The most buzzed about movie of the year, The Hunger Games, hits theaters March 23. The first of four films based on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy, it stars last year’s Winter’s Bone Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen and boasts a cast of such accomplished actors as Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland and Elizabeth Banks.
Producer Nina Jacobson, who snared the rights to the tale early on, has a dramatic story of her own to tell. As an executive at Disney from 1998 to 2006, Jacobson developed and oversaw a string of hits, including The Sixth Sense, Pearl Harbor, The Princess Diaries and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, before being abruptly fired from that job while her partner was in labor (details below). The straight-talking producer quickly rebounded, however, forming her own production company and finding success with its first release, a film based on the juvenile favorite, Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Here, Jacobson talks about her passionate pursuit of The Hunger Games, how she envisioned the movie, and the decisions that led to its stellar casting.
MORE: I was thinking of you the other day when I saw a screening of Jeff Who Lives At Home (opening March 16). It’s a comedy about a guy who’s obsessed with Signs. The whole movie’s sort of an homage to Signs, which you produced. Have you seen it?
Nina Jacobson: No, I didn’t know about it. Is it funny?
More: Very funny. Jason Segel is the slacker and Susan Sarandon is his mother. Ed Helms is in it too. But let’s talk about your new movie, The Hunger Games. We’re all dying to see it here. At what point did you buy the film rights to the series?
N.J.: It was not yet a big phenomenon. It was doing well, the first one sold I think 100,000 copies. There were other producers competing so there was a bit of a derby and I was driven insane by the thought of anyone else getting a chance to produce it. I had the fan fervor, the obsession. Fortunately I was able to convince Suzanne Collins of that. I felt the book deserved to be adapted with the utmost respect and care given the kind of ethical integrity of the book. Suzanne walked that dangerous edge of writing a book which is about young people and media and violence but the book itself is never guilty of the sins of the Capitol. It’s thoughtful and rooted in Katniss’ point of view. Susanne never exploits the subject matter in a way that seems unethical.I felt it was important that that tone was retained.
More: How many of the books had you read when you bought it?
N.J.: I had read the first book and galleys of the second. Then we went to buyers. Some places passed, but when they had some interest, we met with those places and looked eye to eye to make sure we all saw the same movie, that they were committed to a PG-13 version as we were, but they weren’t going to soften it.
More: Are your kids old enough to read the books?
N.J.: Two are. I have an 11-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. I just let the 11-year-old read it. My younger son is 5; obviously I’m not going to let the 5-year-old read it.
More: Do boys read this book? Is it gender neutral like Harry Potter?
N.J.: Yes. Regardless of gender, they were fixated. Boys love this book. My mom read it and she loved it too. It’s rare to find anyone who didn’t like it.
More: What made you think it would be a good movie?
N.J.: It feels like a movie, so visual, so emotional, it manages to be both intimate and epic. It’s personal and yet the world lays itself out in a way that your imagination paints a picture for you. It’s our world but wrong.
More: I always describe it as Miss America meets Survivor.
N.J.: Suzanne was watching both American Idol and the Iraq war when she came up with the idea.
More: What appeals to you in Katniss as a heroine? She’s far different from Twilight’s Bella.
N.J.: What I love about Katniss is that she really is not defined by her romantic longings. If anything, the men surrounding her are more prone to romance than she is. She’s prone to survival. She has incredible survival instincts and protective feelings for her sister. What I love about the book is with each book she takes on a concentric circle of concern. It starts with her family, and as it evolves, she embraces Rue, then Peeta, then her District. With each book she takes more responsibility, and yet her instinct is always to fight for herself and her family. I think that’s very human and honest. I love how imperfect she is in that regard. The men in her life are more focused on their romantic feelings for her; that’s not what drives her.
More: Katniss has the two dueling suitors. And Bella has two, the vampire and the werewolf. In True Blood—it’s not a YA book, but a lot of kids read it or watch it—Sookie has two vampires and two werewolves vying for her.
N.J.: Conflct is more interesting than harmony. I think that for Katniss the journey is about learning to trust, to care and put somebody else’s needs ahead of her own family. Her learning to trust supersedes the love triangle. I don’t see it as a love triangle story in the way Twilight is. Largely, Katniss is learning to care about others.
More: What do you think is her prime appeal?
N.J.: She has a nurturing fierceness. When I first met Jennifer Lawrence, she talked about that. We’ve seen the female badass, the woman warrior. Kat’s fitness comes out of protectiveness, nurturing. That’s powerful. She feels like an honest heroine, someone you can relate to. You can feel being in her shoes. She’s not fearless by any stretch; she struggles to step up and take her place. It’s the story of a girl who over time steps up and becomes a revolutionary. She’s a heroine for our times.
More: Our other favorite heroine, Lizbeth Salander in The Dragon Tattoo books, is also ferocious, but she has the Aspergers Syndrome and the rape.
N.J.: The experiences of the books are very different. Lisbeth when you meet her is very damaged already. With Katniss, you see the experience of the Hunger Games leaves a mark. She’s been through a lot, but is not as damaged.
More: Do you know how many adult women have read The Hunger Games series?
N.J.: I don’t know. All the moms on my daughter’s soccer team have read it. It’s absolutely crossed over. What’s unusual is that men can be enthusiastic too…it’s very different from Twilight, which is female driven. It’s more like Harry Potter.
More: Why is YA so hot now? Why do even adults read YA books ? Did Harry Potter start it?
N.J.: Good question. There’s a lot of great writing in YA. It’s a hot growth area for very talented people. Maybe some of us—when you read a book it can take you back to your reading self, not your outer self. I myself read a lot of YA books. There’s an enthusiasm to them and some extraordinary good writing. Harry Potter is still one of the best books you’ll ever read. And for a writer, you have enthusiastic readers, you’re building a young audience, a captive audience, you’ll get read.
More: What led you to cast Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss?
N.J.: When you see her in Winter’s Bone, you see elements of Katniss in her, the qualities that emerge in that performance. When you have a character you love, who exists in your imagination—we knew we had to cast the very best actress who gave the best audition. So you don’t focus on hair color, but the inner quality. Jennifer stole the part in the audition. She made us cry, the casting director cry, and she had both a fierceness and a tenderness, a fire and a vulnerability. Hair color was the least of our worries—people said, “but she’s blonde,” but what’s great is, we could change her hair color!
More: Both Lawrence and the actor playing Peeta are from Kentucky—happenstance or is there something in the bluegrass?
N.J.: Happenstance—although ironically Josh, because he came from Kentucky and made it here was somebody Jennifer pointed to as an argument to her parents that she could make it in L.A.
More: Do they both have that soft Kentucky accent?
N.J.: Not at all, no accents, but both come from kind, nice, normal families—no crazy parents!
More: I always saw Jack Nicholson as Haymitch, although he’s way too old. In the chat rooms they were all rooting for Hugh Laurie from House. How did you get to Woody Harrelson?
N.J.: Haymitch has to be in a certain age range because he has competed within the last 25 years. We knew a rough age range, and talked about a lot of different names, but what we all loved about Woody is he has so much range and complexity but he has that mischief, that troublemaker glint in his eye. The feeling was that it would be wrong to overestimate him, but it would be easy to do so. He can play the clown yet be a force to reckon with. He’s a fantastic Haymitch. I’m very happy with him, with the whole cast.
More: I think Stanley Tucci will also be great as Caesar Flickerman.
N.J.: Tucci has that charisma and he looks great with blue hair.
More: Elizabeth Banks was a surprise as Effie Trinket.
N.J.: She was very passionate about the part. She has the comedic chops but also the dramatic grounding to make it feel normal. She was inspired by Joel Grey in Cabaret.
More: What was the biggest challenge in making the movie?
N.J.: I know how much people love this book because I feel that way myself. People love it ferociously and knowing that, you want to make a movie that satisfies, lives up to their expectations and captures what makes it so special. You feel like it belongs to you and you don’t want anyone to mess up.
More: There’s a lot of pressure on the movie, a lot of expectations. How do you handle that?
N.J.: Just keep working on the movie and do everything I can to make it as good as it can be. That’s the joy of working on something you care about
More: What are you reading now?
N.J.: Buzz, by Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, about her son’s ADD. On audio, I’m listening to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with my daughter and partner—and now there are only two of them left! My son is reading Stephen King’s Running Man. I reread City of Thieves and read The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater; my daughter and I both readShiver, by the same author. I just read Daughter of Smoke and Bones by Laini Taylor—thumbs up to that, too. My daughter said, “ You have the best job ever! You get paid to read books and watch movies!”
More: What are you looking to buy now? Anything specific? N.J.: I’m mostly looking to fall in love. Now I’m spoiled. After Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Hunger Games, I expect to have that passion, engagement, the feeling that it has to be made and made well.
More: Since you were one of the few women to run a studio, and this question keeps coming up, I’ll ask you: Why are there still so few female directors?
N.J.: I’ve asked myself and I’m not sure I have a good answer. You’re not imagining it, but obviously part of it is it’s a tough time to get movies made and many getting made are with people who are the usual suspects. It’s a small club reappearing. There’s not a whole lot of new blood because it is musical chairs, and there are fewer chairs than players. But I’m not sure why there are so few women directing. Cathy Bigelow is the shout out but there aren’t a whole lot of others. When you look at the balance of things, it’s not encouraging.
More: One reason that has been suggested to me—by women, actually—is that it’s such an intense job, demanding so much time away from home, and women with children don’t want to do that.
N.J.: It is all-consuming and the amount of time you have to spend away from home makes it hard for a woman with children. But biology as destiny doesn’t seem the answer.
More: I read that you were fired by Disney when you were in the delivery room.
N.J.: My partner was delivering our third child. I don’t think this was a big plan of theirs, but the news broke in the press right at the time. When I called to find out if the rumbling was true, I was fired when my partner was in labor. Luckily, I’d had two babies and not been fired.
More: What was your reaction?
N.J.: Surprise. But I was able to keep it in perspective because of the birth of a child, which is much more important
More: What would you tell your 20-years-younger self?
N.J.: “Good news! Some day you will get to wear jeans to the office again!” If I could give my power suit self that news, it would be a great comfort to me. Also, and I guess I will sound corny, but no matter what you see or experience, kindness is not weakness. I think I’ve been able to survive a tumultuous business by trying to treat people with kindness, compassion and respect. I think it does matter and it does pay off in every day life as well as over the long haul. So I’d tell my younger self that it’s not naïve to think that those things actually matter, and they will pay off in the long term. I got fired from my first two jobs in the movie business in the first 18 months, so you can question if you’re cut out for the movie business if you’re not an animal. I would tell my younger self that you don’t have to be an animal.
To read MORE about women behind the scenes in showbusiness, check out our interview with Smash creator Teresa Rebeck.
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