Director Gary Ross and his crew dove into bringing Suzanne Collin’s vision of the futuristic world they inhabit fully alive on screen.
It started with Ross’ photographic concept–to navigates Panem through the subjective experience of Katniss Everdeen, just as Collins had done on the page–which came to life in a collaboration with Oscar-nominated director of photography Tom Stern (who recently shot Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar”).
“One of the most important things to me and to Tom was to convey the immediacy and first person point-of-view that makes the book so irresistible,” says Ross. “This meant shooting in an urgent, intensely personal way that I’ve always wanted to use, but has never suited the subject matter of films I’ve done before.”
This first-person POV would imbue every detail of the film and also become the cornerstone for the bold set pieces created by production designer Philip Messina, who found himself in the position of turning portions of modern-day North Carolina into futuristic District 12, the Capitol and the arena where the Games unfold.
Messina calls the look he and Ross established for the film “retro-futuristic.” He explains: “It’s kind of as if you took early Mid-Century, Depression-era America and suddenly brought it into the distant future, with twists of high technology. The book created an alternative universe where on the one hand, you have people scratching in the dirt to survive; and on the other, you have flying hovercraft. So we wanted to stay very true to that portrayal.”
It was vital to all of the filmmakers. “Phil was really able to create the future in a way that still felt rooted in the real history of North America,” notes Nina Jacobson. “We all wanted it to feel like this could be us in a few centuries. And he did that, while creating a great range of sets from The Hob in District 12 to the Capitol to the amazing forests.”
Like the actors, Messina knew he would be up against readers’ high expectations and personal imaginings of Panem. But, like Ross, he drew his inspiration directly from the book wherever possible. “Gary was determined to not only be true to the spirit of the book but also to the details of the book,” notes Messina. “This meant that we never thought ‘let’s ditch this’ when things were complicated, but rather we asked ‘how can this be accomplished?’ We were determined to design ourselves out of difficult situations in order to be as faithful as possible to the novel.”
Messina and Ross shared illustrations with Collins to get her input. “She would sometimes say ‘that’s exactly how I pictured it,’ Messina recalls. “Could there be a better comment from the author who came up with this world?”
One of Messina’s first tasks was creating the Seam, the poorest area of impoverished, mining-focused District 12, where Katniss and her family live. Shooting in an abandoned mill town in Henry River, North Carolina, he found a grouping of 1920s homes that closely matched the environment described by Collins in the book. “This area was absolutely perfect for the Seam,” says Messina. “We couldn’t have imagined it falling in our lap any better than that.”
Harshness and Hopelessness
For Ross, Messina’s work on the Seam pulls the audience right into the harshness and seeming hopelessness of life in District 12. “The Seam had to have a feeling of squalor and decay,” he describes. “It is one thing to live in poverty, but it’s another to live in a place without any individuality, where all the houses are cookie-cutter and feel like they’re made by a company and not people. Phil found the perfect location to bring out the regimented sameness surrounding Katniss.”
For Reaping Day in the town square of District 12, the production shot at an old cotton gin in Shelby, North Carolina, bringing in 400 extras for the shoot, as well as building the tracks for a train system that carries the district’s precious coal to the Capitol. “It was a lot of work,” says Messina. “We brought in about 300 feet of railroad track and then had trains craned onto it.”
Another intensive project was creating The Hob, the derelict but teeming black market of District 12. “The Hob is the marketplace and souk of District 12,” describes Ross, “where Peacekeepers turn a blind eye. Phil brought to life an incredible marketplace where people sell all kinds of junk and things they’ve found on the way. It really evokes the deprivation of the District.”
This contrasted in the extreme with Messina’s designs for the Capitol, which were primarily built in a former Phillip Morris factory. “You see the Capitol through Katniss’ eyes in the book and we wanted to reflect the opulence and vastness of scale she sees,” he says. “I was thinking of these buildings from the 1936 World Fair in New York that were kind of temples of industry and we really riffed off that. The Capitol had to be imposing but also outrageous because to the people who live there it’s like Marie Antoinette’s decadent court.”
Icy and Acid Tones
The colors in the Capitol are a mix of icy and acid tones. “There’s color but it’s not necessarily friendly,” set decorator Larry Dias comments. “There’s no warmth to the colors. Everything is assaulting.”
Katniss’ own senses are assaulted as she rides into the Capitol with the other Tributes on the customary horse-drawn chariots that are part of the pomp and ceremony of the Games. Messina knew this would be another key design. “I tackled the chariots early on,” he says, “and we looked at zeppelin-style designs that would echo the Capitol’s high-tech Maglev trains. We painted the chariots with automotive paint in black and chrome and even though they are mean looking, they also have the beautiful lines of sculpture. I think they hearken back just the right amount to Rome.”
Shifting gears again, Messina designed the Games’ Training Center as a bastion of raw sweat and anxiety. “The training center had to be scary and dark, with some Roman iconography but also very American, too. Gary and I thought of it as the scariest high school gymnasium you could imagine,” laughs Messina. “The idea was to take the fear from gym class and factor that by ten.”
“The Training Center is where all the Tributes start to size each other up, as they start using their skills,” notes executive producer Robin Bissell. “Phil did an amazing job of building a set that allows that to happen.”
For the lush, perilous woods of the arena itself, Ross had something very specific in mind and he found it in a pristine conservation area. “I wanted the arena to be a hardwood forest,” says the director. “I didn’t want it to just be coniferous. I wanted it to feel intrinsically American. In North Carolina, we were able to find an amazingly verdant natural forest that was just right.”
The arena also contains one of the most challenging of all of Philip Messina’s designs: the Cornucopia, a giant gold horn containing a cache of Panem’s hybrid weapons and valuable supplies that the Tributes must battle for as the Games kick off. “I was a bit scared of how the Cornucopia was going to look, but in the end it is one of my favorite pieces in the whole movie – a huge, nasty sculptural horn in the middle of a field,” says Messina. “We looked at Frank Gehry designs and a lot of modern architecture with folded planes and fractalized surfaces and kind of riffed on all of that. It looks like it fell from the sky onto this field.”
Ross notes: “Phil created exactly what I wanted to see: a large, metallic, sculptural element that almost seemed like a knife’s edge jutting into this natural world.”
Even in the woods, the attention to detail was unwavering, right down to finding the right tree to house the infamous Tracker Jacker nest. “The tree had to be just right,” notes location manager Todd Christensen. “It had to be the right size and have the right branches and it had to work for all the different angles of the scene as Katniss has an important exchange with Rue.”
In the end, Messina was very satisfied by the way all of Panem unfolded into something highly unusual but palpably real. “I’ve done bigger movies but I haven’t ever done anything that was as creative and fun as this design-wise,” he concludes.
The tactile feel of the sets translated into more immediate performances. “The sets were so helpful to creating the character of Katniss,” notes Jennifer Lawrence. “I’d never seen anything like them and I felt like I was in some kind of wonderland for most of the shoot. From my house in District 12 to the woods, everything was even better than I’d imagined it in the book.”