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How "Hunger Games" Producer Nina Jacobson Shepherds Great Stories To The Screen

For the studio exec turned independent producer, it’s all about honoring the author’s voice (though fans’ opinions count for something, too). Jacobson talks Hunger Games, finding the right talent and passion as a decision maker.

Nina Jacobson’s voracious reading habits have been paying off nicely.

"I’m always looking for the page-turner, the thing I can’t put down, that you can’t stop thinking about—the book, the script that you don’t want to be interrupted while you’re reading," she says. One such book: The Hunger Games.

Nina Jacobson

Last weekend, Catching Fire, the second movie in the Hunger Games series, opened to an estimated $161 million at the U.S. box office and very good reviews, not to mention pop-cultural ubiquity (that Jennifer Lawrence was everywhere, talking about everything). It might not have been this way had Jacobson and her daughter not been captivated by the book. "It had already been out in stores," says Jacobson, who hadn't read the book until it was already climbing the bestseller lists. "It's [content that will make a great feature] not always obvious. Sometimes an author will choose to wait for [it to gain] more traction."

Not every page-turner will make a great movie, she says. "I look for a voice, a singular voice, a specific voice. You feel like that voice is speaking to you. And then [you look for people] who will keep that voice in the mix, who won’t let that voice just get diluted."

Here, the longtime Disney executive turned independent producer explains how she guides that voice from page to screen, what it’s like to be on the other side of the pitch, and why losing Catching Fire's director wasn’t as much of a disaster as it might seem.

DON’T SWEAT THE BIG STUFF

Four months out from production: no director, no script. Gary Ross, director of the first film, backed out of doing the second one, saying he didn't have enough time to prepare (after all, they were on a deadline to get the movie into theaters within a year of the first one).

"It was scary, but it didn’t feel like a disaster," claims Jacobson, "because we had a great book. And I knew that in adapting the books, you can't lose sight of the fact that you have great source material. We had a great cast, a great production designer [Philip Messina]. We had a lot of the pieces."

What they needed was a director. Oh, and a writer. Ross had also been charged with adapting the book and the script wasn't done. So they hired Francis Lawrence to direct and Michael Arndt (working here as Michael DeBruyn) to adapt—no small feat, and yet Jacobson said that unlike many movies, it was clear what the script would be, and so Lawrence could prep the production even while the script was still being written.

"Think about what you’re prepping," explains Jacobson. "The things you need the most advance notice on are 'set pieces.' We knew what they were because they’re in the book. So, we were able to, and that was part of what Francis was very calm about. We can make decisions now. We know that there's going to be the big party at the Capitol. We know there’s the fog sequence. We know what sequences we’re making. Now on the words, getting scenes right, the dialogue right, that took time. In terms of what we really had to prep, again, we had a book that we knew we were adapting, and we knew we had to get to District 12, the Victory Village. Let’s figure it out, prep that while they're getting the details in order. We’ll find a location, we’ll design this house."

Luckily, she says, "Michael Arndt is ridiculously fast, and you will not believe it, but within two to three weeks of hiring him we had a draft we could work off of, even though he kept working on it. He just works around the clock. I’ve never seen anybody faster, and that was a huge relief."

GET OUT OF THE WAY

Perhaps the most unusual aspect is how involved book author Suzanne Collins was. "It’s important to me that Suzanne’s voice be heard, the voice of the books, but also that as a filmmaker, Francis has room to make this his own," says Jacobson. "As a producer, I think part of my job is the casting of each of those roles, and making sure that that unit works, that they can argue, but in a way that is productive and fun and collaborative, and that sometimes you win one and sometimes you give one."

Here's what she did. "I introduced them, and then I left them alone. Sometimes you protect [a project] by getting out of the way. They took the book, together, and went through it and decided on everything that needed to be in the movie, and that document then, we shared. Michael Arndt, we brought him into the process and then, while Francis was prepping the movie, Suzanne and Michael would spend time together. Sometimes the four of us would spend time together. Getting the chemistry between those three key collaborators is what allowed us to very quickly start to put the pieces together."

Jacobson's not the only one who needed to get out of the way. "Suzanne is willing to kill her darlings," says Jacobson. "She was the first person to say, 'There’s a cinematic dead zone right here in the book. It’s fine in a book, but it’s going to be a problem in the movie. We’re going to have to figure out how to get from the end of the Victory Tour and return to District 12 until she gets reaped [that’s Hunger Games lingo for the ceremony at which tributes are chosen for the next games] and sent back to the arena. We’re going to have to condense it.'"

And Lawrence got to put his stamp on it. "There were a lot of opportunities for Francis to bring his voice, because he had new roles to cast. They’re crossing the whole country in the Victory Tour, instead of being primarily in District 12 or the arena, and then you have this man-made arena, instead of a largely natural-looking arena. The arena in the first movie is also man-made, technically. And it is not their opponent in the way in this movie, the arena is the opponent, and the tributes are making alliances and teaming up and figuring out who they can trust. So, the dynamics were very different, and the time spent in the Capitol is greater in this movie, so there were a lot of areas that were untouched that Francis could completely create and invent and make it his own, while still being very respectful to that first movie, and not having it feel like you’re in a completely different world."

DON’T SCREW IT UP—OR THERE'LL BE HELL TO PAY WITH THE FANS

It’s become fashionable to follow what the fans dictate, fearing their collective wrath if you stray from the story they fell in love with. But Jacobson has her own take on the fans’ passion.

"Sometimes people are going to be like, 'How could you get rid of that?' but you can’t please all the people all the time. I’m a big fan of the books myself. What the fans are really telling you with all their opinions is, 'Don’t screw it up. We love this. Don’t screw it up.' Even if fans don’t love each decision individually, if the collective effect is that you honored and respected the book that they love, then that’s really what they’re asking of you. Also, she continues, "whereas the first time you’re speaking to fans of the book, and trying to bring the people in, now you’re speaking to fans of the book and the movie." So that implicit contract has changed.

KEEP THE SLATE LEAN

After stints at a few different studios, Jacobson went to work at Disney, overseeing production and development. Under her watch, the studio had such successes as Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure and The Sixth Sense. She was fired after eight years there. "As an executive I loved putting a little bit of time into a lot of things. Loved it. I loved that job." As a producer, she says, "I only know how to put a lot of time into a few things. At Disney I always felt like I can’t imagine not having a slate of 20 movies."

Now, she says, "I find that the more time you put in, the better the [movie becomes]. By not dividing up your attention, you devote that energy exclusively to that script. At any given moment, we will have maybe—literally—four things in development. And we’ve made almost everything we’ve developed by taking this approach, by putting a lot of time into a few things."

She has made One Day, three Wimpy Kid movies and the two Hunger Games, with two more of those on the way.

"When you go to someone like Suzanne Collins and you say, ‘I have two other things besides yours,’ they feel a lot more confident you're going to deliver than if you say, ‘Would you like to be my 21st project in development?’" Instead she can say to a writer: "I want your thing to be the next thing that we make."

Says Jacobson: "My approach to going to Hollywood parties has always been low-frequency high yield, and that’s my approach to development. Just developing something doesn’t do me any good, especially with a small, independent company [in which] I pay my own overhead. We only make money when we make movies."

…AND THE PASSIONS HIGH

"It’s very intuitive and almost primal, that thing that grabs you, that you just can't wait to get back to," Jacobson says of finding great content. "You just don’t know when something’s going to get under your skin that way, but when it does, I find that you’ve got to listen to that. It always means something when a piece of material has that hold on you. It's not just, 'Hmm, that's pretty good,' is generally not good enough. 'Yeah, I liked it,' is still not good enough. It's 'I couldn’t put it down, I couldn’t wait to get back to it."

It's the same when it comes to most decisions associated with producing a movie. Like casting. "It’s never like, 'It could be that person.' It’s always, 'It has to be that person. It’s got to be that one.' It’s the same thing. It’s conviction and certainty, as opposed to, 'Hmm, worth a try,' because the worth-a-try days are behind us anyway. Also, as a producer, your time is your asset. So, that’s my currency: my time."

Contrast that to her former role as a studio executive. "I used to—by design—you borrow the passion of others, at times, because you need a whole slate. It can’t just be one person’s taste at every moment. I wanted to love everything we made but I didn't always love everything we developed. Sometimes I had to [rely on] the passion of the people who worked for me, so I could say, 'I trust you, and you love it.' As a producer, I can’t borrow the passion. It has to be mine. As a result, I only end up working on things that I really love. It’s a little bit like, as you get older, you only have time for friends you really like."

Next on Jacobson's slate, the final two Hunger Games movies and adaptations of the books Crazy Rich Asians and Where'd You Go Bernadette.

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3 Comments

  • Charles

    "It’s very intuitive and almost primal, that thing that grabs you, that you just can't wait to get back to," Jacobson says of finding great content. "You just don’t know when something’s going to get under your skin that way, but when it does, I find that you’ve got to listen to that. It always means something when a piece of material has that hold on you. It's not just, 'Hmm, that's pretty good,' is generally not good enough. 'Yeah, I liked it,' is still not good enough. It's 'I couldn’t put it down, I couldn’t wait to get back to it."

  • Charles

    Contrast that to her former role as a studio executive. "I used to--by design--you borrow the passion of others, at times, because you need a whole slate. It can’t just be one person’s taste at every moment. I wanted to love everything we made but I didn't always love everything we developed. Sometimes I had to [rely on] the passion of the people who worked for me, so I could say, 'I trust you, and you love it.' As a producer, I can’t borrow the passion. It has to be mine. As a result, I only end up working on things that I really love. It’s a little bit like, as you get older, you only have time for friends you really like."