Revisiting Panem, the dystopian country in which The Hunger Games novels and movies are set, in prequel film The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes offered director Francis Lawrence an opportunity to present the world through a new lens. Set 64 years before those earlier works, the new film (based on a 2020 novel of the same name) showcases the familiar country just 10 years post-war—the thriving political Capitol, 12 outlying districts. As part of reconstruction, the Capitol has introduced the series' titular competition.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes follows future Panem president Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), who is assigned to mentor District 12 tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler) in the 10th annual Hunger Games. Coriolanus, portrayed in the original series by Donald Sutherland, comes into his villainy over the course of this entry. Lawrence, who directed several prior films in the franchise, wanted to ensure the action in the ornate Capitol and gritty District 12 felt grounded. To do that, he used real locations in Germany and Poland, including Berlin, Wroclaw, Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Leipzig, as well as natural areas in southwest Poland.
“I didn't want to be in giant green screen and blue screen environments and to be doing everything digitally,” Lawrence says. “It’s not as immersive for the actors or the crew and I wanted to root everything in reality.”
Here Lawrence discusses where some of the pivotal scenes were shot and how it compares to the Panem fans already know.
Did you use any locations you had used on the previous Hunger Games films?
We did shoot a little bit of the Mockingjay movies in Berlin and there was one building that we shared with this film, but we used different rooms. Having been there on the Mockingjay movies, I had certain places in my head and then we started working with Uli Hanisch, the production designer, who is Berlin-based. When we started research where we thought we could find the places we needed, we discovered that Berlin had the perfect things.
How much of the film is locations and how much is set builds?
99 percent is [real]. We built the Snow apartment. We shot in it a few times, so we had a pristine version for the end of the movie and more dilapidated versions. We also built an exterior set, which was the zoo where the tributes are held.
That wasn’t a real zoo?
It was not! We shot it in [Britzer Garten], a park in Berlin. We found this great roundabout that was part of a little road and we took it over and fenced it all in and made a backing. It fully looked like an old animal enclosure. It felt so real. Most of, if not all of, the cast thought it was actually part of a former zoo. They thought we had lucked out and found this old abandoned zoo.
Why was Berlin right for what the Capitol looks like during this particular era in Panem’s history?
The story is a period piece [in relation] to the other films. It’s not long after the wars that created everything about [the society in] these books and movies. We knew the Capitol was in a reconstruction phase, so we looked at the reconstruction era of Berlin from the mid-1940s after World War II to the early 1950s. How long did it take to rebuild the classic buildings and to start to erect new buildings? What was the look and feel of that? The technology in the story is still somewhat rudimentary. We also looked at that era for car design, hair, makeup, and wardrobe.
Which locations did you use in Berlin?
We shot the front of the Altes Museum on Museum Island for Heavensbee Hall and Bärensaal in Berlin, as well as Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig, for the interior.We used another, more modern, museum for the front of the War Department. We shot the exterior of the Olympic Stadium as the outside of the arena. Some of the interiors would be tougher for people to visit, but the Capitol classroom was filmed in an old medical facility that’s now a museum, [Tieranatomisches Theater].
Was the interior of the War Department a real place?
It was a crematorium. It’s a really beautiful building and a fantastic architectural piece. It’s in the middle of a graveyard. It has a really big space and then these smaller chapels where loved ones can gather, which is where we shot. They let us take over the place and turn it into Head Gamemaker Dr. Gaul’s lab.
Where did you film the command center for the Hunger Games?
That’s right next to the Olympic Stadium—it’s part of the original Olympic Park from the 1930s. The room was used for fencing during the Olympics, but it’s now primarily used for gymnastics. It’s where they train. But they let us use it and we transformed it into our auditorium. When we looked at the reconstruction era of the ‘40s and ‘50s, we also looked at the technology of the time. We had to bring our tech down because we’re at the beginning of the games. It’s not the kind of technology they have during Catching Fire, for example.
How did you create the arena?
We shot in Centennial Hall in Wroclaw, Poland. It was built in 1913 and it’s a working hall where they still have many events. We took it over for six weeks, so it was almost like our own soundstage. We built some set pieces in there and brought in rubble and dust and dirt. We made it look as damaged as possible, but we also digitally augmented it so it looks even more broken down and burned out.
How did you create the version of District 12 that exists in this story?
We had an opportunity because it’s so many years before the other films, so we could do something different. It made me wish we’d had access to these places when we were doing the original movies. We found a place called Landscape Park in Duisburg, Germany, which is so immersive and massive and grimy and industrial. It is actually all about coal and steel, which is what District 12 is. Everything we shot there was geographically connected. The [music venue] The Hob was in one of the big industrial structures. When you see the guys walking down the road to go there, they’re truly walking into what The Hob is.
Where did you stay while you were filming?
In Berlin, everyone was in different spots. I lived in the Soho House Berlin. In Poland we stayed at the Hotel Monopol in Wroclaw. In the countryside in Poland we stayed on this lake at a place called the Maria Antonina.
Do you have any food recommendations?
Berlin is amazing in terms of restaurants. I liked Grill Royal a lot. Café Frieda. There is a sushi place right across the street from Soho House called San that is really good. My favorite coffee place in Berlin was a place in Prenzlauer Berg called Godshot.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler