Fans have been dying for it. Hollywood is betting on it. And careers will be forever changed because of it. With the film's release just weeks away, the cast and director reveal what it was like actually making it

By Karen Valby
Updated March 02, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

”Are you ready?” asks director Gary Ross, his hand on the light switch in his Hollywood office screening room. The question hangs there for a second, the answer at once obvious and weirdly out of reach. You could be a thoroughly devoted fan of The Hunger Games, the first novel in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy about a futuristic government that conscripts children into an annual televised death match. And you could be lucky enough to find yourself nestled in a leather love seat months before the rabidly anticipated adaptation hits theaters, with three different kinds of candy in your lap, plus oranges grown on Ross’ Santa Barbara farm. But when the director asks again if you’re ready to watch an early cut of the bloodbath — the sequence in which 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, played by the Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence, and the other 23 tributes (as the chosen ones are called) are let loose on one another at the start of the Games — it seems only right to pause and take a breath before nodding to Ross to cut the lights.

There is legitimate concern in fan circles that a PG-13 movie, which The Hunger Games has always pledged to be, could never capture the dehumanizing brutality of the Games. ”When I first read the book,” says one of the film’s producers, Nina Jacobson, ”of course I asked myself, ‘How can you do it? How can you possibly do it?”’ But if the footage Ross just shared represents the tone of the entire film, rest assured that the movie will be every bit as raw and harrowing as the reading experience. The scene doesn’t rely on splatter and gore but instead focuses on the frantic and vulnerable expressions of kids in a desperate state of fight or flight, none more moving than Lawrence’s primal crouch as she prepares to sprint for the cover of woods. ”You don’t need to be gratuitous in order to be honest and capture the intensity of the book,” Ross, who co-wrote the script, says afterward. ”Is it violent? Yes. Do we back off from what it is? No, we don’t. But I’m not interested in violence for violence’s sake. This is a character’s story; it’s about Katniss’ journey.”

Later, Ross gives a tour of his impressive edit bay, where a team of visual-effects artists are helping bring to life his $90 million vision of Collins’ dystopian world. In one room, a woman innocently calls up a shot on screen of Lawrence on stage in a red dress, being spun by Stanley Tucci’s oily reality TV host, Caesar Flickerman. Sparks start bouncing around her rather limp skirt as she is transformed for the Games’ viewing audience into the infamous Girl on Fire. ”No, that’s awful — turn it off,” barks Ross, the one time all afternoon he’ll appear unsettled. ”The effects on that shot are giving me trouble,” he explains out in the hall. ”We’ll get it. It’s not perfect. And it has to be perfect.”

He’s right, of course: It does have to be perfect. When fans truly commune with material, particularly something as smart and stirring and socially pointed as Collins’ trilogy, they deserve perfection. And those involved with the movie know that if they screw up the adaptation of a series more than 20 million readers hold dear, they will have a rebellion of their own. Josh Hutcherson, who plays Katniss’ sweetly pining ally, Peeta, says that he and Lawrence have been leaning hard on each other in this last breathless march up to the March 23 release. ”I’m constantly texting her, like ‘Oh, boy, here we go,”’ he says. ”It’s kind of like we’re getting ready for our own Hunger Games.”

In his office, Ross sits beneath a large hunting bow, Katniss’ weapon of choice, which his agent gave him on the first day of production. He earned his place at the helm — reportedly beating out such heavy hitters as Sam Mendes and David Slade — by demonstrating how deeply he understood what Suzanne Collins’ trilogy meant to its earliest and most ardent fans, teenagers. When he first met with Lionsgate executives, he brought storyboards, character arcs, and a seven-minute film in which he interviewed his teenage twin son and daughter’s friends about the effect the book had on their sense of the world around them. ”It was a watershed moment in the project,” says Lionsgate president of motion pictures Joe Drake, ”because it showed us how well he understood the material and that we were going to be able to live up to the promises that we made to Suzanne.”

Every casting announcement Ross and Lionsgate went on to make was met with the predictable roar from fans. Some considered Lawrence, now 21, too robust and too old to portray a gaunt teenager. Hutcherson, at 5’7”, was deemed too short. And the Australian actor Liam Hemsworth — who nabbed the role of Gale, the hunting companion who begs Katniss to run away with him lest she perish in the Games — seemed too tainted by all the paparazzi photos of him with his girlfriend, Miley Cyrus.

But eventually fans softened on the choices, buoyed by an increasingly pedigreed cast that boasted Elizabeth Banks in the flighty, villainous role of government lackey Effie Trinket, Donald Sutherland as Katniss’ wicked nemesis President Snow, Tucci as Flickerman, and Wes Bentley as the craven Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane. Perhaps no casting news was met with greater surprise than that of Lenny Kravitz taking the role of Cinna, Katniss’ cool and compassionate stylist. Kravitz was working on an album, living out of a trailer in the Bahamas and oblivious to the Hunger Games phenomenon, when Ross first approached him. The director had been moved by the musician’s gentle grace in Precious and was further intrigued by the fact that Kravitz already shared a close bond with Lawrence, who had become friends with his daughter, Zoë during the filming of X-Men: First Class. ”I love that girl,” says Kravitz. ”The minute I met her she became a part of the family.”

It took one sleepless night of reading a downloaded version of The Hunger Games in his trailer for Kravitz to commit. But Woody Harrelson, who initially turned down the role of Katniss and Peeta’s sodden wreck of a mentor, Haymitch, was a harder sell. ”Listen, I’m nuts,” he explains. ”It was just a stupid thing where I hadn’t read the books yet. I didn’t see that there was enough for me to do in the script. But then Gary called me back and said, ‘You gotta do this. I don’t have a second choice for the role.’ And of course flattery always gets the best of me, so I read the books and saw the depths of this guy. Holy s—, I would have been bummed to miss this.”

When Amandla Stenberg, the 13-year-old actress who plays Rue, the youngest of the tributes, first arrived in Asheville, N.C., last July, she says it was a little like showing up at camp. ”We got to the hotel, and at the front desk the guy said, ‘Oh, are you with the movie? A couple of the castmates have checked in.’ And it was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re in the hotel, where are they?! [That girl] has red hair. Does she play Foxface?’

”The actors became friends, piling into a van each morning, singing at the top of their lungs as they made the muddy, bumpy drive up to a forest reserve where Ross shot the footage of the actual Games. ”It was a physically difficult shoot,” says the director, whose own 16-year-old children joined the crew, working in the camera and visual-effects departments. ”We shot 80 feet up in the trees. It was either sweltering or we had torrential rains every few days. The day I put away my hiking boots was rather joyous.”

After three months in the mountains, production moved to Charlotte and Concord, N.C., for the Capitol scenes, and the tributes were joined by the bulk of the adult cast. ”Woody and I had a great first meeting,” says Lawrence. ”I walked to his bus to introduce myself, muttering the whole way, ‘Hi, I’m Jen. Hi, I’m Jennifer. Should I go Jen or Jennifer? Should I say I’m Katniss? No, he probably already knows that.’ So I walk onto the bus and the first words out of my mouth are ‘Hey, Woo — is that a sex swing!?”’ It was in fact a yoga swing hanging from the ceiling, but Harrelson says that he gallantly allowed that it could perhaps be one.

In the evenings, the place to be was Kravitz’s hotel room. He would play iTunes DJ for the likes of Ross, Hutcherson, Banks, Tucci, and Harrelson. ”Lenny had these racks of all these different clothes for his stage show, or I suppose just for him in life,” says Harrelson. ”We’d all try on his jackets and shirts and wild clothes and take pictures and laugh. I mean, I’m telling you, this was a great group of people.”

No one, though, bonded harder than Lawrence and her director. ”When you’re working all day long every day for four months with an actress who’s in every frame of the movie,” says Ross, ”you’ve gone through a journey together that is almost different from the rest of the experience.” The screensaver on his phone is a picture of the two of them on set. Lawrence is wiping her runny nose on her director’s black shirtsleeve while he looks on with an expression of affectionate disgust. ”I don’t know how to explain it,” Ross says, laughing at the image, ”but next to my own kids… It’s a very, very special relationship.”

During shooting, the filmmakers were blindsided when Lionsgate revealed in a conversation with shareholders their excitement over building a four-movie franchise. Fans groaned over what seemed like a venal move to split the admittedly meaty third book of the trilogy into two films. ”It’s too soon to say,” says Jacobson about whether there will be three or four movies. ”I’m deeply committed to Suzanne, and she entrusted me with her books, and I’m never going to do anything to break that trust.”

At its fiery heart, The Hunger Games is the epic story of one extraordinarily resilient girl, up against the rotten ills of her society. Fans will be relieved to know that everyone involved in its path to the screen seems to have remained genuinely dedicated to the source material. ”A really cheesy version of the movie would have aged up the characters or glamorized the violence,” says Jacobson. ”Or it would overplay the love triangle, when this book is about so much more than ‘Gee, which boy do I like?”’ (Suck on that, Twilight comparisons.)

Lionsgate’s marketing campaign is pitching the movie as a hero’s tale. None of the trailers, posters, or photo stills try to sell audiences on a love triangle, highly stylized violence, or — even more blasphemous — a comely heroine who looks good in a mud-stained T-shirt. Katniss, her eyes worried and jaw clenched, remains at the center, which is exactly where she belongs.

But that means the future of this franchise rests upon both the performance and the public’s embrace of Lawrence. ”She’s in 110 percent of this movie,” says Ross. Or as Banks says, ”Jen is going to carry these movies. I’m just hanging on.”

Last spring, when Lawrence was deep in training before the film went into production, she told EW she’d been paralyzed with indecision after Lionsgate first offered her the role. ”There was this huge moment of excitement and this huge moment of fear, because I knew that as soon as I said yes my life would change,” she said. ”A year from where I was standing at that moment, my life would be completely different. And I walked around a whole day really thinking, ‘It’s not too late, I could still go back and still do indies, it’s not too late.”’

Nearly a year later, Lawrence sounds quite relaxed, surprised by her own eagerness to start shooting Catching Fire this September, with Ross back at the helm, from a screenplay by Slumdog Millionaire‘s Simon Beaufoy. ”Signing on to the movies I assumed, ‘Well, I’ll probably love the first one and then I’ll just want to get the rest of them out of the way,”’ she says. ”But as soon as they were like, ‘Yeah, we need to start training in July,’ I was like, ‘Woo-hoo! I can’t wait to get back.’

For now, she’s determined to savor her last dregs of anonymity. ”I’m just cherishing this time I have left,” she says. ”I’m going out of the house looking like s—. Going to Whole Foods looking like a train wreck. I went to Times Square for New Year’s Eve.”

It’s nice to picture her in a crowd like that, pressed up against the oblivious masses, everybody celebrating a moment that had nothing to do with her. ”I had a feeling it was the last year I could do that,” says Lawrence. She’s right, of course. Every hero pays a price.

The Hunger Games

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Gary Ross