Director Francis Lawrence unpacks Lucy Gray’s big arena performance. Plus, music producer Dave Cobb breaks down the film’s “dystopian Appalachia” sound.
Warning: This post contains spoilers from the 10th annual Hunger Games.
Francis Lawrence remembers it well: On the very first day of filming his ambitious Hunger Games prequel Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, in the historical Centennial Hall in Wrocław, Poland surrounded by rubble and pretend dead bodies, his female lead Rachel Zegler reduced some of the cast and crew to tears with her powerhouse pipes.
The West Side Story star is singing a live rendition — as with all of her musical moments in the film — of a ballad called “The Old Therebefore" during a climactic moment. As District 12 female tribute Lucy Gray Baird, a member of the musical Covey nomads and mentee of teenage Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), she’s just become victor of the 10th annual Hunger Games; hundreds of colorful snake mutations created by wicked gamemaker Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis) are now closing in as her voice reaches a crescendo.
“That’s the first song she sang in the filming of the movie,” Lawrence tells EW. “The sound of her solo voice in that big cement space was pretty incredible. It gave everybody chills. Some people were even tearing up.”
It didn't come without some challenges. “Because it does get pretty big, that was the only time where we couldn't do take after take,” the director shares. “Usually singing for [Zegler] is super easy and she's happy to do it, but there was only so much she could do without blowing her voice. So, we had to be careful there. It was a big [moment] because the musical element of this movie is one of the biggest differences from the other movies.” However, “it's not a musical,” Lawrence notes, “so it was finding the right balance of that.”
Lawrence re-teamed with franchise composer James Newton Howard for the wistful scores, and brought in Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb (Elvis, Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born) to bring the ballads to the screen. Cobb — along with the book's author, Suzanne Collins (a country music aficionado and former country music DJ, by the way) — mined from Appalachian-style country music from the 1920s and ‘30s to correspond with District 12’s geography, believed to be around West Virginia. Mother Maybelle of the Carter Family, as well as Patsy Cline and early Dolly Parton, were among the influences for Lucy Gray’s sound.
There were other unexpected influences, too. “There’s a little bit of the Smiths,” Cobb tells EW. “‘Pure as the Driven Snow’ could have been a Smiths melody, in a way. It needed a little bit of a twist. I didn’t want to make it completely period [piece]. There's very much an anchor in history, but there's also a little nod to a bit of ‘80s music as well.”
Cobb was tapped to create the music before the film had even been made. But he notes there were no creative challenges there, citing Collins’ razor-sharp vision. “I’m a history buff, and Suzanne is 10 times the history buff that I am,” he says. “When you talk to her [about Hunger Games mythology], it’s so deep. There’s so many layers. These lyrics are taken from so much knowledge of old country Appalachian, British Isles music. She’s very well versed [on the history].”
Working with “genius” Zegler, Cobb adds, made this particular gig really easy. “It was effortless and fun,” he says. “She didn’t need a lot of coaching. She kind of coached us.”
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is in theaters now. You can buy Entertainment Weekly's The Ultimate Guide to The Hunger Games here or on newsstands.
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