If you are going to watch the new Hunger Games, know that a Kempen son depicted everything. And that sad, soaked Justin Timberlake in Cry Me a River? Also vintage Jo Willems.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) spinning, causing her white wedding dress to ignite into a beautiful black dress with the wings of a mockingbird? The arrow that unexpectedly pierces the heart of rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) instead of that of tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland)? Katniss and Peeta Mellark’s (Josh Hutcherson) kiss?
No idea which scenes from the Hunger Games-movies you remember but when they come out Catching Fire (2013), Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014) or Part 2 (2015) they are directed by Francis Lawrence and lit and filmed by Jo Willems. From Westerlo.
Eight years after Mockingjay the same duo continues the extremely popular science fiction franchise, which has already grossed $2.9 billion, with a prequel. It is again based on a book by Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes revolves around the young Coriolanus Snow (now played by Tom Blyth). He finds it embarrassing that he has to mentor a tribute from the maligned District 12, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), during the Hunger Games. Until it turns out that Lucy is a born entertainer who can effortlessly win over the masses.
‘Many probably think that we want to pass the checkout again. That is not the case,” says Jo Willems. ‘Francis Lawrence, after a lot of thought, thought it was really interesting to do the villain’s story. How did Coriolanus Snow become like this?’
How do you explain the extraordinary success of The Hunger Games?
Jo Willems: It’s not just popcorn. The story has value, tells something important about the resistance of ordinary people against large political systems and totalitarian regimes. Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Julianne Moore wanted to be there and that created respect. And then there was the fantastic Jennifer Lawrence. Thanks to her down to earthgame, the general public recognized themselves in Katniss.
Rachel Zegler, who has already appeared in Spielbergs West Side Story, awaits the thankless task of making Jennifer Lawrence forget. According to director Francis Lawrence, Lucy, her character, is an anti-Katniss: a charmer and entertainer through and through. Have you adapted to that as a cameraman?
Willems: I introduce Rachel with a little more glamour. Even though Jennifer Lawrence also looked very good in certain scenes. During the Hunger Games, Rachel’s character is very vulnerable. Then she’s a little girl who can’t fight. But on stage and when she sings, she is a phenomenon.
The main visual change is that we film from even closer. Sometimes a foot from the actor’s face. Very intimate. We didn’t dare do that before. Francis and I started it on the set of See, our TV series with Jason Momoa. This requires quite a lot of experience and technology, especially when it comes to lighting.
The Hunger Games is science fiction in monumental settings with extravagant characters and costumes. But within that framework you try to make it look as realistic as possible?
Willems: Absolute. That’s kind of my trademark. My heart goes out to authentic stories that I can portray honestly, simply and naturalistically. I grew up with those kinds of movies.
It’s not that Hunger Games may look like a Ken Loach, Mike Leigh or the Dardennes film. I stay away from their harsh and grim realism. They remain great spectacle films. We go for enhanced realism. The images must look good, the lighting has a certain beauty, but we stay far away from Hollywood fakery, from highly overexposed, stylized, glossy science fiction that feels unreal.
Does this make your photography less noticeable?
Willems: I don’t lose sleep over it if someone comments that my work doesn’t look very Hollywood. That’s the purpose. It may be a bit naive, but on set I don’t even think about the fact that there is 100 or 150 million dollars at stake. I don’t feel that pressure and again the artificial as much as possible.
You moved from the Kempen to the Sint-Lukas film school in Brussels, later you exchanged that city for London and London for Hollywood. Which step scared you the most?
Willems: Certainly the one from the Kempen to Sint-Lukas. I’ve been obsessed with movies since I was 12. My father was a film fanatic and together we watched important films: Ingmar Bergman, Italian neorealism and the French nouvelle vague. I was very motivated to study film and yet it felt like a very big and difficult step to move to Brussels as a young guest.
Did you excel at Sint-Lukas?
Willems: I wasn’t the crack. I was probably the last person from whom much was expected. But I have a huge work ethic and can work well with directors.
Today, a talented Belgian DP, a director of photography, can practice his profession relatively quickly. In the past, you stayed in the waiting room for years. In the early 1990s, barely five or six films were shown per year in Belgium. I was 22. The permanent DPs were forty, fifty years old. I would have to play assistant for twenty years before I could be a DP. To avoid that I moved to London. After a course at the London Film School, I worked there for two years as an electro (who, together with the lighting director and camera people, ensures that the lighting is good, ed.). My great fortune was that I started making music videos with director David Slade. By the way, we still work together.
You shot clips for Tori Amos, Kylie Minogue and System of a Down, among others. Which video do you remember best?
Willems: I enjoyed it the most Clubbed to Death by Rob Dougan and Mr. Writer from Stereophonics. I would The Hunger Games would never have been able to cope without the experience I gained there. I also really love music. Playing a clip puts you in direct contact with the band. That’s wonderful. I once shot a video with Prince, for Musicology. It’s a great feeling to get a close-up of Prince, to work with such a great artist in a very concrete, very ordinary way.
Do you have Hunger GamesDid you also get to know director Francis Lawrence through those clips?
Willems: David’s music videos – we have shown dozens of them – enjoyed quite a lot of respect in the world. Francis also directed clips and asked me to do so several times. Our second music video, Cry Me a River by Justin Timberlake, has given me years of work. I still get compliments for it. Francis had a different idea for the look but I opted for dramatic naturalism there too.
The intense collaboration with him only started years later. I worked with David on the fantasy cop series Awake and Francis also worked for Fox on a series. We started talking again. He found my work on the science fiction film Limitless by Neil Burger, with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, very well and suggested they work together on feature films. He hasn’t done anything without me since. A career also needs a bit of luck.
You have to seize the opportunities you get.
Willems: Beats. I followed David to LA. We made a feature film together that was immediately noticed, Hard Candy (cult film from 2005 with Elliot Page as a fourteen-year-old who tortures a rapist, ed.). But with every step up you have to prove that you can keep up. If you don’t do your job well, you won’t be asked back. The competition is fierce.
With Lawrence you filmed next to four Hunger Games also the underrated spy thriller Red Sparrowwith Jennifer Lawrence and Matthias Schoenaerts, and a film (Slumberland) and a series (See) with Jason Momoa. What makes the two of you visit each other again and again?
Willems: We both prefer authentic to artificial, we have the same taste and know exactly what we have in each other. He completely entrusts the lighting to me, I trust him with the placement of the camera. I hardly ever use artificial light outside anymore and I monitor the flow. I make sure we can handle very long takes. We have good synergy and an efficient system.
Even without Lawrence you’re going along pretty well. You filmed Tom Hanks in the post-apocalyptic for Apple TV+ Finch, about an old man who teaches his robot to care for his dog. The horror thriller HisHouse, picked up by Netflix, was about a Sudanese couple in a shack in an English slum, like a mash-up of Ken Loach and Wes Craven. Your palette is broad.
Willems: Finch is science fiction but I suggested to view it as a family film and keep it naturalistic, simple and observational. And Tom Hanks turned out to be a saint.
HisHouse was a different story: a much smaller project by a debutant, Remi Weekes. It was important to me not to overwhelm him with all my experience. First listen carefully to the director, that is my approach. Let people have their own voice, you can always make adjustments later.
How do you choose what you do?
Willems: Early in your career, you take what you can get. No matter how young I still feel, I am now 52. I am calmer but also more picky. I don’t want to make any more films that I don’t support. Even if it costs a fortune to send my daughter to college in New York. I’m not going to mention any names or titles, but I’ve said no to popcorn movies many times. It may be entertainment but it must be valuable. As The Hunger Games. In HisHouse I was immediately interested because of the problems of refugees and the social impact.
Can Flemish directors also come knocking?
Willems: Sure. I follow Belgian films with an international reach. Close and The eight mountains I thought it was very good. But I wouldn’t know what Belgium thinks about me. I never worked there either. Unless you count that I was Marc Didden’s personal assistant at Men make plans. Or that short film that I directed in my Westerlo with Gene Bervoets and Dominique Deruddere as actors. I discovered that directing is not for me and I focused everything on film photography.
Final question: do you, like almost every first-generation migrant, dream of returning to your country of origin? Will the Kempen see you again or is Los Angeles too sunny?
Willems: I don’t think LA is our final destination. Even though I have lived here for 23 years and we are doing well here, we sometimes think about returning to Europe. But I don’t think Belgium will fit into the plans. My wife is from Ireland. My daughters don’t speak Dutch. Sometimes I think that’s a shame.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
In cinemas from 15.11.
Born and raised in Westerlo, but has lived in Los Angeles for 23 years.
Did the camera work for music videos by Prince, Justin Timberlake, Tori Amos, Kylie Minogue, System of a Down and Stereophonics.
Hard Candy (2005) by David Slade was the first feature film on his resume.
Camera operator of four out of five Hunger Games-movies.
Was standing of Hunger Gamesdirector Francis Lawrence also behind the camera on Red Sparrow (2018) with Jennifer Lawrence and Slumberland (2022) with Jason Momoa.