Just when she thought she was out, they pull her back in; in ''The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,'' Katniss returns for an all-star fight to the death -- and transforms into a revolutionary; here's an inside look at the most anticipated movie of the fall

It’s a December day in paradise, and Jennifer Lawrence is neck-deep in a swamp. She’s gasping for air, moaning in agony.

Katniss Everdeen, reluctant heroine of a blighted nation, has just barely outrun a toxic fog meant to bring her down — all in front of a rapt Panem television audience — in the eagerly awaited The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (rated PG-13, out Nov. 22). Soon Lawrence is joined in the fetid water by costars Josh Hutcherson and Brit actor Sam Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman), all of them crying out in ecstasy as the water finally drains the poison out of their characters’ blistering boils. When director Francis Lawrence (no relation) calls “Cut!” the 23-year-old

Oscar winner clambers out of the muck wondering if their yelps of pain sounded weirdly sexual, as if they were shooting a bizarro porn version of Suzanne Collins’ best-seller. The large crew, gathered in a scrum in the Hawaiian jungle, breaks into easy laughter.

You’d expect the set of Catching Fire to be a little tense. The Hunger Games, based on the first installment of Collins’ series about a teenage girl who single-handedly threatens the fascist structure of her dystopian society, made more than $400 million at the domestic box office when it was released in spring 2012. And yet mere months before Catching Fire went into production, the high-stakes sequel was without a director or a script. Enter I Am Legend director Lawrence and screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3), who sought a cinematic way to tell the story of a broken Katniss being cruelly tossed back into another Hunger Games alongside an entirely new group of All Star tributes played by the likes of Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, and Jena Malone.

Back in the jungle outside Waikiki, Hutcherson, who plays Katniss’ staunchest ally, Peeta, huddles close with his costar and their new director. You might think they’re obsessing over the next scene — a doozy in which they are chased by CG howler monkeys — but in fact they’re snickering over a viral video of an unlucky gentleman who jumps into a pool that turns out to be frozen. Francis Lawrence has such a calm but commanding presence on set that midway through production Lionsgate announced he would stay aboard to direct the remaining sequels, Mockingjay, Part 1 and 2. And Jennifer Lawrence’s easy, playful rapport with her costars — and everyone else on earth, more or less — is well documented by now. So the set is loose and fun. At one point, Hutcherson stands to the side with his visiting father. He teases his costar, telling her she’s going to get trench foot from the murky water. The actress, who grew up with two older brothers, responds by punching him. Hutcherson dodges to avoid her blows, then gets her in a headlock.

There’s so much happy energy in Hawaii that it’s somewhat jarring months later to see Catching Fire footage up on screen. The director says two of his greatest aims when he came aboard the franchise were to amp up the visual effects and the high-art garishness of Capitol scenes. And the film promises to be a feast of spectacle — from the tidal wave that washes out a segment of the Hunger Games arena to the magnificent plumage and outrageous wardrobe of handler Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). But at its pained heart, what we’ve seen of Catching Fire suggests a profoundly moving look at the ravages of battle and the ruin it inflicts on a people and culture.

In August, EW sat down with Jennifer Lawrence, Hutcherson, Claflin, Francis Lawrence, and producer Nina Jacobson in Santa Monica for a freewheeling conversation over many rounds of sake and sushi.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Jennifer and Josh, did you two have any freak-outs when the first movie exploded?

Jennifer Lawrence All of our meltdowns happened before the movie came out. Remember my Avatar meltdown?

Josh Hutcherson What was the Avatar meltdown?

Jennifer Lawrence Remember? We were in your hotel room and we got so upset that Avatar wasn’t real — and we were never going to go [to Pandora] — that we started screaming, and I was flush and had a red rash?

Okay, yes, that counts as a freak-out. Francis, did you have any idea what you were getting into with these two? When did everybody first meet?

Francis Lawrence [Laughs] I met Jen right across the street at Shutters hotel. And she was really late. There were all these emergency texts: “Oh, I went to the wrong place, sorry, sorry!”

Jennifer Lawrence You know when you are very nervous about something and you get everything wrong?

Francis Lawrence You were nervous?

Jennifer Lawrence Yeah.

Francis Lawrence Why?

Jennifer Lawrence For you! [Laughs]

Francis Lawrence Then I met Josh for sushi, and a big part of our conversation was some changes we wanted to make to Peeta’s narrative.

Tell me more.

Hutcherson Somebody asked me today, “What’s it like to play the damsel in distress?” And I said, “It feels great.”

Francis Lawrence Well, they haven’t seen the new movie yet. At that lunch, we talked about wanting to man up Peeta a little. I don’t think it came from Josh. You didn’t ask for it, but I think you were pleased.

Hutcherson I hate bringing things up that could be conceived as coming from a place of vanity when it wasn’t that at all. I don’t give two s—s if I’m a damsel in distress or not, I just want what’s best for the character and the story. And there were scenes where Peeta seemed so helpless. He needs to be able to contribute in some way.

Francis Lawrence So we made little choices — the story really doesn’t change, and their relationship doesn’t change — he’s just a different kind of character.

Nina Jacobson Like, he can swim now.

Francis Lawrence Right, so at the start of the Games we don’t look at him just standing helplessly on his pod.

Hutcherson Because the option was either me in the water drowning or me sitting there like a cat batting my paw in the water. Either way, the visual is horrible.

Looking back on The Hunger Games, Jen and Josh, are there any big moments you want a do-over on?

Jennifer Lawrence The mutts [the CG beasts unleashed at the film’s climax].

Hutcherson Oh yeah, that was a tough one to swallow.

Josh, how about that scene where you camouflaged your face with moss and mud to hide?

Hutcherson [Laughs] That’s one of those things about the jump from a book to a movie. The camouflage of Peeta in the book is not funny, but then when you have me with clay on my face, lying there half dead, and I turn my face to the camera — it’s so laughable. It’s impossible not to laugh.

More than the other two books, Catching Fire is about all these people who’ve been broken in some fundamental way by war. Was it hard to find the right somber tone in what also needs to be a crowd-pleasing action movie?

Jacobson In every scene, we asked ourselves, “How would these people feel if they came back to the Hunger Games?” For real. What happens when you come back from these experiences, not what happens in a movie when you’ve kicked a lot of ass? They would feel as though they had come back as soldiers. They would have all sorts of damage.

Jennifer Lawrence To have a visual director is an incredible thing, but there are also directors who understand the human, real, gritty reality. I didn’t know both could exist together, but Francis can actually really blend both flawlessly and… [She starts to get emotional.] I can’t look at him, and I won’t look at him!

Francis Lawrence [Laughs] We’re WASPy about those things. Emotional displays make us uncomfortable.

Sam, I understand you spent a lot of time carrying Lynn Cohen, who plays District 4 tribute Mags, around on your back. What was that like?

Sam Claflin She’s such a sweet, mischievous woman. Every time she got on my back, she’d say, “Ohhhh, you smell so gooooood.” She was constantly complimenting me. If I ever feel like I’m having a bad day, I’ll go find Lynn Cohen.

Francis Lawrence In his first scene, Sam accidentally dunked her in 40-degree water.

Claflin She climbed onto my back, and we were told to sprint off onto the beach over these rocks, and my foot slipped. My knee took the brunt of the fall, and I literally was just going, “Lynn, get off me, get off me,” and she was clinging on so hard around my neck.

Jennifer Lawrence Let me tell you, Sam is the clumsiest, most accident-prone person in the world. He broke his hand within the first week. He walked into a twig, and his eye was bleeding. He fell every single scene.

Claflin One time, I fell when we were just standing there. Jennifer was just as bad, though.

Jennifer Lawrence Remember when I hit myself with my bow and I flew backwards?

Claflin There should be a whole sizzle reel of us just falling over.

Jennifer Lawrence The funniest thing that happened was when Josh got down on one knee to propose to me — and his pants ripped.

Hutcherson Right up the taint.

Jacobson And Jen, when you fell over in Katniss’ wedding dress.

Jennifer Lawrence I was going up this ramp, so the dress tucks under my foot and the next step — once the fabric is tucked over — you’re just down on your next step.

Francis Lawrence You went down and it was one of those squeaky slow slides down the rail, all the way to the bottom.

Jacobson And it’s definitely not the kind of set where people pretend that never happened. We played that over and over and over again on the monitors.

Speaking of falls, where were you all watching the Oscars when Jennifer won for Silver Linings Playbook?

Jennifer Lawrence [To Hutcherson] You didn’t watch, I bet.

Hutcherson Yeah, I didn’t. Which was the one where your dress fell off?

Jennifer Lawrence [Groans] The SAG Awards.

Hutcherson [Laughs] I saw that. That was great. The whole bottom of her dress just fell off!

Francis Lawrence I was in Hawaii prepping for the last 10 days of the movie, so we rented out a penthouse suite and had [an Oscar] party. It was nice to see her win — and fall.

Jen, you look upset, but it really was an endearing moment.

Jennifer Lawrence I mean, I’m not that upset by it. I didn’t expect to make it up the steps in a dress like that. It’s just that the fall frazzled me so much that I forgot to thank the director [David O. Russell] and Harvey Weinstein. It’ll get funny to me eventually. I’ll get there.

Francis Lawrence She was back in Hawaii two days later, and when she walked on set she got a standing ovation from everybody.

Jennifer Lawrence And I said, “Things are going to be a lot different around here!” [Laughter]

The cast has such a deep bench of talent. You’ve got Donald Sutherland and Stanley Tucci. Now you’ve added newcomer heavyweights like Jeffrey Wright as Beetee and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee. How do they mix in an environment that Jennifer says is like ”puppy day care”?

Hutcherson They’re the coolest guys ever.

Jennifer Lawrence It’s funny because, with Phil, he’s an incredible actor, unbelievable, and we’re all rrrrrrrrrawr! and then “Action!” and then we go back to rrrrrrawr!

I need a translation.

Hutcherson We’re all crazy, and then we do our scenes and go back to crazy.

Jennifer Lawrence Phil is the nicest guy in the world, but there would be times when I think we made it hard for him to focus.

Jacobson Philip was our first big casting announcement before Catching Fire.

Francis Lawrence [To Jennifer] I remember when I told you we were going after Phil, you started giggling.

Jennifer Lawrence Fangirl excitement.

Jacobson We always try to give the utmost respect to the books by casting actors that other actors admire. Once you cast an actor that people revere, other actors say, “I want to be in that movie.”

Claflin Why did you cast me, then?

Jacobson There’s an exception to every rule. Every now and then you go fluff. [Laughs] But it’s like announcing that Julianne Moore will star in Mockingjay. We want people to know that we will continue to set the bar high.

By the end of the series, you’ll have devoted so much of your young careers to this franchise. Do you feel worried about being forever wedded to these characters?

Jacobson But remember, the characters change a lot and we’re also moving at quite a fast clip. These guys are young actors with huge futures ahead of them. This occupies some space in their lives, but it’s not taking up a decade.

Hutcherson Well, almost.

Francis Lawrence Other than press demands, you guys will be done in a year.

Jennifer Lawrence No!

Hutcherson I know, I have anxiety thoughts about this too. But it’s the elephant in the room — that we’re going to be doing this for years.

Josh, I think Jen’s anxiety is that eventually you’ll have to stop.

Jennifer Lawrence Yeah, is that not what you’re talking about? [Whimpers] I’m worried about wrapping.

Hutcherson Oh.

Jennifer Lawrence You’re not?! You’re not worried about not seeing me every day?

Hutcherson Okay, now I see. But to your question, ahem, it’s different because I feel like when people are afraid of being associated with a certain character it’s when maybe they’re not proud of the material, but these are all characters that we’re proud of.

Do any of you have a favorite memory from making the sequel?

Jennifer Lawrence I know it exactly. In Hawaii one night, we were having a party at Josh’s house and we all held hands and ran into the ocean. We would run as fast as we could into the water and we’d keep running until we fell, but we were all scared because we didn’t know where the reef was because it was dark.

Jacobson And you should understand this is a group of people that includes everybody. It’s the rare set that doesn’t have any hierarchy.

Jennifer Lawrence We all — from the producers to the [production assistants] — genuinely know each other and love each other.

Hutcherson Yeah, on some sets —

Jennifer Lawrence Well, why do you think I’m so upset that it’s ending?

Hutcherson I was going to say —

Jennifer Lawrence You’re not acting upset.

Hutcherson I was going to say [picks up chopstick and pretends to stab her]… I was going to say that I don’t expect to ever experience the closeness I feel with these people on any other movie ever.

Jen, what was your hardest day on Catching Fire?

Jennifer Lawrence The one that I was dreading the most was probably shooting Katniss’ night terrors. I was so afraid of that scene I showed up to set early.

Hutcherson And then the moment afterwards we were like, “That was fantastic, are you kidding me?!”

Francis Lawrence She did it on take one.

Jennifer Lawrence But don’t you find that that’s a part of it? If I’m not scared to do something, then I’m bored.

Francis Lawrence Really?! Gauntlet thrown down. [Movies] three and four await!

The Wild Card
District 7’s Johanna isn’t just any tribute — she’s a real killer

When We First Met Johanna Mason, a ferocious, ax-wielding victor from District 7, it’s on an elevator with Haymitch, Katniss, and Peeta. She stares down the trio and proceeds to strip naked. “It’s one of the best introductions to a character ever,” says 28-year-old actress Jena Malone (Donnie Darko). “I had to learn how to do a striptease in four seconds.”

For Malone, Johanna defies expectations for women in genre films. “She’s not just another badass sexy female,” she says. “Her sexuality is a weapon. Her humor is a weapon. They’re part of her process of coping with the fact that she killed all her friends in her own Hunger Games.” Malone can’t shake one particular scene in which her entire body is drenched in blood. “I felt like this gladiator,” she says. “The cameras would cut and I would still have this crazy energy surging through me. Johanna took over.”

The New Gamemaker
Plutarch Heavensbee rules the arena in Catching Fire

To play the master manipulator Plutarch Heavensbee, Catching Fire‘s filmmakers needed an actor with artful cagey cool. So producer Nina Jacobson and director Francis Lawrence dreamed big, chasing down Philip Seymour Hoffman in New York City last year, hoping to cast him. (Hoffman was doing Death of a Salesman on Broadway at the time.) “First we had to get him to read the book, because we didn’t have a script yet,” says Jacobson. Lawrence told the actor they planned to dramatically pump up Plutarch’s narrative arc, particularly his relationship with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. “Plutarch is one of the only fully created characters for the movie because there’s very little of him in the book,” says the director. Echoes Jacobson: “When you get an actor of that caliber, it’s great for us to write something worthy of him.”

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 146 minutes
  • Francis Lawrence