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After helping to launch The Hunger Games franchise with a $700M hit, some would assume writer-director Gary Ross wouldn’t have much trouble making another film. And yet, following that box-office and critical success, Ross still struggled to get a passion project of his made. For a decade, the director behind Seabiscuit and Pleasantville worked on Free State of Jones, which has finally made its way to theaters.

Once the Civil War drama, which stars Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, acquired financing, Ross still found himself doing whatever he had to do to make the film, including paying a few salaries out of his pocket and working for DGA minimum. The director — who also wrote Dave and co-wrote Big — discussed his latest film and career with us. If you want to know more about Ross’ upcoming Ocean’s 11 spinoff, Ocean’s Eight, click here.

Below, read our Gary Ross interview.

When you started off writing, did you always intend on one day directing?

I was always interested in directing. I had studied acting with Stella Adler when I was young. I had directed theater when I was young. The first movie I got made was Big. So I became a screenwriter pretty quickly. I don’t know if I hadn’t become a screenwriter so early if I wouldn’t have probably directed actually sooner, which is a possibility.

I’d always had an eye for directing. But I see them as different jobs, you know. I love to write. I love to direct. I love to write and direct. So I don’t often…although filmmaking is sort of like one thing for me, I like both aspects of it a lot.

With Pleasantville, did directing immediately come naturally to you?

It did on the sets of my other movies. I was on Big all the time. I was on Dave all the time. So I think I had a long apprenticeship. And then having studied acting with Stella Adler and having directed theater, I think that I had really prepared myself to direct. I also shot second-unit on Big. There was a lot of stuff that I had really prepared for by the time I did get a chance to direct. And also, Pleasantville was a very long prep, so I was able to prepare to shoot that as well.

Pleasantville was a movie I loved and still love. I wanted to dive into something that was cinematic and visual. If I was going to be a director, I just didn’t want it to be an extension of writing. I didn’t want that to be a verbal or a literary experience. I wanted it to be a visual experience as well. I think that’s one of the things that drew me to directing Pleasantville first.

You worked on Free State of Jones for around a decade. Were a lot of those years dedicated to research?

It was a tremendous amount of research. I don’t think I did anything but read for a couple of years. And I mean scores of books. I was a visiting fellow at Harvard for a couple of years. I studied under the tutelage of a professor there named John Stauffer, who was head of the American Civilization Department. I spent a lot of time in Jones County visiting it and meeting the local people and getting the local flavor and doing kind of a visceral history.

I really had to learn a lot before I could ever write this movie. I had to learn the entire background of the Civil War. And because so much of this movie refutes the revisionism that’s been around the Civil War, I had to become extra steeped in a lot of the historiography, which is the history of history, and the way the history has evolved and the way our memory of the Civil War has evolved in order to….which is a pretty new perspective in order to debunk a lot of the myths that had been promulgated about the Civil War, and especially Reconstruction.

So that’s a long, long process where you are needing to master and understand a lot of material that may be outside the particular story that you are telling in order to have a supercontext.

The film focuses on Reconstruction quite a bit, and it’s easy to imagine someone else finishing this story with some victorious moment after the Civil War has ended.

Well, you know, that version would have been the white savior movie. That version would have been, “Oh, there’s a triumphant victory, and everything is fine,” and we tie it up with a Hollywood bow and there’s a happy ending. But we all know there wasn’t a happy ending. No sooner was technical emancipation granted than the former Confederates got their land and their power back and began passing laws which were called The Black Codes that were a form of re-enslavement and driving people back to the plantation, driving freed men back to the plantation.

And what ensued was a 10-year struggle over the meaning of freedom, which sadly led to an abdication by the North, a quasi-victory by the South, the reinstitution of a kind of agrarian labor system that morphed into sharecropping and the birth of Jim Crow. So there’s no happy ending there. And there’s no false Hollywood ending there. I’d rather tell the truth than give people a false happy ending or some false satisfaction.

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