Over the last five years, Francis Lawrence has made a total of four films with Jennifer Lawrence, including three installments of the blockbuster Hunger Games series. Their first collaboration outside that franchise is Red Sparrow, a new espionage thriller in which the latter Lawrence plays Dominika, a Russian ballerina-turned-secret-agent (aka “Sparrow”) who is schooled in the art of seduction.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow is the raciest film either Lawrence has made, showcasing scenes of frank sexuality (not to mention disturbing moments of sexual violence) that represent a sharp departure from the teen-friendly dystopian romance depicted in Hunger Games. And yet with its story of young people forced to sacrifice their bodies in service to an authoritarian regime, it trods some of the same thematic ground.
In advance of the film’s March 2 release, Boxoffice spoke with Lawrence about thematic similarities to Hunger Games, how they dealt with on-set nudity, and why those Black Widow comparisons being bandied about are reductive.
The trailer was released earlier this month and a lot of the reaction online was, “Ooh, it’s like a Black Widow movie!” What would you say to people who are making those comparisons?
One of the reasons I wanted to do it is that I think the movie’s actually quite unique. But people like to put things in boxes, right? They want to say, “Oh, it’s like Atomic Blonde because it’s a female spy and she’s blonde.” And they want to say it’s like Black Widow because it’s a ballerina-turned-assassin of some kind. And I just think that it’s much more complex and much more unique than that, and I think it really stands on its own.
Can you talk a bit about how the project came to you? I know a couple of other directors were circling it previously.
You know, I don’t know what happened with the other directors. I didn’t really know about the other directors circling until I was developing it. But it came to me from the studio. The studio sent me the book. I read it—I was promoting, I think, Mockingjay Part 1 at the time—and I really liked it and thought it was really cinematic, and I really liked the sort of personal story within it. I think it’s very rare for a spy film to have such a personal story. They tend to be more mission oriented, or tech and action oriented. And I really loved the tone of it, and I pitched it to Jen. And she liked the idea of it, hypothetically. And so I pitched my take to Fox, and we started developing it, and went from there.
You mentioned the Hunger Games films, which were aimed at YA fans of the book series. And this is really an unabashedly adult movie with much more explicit depictions of violence and sex. Was there ever pressure from the studio to make it less explicit?
No, never. Part of my initial discussion with the president of the studio was talking about the tone. And, you know, they’d had success with certain kinds of movies. With Logan and with Gone Girl and with Deadpool and things like that. So I sort of lucked into a studio that was kind of willing to experiment and try to push what their movies are doing. And so they were on board from the beginning and never wavered.
There are a lot of really disturbing, upsetting scenes Jennifer has to play. How do you deal with those on set while you’re filming?
Part of that was really making sure that the two of us worked together, and with the writer, in crafting the story in a way where the violence and sexuality and nudity all made sense thematically. Because our intention was never to titillate. It was always for it to be thematically embedded in the movie and to work narratively.
And then I also did a lot—because she had never really gone into this territory before—I did a lot of just talking to her about what it was gonna be like on the day. And I wanted to be very, very clear about what our process would be, in terms of privacy, who would be on set, who would see the monitors, what happens to dailies, so she was very educated in that.
So we did a lot of talking about it, and then our first or second day of shooting, it was very early, we did the scene where she attacks this couple in a steam room. It was a violent scene, but she actually got to see other people spend a day with their clothes off. See how the crew reacted, see how we approached it all in terms of the privacy, see how at ease the other actors were. And I think that gave her a lot of confidence.
But the other thing was, I promised her from the beginning that if she didn’t want to do anything, she didn’t have to do it. And she could look at it before anybody else would look at it. And if she didn’t want it in, it wasn’t going in. So she had the control.
I was watching the ballet scenes early in the film, and you see Jennifer en pointe, doing these major ballet moves. How much of what we see is Jennifer, how much of that is a double, and how much of that is special effects?
It’s kind of a combo of all of it. Jen trained for three months with this ballet teacher, but it became very clear to me—and this is nothing about Jennifer—but she was never gonna get en pointe. I mean, when you train for three months and you’ve never danced before, it’s dangerous. But she learned the choreography, right? And she got in shape, so she had the carriage and the walk of a ballerina and learned how to stand and move and stretch like one.
And she learned the routine, so that basically whatever we shot with [actor and dancer] Sergei [Polunin] and [dance double] Isabella [Boylston], Jen would then go out with Sergei and do the same thing. And so we had basically double footage for every moment and angle through that whole ballet sequence. And then using visual effects, we sort of married the two together. So there are a few moments where it’s really Jen. Most of it is Isabella with effects of Jen’s routine sort of laid on top of it.
This movie feels timely, in the sense of everything that’s going on in the news, with talk of the Russian government purposely influencing the U.S. election. Obviously I know this is fiction, but it certainly doesn’t put the Russian government in a flattering light. Did you think a lot about how this would play now that we live in the world that we live in?
It’s a weird coincidence, because when we started this movie, we started it because we all fell in love with the character and the world and the journey. But honestly, we had some conversations about how there are elements of the world that don’t feel very relevant. Right? We’re like, “Cold War? Hmm, well, it doesn’t really matter, it’s sort of a deep layer. We love the character and the story, so let’s keep going.”
And then as we started developing, and then started shooting, and everything started to come out, it was just amazing how every day in the news it was stuff that mirrored elements of our world. And so it’s purely coincidence that the movie is much more relevant now; we’re not making it in reaction to what’s happening in the world. But it’s just been interesting to sort of watch, and to see how people react to it now. Because I’m sure we would have been dinged by some as doing something that feels outdated in terms of the Cold War had these things in our political system not happened.