The average person usually has no idea who is actually running the film studios and production companies and making the big decisions on what movies we will all ultimately get the chance to see or not see. So chances are that not many of you are familiar with the name Nina Jacobson. But you are familiar with her executive finger prints. While running development at Disney, Jacobson was responsible for The Sixth Sense, The Princess Diaries, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, just to name a few. In 2005, Forbes Magazine named Jacobson one of the “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.” When a regime change ousted her from Disney, Jacobson finally ventured out on her own, starting the production company Color Force. Her first project as a producer was an adaptation of the wildly popular children’s book Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Now she’s following that up with another youth-skewing book adaptation, a little something called The Hunger Games.
Josh Miller: How hard did you have to work to get the rights to Hunger Games? Was that already a hot commodity when you came across it or did you sneak in before people really realized it could be something big?
Nina Jacobson: I would say both. On the one hand, there were other producers competing for it, Bryan [Unkeless, co-producer] read it, gave it to me, and he was passionate about it, I fell in love with it — we were dogged in pursuing it. We were ultimately able to win over [author] Suzanne Collins and convince her that we were the right people for it. Then when we went to buyers, some people passed, some people jumped on it. The book had sold about a hundred thousand, a hundred and fifty thousand copies at the time that we were first reading it – which is really good for a [young adult] book – but it hadn’t snowballed into what it has obviously become, at all. It was still just a really good YA book.
Josh: I imagine the book being popular, or at least semi-popular at the time, I imagine that helped do some of the work for you, but how did you go about getting people excited about throwing a ton of money into a movie about kids running around murdering each other?
Jacobson: The truth is that at a hundred and fifty thousand copies, that’s not nearly enough to constitute a moviegoing audience — and to their credit, Lionsgate was very committed to it as a movie, even when it wasn’t the big publishing juggernaut that it is now. It’s a page turner. It is an incredibly compelling story and you are so invested in Katniss and her experience. It is rare to come across something that is this special, and that grabs your attention and that you think about it and that provokes conversation — you want to be inside that character’s head and you want to stay there. It is just rare to find anything that stands out that much. So I would say we sold it on the merits of the book, and how good the book was, and how compelling it was, and the belief that a great story is a great story.
Josh: You say Lionsgate was on board with the book, but was there ever any pressure, possibly even within your own camp, to tone things down for the movie?
Jacobson: No. I think it would do injustice to the book to tone it down, because it would make it more palatable. And it shouldn’t be more palatable. It should be hard to take, hard to accept, it should be provocative of a conversation. So I think we were all aligned from the beginning, and that was why we chose Lionsgate. Because they were on board right away. It should be faithful, it shouldn’t be exploitative or sensationalistic. It shouldn’t go beyond the book in anyway in terms of violence. But it needed to be true to the premise.
Josh: How far along was it in you development process that Gary Ross came on? And how did he convince you he was the right guy to direct?
Jacobson: Our first draft of the script was Suzanne Collins. And then we did the subsequent draft with her input and Billy Ray writing, and then we went out with the script to directors. Gary actually came to London while I was making another movie there, called One Day, and he flew out there – pretending he was there for Wimbledon – and pitched his thoughts and ideas. He really understood the book from the beginning, the core material. He felt plugged in, to what the books were really about, what the characters are really about, why it was so resonant with young people — because he has two teenage kids. And the fact that he’s such a character-based storyteller — that always felt like the most important thing to get right, to have this story come from the characters and not just have the story happen to them.
Josh: I won’t ask you to name names, but were there any directors you went out to who got scared off by the premise?
Jacobson: No. Well, I mean, if they were scared they probably wouldn’t tell us that. They’d just pass. It is sort of a self-selecting process.
Josh: I feel like I need to ask something about Jennifer Lawrence, even though so much has already been written about her casting. If you had to boil it down to one detail, what was it about her that convinced you she was the one to play Katniss?
Jacobson: When we first talked about the part she was the one who pointed out that Katniss’ fierceness comes from a place of nurturing, that she’s trying to protect her sister. She’s not fierce because she’s a feisty action hero who’s just going to go out there and kick some ass, taking names. She’s fierce because she has to be, because she’s trying to survive. This nurturing fierceness is what stood out about Jennifer and what she was capable of bringing to the character.
Josh: I don’t want to jinx anything –
I knock on the wooden coffee table.
Jacobson: Oh god, yes.
Jacobson knocks on it as well.
Josh: But I think many people are considering this film’s success a foregone conclusion. Is it still wait and see for you on the sequel?
Jacobson: We’re working on the screenplay. We’re hoping we’re going to make it – knock wood – and we’re doing early prep work to see what it will take to make the release date that’s been announced. Certainly Lionsgate would like it to all work out. Thanksgiving 2013. That’s our target. And we’re figuring out what we need to do to meet it.
There you have it. The Hunger Games opens March 23rd.