Gary Ross has some 1,200 visual effects to worry about before The Hunger Games opens March 23, but the writer-director managed to carve a good chunk of time from his schedule to sit down with us to talk about casting decisions, changes from the book to the movie, getting Steven Soderbergh to help direct a scene, and how he’d survive the Hunger Games himself if forced into the Arena.
Movies.com: Your background is as a writer, so Suzanne must've felt so relieved that you're somebody who respects source material. What was your collaboration with her adapting the book?
Gary Ross: It was actually fantastic. I mean, it was more than I've had with any other author that I worked with. It's the third adaptation that I've done now and first I talked extensively to Suzanne before I did a draft. We were in agreement and we had a wonderful conversation. Before I knew it we were working together. It was kind of a surprising thing, actually. It began as a conversation and before either of us realized what was happening, it kind of morphed into a collaboration, so I said to her, “This is crazy. We're working so well together, why don't we do this officially and do the next draft together.” I hadn't collaborated with anyone on anything since Spielberg on Big, so that was really a blast writing with someone again and we had a terrific time.
Movies.com: So you already had the job though? ‘Cause you're saying the collaboration came out sort of organically. You had already been hired as the director.
Ross: Yes. And the screenwriter.
Movies.com: So you were originally the screenwriter.
Ross: No there was draft before. Suzanne had done a draft, and then Billy Ray, who's also credited, had also done a draft and they both did terrific work but then any time you direct a movie, for me, it kinda has to come through your fingers before even I can access it as a director. I had to write my own draft.
Movies.com: You brought up Big -- this movie is so in the “Gary Ross wheelhouse” of children forced to survive in an adult world.
Movies.com: I mean Big is that. Dave is a man-child. There is something about it that, like, Pleasantville, trying to adapt to these extraordinary circumstances.
Ross: Right.Well, I think that it's a staple of literature, that characters are thrust into an alien environment, you know, whether it's Gulliver's Travels or Ulysses, I mean, the examples are limitless of people who leave the comfort of their own world and are thrust into alien circumstances, adapt to that and grow as a result.
Movies.com: But these are children.
Ross: True. Maybe that's why I was drawn to it. I mean, I thought what she wrote was such a compelling protagonist, in part because of her ferocity, her independence, her drive for survival, the fact that she didn't trust anyone around her. I mean, she's almost an animal in that respect; she had the finely honed skills of a hunter. Add to her arc that she meets this boy, this guileless, open-hearted, redemptive character who just has this adoration for her, which is of course something she mistrusts completely. Katniss begins the story as someone who only wants to survive and she ends the story as someone who is willing to die for something rather than kill an innocent person who she's grown to care for, so that's a beautiful, wonderful long arc to a character and I think that's what I was drawn to.
Movies.com: And Jennifer Lawrence is so incredibly talented. The moment where you saw her skinning a squirrel it’s like, “Yeeeeah, this girl is a survivalist.”
Ross: Well first of all, Winter's Bone, I mean I saw it and was like, “You kidding me? Really?” And I remember noticing her in another movie too where I went, “Wow, this girl is really special. There's something going on here that's different from everything else going on in the frame.” And then I met with her and I remember saying to the people I work with, “I'd be stunned if I didn't cast this girl. Like, I'm pretty convinced that this is the girl.” And then she read for me and just blew me away.
Movies.com: For people who are fans of the book, obviously this is un-missable. For people who maybe haven't read the book what is the thing that you think will draw them into the story?
Ross: The story never lets up. I think that's what I felt when I read the book. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I was fascinated, stunned, shocked, emotionally engaged, I cared about this girl immediately and I was so in her shoes and she was so real to me. There are very few stories that grab me by the throat and yank me through the narrative. I think we've done that in the film. It's just this urgent, compelling, relentless narrative of somebody who is thrust into these overwhelming circumstances, navigates them, changes, grows, defies them and ultimately triumphs. It's a wonderfully complete story in which that character grows in such a rich, amazing way that you don't find very often.
Movies.com: The trailer looks unbelievable. Steven Soderbergh, your second unit director? How do you make that call?
Ross: Well, Steven and I have done favors for each for a long time. I wouldn't say it’s payback, but he and I trade these over the life of a career. This one just got a little more publicized than most. He shot some footage of the riot, because there was no way that I could do it and it was a sequence where I knew I needed somebody I could trust, so he came in and shot a day of footage and I thank him for it.
Movies.com: There's been a lot of three-four, three-four…So how many movies are there going to be?
Ross: I'm not sure.
Movies.com: How many have you signed on for?
Ross: I have committed to the next one.
Movies.com: Have you started filming it yet?
Ross: I have not started shooting.
Movies.com: But you already have a release date.
Ross: Yes, we already have a release date.
Movies.com: What sort of pressure does that put on the next script, the next shoot?
Ross: Not a ton because I'm actually more concerned about the first release date rather than the second one. I have a release date on Hunger Games that's a little more immediate to me than Catching Fire and I have 1,200 visual effect shots to put through the mill so I'm really not looking at the next event horizon!
Movies.com: Were there any things from the book that you absolutely loved, that you just could not put into the movie?
Gary Ross: There's always going to be changes from the book to the screen. There always are. Sometimes it's an opportunity. And Suzanne looked at it the same way. In the book, she's restricted to being in Katniss's point of view the whole time, right? But I have the ability to cut away on occasion, right? In the book, Suzanne has the ability to be able to have Katniss speculate on what the Gamemakers must be doing. I can't shoot inside her head but I can cut to what they're doing. So it's just a difference in the cinematic versus the literary treatment of the material. It really comes down to that.
Movies.com: If you were thrown into the Games, would you survive?
Ross: Oh yeah.
Movies.com: Yeah? What would be your main thing? Would you be a bow and arrow guy, a tree climber, what would you be?
Ross: How would I survive the Hunger Games? I would probably convince people to help me and I would try to stay out of the way as much as possible.
Movies.com: The duck-and-cover method.
Gary Ross: Exactly.