Director Francis Lawrence Lightens Up with ‘Slumberland:’ ‘Everything I Had Done Was Pretty Dark’

Also learn why he returned to “Hunger Games” and what happened to “Red Sparrow 2”


“Slumberland” is here.

But instead of putting you to sleep, “Slumberland” will thrill you with its tale of a young girl named Nemo (Marlow Barkley), who, after suffering the tragic loss of her father (Kyle Chandler), starts slipping into a fantasy realm when she dreams. That’s where she teams up with the impish Flip (Jason Momoa) and together they go on a series of daring adventures across various dream realms (including one where everyone is made up of flowers). Based, in part, on the “Little Nemo” comic by Winsor McCay, “Slumberland” is an imaginative and fun-filled romp.

Bringing all of this whimsy to life is director Francis Lawrence, who fully admits that his filmography is mostly full of dystopian stories like “I Am Legend,” three “Hunger Games” movies and Jennifer Lawrence’s very R-rated spy thriller “Red Sparrow.”

TheWrap talked to the filmmaker about bringing these imagined worlds to life, returning to the “Hunger Games” world with the upcoming “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” (based on the prequel novel by Suzanne Collins) and whatever happened to the sequel to “Red Sparrow.”

What brought you to this project?

I think what drew me to it in the first place was just that it was so different than anything I had done before. Almost everything I had done was pretty dark, most of its pretty dystopic. And, you know, just kind of criticizing my own work, honestly didn’t have much joy or much levity. And I was like, I’m really ready to try and do something with a little more joy and a little more levity but that still has the things that I like to –world building and making a visual film. And when I was working on “See” with Jason, I was given the script by the producers that I did “Red Sparrow” and “See” with and I really loved it. But it was something that had already started the process of development.

And it was inspired by the Winsor McCay material, which is a comic from the early 1900s. But not strictly adapted from it and certainly not adapted at all from the Chris Columbus animated movie. What we tried to do was really do a more contemporary version of that idea of Nemo and Flip traveling through dreams. And then trying to really find, through mathematic underpinning, an idea of why the movie exists. And then the writer has just found this great way of suffering this loss and searching to be reunited and that brought up the thematic idea of resilience and dealing with grief and we just ran from there.

Can we talk about your conception of Flip?

I didn’t have that much knowledge of the original source material, I had a fresh start on Flip. I knew I wanted Jason to play the role, because I knew that in person, he has a lot of the elements needed to play a character like this. And it would also be fun for him to do something different and for the world to see him do different kinds of things. Without giving too much away about who this person is in the real world and why certain choices would have been made. And working a little bit with Jason and working a lot with my costume designer Trish Summerville, who I work with all the time, we ended up kind of crafting the idea of what of what he looks like. And then the great thing was what once we got the costume on Jason for the first time, then he really started to bring the physicality like the way he walks and the way he moves and the way he sticks out his gut, all of that kind of stuff.

Can we talk about the dream worlds? Was there a world you didn’t get to do?

There was one other there was one other world that I really enjoyed that didn’t really get cut but it got swapped out and it was a world that took place in the Old West that I really liked. If we ever gets to make another one of these, I would try and revisit and figure out how to do the Old West one again, because it was really clever.

It was very early on in the development of this movie for me and I wanted to make sure that we avoided the sort of “Alice in Wonderland” wild, acid-trippy version of dreams. Because it’s too easy. There’s no parameters to it. For me, what was important was figuring out who the character of the dreamer is, like, Who is the person who’s having the dream? What’s the narrative? Even if it’s kind of a secret of what’s happening in the dream … And let’s build out from there. It feels, even if it’s fantastical, grounded, tangible, and just has parameters so that every that choice within a dream makes sense. Those decisions were important to me versus just random forests of giant mushrooms and psychedelic colors.

Are you thinking about more “Slumberland” films?

I would love to. Whenever we make a movie and we have fun and when we’re happy with it, you think, Oh, it’d be great to do another one. I would love to do another one. But we’d just have to wait and see. Who knows? Ideally families watch the movie and love the movie and we get to make another one. And if we do get to, we’ve got the ideas, but if we don’t, then, you know, on to the next.

Speaking of sequels you didn’t get to make, can you talk about the sequel to “Red Sparrow?”

We had another idea already teed up. Because there’s other books that Jason Matthews had written and we loved making it and so we had another idea lined up, waiting. And then it was one of those moments. Nobody saw it in the theater. Everybody I know that saw it, saw it on an airplane, which is of no use to me whatsoever. Then you’re like, Okay, well, no “Red Sparrow 2.”

What can you say about the new “Hunger Games?”

I’d spent a lot of time on the original movies. I did three over the course of I don’t know, four or five years or something and had a lot of fun, really loved it. But I was definitely ready to move on. But then did “Red Sparrow” and “See” and “Slumberland.” And it was right before the pandemic actually where Suzanne called me and the producer and said she was almost done with her book. And she let us read it and I was I was really excited by it. And we worked on the draft through the pandemic while I was working on “Slumberland” and then I just got back from Berlin yesterday. We just wrapped on Saturday. And it was great. We have an amazing cast. It’s both very different and very fresh in a great way but also really feels like a “Hunger Games” movie, but it’s one I’m really excited about it.

“Slumberland” is streaming on Netflix right now.