An Inside Look at The Hunger Games

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Megan Hayes as the Morphling from District 6 and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta in Hunger Games: Catching Fire, image via Lionsgate

Just before the first Hunger Games movie was released in 2012, I had a chance to participate in a conference call with series executive producer Nina Jacobson. At the time, the future of the series was uncertain and Jacobson didn’t even have a go-ahead for a sequel.

At the time, Jacobson said, “Anybody who underestimates the power of girls in the marketplaces does so at their peril.”

Her words proved prophetic as the movies have gone onto to be one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises. The third movie, Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, was released earlier this month. Even more impressive is that the book-to-movie translation has managed to keep the dark nature of Suzanne Collins’s dystopian future intact. This isn’t an action-adventure franchise, it’s a scathing look at a possible future for America.

Megan Hayes, image courtesy Megan Hayes

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Megan Hayes, who played the female tribune from District 6, the Morphling who sacrifices herself for Peeta in the Quarter Quell as depicted in Hunger Games: Catching Fire. We talked about how the movies are made, the various setting, including a parking lot, her views on the story, and some of her other geeky projects.

My favorite anecdote had to be the filming of the sequence where the Morphling dies in Peeta’s arms in the ocean. To my surprise, this footage was actually shot in the Pacific Ocean, off Hawaii, and not on a soundstage in more controlled conditions. The entire Morphling sequence used three outdoor sets: a jungle in Hawaii, the lake in Georgia that held the cornicopia, and the Pacific Ocean off Oahu.

It was the ocean sequence where the Morphling is present but unmoving that was the trickiest for Hayes.

“We were on ‘standy,’ which means you need to stay in the scene and I was laying ‘dying’ in his [Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta] arms, and so we’re waiting and waiting and he leans over and started singing the Jaws theme song in my head.”

She laughed and called Hutcherson “super-sweet” a word she also used to describe the entire cast and crew, up to director Francis Lawrence.

Megan had read the books before she auditioned for the role and instantly became engrossed the series. “It’s such a great read and with a female main character. She’s not worried about men all the time, she has other things on her plate. She feels responsible for her family members and for others in the games.”

The Morphlings in Hunger Games, Catching Fire, image via Lionsgate

She noted that the films and books are clear that all the victors in the books suffer from PTSD, including her District 6 Tribune.

“I named her, Deirdre, and I added backstory, as actors usually do and I’m also a writer, so it’s my favorite thing to do with characters. District 6 didn’t know what to do with her after the games, so they drugged her to calm her down and she became addicted. What I found really fascinating about her is that she had a very physical presence, not a verbal one.”

Megan said this was one of the reasons she enjoyed the role because it was something that she’d never done before. The audition for the part, she said, was unusual.

“I had to walk into this tiny room in a warehouse and they said ‘you get attacked by a monkey and die,'” she said. “I kept doing it over and over as they redirected me.”

Megan said Lawrence, the director, was so “warm and kind” at the audition but it was all over in five minutes. Later, when her climatic scene was to be attacked by a CGI monkey and die, it was perfect practice.

“I get attacked by a monkey and die,” she laughed. The monkeys were entirely CGI, though the setting around them was real, so she didn’t see the full sequence until the move was finished. “We had two cardboard cutouts of monkeys on set that they sometimes moved into position but that was it.”

She was cast for two months before she was allowed to announce it publicly and also had to lose weight for the part, since the Morphling is an emaciated drug addict. Her friends became concerned, she said, so she told them she was losing weight to play a role in an independent film.

The first day of filming featured that parking garage. “On my first day of filming, I drove into a parking garage in Georgia, and then I found out we were going to another parking deck to film.” They’d remade the deck into the training center where Katniss, Peeta and the other tribunes get ready for the games.”

I was surprised at how much of the movie wasn’t CGI. The monkeys obviously were, as some of the training sequences, but one of the tentpole sequences in the film, with all the tribunes gathered on stage and holding hands on the eve of the Quarter Quell, was almost entirely real.

“We were on a set for that, with a full audience and nearly the entire cast,” she said. “We also shot the whole Mockingjay dress sequence but, on that part, all we did was see her spin. We couldn’t wait to see what that looked like with CGI.”

Her make-up was also entirely real and took about three hours to fully apply, but she felt lucky in that most of her sequences were filmed in the afternoon and she didn’t have to be ready to go until 1 p.m.

“They painted me to match a banyan tree, a real tree in that area of Hawaii,” she said.

Acting in the movie gave her an even deeper appreciation for the books, especially the way the emotionally damaged tribunes are portrayed. Hayes has some personal experience with mental illness. Her late father struggled with schizophrenia, which she called “heartbreaking” and she wants to draw as much attention to the needs of the mentally ill as possible.

“It’s important to talk about this so it’s not this dark, hidden secret,” she said. “My dad is passed now and I think he’d have wanted me to talk about it.” She said it’s still difficult on some days but it’s all about “moving forward.”

Hayes is also involved in Blessings in a Backpack, which provides elementary schoolchildren who are on the federal Free and Reduced Price Meal Program with a backpack of food to take home for 38 weekends during the school year, according to their website, and is an official ambassador for Planet.Eco, an organization connecting people, communities and other organizations to work collaboratively to advance the sustainability of the planet.

Hayes has voice work, acting and screenplays to her resume. When I asked what she’d liked to do next or as a career, she noted that this is the new Golden Age of Television, where the possibilities for writers and actors seem limitless thanks to new outlets like Netflix and YouTube. But her ultimate dream job is to become a series regular on a well-done television show, where she can take her character through a long journey over the course of the show.

And, she said, “I’d love to write.”

In the mean time, Hunger Games: Catching Fire is available on DVD and Blu-Ray and Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

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