Based on a 2013 novel of the same name by retired CIA operative Jason Matthews. Before the novel was even finished, Matthews sold the film rights for a seven figure sum. The novel is the first book in a trilogy, with the others being Palace of Treason and The Kremlin's Candidate.
To prepare for the role, Jennifer Lawrence did ballet and practiced a Russian accent for four months, spending three hours a day working with the Hollywood ballet instructor Kurt Froman. She said it was difficult because she had never wanted to dance ballet.
Source novelist Jason Matthews may not have encountered a real-life Dominika in his work with the CIA, but "honeypot" school was indeed part of Soviet intelligence training. "In the Soviet Union, they had a school that taught young women the art of entrapment, the art of seduction, for blackmailing intelligence targets," Matthews explained. "They had a Sparrow School in the city of Kazan, on the banks of the Volga River, where young women were taught how to be courtesans. They were called 'Sparrows'."
The Russian characters are played by American, British, Irish, Belgian, Dutch, German, Ukrainian and Polish actors. The main American character in the movie (Nate Nash), is played by Australian actor Joel Edgerton.
Director Francis Lawrence shared his feelings on the comparisons between Red Sparrow and Black Widow from the Marvel comic books, played in the MCU by Scarlett Johansson: "There's people who think it's very similar to the Black Widow story. This is not pulled from Black Widow, this is pulled from Red Sparrow, you know, it's written by a guy who was in the CIA. It's like, his references are coming from a very, very different place from that. But there'll always be that. People like to put things in boxes, and I think it's a really unique film. This is a thriller, it's not action, again it's not gadgetry. It's a hard-R. There's violence, it's a bit perverse, it's suspenseful, a lot of intrigue. It's a different kind of spy film."
When the project was announced in 2013, Darren Aronofsky was in talks to direct it. Aronofsky dropped out in 2014, and in the same year, David Fincher and Rooney Mara were in talks to direct and star in the film, respectively. In July 2015, it was reported that Francis Lawrence was in talks to direct the film. In September 2015, Jennifer Lawrence was announced in the lead role with Francis Lawrence as the director.
Critics and the audience have noted that Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts bears a striking resemblance to Russian president Vladimir Putin in the movie. But according to director Francis Lawrence, Schoenaerts was not intentionally cast due to his resemblance to Putin, and the director only realized the similarity between them on set. Schoenaerts' resemblance to Putin had been noted previously when he acted on films like Suite Française (2014) and The Danish Girl (2015).
Russian president Vladimir Putin is a key figure in the book on which the movie is based. However, Fox decided to cut him out of the film adaptation. When Fox exec Emma Watts optioned the book in 2013, she shifted the story from modern-day Russia to 1970s Budapest, nominally to give it a more "timeless" feel - and though Putin has a key role in the book, he was dropped. Then, after Francis Lawrence came aboard as director, Watts shifted the story back to the present day. Despite the explosion of interest in the Kremlin following the (2016) U.S. election, Putin's character was not restored. Insiders describe the moves as "creative choices," but by avoiding Putin, Fox also is steering clear of any Russian hackers who might protest.
The plot is similar to the TV movie Secret Weapons (1985), made during the Cold War era. Linda Hamilton played the 'Dominika Egorova' character and Sally Kellerman played the 'Matron' character. Several scenes at the school are very similar.
When 'Red Sparrow' source novelist Jason Matthews completed his thirty-three year tenure with the CIA, he found that he was not content to remain idle in his retirement. Flush with time, Matthews took up writing for his second act. "The career was so experiential. There was a great gap to fill," Matthews says of his adjustment to post-CIA life. "It was either day trading, or fishing, or going for walks. It was as much therapy as anything else, starting to write." The longtime fan of John le Carré and Ian Fleming began work on 'Red Sparrow', which was published in 2013 and became a best-seller and the foundation for a trilogy: 'Palace of Treason' was the second in the series and upcoming is 'The Kremlin's Candidate'.
Director Francis Lawrence encouraged source novelist Jason Matthews's participation throughout the script's development. "When I read the book, I fell in love with the authenticity of the world that was created by Jason Matthews," said the director. "It just kind of grabbed me." Matthews observed: "I don't know too much about Hollywood but Francis is a tremendous director with a tremendous body of work. He's been inclusive. He's encouraged my commentary, and I know that's not always the case with film adaptations but he's been encouraging and collegial."
Source novelist Jason Matthews made his technical expertise available to screenwriter Justin Haythe throughout the movie's adaptation from the source novel. "He's a sensational writer," Haythe said of Matthews. "Many of the technical aspects of the plot come from the book. If it was something invented, Jason was there on the end of the phone for technical advice, or he read the script and gave notes, which was hugely helpful. We were lucky to have an expert at the incubation period." Producer Peter Chernin agreed: "Jason gave incredibly detailed notes and feedback on our various script drafts, mostly regarding accuracy and believability of anything relating to Nate's, Dominika's, and their respective colleagues' tactics, etc."
From the moment director Francis Lawrence read the book, he knew that one of the main goals would be to maintain key elements from source novelist Jason Matthews' original story. "There's definitely a sexuality to the book," said Lawrence. "There's definitely violence in the book. There is kind of an audacity to it and I wanted to make sure that we captured that. The thing that [screenwriter] Justin [Haythe] and I really worked hard at, and later [actress] Jennifer [Lawrence] and I worked on, was making sure that it felt organic, that it didn't feel gratuitous, that it was never exploitative. The idea was never to make an erotic thriller, never to titillate in any kind of way, but to ensure that the content feels really organic to the story and to the dilemma of the character and so we really carefully modulated anything that was sexual or involved nudity or involved violence, to find that right tone." Haythe added: "It's really about a single character's journey, someone who finds herself manipulated by powers much larger than herself. Dominika [(Jennifer Lawrence)] suffers an injury and, through an uncle [Matthias Schoenaerts], is pulled into this world of espionage. And it's a world where her sexuality is weaponized, as it were, in the sense that she is trained as a seductress. But she is too big and too complicated a person to be a seductress, and she changes the rules on the people that forced her into this world."
Director's states (in DVD commentary track), his favourite scene of the 'sparrow's training / lecture room when Jennifer Lawrence is called out (by Charlotte Rampling) to have to confront her earlier (shower scene) fellow male 'sparrow' attempted rapist and Rampling commands JL to confront him, by which she strips.
Of director Francis Lawrence and actress Jennifer Lawrence, producer Peter Chernin said: "Francis made three 'Hunger Games' movies with Jen, and when he read this book, he thought immediately this would be their next collaboration. From there we had to find a good match, which we did in Joel [Edgerton], who we have worked with before as well. Same with Matthias [Schoenaerts], who we've worked with. We chose to go much younger with this role than originally scripted, which we think added something very different to the dynamic with Jen."
The manuscript for 'Red Sparrow' found its way to the offices of Chernin Entertainment. Producers Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, and David Ready all took to Jason Matthews's novel, and they quickly snapped up the rights to develop a screenplay based on the book. "The first draw was Jason's background as a CIA operative coupled with the fact that this was his debut novel," said Chernin. "And as we dove into the book, we quickly knew it was one of the freshest, most unique spy stories we'd seen." "We also loved seeing a spy story about a character who is not a Bourne, not a Bond, not a le Carré character," added Topping. "Dominika is actually a civilian who is forced into a spy plot, and whose training in spy craft is a means to survive, and to protect her mother."
While the world of 'Red Sparrow' was familiar to source novelist Jason Matthews, the novel's central character was a product of invention. Following a terrible accident, Dominika Egorova leaves her career with the Bolshoi and is forced into a state-run school that trains her in sexual manipulation. "Unlike the other characters in the book, Dominika was primarily imaginary," Matthews said. "I wish I had met someone like Dominika. She had a career in the ballet, until it was taken away from her. And then she was forced to go to Sparrow School."
Director Francis Lawrence received the book as he added the finishing touches on 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2'. Associate producer Cameron MacConomy remembered: "We were both reading it at the same time. Every day, we would come in and find ourselves more and more excited about what we had read the night before." Director Lawrence added: "I fell in love with the book immediately. It just felt really fresh in terms of spy stories, and I fell in love with the character of Dominika Egorova, and her personal journey and her personal story and her dilemma in the story. I always gravitate toward personal lonely isolated characters and this story certainly focuses on a very isolated, lonely character. In addition, it was exciting to me, especially after having done three 'Hunger Games' movies in five years, to do something completely different, in terms of story, in terms of world, in terms of tone, in terms of rating, all of that. That was really interesting."
After director Francis Lawrence boarded the project, he worked hand-in-hand with screenwriter Justin Haythe. "There wasn't a rushed development process on this film," producer David Ready said. "It was a finely tuned process. Francis knew that this was going to be his next film and he wanted the screenplay to reflect his exact vision on the page. It was one of those experiences where you get to bring to fruition what you want to shoot." Director Lawrence added: "I'd worked with Justin before. And he shared my vision for the movie. Sometimes, stories don't come together, and translations of books to screenplay don't always work as easily as one might think but this one kind of coalesced. Justin and I worked quite hard at it and spent a lot of hours in rooms together over the six months or so that it took to create the draft but there wasn't much struggle. It just kind of seemed to work and to come together nicely."
As an executive producer on this picture, screenwriter Justin Haythe remained with the film through its wintry production in Budapest, Hungary; Bratislava, Slovakia; Vienna, Austria and London, England. [Director] "Francis Lawrence has involved me in the process," said Haythe. "We worked very closely in the adaptation process, and he has involved me in the process of filming, to sit in rehearsals, to give notes, to make whatever changes need to be made. That only really happens with a director who is completely in control of what he is doing."
Source novelist Jason Matthews explained the unusual courtship between Nate and Dominika: "Inevitably, they fall in love, which is dangerous and forbidden for him. Like Romeo and Juliet, it's a love affair that can't end well."
This makes the second time that Charlotte Rampling has marked her appearance in a film by standing in front of a gloomy mansion as the hero arrives in a car. She previously greeted Ben Whishaw the same way in London Spy (2015).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
When General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) is wondering about the identity of the Russian mole during the Russian Intelligence Service meeting, he raises his cigarette to his face, partially covering it. The screen then switches to the picture of the Russian mole, whose hand is obscuring his face in an almost identical manner.
During post-production, 20th Century Fox showed the film to the UK classification board, the BBFC, for advice on how to secure their desired 15 certificate. They were advised the film was likely to be classified 18, but that a 15 could be achieved by making reductions in one scene of strong sadistic violence (a garroting). When the film was formally submitted, the appropriate reductions had been made and the film was classified 15. It is possible this was also the version released worldwide, as has happened with many other films where the distributor received pre-classification advice from the BBFC.