Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Director Francis Lawrence has made four feature films with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation), but while the first three were entries in the YA franchise The Hunger Games their most recent collaboration is a hard-R spy drama. Red Sparrow is often lumped in with Atomic Blonde (2017), but while the latter is a heavily stylized action movie Lawrence’s film is far more of a drama and character piece.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
Red Sparrow (2018)
Commentator: Francis Lawrence (director)
1. 20th Century Fox sent him Jason Matthews’ novel while he was in post-production on the final Hunger Games film.
2. He started thinking about Jennifer Lawrence for the title role even as he was reading the book for the first time. “I thought it would be fun to find something new to do together,” he says, adding that it would require different muscles than the ones they flexed on their YA films.
3. Writer Justin Haythe had worked with F. Lawrence previously on a project that was never produced, and they re-teamed here as their working relationship was already comfortable.
4. The most difficult sequence to work out was the intercut between Dominika’s (Lawrence) ballet performance and Nate’s (Joel Edgerton) interaction with the Russian mole and evasion of the police. He tried to focus the intercut by having J. Lawrence face left to right while Edgerton mostly faced right to left, as it’s a suggestion that these two characters are heading toward each other. It’s a trick he learned from Alfred Hitchcock movies.
5. The ballet sequence was also the most difficult when it came to visual effects. The performance was filmed with both J. Lawrence doing the whole thing and with a professional who served as her dance double, and they then merged the two into a single performance.
6. He didn’t want to “hold back too much in terms of some of the shock and audacity” in the story. The first hit is Dominika’s graphic leg break.
7. Dominika’s uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) was aged down from the novel because he “wanted to add a little bit of sort of creepiness to their relationship.”
8. Joely Richardson, who plays Dominika’s mother, would come to set on days she wasn’t filming just to watch others work and get a better feel for the film’s tone. “I think it’s honestly gonna be something that I carry into other movies that I do now, in sort of inviting actors as they come in so that nobody really starts completely cold again.”
9. There was debate between F. Lawrence, the producers, and the studio as to how violent Dominika’s assault on the fornicating ballet dancers in the sauna should be. They shot it on day one, and it worked to help J. Lawrence see the privacy aspects in filming a sequence with such nudity. “It was a way of easing Jen into the process.”
10. The woman at the bar at 19:32 is actually J. Lawrence’s friend and assistant.
11. He promised J. Lawrence that she would be the first person to see the film. This included dailies from scenes like the sexual assault and other moments showing her in precarious positions which he held back from producers and the studio alike. “She had the power to make those decisions before anyone saw anything,” he says, which made her more comfortable with the shoot’s requirements.
12. Someone suggested he watch the excellent 45 Years (2015) for Charlotte Rampling, and while he already was a fan this was enough to tilt him towards offering her the part of the Sparrow school’s Matron. She felt the role was a bit thin, so they workshopped some additional ideas with her while visiting the Parisian apartment she uses as a painting studio. He also shared his “secrets” about the character that would come into play if they make a sequel.
13. One of the reasons he wanted Edgerton for the role was because he projects honor and honesty in his performances.
14. Matthews and his wife are both ex-CIA agents.
15. The scene where Dominika disrobes in front of the class is probably F. Lawrence’s favorite in the film because “it hits the thematics of the movie on the head.”
16. Schoenaerts’ first day of filming was for the scene that starts at 48:16, and he says they were surprised by his resemblance in the scene to… someone. “You may also notice that he sort of looks similar to somebody, which was not done on purpose, and I won’t even say who it is but some of you can probably guess.” My best guess is Mads Mikkelsen?
17. The digital file containing the scene where Marta (Thekla Reuten) helps Dominika dye her hair was messed up somehow leaving them unable to retrieve the video. They had to go back and reshoot it.
18. He’s intrigued by the question as to whether Dominika is bad at her job or if she’s purposefully letting Nate identify her as a Sparrow. They shot various takes suggesting both possibilities and used a mix of elements.
19. Prison documentaries fascinate him in part because they often reveal the extremely creative ways in which prisoners hide contraband. He enjoyed searching for similar spots for characters to hide things here.
20. They shot for one day in Vienna, and for F. Lawrence it was something of a homecoming as he was actually born there.
21. Marta’s tortured and murdered corpse in the tub is actually a dummy. The plastic bag was actually just there to protect the head before filming, but “I thought it added a whole other layer of creepiness.”
22. He says some audiences want their protagonists to be clear in their goal, and while surprising obstacles can arise the character’s intentions should be clear. “And that’s just not what this movie is. It’s constantly supposed to keep you guessing.”
23. Sex scenes in most films are “a break from story to show sex and body parts, and that was something I never wanted to do.” Here it’s part of the game that keeps viewers guessing as to motivations and desires.
24. Apparently the novel gifts Dominika with the ability to see colored auras around people “so she had a real sense of whether people are honest or vile. Clearly we weren’t gonna do that in the movie.” Clearly… and thankfully.
25. It was Edgerton’s idea to use the music playing while Nate and Dominika talk after their night together as a signal between them later on.
26. One of the most common questions he’s gotten on the film is in regard to what year (range) it’s supposed to be. People think they have it nailed until they reach the scene with the floppy discs.
27. Mary-Louise Parker expressed concern as to how they would film the scene where she gets hit and killed by a truck. F. Lawrence had to explain to her that she wouldn’t be near any moving cars and that it would be accomplished via effects, editing, and composition.
28. He found the challenge of creating an interrogation/torture scene that felt fresh, and it involved “a fair amount of research.” Stress positions, cold water, and hits that disperse the energy — via a phone book or pillow — while still delivering intense pain. The baton used here to hit Dominika is rubber, and F. Lawrence demonstrated it for J. Lawrence by letting the stunt performer hit him. The baton missed, and the stuntman accidentally punched him in the face instead.
29. “Jen has turned against contacts over the years,” he says as a way of explaining why Dominika’s red and bloodshot eye was done digitally. Blame the X-Men movies.
30. That’s a real skin-grafting tool used for Nate’s torture scene — something he settled on out of a desire to avoid copying other torture sequences in films — but they’re typically powered via a plug as opposed to batteries. “So we kind of cheated a little bit.”
31. The ending prisoner transfer on the airport tarmac was originally written to take place on a bridge, but another spy movie released recently ruined that locale for everyone else. The point is you should definitely see Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies if you haven’t yet.
32. The novel’s ending sees Dominika in a less active role, so they changed it dramatically for the film to make it more empowering.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“She had never really pushed herself into doing content like this movie has.”
“The idea was never for the movie to be erotic in any way.”
“In Budapest, they have this torture museum.”
“It needed to be horrible.”
“That vomit is actually digital.”
“There was definitely a lot of noodling in the edit.”
Buy Red Sparrow on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.
Francis Lawrence delivers a solid commentary track here that offers anecdotes alongside numerous production details. He talks about the locations, performers, and story, and it’s clear that lots of thought went into the various decisions made along the way. I’m still not sold on the film itself, but he offers up a compelling commentary even if he does join a small group of directors who end the track as soon as the end credits begin.
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