'Hunger Games' Director Reveals a 'Songbirds and Snakes' Callback That Was a Last-Minute Addition (Exclusive)

Francis Lawrence reveals that one meaningful moment in the upcoming prequel was thought up on the spot.

Like the Suzanne Collins' books they are based on, the upcoming Hunger Games prequel film, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, includes plenty of callbacks and references to the original films. But there was one unscripted moment that came to director Francis Lawrence while filming -- leading to an iconic shot that even made the film's trailer.

After being reaped as the female District 12 tribute in the 10th Hunger Games, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), takes a mocking curtsy-bow, arms spread wide, head held high even as she faces almost-certain doom. It's a near perfect match for the mocking bow that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) does after firing an arrow at the gamemakers who had written her off in the first Hunger Games film, which is set 64 years after Songbirds and Snakes.

"It was something that I made up on the day and had Rachel do, because we're constantly looking for, in the making of this, little sort of Easter eggs that would excite the fans," Lawrence shared when he and producer Nina Jacobson sat down with ET's Ash Crossan to discuss the upcoming film. "I thought, wow, this is really cool. If she does this then, you know, Katniss could have heard generations later about this kind of rebellious, irreverent act of this woman that was a singer and did this sort of bow curtsy at the reaping."

"It just gives a different sort of meaning to Katniss' action," he added, "and I think that it's a really fun element of this movie, to get lots of those moments." 

As far as the fan speculation that the parallels between Katniss and Lucy Gray run so deep because the two are related, both Lawrence and Jacobson say they don't believe the theory, but add that it's open to interpretation.

"We don't know -- I love that Suzanne lets you kind of have your theories and debate," Lawrence noted.  "But we don't know for sure. And we may never know."

Development for the Songbirds and Snakes adaptation started almost immediately after Collins released the prequel novel in May 2020, however, Jacobson told ET that the creative team took their time with the film, wanting to make sure it could stand up against the original four films -- which to date have grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide.

"We just said to Lionsgate, we're dying to make it but let's make sure that we cracked it first before we start anything," she recalled. "Let's just make sure that we feel like we have a great script that's worthy of the franchise, because it'll be better to do nothing than to make a wrong step and change the way people feel about something that they still love."

As for telling the story of young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), who falls in love with Lucy Gray before growing up to become the villainous president embodied by Donald Sutherland in the original films, Lawrence admitted that the trickiest part was creating sympathy for a character that Hunger Games fans have spent years hating as an evil tyrant.

"I think we're both really interested in villain origin stories and stories where people break bad, but it was making sure that we got an audience behind it and to empathize and root for a character that they know is so awful in the original stories," the director explained. "The other tricky bit is that because he's going to break bad, you want to make sure that even though we have people rooting for him, that we still are seeding in all the elements of ambition, that hunger for power and greed and the darkness, so that when he does go dark, it's believable and truthful and honest and you understand it."

One moment Jacobson pointed to specifically was a scene in Catching Fire when Snow visits District 12 to warn Katniss about adding fuel to the rebel uprising.

"To know now that he has this history with District 12, that this was where these formative events of his youth really made him the man that he became," she recalled, "it for sure for me started to change my thoughts about his relationship to District 12, his relationship to Katniss... and the song of 'The Hanging Tree' and the meaning of 'The Hanging Tree,' even his relationship to the Mockingjays -- and the irony that these birds that he wasn't too crazy about in the first place, will come back and have such an essential role in his downfall."

Collins has yet to announce any more books set in the Hunger Games universe, but Lawrence isn't ruling out a return to the franchise -- if there's the right story to tell.

"It's exciting to come back to the world, because she writes from just such a thematic place, and she has thematic foundation for all these stories," he shared. "That's the important thing, and it's what makes these stories so great, in my opinion. So if she has something to say and wants to write a new story in this world about that topic, and about the theme, I think we'd both be back in a second."

The film also stars Peter Dinklage as Casca Highbottom, dean of the Academy, who holds many secrets close to his vest; Euphoria's Hunter Schafer as Tigris Snow, cousin and confidante to Coriolanus; Josh Andrés Rivera as Sejanus Plinth, the mentor to a tribute from District 2 and a close friend of young Snow; Jason Schwartzman as Lucky Flickerman, the official host of the 10th Hunger Games; and Viola Davis as the cruel and creative Head Gamemaker, Volumnia Gaul.

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is in theaters Nov. 17.