Last March, when we asked film producer and University of Vermont alumnus Jon Kilik about his next project, an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling young-adult novel The Hunger Games, he described it as a modestly budgeted movie that might draw some attention.
That’s one way of putting it. Since then, PR for the $75 million Lionsgate film has come fast and furious, as have online reactions to it. When fans of Collins’ dystopian trilogy weren’t griping publicly about the ethnic composition of the cast (was Jennifer Lawrence “too white” to play the heroine?), they were gushing over the successive teaser trailers. In February, a parody mashup of the trailer with Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” went viral. Tabloids insisted that the stars of The Hunger Games were already feuding with their Twilight box-office rivals.
And this is before anyone has seen the movie: “We’ve done our best to keep it under wraps,” Kilik says. All the hype could be warranted, though; as the film’s March 23 release approaches, fans are snapping up midnight-screening tickets. Co-owner Merrill Jarvis says he’s already sold out some shows at the Majestic 10.
Kilik himself will be back in Vermont that weekend — first to take questions at a benefit screening at the Majestic, then to lecture at UVM’s Davis Center. We caught up with him for a phone interview before he embarked on his press junket.
SEVEN DAYS: In the past you’ve produced a lot of what the industry calls “specialty” or art-house films [including Babel, Do the Right Thing, Biutiful and 25th Hour]. How was this different?
JON KILIK: The approach I take to every film is: Respect the film. That is, to respect the underlying material and to make the absolute best movie possible. As far as the commercial success, I can’t be too responsible for that; those are really marketing issues and issues of taste. I choose material that I connect with.
SD: Adapting a popular series, you have to deal with fan expectations.
JK: It comes with responsibility, when you deal with a book that has sold millions and millions of copies around the world... Probably everybody has a different image in their head. You can’t satisfy everybody’s. You have to stay true to the core values and ideals and the tone of it.
SD: You’ve made films with political themes [such as last year’s Miral, about a young Palestinian who becomes radicalized], and some readers see them in Collins’ books, as well. [Lawrence’s character, Katniss Everdeen, competes in televised gladiatorial combat at the will of an imperial ruling class; the name of her homeland, Panem, is a play on the old Roman formula of keeping the people docile with “bread and circuses.”] Does that aspect come into the film?
JK: That’s one of the reasons I was so excited about doing it. For me, it’s not strictly science fiction; it’s an allegory for our world today. It’s something we can all relate to, not so distant from the world and the future that especially young people today face. Farcical politics, a crumbling economy, an increasingly soulless culture ... A lot of kids feel that those in power can’t be trusted. That’s what the kids in the story are going through, and yet they still harbor hope.
SD: What made director Gary Ross [whose first feature, Pleasantville, Kilik also produced] a good choice for The Hunger Games? He hasn’t been known for action-oriented movies.
JK: I don’t really think of the movie as an action film. It’s really about people. It’s a very personal journey; that’s how the book reads. Gary as a writer has done that extremely well with scripts like Big and Pleasantville: alternate universes where the world is kind of turned on its head, anchored in believable reality. That’s what he did very successfully here, as well. You always have to believe the truth in this, even if the concept reads far-fetched.
Screening of The Hunger Games with Jon Kilik and UVM professor emeritus Frank Manchel, Sunday, March 25, 4 p.m. at the Majestic 10, Williston. $20; proceeds donated to the UVM Film and Television Studies Program in honor of Lucille Jarvis. Tickets available at the Majestic and Roxy box offices or uvmtickets.com.
Kilik will also speak (without a screening) on Monday, March 26, 7 p.m. in the Grand Maple Ballroom of the Davis Center, UVM, Burlington. Free.