'See' Director Francis Lawrence On World-Building And Making Television Shows For Apple [Interview]

One of Apple TV's first major shows, See, couldn't have been more in director and executive producer Francis Lawrence's wheelhouse. The director behind The Hunger Games sequels, I Am Legend, and Constantine is no stranger to expansive fantastical worlds. Created by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders), See presents a future where sight is a thing of the past. No one can see, which presents the visual challenges Lawrence relishes as a director.

It's not the first time Lawrence has defined the aesthetic and tone of a show as a filmmaker. He directed three episodes of NBC's Kings, which was a short-lived but entertaining show that probably would've resonated more today, and the premiere of Tim Kring's Touch. All high-concept projects. Recently, we talked to Lawrence about the type of material that appeals to him, including See, as well as growing as a director and his most-watched work, Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" video.

There is so much world-building in your movies and See. For you, what are the little details that can make a world more believable?

Well, I think the idea that you try to get down to the little details, you have to start with bigger ideas. And for this show, the great thing was that blindness, the idea of blindness for the show was the foundational idea for everything in terms of world-building. I would say minus the idea that civilization's basically been gone for a couple of centuries, and so the sort of nature reclaiming element, which I had done a bit in I Am Legend, but this was sort of a much longer time period.

But beyond that, the blindness was such an anchor for everybody that you just start to think about that idea on every level. So, when you start to think about that idea on every level and how it affects, let's say, the actors in terms of what the behavior is like and what the blocking is like, and how it affects the costumes and how costumes wouldn't have the same for symmetry that they might have. They're not astatic, but they're more sort of tactile and sensory and they need to smell good and be practical that they would all be very specifically unique per individual You wouldn't just manufacturer duplicates of things. Everything would be individualized.

And then you get down into sort of practical things like the jingles that have purposes and the rope language and all of that. And so there's just a ton of brainstorming that we did prior to most of the scripts, even being written in terms of having some experts coming in. Once all the departments are hired, everybody's first to brainstorm on that front and really work together and collaborate to build out the world. So when you have a guiding principle like blindness in this, it really, really helps. You can go from big ideas to really small, small ideas like the rope language, the jingly rings and using sound or snapping your fingers or figuring out ways to navigate and using sign language on each other's hands and things like that. So all those ideas get born from the idea.

The worlds are often huge in your movies and shows. Are you just a filmmaker who prefers to work with a bigger canvas?

Well, I definitely like world-building, I have to say that, and all different kinds of worlds. I think that's part of it, the fun of it. I definitely view movies or premium television like this as a visual medium, and I think visually, so I have a lot of fun in the world-building side of it in terms of picking the locations and figuring out the way it's going to look and the way it's going to feel and trying to make it feel authentic and exciting and cinematic and scope-y and all of that. That's always really fun for me. So I think I would have a really hard time doing a story that takes place in sort of our contemporary world in a very familiar city with a bunch of people sitting around diners having conversations.

Has that never appealed to you?

No, I mean, occasionally. When we were doing the Mockingjays back to back and we were prepping and trying to figure out how the hell we were going to do it with early prep, I remember it was the Veronica Mars movie or something right next door to us and just thinking, and I don't know that show very well and everything has its challenges for sure... So I'm not saying that it's easy, but I do remember feeling sort of envious that it was much easier for them to probably go out and find their location than it was for us to find the big brutalist architectural environment that we're supposed to be in the Capitol of Panem in places that we could actually exist in and make feel grounded and real. So there are moments where I look at those projects and envy them. But then I think, honestly, I would get a little bored on the world-building front at least.

The world is usually in a terrible place in your movies. Fitting, of course, but is the idea of a society decaying something that just interests you?

I don't know. I do know that I was always fascinated with the world without us. I Am Legend was really, it was the world without us but it was really that sort of, what if you were the last man on earth? That was the thing that I loved and I had been thinking about that for years. I even used to write music video treatments around that. I never got any of those, but I used to write them and so I had done a bunch of research. I think that fascinated me.

I think there's obviously something very interesting about dystopian stories, at least in terms of world-building because there's a lot of work to be done and they're also sort of ripe landscapes for conflict. So I think that's always appealing. I do have to say that at least in a moment, I'm sort of anti-dystopia, at least for me, not just in general, but just like, okay, I've done plenty with Hunger Games and I Am Legend and now See that I'm ready to do something different.

apple streaming service original titlesRidley Scott has said he made so many commercials and music videos that when making his first movie, he felt ready. Did you feel the same way when you made that transition or was the storytelling a completely different language for you? 

In storytelling, for sure it was a crash course. I feel like I know much more now having done seven movies and some shows, but my first movie, the working with actors and truly telling a story and understanding the tools for storytelling that I had at my fingertips, I didn't quite understand that going in. In terms of day to day production, dealing with a crew, dealing with equipment, dealing with the facts, making things look good, design, world-building, all that, that was already second-nature to me. But the storytelling aspect of it was really brand new. I had told little stories, but a long-form two-hour narrative, making sure that works and the pace works and that there's no confusion and maintaining tone and all of that through a two-hour movie, I was definitely a novice.

How did you feel coming out of The Hunger Games movies? Making those three movies and telling so much story, do you think it made you a better storyteller?

It definitely helps out. I think just experience, in general, helps out, but the truth is, and part of what's fun about projects is that just when you feel like, okay, you've done a bunch of stuff, you've experienced lots of different things and shooting in all different environments and working with all different personalities and trying to tell different kinds of stories, you feel like you would get to a spot where you would know what you're doing. Inevitably, every time you're learning something new, there's always something new.

It's really learning to just be as vigilant as possible and to focus as much as you can on narrative and just focus as much as you can on performance and on tone and all of that. I still try now in narrative work to really focus on the narrative and the performances as opposed to just the look, and that's part of the job. I think that's sort of second-nature, but you're always learning.

I did a commercial about a year and a half ago with [cinematographer] Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), and it was for Dior with Jen Lawrence and it seemed like an easy one. We had like four days in Beverly Hills and the weather's great and she's lying around by a pool and you think it's going to be easy and both of us are like ah, every time! Things aren't just going to be easy and there are challenges and you're learning new stuff. Because it's like we're suddenly working with jellyfish and shooting underwater and dealing with five dresses that weigh 80 pounds. There's a challenge on everything.

I assume some things became easier after Hunger Games, right?

Some do. I will say that specifically the Mockingjay movies, because it was two back to back, the schedule was so long, so much of it was so complicated that there was rarely any sequences that just had two people talking. Even some of the easier sequences often had 10 to 14 people, like huge actors in the scenes. We still joke around that we would have these scenes where Jen would be looking up at a screen that would have this temporary footage of Josh on it in a control room. But even though they don't have any other lines, you've still got Julianne Moore there, Phillip Seymour Hoffman there, Woody Harrelson there, Jeffrey Wright there, Mahershala Ali there, Liam there. I mean on and on and on and on, all these Academy Award winners every day.

So just that alone, aside from the sort of complex sequences of shooting in these places and the action and the effects and the sort of scope and scale of it all, it was just always so many people to deal with every day. So once you get past that, certain things definitely seem easier. Going off and doing Red Sparrow and shooting in real locations and having a much smaller task so it feeling much more intimate. There was something refreshing about that. Even that movie had its own challenges with dealing with a much more complicated narrative.

Red Sparrow was one of 20th Century Fox's last movies they made before they were bought by Disney. Now Fox is a part of Disney, is there any concern there's one less place to make more adult-oriented movies like that one? 

I think you can make them. I certainly would not, look, I think it's a completely different world. It was already a different world from the moment we decided to make Red Sparrow to when Red Sparrow came out. I mean, for many reasons. One in terms of what people were going to the theaters to see, but also in terms of sexual politics. So it was a very different world that movie was released into. I certainly would not make that movie now or expect anybody to allow me to make it now at a studio for a theatrical release. I do believe that you could get a movie like that made at Netflix or Apple or maybe HBO or HBO Max or one of the other streamers. Not Disney+, clearly. But I feel like you can make that movie.

So I think the exciting time is that you can still make those things. I just don't think any studio doing it. I don't think Fox is doing it. I don't think Warner Brothers is doing it. I feel like they're all so kind of desperate for IP-driven movies because they're so afraid of what people are actually going to see that they're just not doing it. And that's the great thing about streaming is that you can do all kinds of stories. When you can have stuff like Chernobyl, which is amazing, five episodes about a Russian disaster, that's fantastic. You can't do that theatrically. I don't worry about it, it's just a different world. But I certainly would never read that book and now think that I could make that theatrically, but I would certainly take it to a streamer.

What else did you learn as a director from working on See?

Well, lots of things. It was a very fulfilling experience on a bunch of fronts. That show didn't go on stage until episode six, so it was outdoors. So there was something really great and refreshing about really being out in the middle of nowhere in these wild really beautiful places and working every day, so that was fantastic. Another lesson learned in terms of weather and working outdoors, it really has its challenges, especially as you're moving into a Canadian winter. Fun and super challenging and really fulfilling on the performance front because everybody really bonded and worked together as a team to sort of learn the world of blindness and to figure stuff out.

So to figure out and what the blocking would now be like because blocking's totally different because people aren't looking at each other in the eye, you can just do everything differently. You're navigating, like, what are the senses that each individual actor taps into? And so every day was a real exploration on that front. There was a lot of learning there that, weirdly, I think I'll take with me to other projects. That's part of the fun is tackling the challenges and just the experience and journey itself. It's much more about that for me, honestly, than the end results, putting it out in the world. That is just such a small fraction of one's life where the two years of making it is a much larger piece of one's life that I've learned to embrace and enjoy that.

Even though you're less focused on the end results, looking at Constantine and I Am Legend, both movies are talked about more fondly now than when they came out. That must be gratifying, right? Is that end result meaningful?

Yeah, I do really like that. There's something fun about that. Certainly, Constantine is, and people do mention I Am Legend, but Constantine's sort of cult level now in a weird way. And weirdly, especially when I travel, I just did a commercial in South Korea not long ago and I can't tell you how many copies of Constantine I signed for people that were on our crew and pictures that I took with people and it was huge over there. People are constantly giving me Constantine DVDs to sign here. Yeah, I love that stuff.

Even Red Sparrow weirdly, it didn't do that well theatrically, especially opening weekend, we sort eked by, critics were a bit harsh on it, but it's amazing how many people saw it. The unfortunate thing was it feels like everybody saw it on an airplane. It was I think the number one most-watched movie on airplanes or something while it was in its run on airplanes, which is just crazy. So tons and tons and tons of people saw it, just, unfortunately, didn't buy tickets for it.

That's crazy to me because that's not a movie I'd want to watch on a flight.

Yeah. On a three-inch screen. Exactly.

How do you feel about people watching your work on computers, planes, or iPhones?

Honestly, I think number one, I'm just happy that people are watching it. I'm going to do probably something for Netflix and it's just exciting that you get so many people watching it. I think in a weird way it makes you reevaluate, with the streamers, reevaluate what you want out of it. You don't have to have the big red carpet premiere, you don't have to have an opening weekend. The truth is ideally you make something that gets into the consciousness, even if it's for a moment, where people are watching and talking about it and there are eyes on it. So, that's the payoff for me. I will always make something that can play large format, but my 16-year-old who watches a ton of stuff on his iPhone, fine by me, as long as they're consuming it and thinking about it and it's at least in the consciousness for a while. I think that's a good payoff for me.

Years ago, you were attached to direct an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's "Survivor." I've always wondered, where do you ever begin adapting that novel? Was it tough to crack?

So I was attached years ago, this is coming out of Constantine. These producers we were working with got the rights to do it and I was working with a friend who wrote a screenplay and I never felt like we could crack it fully. I found that as I was trying to dive into the real kind of reality of the emotional journeys of these characters, that the tone was getting lost. And the tone, that Chuck Palahniuk voice and tone that I loved so much, I didn't want to lose it. I was kind of struggling and it went away. Those guys lost the option. I think somebody else got it and they tried to make it for TV.

And weirdly, no joke, we closed to get the rights. I now have the option again for "Survivor" that we got maybe about a month ago, I want to say. It's something that I want to do as a TV show. I don't want to give too much away, but I've got an idea of how to do it for a TV show and I'm talking to a writer now into adapting it and really staying true to the tone and making sure that we keep the satire a part of it and the celebrity, the sort of addiction to celebrity, which I think is so extremely relevant right now. I think it's going to be really fun. It's actually one of the things that I'm really, really, really excited about, but I just got the option again.

That's great. I was going to ask if you think it'd work better as a TV show. 

Yeah, yeah. I don't think it could, I mean maybe somebody could figure it out as a movie, but I think it will be much better than as a TV thing. And I think it can be really fun and I've got some cool ideas. But I don't want to stow them now since we're just getting started.

You mentioned how it's a commentary on pop culture, and you've done a lot of work that's been a big part of pop culture, like The Hunger Games movies or the "Bad Romance" music video. What's it like watching something you make become a large part of pop culture?

I think that's kind of part of the fun of it. That's what I was sort of saying sort of a little earlier in the sense of, part of the goal for me is just being in the conversation, right? So big hits for me, like back in the music video days when you had these magical elements that came together and it became a video, the video that people talked about, like in "Cry Me A River" for Justin Timberlake. I've probably done 110 videos or something and I would say maybe five of those... people know much more than that, but five of them really broke the pop culture barrier and became news that people talk about them. I could just be in a restaurant and hear people chatting about it next to me.

And that's always really fun because you know that it gets in the consciousness, you know that it's connected to something and that it's exciting something in somebody and people, and that's the reason for me to do it. It was always really exciting. "Bad Romance" was one of those ones, "Cry Me A River" was one of those videos. And then occasionally you do movies and Hunger Games clearly was something that penetrated. Even I Am Legend and now, I don't know, what, 15 years later? Constantine still does it.

I can't believe it was that long ago.

I know. It's crazy, right?

"Bad Romance" now has over a billion viewers on Youtube. As a big fan of that video, I wanted to ask, do you have a lot of good memories making that one? 

I do have memories of shooting it. It was a fun one. I got sent the song, I came up with an idea, I sent it to Gaga. She liked parts of it, didn't like parts of it because she sort of felt separated from an audience. And so we chatted for a while. I sort of augmented it and came up with the idea that became the video. And then she and I got together and she had all these crazy outfits. She was working with this guy, this Italian stylist, he was amazing. He had all these crazy outfits, and we sat in this back room at a recording studio in LA and assigned outfits to the different vignettes, then built this cool set and we shot it over two days.

It was super fun because it's always fun to work on videos with artists who love the art form, and she loves the art form and she was down. There's a lot of artists that don't come out of their trailer or they're late, they don't want to be there and they want to leave early and all that. She was just down. She's a performance artist. She wanted to do really cool stuff and in between setups, she wanted to change her hair. Most people go to the trailer and vanish for three hours. She's just like, "Bring me my duffel bag of wigs!" [Laughs] And she'd bring it on set and she put this wig on, it's that crazy kind of like afro-looking blonde wig that she's wearing in the bathtub and she just threw it on herself and jumped in the tub.

It was cool. I really liked the video. I'm really happy with it. I loved working with her. I know the song hit, I don't really understand what it is about the video people like so much, but whatever it is, people really liked. I mean, I know it looks cool. I like the way it looks and like some of the ideas that are in it, but I don't really understand what connected. I think I saw with Billboard magazine or something voted it the best video of all time and I'm like, okay, great. I don't remember if it was Billboard or not, but it was some music magazine. But yeah, it's fun.

The weird thing for me, honestly, was it was the first video that I had done that was huge on YouTube as opposed to being a big player on MTV because MTV wasn't really playing videos at the time that much anymore. So, that was new. And there was a while where it was, I don't know, the Titanic of YouTube videos where for a moment around the time I did Water For Elephants, it became the most viewed video, not music video, but video of all time. It's now been surpassed by other things, but for the moment, it was so weird.

The issue that I had was that I had a friend that was working at Google at the time that told me, and it's now common knowledge, that YouTube views are monetized. I didn't understand that people were actually making money off of it. And so, that was actually quite a disappointment because I think the structure or the contracting of music videos is broken because you basically write a treatment, and you sign over the rights to that, and you're then just kind of a work-for-hire. It gets a billion views, so somebody is making millions and millions and millions of dollars, a lot of money for a billion views of that video and I'm not seeing a penny. And so, that to me is a little disappointing but less disappointing in her and in the label and more disappointing in this system at play in terms of the contracting of music videos.

In your experience in the film industry and the music industry, is one shadier than the other? 

I think the music video business is shadier. I'm not certain sure shady is the right term. I would say it's not, it doesn't quite have its shit together in the way that movies do. Movies, and I won't talk about indies because I've never done those and I think those are probably closer to music videos, but studio movies are certainly more organized and more professional. I find actors more professional in general, not all, but in general, are more professional than musicians. And that's primarily I think because not all musicians want to be making music videos.

Also, the production companies, in general, are not set up like movie studios. There are just systems in play at a movie studio that when you go to make something, there are support systems there that are available to you to figure things out and budget things and test things and there are just more teams ready to support. Whereas when you're with a production company doing music videos and you come up with an idea, you're kind of on your own. It's great because you learn a lot but you don't have much support, you don't have much support.

Do you miss those days of having a video of yours played on MTV? Was that an exciting time? 

It was. Look, it was really fun. I feel lucky to have my careers in videos sort of blossom in what I would say was a golden age of them, right? In general, the music industry was doing well, people were selling a lot of records, so therefore those artists had a lot of money to spend on music videos. People wanted to do interesting things in their music videos and they played, right? They had TRL, so there was a countdown and you'd have big premieres. And so, you just sort of felt like, again, in terms of getting into consciousness, you had that access. When you work with a certain artist with a certain song, you knew you had that access and you knew people were going home after school, watching TRL, voting for songs and videos and things like that. It was an exciting time.