The last time PEOPLE talked to Josh Hutcherson, he was encouraging fellow fanatics to submit self-made movie trailers to Canon Project Imagination.
Led by Ron Howard, Canon Project Imagination has been inspiring movie fans to test their creativity for three years. This time the challenge is called Project Imagination: The Trailer, a contest in which one participant’s 60-second trailer is used as the inspiration for a short Hollywood film produced by and starring Hutcherson.
After announcing the contest in February, Howard, 61, and The Hunger Games star, 22, received hundreds of entries and chose the trailer “Tainted Water” by South Florida college student Mark Mukherje as the winner.
Now, Hutcherson has recently wrapped filming of The Rusted, the short film inspired by Mukherje’s creation, where he was joined by Hunger Games costar Jena Malone.
PEOPLE checked in with the actor to see what it was like working with Malone outside of Panem and the next steps for his foray behind the camera.
What was the process for picking a single trailer from all the submissions you received?
It was challenging. The variety was overwhelming and I kind of expected that, but when you actually see all these different trailers, with all these different ideas and different possibilities, it’s hard to choose one. We wanted to choose one that invoked the most feeling and had the most potential to be explored.
“Tainted Water” definitely had the strongest feeling, and because of that it was the one we chose to be the inspiration, and what’s cool is we wanted to take that idea and then create something original out of it. Our director, Kat Candler, and writer came up with three different possible stories, and we all talked about it and chose one and created a script from that.
How was filming?
Three days, pretty quick. It’s pretty overwhelming and head-spinning to do a whole story in three. It’s my first time doing a short film. Normally, when you have a full feature, you have time to get into the character and you’re sort of stoic in smaller scenes. In this, it was boom, boom, boom. Right away you have to dive right in.
Can you tell as as much of the story as possible, without giving too much away?
It’s about this brother and sister, and they have a traumatic childhood that they shared together, and now they’re going back to their childhood home. My character wants to destroy it and renovate it into a recording studio, because he’s really into metal and hardcore rock. My sister’s reluctant about it. In the process of us being in that house, our history, our past and these traumatic events start flooding back and manifest themselves in the form of water that is present in the house.
It has this haunting kind of element, and it’s questionable how much is in the character’s mind versus how much is reality, like The Shining in a way.
How is this different from other work that you’ve done, other than it being a short?
It’s much darker. It’s really dark in content and a heavy character. For me the character is very different. I’ve never played a character with a hard childhood upbringing, so there is a certain darkness that I have to play, which was fun. It is a psychological thriller, and that’s a genre I’ve never gotten into before and I’ve always wanted to, so it was a great opportunity for that.
Is this something that you’d be more interested in doing in the future?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ve always wanted to produce and direct, so this definitely was a big step in that direction for me. Getting to work with Ron and getting to work with all these great producers, creators and camera directors definitely gave me more of a push.
What was it like working with Jena Malone on this project?
It was great. It was really different. Hunger Games is a very big movie and it had a lot of days and a lot of crew. Jena and I didn’t have a whole lot of time together in scenes. I have respected Jena’s work for many years. She’s done a great job over her career, so to get to work with her in a setting where we both got to push ourselves as actors was really fun. To have it be somebody that you’re comfortable with makes it a lot easier, for sure.
What are the next steps for you with the Canon project?
The next step is going to be Kat getting with our editor and getting a cut together. Once that’s in place, I’ll get to be a part of some editing and whatnot, and then that’s pretty much it. I know Kat is really excited about the sound design of it all. She loves sound design and I think this story and the setting is a great environment to play with the sound design.
What else do you have planned for the summer?
I have four or five projects I’m looking at for this fall, and all of them are really cool. I’m really excited to see what comes together.
When you’re looking at projects and deciding what you want to do next, is there anything you look for in particular?
For me the most important thing is the script and the character. I like to try new things, so I’m definitely looking at stuff that I’ve never done before that I’ve always wanted to get into. At the core of it all is telling original, unique, interesting stories with cool perspectives and characters that have a strong arc; focusing on those things is what guides me to what I want to be doing next. Also, who hires me, because ultimately you can want something really badly and they go with someone else.
What are your feelings now that playing Peeta and the whole Hunger Games universe is coming to a close?
It’s a mixed feeling, because there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want it to end. These movies are so fun, and the cast and the crew were my creative family over the past four years. But there’s another part of me that has a sense of accomplishment and excitement of what’s coming up next. I’m optimistic for what’s to come.
Did you guys make plans to keep in touch and see each other?
Yeah, we do. We’re very close; of course, everyone is in different parts of the world filming, but we find a way to make connections. We’ve definitely talked about Hunger Games reunions and crew vacations. We’re not letting this end.
So far, what has stood out the most to you from the Canon project?
It’s been a massive learning experience. Producing and directing is something I’ve always wanted to get into, and with this project, I’ve been involved from the very beginning of the idea, taking it all the way through to the final product. I’ve learned so much about the production side of things. It’s definitely given me a kick drive into wanting to produce more and direct as well.