Hunger Games: Training
Much like the Tributes they portray, the young cast of the film had to immediately jump into the most intensive training of their lives to prepare for the highly physical action of the Hunger Games. They beefed up, leaned out and dialed in their skills via a comprehensive but crash-bang, 8-week training program just before production began. Most of all, they immersed themselves into the psychological situations faced by their characters, who each must use everything they’ve got – body, mind and soul – if they have any hope of beating the remote odds against them all.
“We had to take a cast, most of whom had no previous action experience, and turn them into stunt people capable of firing bows, throwing spears and climbing trees,” explains Gary Ross. “There was a massive training component to making it all real. In the end, we only rarely used stunt doubles.”
Stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and Allan Poppleton began by teaching combat choreography to the cast – with a twist. “The interesting part is that Gary really didn’t want the action to feel choreographed so we tried to create a more spontaneous feeling of wild, emotional struggle,” explains Stahelski. “We looked at each character and talked about their skills, their energy levels, the way they move and working with all of those elements, ran with the action sequences from there.”
Meanwhile, stunt trainer Logan Hood set up a gym program with an emphasis on functional fitness – using everything from free weights to pushups and pull-ups to rope climbs and high box jumps – with each actor given a custom training program specific to their character. The training also included elements of “free running,” the newfangled sport of urban gymnastics, featuring free-form, creative acrobatic moves over all kinds of obstacles.
“The training had to transfer directly to their characters’ personalities and backgrounds,” explains Hood. “We weren’t interested so much in creating ‘gym bodies’ as in creating seamless, believable performances for each of the Tributes.”
Though Jennifer Lawrence is naturally athletic, she says she worked hard at trying to bring out Katniss’ grace under fire. “Since half the movie for me is running, I worked extensively with a running coach. All day long I was running down mountains, through sticks and brush, and doing it over and over again,” she explains. “I also worked a lot on climbing, both at rock gyms and on real trees, as well as on vault stunts and even more on archery. The training was really rough, but also really fun.”
The Zen focus of archery was challenging for Lawrence to master – as she learned to use both an old school hunting bow and the futuristic “recurve” bow, a twist on current Olympic bows, used in the Games — but very rewarding when she did. “Archery is a real mind game, all about total focus,” she says, “and if you do one thing wrong, you get whipped with a string going like a hundred miles an hour and it’s painful! I developed a real love-hate relationship with it. Ultimately, the bow became my friend.”
As part of her stunt work in the woods, Lawrence also had to confront a wall of fire created by Special Effects Set Foreman Brandon McLaughlin and Special Effects Coordinator Steve Cremin who built steel trees to withstand a forest blaze that was later enhanced by Visual Effects Supervisor Sheena Duggal. Says McLaughlin: “Gary’s idea was to keep everything real as possible. So instead of a ten-foot fireball that defies reality, he wanted a six-foot fireball moving at Katniss in a way that you really feel it.”
By the time production was underway, Lawrence was ready for whatever Katniss would face. “Jennifer was up for anything, bringing a great attitude to the training,” recalls Robin Bissell. “Every day she would drive out to UCLA to train then head to the Valley for stunt training, then off to rock climbing and then to Santa Monica for lessons with an Olympic archer. She worked really, really hard and by the time we were filming, she had an amazing acumen for all of Katniss’ skills.”
Though he’s been involved in sports since he was a little kid, Josh Hutcherson had to put on 15 pounds of muscle for the role of Peeta. “I had to eat a lot of food and work out hard five days a week, with a lot of heavy weightlifting,” he explains. “The training was rigorous but it worked. And I loved doing all the running, jumping and evading people.
Hood adds: “We had Josh eating a ton and doing a crash program of heavy push and pull exercises. We had such a short lead time, but he jumped right into it.”
The muscle building was one thing, but finding the competitive edge necessary for the Games was something else again. “We had to learn to go from hanging out with your fellow actors to finding all kinds of fear and aggression against them. It was a very drastic transition every day, but we had amazing actors who brought that out physically,” says Hutcherson.
Alexander Ludwig especially had his work cut out for him as the ferocious Cato. “The fight training was extremely intense,” Ludwig admits. “I trained and trained and trained because I really wanted to be skilled the way Cato is. It was a great experience because I got to learn a lot of cool stuff, diving over things, doing flips, and more. I wanted to incorporate it all in the film, because I didn’t want to let any of what we learned go to waste.”
Dayo Okeniyi also had to do a lot of training to play Thresh. “I had to gain about 20 pounds so I went on a rigorous protein diet, did bodybuilding exercises, trained with swords, trained with boxing, and trained hand-to-hand combat for two months. But I love that stuff, so it was awesome.”
The entire cast was awed to see the results of their work ethic. “We were doing a lot of fun things like somersault rolls, balance boards, jumping on high blocks and obstacle courses,” recalls Jacqueline Emerson who plays Foxface. “But suddenly, you realize you’ve built all kinds of strength and stamina.”
Like the Tributes, the cast also had to endure the mercurial threats of shooting in the deep woods, which ranged from extreme weather to wild bears – not a complete surprise, given they were shooting in an area of North Carolina known for having the highest black bear density in the United States. “At times, if felt like we were all participating in the Games,” remarks Jon Kilik. “We were literally confronting snakes, bears and lightning and that is something you feel on the screen.”
“It was brutal at times,” Jack Quaid admits. “We had torrential downpours, flooding, scorching heat and then a bear would wander onto the set. But it was an amazing bonding experience. For most of us, this is either our first or second movie, and here we were flung into this crazy world. We definitely all had a great story to tell about what we did on our summer vacation.”
In the end, Ross wanted that heady mix of Katniss’ exhilaration, adrenaline, mortal fear and moral dilemmas to transfer directly to the audience as the characters battle to survive. He knew there could be no holding back from the character’s raw emotions and tough decisions. “The beauty of what Suzanne did in the book was to always be honorable and never exploitative,” sums up Nina Jacobson. “She achieved that so deftly and Gary set out to keep that part of THE HUNGER GAMES’ legacy.”
For Suzanne Collins, that legacy is most of all about provoking young minds to think about the direction of the world’s future. As she told The New York Times about her hopes for THE HUNGER GAMES’ impact: “It’s crucial that young readers are considering scenarios about humanity’s future, because the challenges are about to land in their laps. I hope they question how elements of the books might be relevant in their own lives. About global warming, about our mistreatment of the environment, but also questions like: How do you feel about the fact that some people take their next meal for granted when so many other people are starving in the world? What do you think about choices your government, past and present, or other governments around the world make? What’s your relationship to reality TV versus your relationship to the news? Was there anything in the book that disturbed you because it reflected aspects of your own life, and if there was, what can you do about it? Because you know what? Even if they’re not of your making, these issues and how to deal with them will become your responsibility.”
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