The High Stakes Behind 'Hunger Games'
On Sept. 6, 2010, Gary Ross boarded a plane from Los Angeles for New York, carrying art boards and a seven-minute film he'd made with thousands of dollars of his own money.
Ross was nervous: He was about to meet with the top brass at Lionsgate and pitch himself as director of their most high-profile project, The Hunger Games. The then-53-year-old hadn't made a film since Seabiscuit seven years earlier, and even though he was a four-time Oscar nominee, he was an unlikely candidate for what the independent studio hoped to be a major franchise.
"You wouldn't look at a premise like Hunger Games and think Gary Ross," he admits of the venture, based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling young-adult novel set in a futuristic America where a bright 16-year-old girl is forced to take part in gladiator-like combat -- kill or be killed.
So Ross came prepared. "I had seven or eight concept artists put boards together," he recalls, "and I interviewed my kids and a lot of their friends to hear what they thought about the book."
For two hours, he laid out his vision, helped by stacks of images from artists including Max Beckmann that he'd lined around the walls and by the short film featuring his teenage twins, Claudia and Jack, explaining why the book meant so much to them.
"You could really feel his passion," says producer Nina Jacobson, "and it was channeled through the young people in his life."
One week after the Toronto film festival, Ross learned he had the job. He knew it was a plum gig but didn't realize what a phenomenon Games would become -- and how much his film, the first of a planned four movies based on Collins' trilogy (including sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay), meant to the studio releasing it.
The first book, published in 2008, was just beginning its vertiginous ascent of the best-seller list (with some 23.5 million copies of the trilogy sold as of late January). There had been no event like it in the white-hot young-adult genre since Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Unlike her novels, the Games books appeal to male as well as female readers, further upping the potential for a blockbuster, four-quadrant series -- which may bring back young audiences who've been fleeing the multiplex in droves.
"After the trailer launched Nov. 14, we had 8 million views in the first 24 hours," says Lionsgate Films president Joe Drake. "We were the No. 1 Twitter trend on the planet. Since then, the book sales have jumped 7.5 million copies. That kind of data gives us enormous confidence."
Hollywood is expecting the PG-13 Games to be the dominant picture of the spring when it opens March 23 on more than 4,000 screens. Its reception could determine whether its stars -- Jennifer Lawrence, 21; Josh Hutcherson, 19; and Liam Hemsworth, 22 -- ascend to Stewart-Pattinson-Lautner superstardom and fill the gap as Twilight heads toward its final chapter.
For Lionsgate, which has struggled recently at the box office, Games is its first major test since acquiring Summit Entertainment, the studio behind Twilight, in January -- a move that yokes together execs responsible for the most recent youth phenomenon with those hoping to launch the next. Games' success could impact the future of many at Lionsgate, all eager to claim credit for the Collins adaptation, now that Summit's Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger have been tapped to run the film division.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
Ross came as prepared for the shoot as he'd been for his initial meeting with Lionsgate. He spent weeks working out a shot list -- not a storyboard, but the camera setups he needed.
He knew this was necessary for the kind of guerrilla filmmaking he planned, especially for scenes shot in the woods at altitudes of 4,000 feet and above, where he was adamant the material be filmed with handheld cameras to give it "urgency."
And yet he stayed calm, despite the pressure, even when Lawrence was rushed to the hospital in North Carolina, days before shooting.
On the last day of her six-week training phase, in which she'd become an expert at using a bow and arrow, climbing and jumping, she hit a wall -- literally. "I had to do 10 'wall runs,' where you run at the wall as hard as you can to get traction," she recalls, explaining that her trainer would make her race at maximum speed to gain the momentum needed to propel her up. "I ran at it and my foot didn't go up, so I caught the wall with my stomach. My trainer thought I had burst my spleen. I had to get a CAT scan and go into a tube where they put this fiery liquid in your body."
Fortunately, she was in great shape from her previous film. "I was still pretty bulked up from X-Men: First Class," she says. "So a lot of the training was getting muscle back, heightening the muscles without building them. I loved the archery -- well, I have a love-hate relationship with it." With her trainer holding her hand, Lawrence learned she was badly bruised but nothing was broken -- and work could continue.
That was good news for Ross. "There's such a power and a truth to her acting," he says. "She has absolute, total control over what she's doing. I've never worked with anyone more talented than her -- ever. A talent like this comes once in a generation."
He speaks admiringly of Lawrence's courage as she kept going in the woods that he'd fought to use as a location, despite being pushed to shoot in a state with larger subsidies. Of course, there was a price to pay -- he had to trudge to isolated locations and deal with the fact there were no trailers this far from real roads. Not surprisingly, Ross lost 25 pounds in the process -- though he says he wanted to do that anyway.
"The pressure is always to go where it's cheapest," says Jon Kilik (Babel), who joined Jacobson as a producer, citing Eastern Europe, Louisiana and Georgia as possibilities that came up. "But we wouldn't have found the Americana that gave Gary the verite he demanded. It's like he carried a lie detector around with him and could tell if the look was contrived."
Then there were the bears, some 300 living in the woods, that would come out at the slightest scent of food. And there was the 100-degree heat and rain that showered daily, almost precisely at 4 p.m., at least allowing Ross an opportunity to give his team a break. Between the rain and losing light early behind the trees, "we'd only get to shoot four or five hours a day," he says.
But Jacobson (who'd obtained the book's rights against fierce competition from the likes of Ridley Scott) says Ross was never ruffled. Adds Hutcherson, "He always had a smile on his face" -- even during the hardest moments.
One scene, in which Katniss climbs a tree to cut down a nest of super-wasps (or "tracker jackers"), meant dismantling a crane and putting it back together high on a platform in the conifers. Another involved staging real-life fires in the woods, through which Lawrence had to run -- not easy when she confused which trees would explode.
But Ross relished it all, even filming in a spooky former cigarette factory that had been converted into soundstages, where the second half of the shoot took place.
"It was like going to work on a Stanley Kubrick film every day; the creepiness actually intrigued me," he says. Still, he admits, "all of us were done with it by the end of the shoot."
Sitting with lawrence and ross on jan. 17 as they loop dialogue at the Todd-AO sound studios in Hollywood, there's an ease and comfort that's hard to miss. Lawrence jokes that she directed all the good parts, and "Gary did everything else." Seriously, she says later: "He pushed me and challenged me as an actor. He's brilliant."
On March 23, the world will discover if she's right when Games opens. Lionsgate is mimicking Summit's strategy, splitting the last of Collins' trilogy into two films, and even borrowing from its fan-centric marketing plans (the casting of "tributes," for instance, was revealed on a Games Facebook page). "We started this District 12 site, where each district voted a mayor," says Drake. "People are creating their own trailers, their own art. And we've launched this Capitol couture site and are treating it as a fashion [hub]. It's just blown out across the board."
But in a post-Twilight world, expectations are high and there is no guarantee Games will come close to Twilight's global take of $2.2 billion.
Investors have pushed Lionsgate stock up in the weeks since the Summit deal, partly because they think combining Twilight's executives with the Games fan base will work magic for this new franchise. But few people -- and none of the cast -- have seen the finished film, despite a worldwide marketing campaign that ranges from action figures to nail polish. Everyone, everywhere, is waiting to see if the movie delivers.
"The pop-culture buzz around the film virtually ensures that it will gross at least $150 million domestically, with good prospects overseas as well," wrote Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan in a Jan. 17 report.
Ross is hoping he's right.
In the darkness, he shows me the almost-finished scene where Katniss attempts to climb that tree with the tracker-jacker nest. The lush setting, with the sound of nature pulsating around her, makes it riveting.
Ross already is committed to the first sequel, Catching Fire, which he hopes to start shooting in September from a script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and the three young stars are signed for the full franchise.
The director remains as mesmerized by the material as when he first read it: "It's so cinematic and has such a human directorial canvas -- the relationships, the depth, the intimate moments," he says. "You rarely find all that in a single movie, along with this kind of Roman spectacle, what entertainment as a political device can devolve to. That's a really interesting idea. It's Survivor at large."
BOOKS SHOWDOWN: HUNGER GAMES VS. TWILIGHT: The Hunger Games trilogy is the first real challenger to the young-adult romance thriller crown since the first of four Twilight books debuted in October 2005. How does the challenger stack up to the champ?
- The Hunger Games: 200,000 (2008)
- Twilight: 75,000 (2005)
First Printing for Book Three in the Series
- The Hunger Games: 1.2 million (Mockingjay)
- Twilight: 1 million (Eclipse)
Weeks on New York Times Children's Series Best-Seller List
- The Hunger Games: 74
- Twilight: 203
Copeis of Series in Print on the Eve of the First Movie's Release
- The Hunger Games: 23.5 million (2012)
- Twilight: 30 million (2008)
Months to Go From Book to Screen
- The Hunger Games: 42
- Twilight: 37
GARY ROSS' FAVORITE FILMS: The filmmaker has learned from the masters and compares the tobacco factory where his own film was shot to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
- Modern Times (1936)
- The Bicycle Thief (1949)
- Dr. Strangelove (1964)
- The Godfather, Parts I and 2 (1972, 1974)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
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