The High Stakes Behind 'Hunger Games'

 Joe Pugliese

Director Gary Ross and the cast on the behind-the-scenes drama of the $90 million Lionsgate epic that should bring young people back to the movies, propel Jennifer Lawrence into the stratosphere and launch another (fingers crossed) "Twilight"-sized franchise.


None of this was evident when ross committed to the film.

A big, ebullient man best known for his writing (with Oscar nominations for 1988's Big and 1993's Dave), he grew up in Hollywood, the son of Arthur A. Ross, writer of Creature From the Black Lagoon.

He was used to a comfortable life with his wife, producer Allison Thomas (2008's The Tale of Despereaux), writing in the morning, working out in the afternoon and earning several hundred thousand dollars a month as one of Hollywood's top script doctors. Every film Ross had helmed, including 1998's Pleasantville, had come from his own mind; he'd never had to compete as a director-for-hire -- let alone against Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and David Slade (Twilight: Eclipse), who also were salivating after Games.

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Nor had he encountered the kind of turbulence surrounding a major franchise. It wasn't just that fans put everything under a microscope, lashing out when Lawrence, a blonde, was cast as the olive-skinned Katniss ("I talked to Suzanne; Katniss' ethnicity is unspecified in the book," says Ross of the character many believe to be biracial); Lionsgate itself was under fire.

The company had been dogged by flops, and more would follow (Abduction, Conan the Barbarian). Its stock was battered by Wall Street following a slew of attacks from investor Carl Icahn, who was attempting to oust its leaders, Jon Feltheimer and Michael Burns. The mini-major wasn't just making Hunger Games; it was living through Hunger Games of its own.

Why would Ross want to deal with this when the nearly two years he'd spend on the movie would wrench him away from his family and pay $3 million to $4 million, a pittance in Hollywood terms? "I hadn't seen a piece of material that touched the culture and moved me the same way in a very long time," he explains. "And if you fully commit, you fully commit."

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Which is precisely what he did once Lionsgate brought him on, rewriting a script by Billy Ray (after Collins had done her own draft) and plunging into the world he wished to create.

Ross' likable, easygoing manner can mask his considerable intellect. This is a man with a passion for J.D. Salinger who recently had taken a Harvard course on the Civil War. Even during the shoot, he'd find time to wander the bookstores of Asheville, N.C., walking out with a new edition of Shakespeare, "just to see if that would make him think further," says Lionsgate production president Alli Shearmur.

That probing mind worked in tandem with a healthy pragmatism -- and Ross had to be pragmatic because Lionsgate operated on a tight budget. True, the studio was handing Collins hundreds of thousands to option her novels (and will end up paying her millions if the films succeed), but it was hoping to make Games for $60 million -- more than the $35 million Summit had paid for Twilight but negligible for a tentpole that needed months on location and 1,200 CGI shots.

Ross wrote a script that would give the material its due without costing a fortune (the picture eventually came in at slightly more than $90 million, reduced to $78 million after subsidies). He drew on his familiarity with such intimidating places as China's Tiananmen Square and the architectural form known as Brutalism when it came to conceiving the Capitol -- the city at the center of Collins' brave new world of Panem, set hundreds of years in the future. But more than the place, it was the people who concerned him.

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"It's such a beautiful story about someone who has to learn to trust, who cares only about herself and her sister and learns to care about other people," he notes.

Numerous actresses were considered for the lead -- among them Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) -- but Ross never felt he had the right person. He needed a woman young enough to play a teenager, vulnerable enough to capture audiences' emotions and strong enough for this endurance test.

Then he met Lawrence, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Winter's Bone, the 2010 indie release that put her on the map.

Sitting with Ross in a very un-chic Indian restaurant in Hollywood, where he knows every dish by heart, his belief in her comes through almost by osmosis. "There was such a power and an intensity and a command," he says. "I was floored."

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But Lawrence hesitated, aware this could take her from being respected by peers to the center of a pop-culture tornado -- precisely the fate that had befallen Kristen Stewart with Twilight.

"It was the middle of the night in England, and I was in bed when I got the call," she remembers. "I was so in love with the books and the script, and suddenly it was right in my face -- and the size of the decision was terrifying."

Three days later, however, Lawrence said yes, even though the pay was a modest $500,000 (about what Stewart received for the first Twilight), plus "escalators," bonuses based on the movie's performance.

Hemsworth (The Last Song) was chosen to play Gale, with whom Katniss hunts in their home, District 12, and Hutcherson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) took the role of Peeta, a fellow "tribute," or competitor, in the games. The cast was rounded out with seasoned actors Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland and Toby Jones.

Hunger Games was ready to begin filming in and around Asheville on May 23, 2011.

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