/Film Interview: Gary Ross, The Director Of 'The Hunger Games'

After almost a decade away from the director's chair, Gary Ross is back with a bang. He's directed the highly-anticipated adaptation of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and he's done it with the kind of vision and passion only a true fan could have accomplished. The film, which opens March 23 and stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson and many others, is both a faithful adaptation of the book as well as a perfect movie version of the story. Everything fans want is in there and things they aren't expecting are sprinkled in to help expand the world in a way only a movie can.

A few weeks back, I spoke with Ross on the occasion of The Hunger Games and we discussed his unique directorial choices with the film, his favorite, and least favorite, additions and subtractions from the original novel, some of his plans looking forward to casting (Finnick Odair!) and shooting the second film, Catching Fire, and much more. Read it all after the jump.

Note: Later in the interview there are some minor spoilers about the later novels and they will be clearly marked as such. Also, the night previous Ross met with a group of journalists at a casual get together, which explains references to "last night" and "yesterday."

/Film: While HUNGER GAMES is three books, I sort of saw your movie as two movies, because you've got the pre-games and the games. Can you talk about how, if at all, you approached each part of the movie differently?

Gary Ross: I think it's one integral narrative, to be honest with you. I mean I think Katiniss's narrative runs all the way though. That being said, there are radical shifts in locale which is what I think you are talking about. In the filmmaking process it felt as if we were making several movies some times. When we are in the woods it's one style of filmmaking where you are eighty feet up in trees shooting off of limbs and things like this. Just the experience of how you are shooting that is very different than moving into a studio environment. Also, when we moved to Charlotte we suddenly had all of these adult actors who I have always looked up to and wanted to work with my whole life, so there was this sudden kind of re-infusion in what it it. But stylistically I hope that you are invested in Katniss's narrative the whole time anyway. Do you know what I mean? I hope that this is a first person narrative where you feel like you are walking in her shoes, because if you ever... One, we wanted it to remain totally real, like we talked about last night. Two, that it feel urgently from her point of view and that everything you're perceiving, the ambiguities, even the uncertainties, even the lack of clarity about Peeta, you need to walk in her shoes. That's probably the best example of what we were talking about yesterday in terms of shooting in a character's point of view. You trust and you mistrust Peeta alternately along with her and you create and maintain a supertivity, so the styles I think feel different at times. I mean it feels very girthy in the beginning in terms of the seam and how depressed it is. It feels kind of like lured Roman excess in some ways when you get to the Capitol and then I think when you get to the woods it's obviously a very different feeling, but I think the through line in all of that is it is a first person narrative on the part of Katniss.

You talked a little bit also about the way you shot it. For a hundred million dollar movie or around there it's shot very... You're handheld and it's gritty. When in the process did you decide you wanted to shoot it like that, instead of glossy?

Immediately. I felt it was really important that we not turn into the Capitol in the way that we made this movie. If I took this premise and it was over produced or some sort of "glossy" slick kind of callous exploitive entertainment experience, that we would turn into the Capitol and that we run the risk of doing something that's tremendously exploitive on a premise that can't feel that way.


I needed it to feel real. I needed it to feel urgent. I wanted you to feel like you were glimpsing it. I didn't want a passive audience; I wanted you to actively engage. I want you to lean forward in your seat and not be pushed back. So a lot of the kind of verite techniques that you are talking about put you in Katniss's shoes and make you feel that this is a very real event that you are glimpsing in front of you and not that this is some piece of entertainment being produced for you, because the minute you feel that, you are completely distanced from what I'm trying to do in the movie.

Another thing that lends itself to that is, and what I really liked about the movie, one of the many things, is that it's very "show" and not "tell." You're subtle with it.

That's a great way to put it.

Do you think that's sort of risky in a potential franchise starter?

I think maybe at first glance, but I think it would have been riskier, actually, to do it the other way. I think that we would have lost the heart and the soul of the movie. You would have felt a very weird kind of aesthetic distance from what's going on. You need to feel urgent and immediately engaged, because it's a first person narrative. If I had done it the other way and made it kind of remote and glossy and detached or wide and omniscient instead of personal and urgent, you would have lost the heart and the soul of the book. Something like this could have felt very exploitive and so I actually think that it would have been riskier the other way. It just wouldn't have seemed right.

For sure. Now it's mostly faithful but there are obviously some omissions and some other things. As a fan of the books, what was the one thing you either hated to change or were really psyched to add?

I'll tell you both. You know, I was a little sorry that we couldn't get the Avox sub-plot in from the books, because I loved that. I loved how these two kids won a flight for freedom and Kantiss remembered them once from the woods and that she turns up in Avox missing a tongue.

You drop in there for the fans though.

Yeah, I mean you can see them in the background, but we didn't really have time to engage that subplot. I was actually sorry about that, but Suzanne [Collins] agreed. I mean there was no way. And again, it's so important for the movie, because we are not writing in the first person the way the book is, it's so important for the movie never to step out of Kantiss's shoes. That digression would have done that in a way that it would have taken a long time to get the train on the tracks. So we weren't able to do that. Inclusion of stuff? I'm really proud of the Donald [Sutherland as President Snow] scenes that contextualized the movie. I'm really proud of the idea that hope is a stronger agent of manipulation than fear is. He says, "Why do we have a winner?" and "We get people to play our game. We have controlled them and we've gained their complicity far more than we could be just subjugating them." I love those scenes with him. I like how he talks about sort of the haves and have-nots, the 99% and the 1%, about the raw minerals and the resources that they get from the districts that they are needing to control and that neo-colonial relationship is sort of articulated. I love that. I liked going into the game center and building Wes [Bentley as Seneca Crane] in the game center and being able to cut into that and show the manipulation of the game. I mean, I really like the stuff like you see the scoreboard in the sky being put on the dome and then you look up in the sky and then it's suddenly there. I mean that stuff was a blast to come up with and to do, yeah.

That sort of lends itself to this, the production design and the costumes, especially in the first half when you are in this Rome sort of thing, are fantastic. Did you reject anything that came across your way? It seems like it's just so far out there.

Oh dude, yeah. I mean we had stuff that was just a trip. (Laughs) Yeah, I mean any time you're doing a design based movie, I mean a lot of your first iterations you just cringe at. That happened all the way through. Then you begin to refine it and you begin to come up with... I will say that Phil Messina, my production designer, has such wonderful tastes that he and I wisely began with a lot of reference and we looked at a lot and we wandered into this area of architecture that I talked to you yesterday about, called "Brutalism," which uses, like, massive concrete form. It's very imposing. It's very stark. It's very authoritarian. That was tremendously helpful. So we began from a place of reference, but I mean if I showed you early hovercrafts... They were like bad FLASH GORDON and also early Cornucopias until we sort of settled on this.

Yeah, it wasn't how I pictured it, but it works perfectly.

Yeah, on this kind of abstraction, this deconstructed cornucopia, which may or may not resemble the work of a famous architect.

[Both Laugh] That's a little over my head, but I'm sure somebody will pick it up.

(Laughs) Yeah, so early iterations of that stuff were... but you just keep working. That's what a movie is. I think one of the things that I'm embracing as I get older is that you don't freak when you see things that aren't working, you just keep working. That is just the process, things do get better.

Now I know you just finished the movie Friday and you haven't thought about CATCHING FIRE too much, but my favorite character in it is Finnick Odair. So dream casting for Finnick Odair, do you have it in your head?

Oh yeah, should I tell you who I want to cast?

I would love that.

I'm kidding.

I tried. [Both Laugh]

No, I mean in some place in print somebody said, "Do you have an idea for Finnick?" I said, "Yeah, I have some ideas." You know, of course when you're reading it you think about it and then this went all over the web and everybody was saying "Oh my God, I bet I know who he is going to pick. He better not pick so and so. He better pick this person" and then it started this thing again. So no, there will be a whole process. I really haven't begun.

I had to ask.

Of course.

So you're probably going to do that next if every thing... It looks like it's going to happen.

Did you read all three books in a row, by the way?


 I mean was it in succession when you read them?


Interesting, yeah.


Yeah, I love it like that and it keeps escalating. When I look at the second one... Everybody thinks maybe the first one or the third one is the best, I like that they go back to the games. I like that Snow is like "eff you."

Yeah exactly and that he's trying to manipulate or that it's his only... It's the last card that he can play to control her, because now she is...

And then you know it's almost like a Shyamalan flip halfway through. It's so good. I'm so excited for that. So we are probably going to see that. At what point do you decide if you want to see this through?

You mean with subsequent movies?



I mean I've really got to take one at a time. I really haven't even, as I told you yesterday, begun to engage the CATCHING FIRE conversation yet just because I finished this Monday or Tuesday night, I went into the junket a day later, I was working till midnight... Literally there were a couple of days in the DI that I was leaving at 4:00am. So I mean I really haven't had a chance to think specifically about CATCHING FIRE. I think Nina [Jacobson] are going to sit down next week and just begin to talk about it.

During production the news broke that Simon [Beaufoy] was writing two and that three would possibly be two movies. Did you have to sort of push that aside?

No. Simon was my choice. I have been a Simon Beaufoy fan for a long time. I loved SLUMDOG and I really loved what he was able to do in 127 HOURS without any dialogue. So I've always been a fan of his. That was all by my design.

Oh? Okay. I guess the last thing, just kind of fun to throw out, I totally forgot that you wrote BIG.

Oh yeah.

Looking back on the movie, it's almost 25 years old. What are your memories of that? What stands out the most?

I was such a kid. You know it's funny, I hadn't seen that movie in about fifteen years or ten years I think and then I was a judge at the Tribeca Film Festival and they played it outside for like four thousand people. I really liked that. I just watched PLEASANTVILLE again this year, which I hadn't seen almost since it came out, and so it's really fun to go back and look at the movies a while later, because it's the first time you can really see them as an audience and not as a filmmaker, both of which I loved. I was really surprised how much I liked PLEASANTVILLE. I saw it with my son and I was like "God, there were things that I thought were wrong that I'm pretty happy with."

That's great. I can't wait until you watch, whether you direct them or not, all three or four HUNGER GAMES in a row. That will be fun.

Yeah, well I'm just engaging the next one now. It's very hard for me to think about MOCKINGJAY now.

Totally, I understand. All right, thank you.

Ross's film, The Hunger Games, opens March 23. The next film, Catching Fire, is tentatively scheduled for release in November 2013.