Catching Fire: Phil Messina talks about The Hunger Games

Trevor Hogg chats with Phil Messina about the world building involved with The Hunger Games franchise….

Gary Ross on-set with Jennifer Lawrence
“I had a relationship with Gary Ross [Seabiscuit]; he had visit the set a number of times when I was working with Steven Soderbergh [Traffic] and we struck up a friendship,” recalls Phil Messina (8 Mile) as to how he became the production designer responsible for The Hunger Games franchise.  “We always talked about working together.  I had prepped a war film with him which I hope will some day happen.  I was in South Africa working on a film.  Gary called me which was in the middle of night my time and said that he was going on this film called Hunger Games [2012].  I had never heard of it.  Gary was probably the most excited about it than I had heard of any one director and he had the script emailed to me.  I had to go work in the morning but I read it all night.”  The author of the source material co-wrote the adapted screenplay with the director.  “Suzanne [Collins] was part of the process the entire time so there wasn’t a dichotomy between script and book.  When questions came up in our work about how things were organized or what things should look it we often went back to the book.  In fact we still do.  I’m working on Mockingjay 1 [2014] and 2 [2015]right now so at the end of this I’ve would have done all four Hunger Games films.  I have dog-eared pages of all three books in my office that we’re constantly referring back to try to keep it straight.”

France Lawrence shooting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
“When I found out about the second film Gary was going to direct it and he was the one who asked me back,” recalls Phil Messina.  “When he decided not to do the film it was an odd couple of weeks where Producer Nina Jacobson [Diary of a Wimpy Kid] was persuasive in saying, ‘We want the continuity since we’re bringing in an unknown entity at this point.’ They hadn’t hired a director yet.  I was caught by surprised and they were all reacting in real time.  I was literary reading the movie headlines a couple times a day to see who was in the lead to do our film.  I had not worked with Francis [Lawrence] before nor had any contact with him.  I took our first meeting as if I was interviewing for the job.  If Francis wanted to go in a different direction or it wasn’t going to work out personality wise I would have bowed out.  We had a wonderful connection and he has become a dear friend of mine.”  In comparing the approaches of the two directors, Messina notes, “It will be interesting to see people’s reactions to Catching Fire [2013] because none of us have the benefit of knowing of how Gary would do Catching Fire nor do we know how Francis would do The Hunger Games.  They are chapters of a trilogy that graphically change scope and direction so there is continuity from one to another but each one keeps on opening up a new set of circumstances.  On Mockingjaywe’re starting District 13 which did not exist except for two shots in Catching Fire.  There are still ripples of the work I did in the first film with Gary and certainly with Catching Fire but now we’re on the streets of the capital where we’ve never been before.  We have this civil war happening in the capital.  It has natural breaks.  It’s not like doing the same material with a different person.”

As the man behind the camera changed so did the location of the principle photography.  “The world we live in is based on tax incentives so here we find ourselves in Atlanta which is great,” remarks Phil Messina.  “We recreated certain things that we did in North Carolina but also because we have a different director and material we able to reinterpret some pieces.”  Messina observes, “Atlanta is a bigger city than Charlotte.  It has a little bit more history to it. From the beginning I based a lot of the capital architecture on a 1960s and 1970s Brutalist style and there happens to be a fair amount of that in Atlanta buildings built during the 1970s.  For the capital stuff we’re certainly in a much better place.   Where we shot in Charlotte was appropriate for what we needed to do.  I’m glad to be in Atlanta right now if I have to be anywhere right now besides Los Angeles because there is a fair amount of opportunity here architecturally that serves our story. The film business is nothing but adaptive.   You don’t pine the loss of something.  You look for a new solution.”  European and Asian influences were modified.  The Roman Empire to Nazi Germany to Socialist Russia to Communist China there is a through line of power based on architecture and symbolism.   Suzanne went back to one of the original sources.  I draw from all of that and try to make it our own.  How would it be reinterpreted in an American fashion?  That’s what is unique about our story.”

“There are a lot of different ways you can go,” explains Phil Messina.  “There is the Star Trek, Star Wars and Oblivion [2013] that is high tech futuristic which is an amazing look.  But with ours it was important for it to be accessible and feel like a world that could easily develop in the not so distant future.  Suzanne described this world as having no satellites or Internet.  It’s not so futuristic but a parallel society that would have developed given a different set of circumstances.  That’s what I found interesting in the world.  How do things develop if XYZ?  Those are some of the factors that we’re dealing with every day.”  One of the creative challenges was the building the urban infrastructure.  “I looked at everything from the Roman Empire to Germania which was Hitler’s architectural vision of what Germany would become to Stalin’s vision of what Russia would become.  There’ve been a lot of dreamers and city planners.   Everything from the industrial revolution to the reorganization of Paris to modern cities such as Beijing and Dubai; you take all of it in and try to distil it. Cities don’t grow from one place.  What we tried to bring to it was a visual harmony of a singular idea but also things are built at different times.  It doesn’t all go up in the same five or ten years.  It had developed over a certain amount of time.  In Catching Fire we have more of the capital shown than in Hunger Games but in Mockingjay especially in the second film it is like being on the streets of the capital.  We’re using some locations in Europe, especially in Paris and Berlin.   We tried to use places that felt architecturally relevant to our film and also felt real.  One thing that Francis wanted was to be on real streets; he didn’t want to be on the back lot with fake buildings so we are in a lot of real locations and I find that exciting.”

“Every district has a specific purpose which has a specific resource that serves the capital,” states Phil Messina.  “Katniss [Jennifer Lawrence] is from the mining district which Suzanne wrote as being in the Appalachian Mountains so we naturally drew from the coal mines from West Virginia.  From the beginning we were looking at everything from the 1800s through the 1920s and Depression Era for District 12.  Especially in Catching Fire you see a lot of that.  We have shanty towns, and a black market.  There are also more modern elements.  We weren’t making a period movie.  It’s an amalgam of different times.  They had technology not introduced to them.  It was more withheld from them by the capital.  That’s a different set of circumstances from doing a period film.  Obviously you’re going to look at period references to draw from.”  The production designer drew upon his own childhood.  “For the textile district I grew up in a mill town called Lawrence, Massachusetts which at the turn of the last century was the textile centre of the world.  In Catching Fire when we had to create the textile district for a brief scene I knew exactly where to draw from. The transportation district we used a lot of trains.  Transportation can be anything but we had already designed these cool hovercrafts so we turned it into an airplane hanger where they’re building hovercrafts in.  A mining district was begging to be West Virginia mine.  We were drawing from history where traditionally these materials have come from within the United States.  We tried to stay mostly in the U.S. and not to draw from too many European influences.  We tried to make it American feeling.  Logging and lumber is from the Pacific Northwest.  Suzanne had marked out a map of Panem where each of these resources came from and were based on American history.  It became easy to think of the next step and start creating the visuals for them.”

“The weapons in the games are about show so you have more freedom to design them,” states Phil Messina.  “The weapons in the capital are all business and look much like submachine guns and assault rifles from today with some minor touches.   The weapons didn’t come from any particular reference.  We drew from what their purpose was and they served different purposes.  Katniss’ bow in the first one is something she made with her dad out of wood so it has a certain feeling and look to it.  The weapons for the games are made to entertain so they add more flash. The weapons from the capital are more brute force and they work with the costumes of the peace keepers.”  The control room received an upgrade.  “The general shape and layout stayed similar but the control room has been remodelled because they have to create a different environment with it; that’s actually one of places that feels more like the first movie.”  The arena environment for Catching Fire takes place in a tropical setting.  “In the story they have created a large doomed environment and through a tremendous amount of technology have come to create a jungle that looks like a jungle.  We shot in Hawaii. They take five to ten years to build every arena so they’re already building the next four or five arenas for the future down to every detail.  But what it really comes down to is that we shot in the jungle.  We dressed and tweaked it but it is using technology to create reality so we went directly to the reality part of it.  The first one we shot near Asheville, North Carolina which has a beautiful forest.  The second one Katniss is in a jungle.  It was more complicated because we created the jungle from several different pieces.  We built a large water tank for the centre part of the game. We shot various beaches in Oahu and for the jungle also in Oahu but four or five different places. Talk about world building; it is cobbling locations and sets together sometimes within a sequence of a couple of minutes.”

“Modern filmmaking on this kind of scale you’re going to have a lot of visual effects,” states Phil Messina.  “When I start out I illustrate the major beats of the film with a team of illustrators.  What you try to do in pre-production is to give everybody a roadmap as to what the film will look like. You then design sets based on the illustrations but the scale of what you’re building is based on discussions with the director, visual effects supervisor and DP. With the directors I have worked with they want to have as much real set in every shot as possible and you want to limit the amount of pure CG shots; in Catching Fire they’re done extremely well. The more real elements you have for the actors to act with the more real it is going to feel.  You’re always trying to develop a ratio of real versus set extension versus green screen. For an actor to act in front of a green screen it is tough for them because there’s literally nothing for them to react to and sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not.  Most actors today are used to working with major green screen and CG elements on these kinds of films.”

“By the time you done with jungle you feel like you don’t want to shoot in the jungle again,” notes Phil Messina.  “It’s physically and logistically difficult.  That’s the fun part of the job.  Every film will be hopefully as hard and challenging as the one before.   Fortunately with this series every book has allowed me to do something fairly different with the same material which has been great.”  The tribute parade involving chariots was a pleasant surprise.  “The last one we opted to have at night and this one we had it during the day so it was interesting because it was on paper felt like a similar scene but the way we realized it was different.  Francis wanted to make it his own so the shots were different.  It looks beautiful and the world looks real.  The shot selections were great and it tells a story.”  Messina adds, “I’m proud about the work I did with Gary on the first one and I’m proud of the working I’ve done on Catching Fire with Francis.  I’ve seen Catching Fire several times already and it’s fantastic.  I’m glad to continue to be part of this franchise.”

Production stills and videos courtesy of Lionsgate.

Many thanks to Phil Messina for taking the time for this interview.


Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.