a real technical sense and getting a lot of stuff out of your system, like, "OK, on this video, I'm going to try this, and in this video, I'm gonna try this, and I want to make something look like this." So you get a lot of that out of your system, so you're not trying it out by the time you get to movies. But talking to actors is a completely different skillset, just in terms of dealing with performance and character and story and making theme and tone and all that kind of stuff. Being able to communicate with them is a completely different skillset.

You keep the frame wide for Red Sparrow. How did you and your DP want to move the camera or change things up with Red Sparrow

We didn't move the camera a whole lot. I mean, there were very subtle moves. I knew that I went into this movie knowing I wanted it to look very different from The Hunger Games, and not for the sake of change, but in the way I imagined the world. I imagine it with much more formal framing. The Hunger Games is all handheld, and I wanted this to be on dollies, cranes, and be much more solid and formal. I also wanted for it to play a lot wider, 'cause I spent a lot of The Hunger Games relatively close to characters with slightly wider lenses. With this, I wanted to play scenes longer and a lot wider, partly for the tempo reasons, but also I wanted it to be more cinematic in that sense. I thought that I've been sort of allowing myself to get too close too often to characters. I wanted the sort of the scenery and the graphic quality of the architecture to play, so framing becomes more graphic and looking for symmetry.

You've shot movies primarily using both handheld and Steadicam. Do you have a preference or does it just depend on the story?

I think it's totally dependent on the story. The one thing I will say is, with handheld, you can move around faster for something really immediate. As soon as you put a camera on a Dolly, it feels like a bunch of shit gets built up around it and you suddenly feel locked in. Whereas when the cameras is in the hands, you can run up and give a quick note, somebody can move in and you can also rely on the intuition of a great camera operator sometimes as well, like to walk in and get something closer. There's a human connection you can get. When you're locked down, you've sort of made your choice, but that I felt was right for this. I'm really happy because I'm pleased with the way it looks and feels. I'm just happy that it's different from what I've done before, and that's a part of the fun of having done different kinds of things.

Mentioning that human connection with the camera and an actor, and I imagine after working with an actor like Jennifer Lawrence, you have that and know what sort of shots would work best with her. How does she or maybe other actors influence your shot choices?

Well, you get to know actors and you certainly know good sides, bad sides, how certain light affects them when, you know, they gets bags under their eyes and when the light is a certain way, know what I mean? You get to know all that kind of stuff. The great thing about Jen, and the hard thing, is her eyes are so great. A part of what I think what makes her such a great actress is that you can sort of penetrate them and see in. You always sort of itch to move that camera in closer, and I was trying to resist that a little bit this time around. That's the kind of thing you can easily get sucked into with her [Laughs].


Red Sparrow is in theaters everywhere now.