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Jennifer Lawrence may star in not just one but two movies adapted from John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden, writer-director Gary Ross said April 12. Ross helped launch Lawrence into global stardom with The Hunger Games.
“It may be two films,” he said. “We may break it in half, into one generation and the next. And that’s what we’re talking about now.”
The picture is in development at Brian Grazer‘s and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, with no start date yet set. Just when it shoots will depend on her crammed schedule and also Ross’s, as he weighs whether to make that his next film (and his first since The Hunger Games.)
“It’s one of the things that is sort of on my plate, [that] I’m interested in doing,” he said. “I’m not certain if it’s the next movie. Part of that is my schedule. Part of that is Jennifer’s schedule as well. But it’s definitely something that we intend to do.”
Ross spoke to students at Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television in the continuing interview series The Hollywood Masters, moderated by THR’s Stephen Galloway. Others who have taken part in the series include Alfonso Cuaron, David O. Russell, Judd Apatow, John Singleton, Alan Horn, William Friedkin and Sherry Lansing.
Explaining his involvement, Ross — whose films include Big (as co-writer, with Anne Spielberg) and Seabiscuit (as writer-director), said: “My kids had actually read it as their summer reading at high school. And I read it along with them, because I’d never read the book, I’d only seen the movie. And I loved the novel. Then I gave it to Justine Ciarrocchi, who is Jennifer’s best friend [and producing partner]. Justine read it and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest novel’ — Justine is wildly into literature and is very, very literate and is a good friend of my kids as well as mine. Then she gave it to Jennifer and Jennifer ‘This is incredible. I love this novel. I’d love to play Cathy Ames.’ So then I called Brian Grazer, who had been a producer on various incarnations of East of Eden, and said, ‘I would love to do this and I think Jennifer would love to play Cathy Ames.’ The rights had just become available again and we set it up at Universal.”
Ross also explained his decision not to direct Catching Fire, the second installment in the Hunger Games franchise. “We got to the end of the process on Hunger Games, and I had literally been only focused on that with the intention of doing it, and then Jennifer’s schedule on X-Men made it very clear to everybody that we were going to have to start the movie in September,” he explained. “I write and direct. That’s just my process. So first I write, and then I direct. And that’s a linear process for me. So, that was an eight-month process on the first movie. It was going to have to be a four-month process on the second movie, and I didn’t think there was adequate time to write a script and then prep that movie in what normally takes me the same amount of time to write the script. Now it’s different when you don’t have to write the script and somebody else can be writing while you can be prepping. But those aren’t simultaneous processes for me and I didn’t feel that I would be doing the movie any service in order to do that.”
A complete transcript follows on the next page.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Hello, I’m Stephen Galloway and welcome to The Hollywood Masters filmed on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. My guest today is one of the most versatile and original filmmakers that we’ve seen in recent years. The range of his films is extraordinary: it’s gone from comedy to period piece to a dystopian view of the future. It’s almost as if each time he’s felt safe with one genre, he’s challenged himself with another. He’s had four nominations from the Oscars in five films, which is an astonishing achievement. I’m really thrilled as the last guest in this season of The Hollywood Masters to welcome Gary Ross.
GARY ROSS: Thank you, good to see you.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Hi, hello.
GARY ROSS: Hi, how are you?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You know we have distinguished priests here so we expect you to be on your best behavior.
GARY ROSS: Yeah, absolutely.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: One of the things that differs you from many of the guests we’ve had is you grew up in Hollywood. Your father was a screenwriter.
GARY ROSS: Yes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Tell us a bit about him, what he wrote, and how having a father who was a writer impacted you.
GARY ROSS: Oh, I think in a lot of ways. First of all, your dad’s home every day. Everybody else, their father would get up and go to the office. As simple as this sounds, I was never aware of what a real job was. It’s not like my father went away and went to the office. So, I think I had one advantage in that this was a very normal way to make a living for me. It didn’t seem like a kind of aberrant or audacious way to try to earn a living. I grew up hearing the clacking of keys — ’cause then it was a typewriter of course—in his little studio above the garage. So that was something I was raised with. You know, I also think that I saw the struggle. And I think that informed a lot of me. I saw the disappointment and the difficulty of trying to be an artist in a world that commands commerce, and also doesn’t respect writers that much. It’s very, very, very hard. I shouldn’t say this. How many of you want to be screenwriters in here? [MANY HANDS ARE RAISED]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Oh, wow, that’s a lot.
GARY ROSS: Cool. It’s hard to be a screenwriter because everybody can spell and read, so everybody thinks they can write. And everyone has an opinion on what they read. So it’s, and I often think composers face similar difficulties at times. Everybody likes music so everybody thinks they’re an expert in music. So I would see some of the difficulties he would face. I think that informed me as well. More than anything, I grew up in a world where literature and plays and movies and cinema were the lifeblood of the household. It was not a strange world that I longed for and joined. It was my upbringing.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Your father was blacklisted.
GARY ROSS: Yes. My dad was never a member of the communist party. He was involved in a lot of liberal organizations, most specifically anti-nuclear organizations. He referred to himself as “gray-listed” or “dark-gray-listed.” In other words, he could write certain places, there were other places that were more difficult. He was never subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. But he sort of self-identified as being blacklisted or “dark-gray-listed”, as he put it, because he had a great deal of difficulty in working certain places, as were many of his peers. I grew up with all those stories in the household about what it was like to live in that era and what it felt like. The only solace of which was, your friends were in the same boat you were. So there was at least, although it was a very difficult and dangerous and occasionally paranoid time, there was also a support system of other people who were going through it as well.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You didn’t initially want to write. You wanted to go into politics.
GARY ROSS: That’s very true.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: He says it with such a smile!
GARY ROSS: It is true. It’s funny though, I always did write. When I was in fourth grade I wrote the school play, when I was in fifth grade I wrote the school play. I wrote short stories instead of papers. I was always, I acted in the theater, I directed in the theater. But if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said president — not knowing at the time I was Jewish and that was impossible, at least in that era it felt that way. But I wanted to go into politics.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why?
GARY ROSS: I think also, I grew up in the 60s and 70s. I was a child in a very, very turbulent era. My parents were very politically committed, both of them. My mother was a — we didn’t eat a grape in my family. I didn’t taste a grape, probably from the age of eight to twelve during the grape boycott. I remember leafleting for Cesar Chavez outside of Gelson’s. Politics was just so the center of the household, and that kind of political commitment. I wouldn’t say it was radical in any way, but it was leftist/center politics. It was what I was raised around and I felt a certain commitment to it. I worked for Bobby Kennedy after school and I was very, very committed and passionately engaged in that. After his assassination, I sort of, well, damn it, I’m going to fix this. I’ll be president one day. I stayed very active and committed to politics, in part because that was the era. But all the while, there was kind of an artist that was itching to be born, despite what my public protestations were. So, when I was a senior in high school I wrote a novella, like an eighty-page kind of satire. Just a little thing. I remember a friend’s father saying to me, well I bet you’re going to be a writer. And I just looked at this guy and I said, you know, I bet you’re right. And it was the first time I’d ever said it out loud–that I had renounced one identity for another. From that moment on I thought that I would have a life in the arts.
GALLOWAY: You went to the University of Pennsylvania.
GARY ROSS: I did.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You dropped out. Why?
GARY ROSS: First, I don’t recommend it, if you’re in college. And I’m not just saying this for your parents’ sake. I would recommend that you finish.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You notice this is being filmed and the moment the cameras stop, he’ll tell you the truth.
GARY ROSS: No, no, no. It’s actually true. I think that I wanted to be a writer. I knew that a degree wasn’t really that important for what I was doing. I wanted to write novels at that point. And I thought that I should get on with the business of being a novelist. Plus, at that point I’d taken every literature course at my university. I went to University of Pennsylvania, and I took every one that they had to offer. And I wrote a boat load of distribution requirements. So, I couldn’t imagine just taking math and science for my final year instead of writing. At that point I thought I didn’t really know what the difference is, because it’s not like any publisher, Simon and Schuster is going to say, you know, we love the novel but where’s the diploma? So I decided that I should just sort of make a go of it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Then what did you do?
GARY ROSS: First I ran away with some friends to South Carolina and I worked for a little while down there on a fishing boat. We…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What did you fish for?
GARY ROSS: It was out on the Gulf Stream. We could, they would pay like a dollar a pound for grouper, so we spent a little while out there fishing. I would sell them, and my expenses were rather low. But then I wasn’t really sure what to do in any kind of a real sense. I had studied with Stella Adler, who is a very famous acting teacher. I had studied with Stella Adler every summer, almost since I was out of high school. I studied with her in New York a little while after that. But I had a novel in me and decided that’s what I wanted to do. So I went back, moved into my childhood room and went to write the novel
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I want to pause on Stella Adler for a bit because I know she had quite an influence on you.
GARY ROSS: Huge.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you know her through your parents?
GARY ROSS: Yes, she was a friend of my parents. My living room was a very active place with a lot of vibrant, very interesting people when I was growing up. Stella was a close friend of my parents. So I grew up around her, but then I began to study with her. For, how many of you guys want to be directors, just out of curiosity? How many of you study acting that want to be directors? Good, it’s really important I think. Stella had an enormous impact on my life. She, there was really three disciples of Stanislavsky. There was Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner and Lee Strasberg. In America the method breaks down into those three branches. I think Sandy Meisner and Stella Adler on one side and Strasberg on the other. So I had the unique and rare opportunity toward the end of her life to study with someone who had studied personally with Stanislavsky and brought the method to America and founded The Group Theater. And it was just kind of a revelation every day; the amount of wisdom that was imparted, the amount that I learned, the vocabulary that I still have from being able to talk to actors, how I was able to even inform my writing with it in sort of digging deep and understanding the author’s intentions and what the thematic thrust of the material should be. Almost the same techniques that Stella used in her script interp[retation], I tried to apply to my writing when I was coming of age as a writer. So that was a really incredibly valuable, electric, amazing experience. She was incredibly inspirational.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What would she teach you?
GARY ROSS: She taught me, well a million little things about the way a scene works, a million little things about what truth in acting is, about how to achieve the truth and not play a result, how to find what the reality in a moment is, how to build a whole character, how to get underneath the guts of character, how to make your reality real for yourself as an actor. You know, I’ve worked with a lot of actors who have very, very little experience in fact: some of the people with smaller parts in The Hunger Games or things like that. So, having even that ability to be able to share with them, or even having the vocabulary to be able to talk to them like Joan Allen or Jeff Bridges, that I have that experience so I can communicate with an actor in a vocabulary that is familiar to them, and that they’re used to is enormously valuable. Stella was also very awe-inspiring about what great writing is. Her script interp class was legendary. The people who were in it here, you would walk in and it was sort of gob smacking, the people who were sitting in that class. You’d be, oh there’s Karl Malden; it was remarkable.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And how’d you do that. What did you…
GARY ROSS: The first thing Stella would do, she would say, what is the milieu the author is writing in? In other words, if we’re going to look at Ibsen we have to look at Norway in the mid-1800s. And this is where she really diverged from Strasberg: it’s not about your life; it’s not about your upbringing. It’s about the author, his or her sensibilities, where they come from, and what they’re trying to express. So that’s the first thing you have to do, is understand it in that context. Then, she thought it was very empowering to the actor to be able to use their own imagination to build fictional circumstances around them, instead of just pulling on their own imagination. She would yell at us. She could be rough, man. She would yell at us and be, if you go off your experience, you’re limited by your own imagination. Right? If you actually can dive into who Ibsen, or who Strindberg, or who Tennessee Williams, or who Arthur Miller was, you’re limited by nothing except your own ability to work hard and make those circumstances real for yourself. So, she felt that to just be limited, and this is where she diverged from Strasberg, to just be limited to your own personal experience, was disempowering to the actor. ‘Cause it took the bat out of their hands, it stopped them from being an artist and it actually created what she felt was more of a neurotic process.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Were you a good actor?
GARY ROSS: No, I sucked. [LAUGHTER]
GARY ROSS: But I love acting and I love actors. And I think it’s the hardest job on a movie and I’ve always had an enormous amount of respect for actors. And I think that what a brilliant actor can do is just magic, and I’m awed by it. I still love that about my job so much. I love the give and take with actors. That it’s just a well this was interesting, what if we try it this way. Maybe, even when I wrote it, maybe it means this, maybe it means that. Let’s do one more where it means such and such. That there is an investigation and a dance that goes on as you sort of dig deeper and look at the different layers — potentially — that are under a performance. So, I love that and I think that the training helped me be a director and the training helped me be a writer, but training can’t give you talent.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: At what point did you feel that you had that or were you confident about what you were doing as a writer? Do you feel confident?
GARY ROSS: I don’t know, tomorrow? I’ll feel confident in what I’m doing as a writer tomorrow. No, I think that there’s no magic moment. You have, in your youth you have hubris and sometimes false confidence and drive and determination. And experience or ‘wisdom’ displaces a lot of that as you accrue your 10,000 hours. And I just think that’s a gradual process, where it’s always a tension between being fresh and inventive and as you were observing in the introduction, testing yourself. And challenging yourself and finding things that are new and maybe even a little bit scary or different so that it doesn’t become rote, you’re not playing golden oldies. There’s a great joke in the theater about a guy who is opening night at this comedy. And he gets to this one moment in the thing and he asks for a cup of coffee and it’s the biggest laugh in the show. And he turns to the guy and says, can I have a cup of coffee? Brings the house down, stops it for five minutes. So, maybe two three months go by and they take the show out on the road and he gets to the same thing and he says, can I have a cup of coffee? And they’re laughing but they’re not laughing as much. And about three or four months later, he turns to the person and he asks for the cup of coffee, and there’s just dead silence. So he’s flipped out and he calls the original director from the New York production, [he asks] would you just come look at this? ‘Cause you know that moment that used to kill? It’s not getting a laugh, I don’t know what’s going on. The guy says, sure I’ll come take a look. So he gets through the whole thing and sure enough they get through the whole show and comes to the moment and he says, can I have a cup of coffee, dead silence. You can hear a pin drop. The guy comes back stage and he goes, what is it? Like Jules tell me, I don’t know what’s going on? I get to the thing. He goes, it’s easy. Don’t ask for the laugh, ask for the cup of coffee. And it’s a great little apocryphal story because when you just get used to playing your golden oldies or your old standards or your something by rote out of memorization instead of challenging yourself and being a little scared, and exploring things that are new, I think that’s when you start to do things that are potentially stale.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It is an extraordinary thing that there’s a while when people are testing themselves and inventing, and then it runs out. There is that thing in the film industry where people have 15-year careers where they’re at the top and very few then do something new. I was watching some of Howard Hawks’ later films. And I was thinking, I hate to say it, he’s a master but these are awful films. And how is it possible, this man made these amazing movies. By the way there are few majors directors we feel, how could this person have been so inventive…
GARY ROSS: …in one moment of their career….
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Right, are you afraid of that?
GARY ROSS: I think everybody is always afraid when they’re young or old, of the next thing, and you hope it’s good and there’s a little gut check and of course it’s always Gary. I get off on jumping out of the airplane.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When have you been most afraid?
GARY ROSS: First day of shooting. I’m usually… sometimes looking at the rough cut, things like that. Yeah, looking at the rough cut, man. Just sucks. [LAUGHTER] After you’re done throwing up in the trash can. [LAUGHTER]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you feel that with all [of] your films?
GARY ROSS: Oh, sure. I also don’t think I’m invested in perpetuating something. If I was interested in perpetuating something, I would have directed the next Hunger Games. Which I’m sure we’ll get to in a moment and all that.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How did you guess? No, we’re not talking about The Hunger Games today. [LAUGHTER]
GARY ROSS: OK, fair enough. I think it’s always important to test yourself and challenge yourself and try things that are new and even sometimes scary and hopefully that keeps it fresh.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I want to go back to something you said, which is this 10,000 hours idea.
GARY ROSS: Malcolm Gladwell has informed us about that. You, me — and all of us who practice the violin.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you believe it?
GARY ROSS: Yes. I don’t know if it’s 10,000. I think it’s an interesting notion. I just think there are some people who are geniuses. They’re just born… Jennifer is a genius. She was born with a gift that is almost indescribable.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Jennifer Lawrence?
GARY ROSS:Jennifer Lawrence, yeah. Jennifer’s gift is almost indescribable. She was born with this. It’s not experience based. She’s brilliant from the moment she starts to act. I think in what I do, you get better with time and you… I don’t think you can learn everything but you can learn some things.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But acting sort of is proof that that 10,000 hour idea doesn’t work. That there are just extraordinary, talented actors who know it and you see it. We all saw what Lupita Nyong’o did this season. First major screen performance. You had it.
GARY ROSS: Well, Lupita Nyong’o went to Yale Drama.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Yes. That is a great point.
GARY ROSS: And so, it’s nice to think this is just this fresh, amazing talent, but it’s a very learned thing.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But if you look at some kid performances… I watched Kramer vs Kramer again, you’ve seen that because we had Sherry Lansing here. That kid [Justin Henry] is amazing.
GARY ROSS: Well children are kind of a different thing. Part of what we’re all trying to do is learn what children know. Which is a lack of self-consciousness, the ability to pretend, the capacity for make-believe. The ability to inhabit a moment and make it real. I studied for hours and hours and hours to try to make believe with the same efficacy that an 8-year-old can. So I think that children are slightly different in that respect.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Where did you have the most trouble believing?
GARY ROSS: What do you mean?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What scene, what character?
GARY ROSS: There’s always four things that can be wrong with a scene: there’s the writing; there’s the acting; there’s the way you’re shooting it, the camera, or the way it’s staged — the blocking, essentially. You really hope it’s not the writing.
GARY ROSS: I’ve had many scenes, I don’t remember off-hand what’s the most, but I’ve had many scenes that were frustrating. The trick is fixing the right thing and not fixing the wrong things. The trick is having the guts to go, you know what, I wrote that badly. Not, if you would just say it right. You know? Sometimes it’s my fault. It’s the diagnostic skill to understand what it is that’s actually wrong in the scene. I’ll tell you a little kind of secret that’s interesting: when you’re a writer-director, it’s a very tense moment when people come into audition for you for the first time, ‘cause you’re hearing your own words for the first time in an actor’s mouth. So the first couple of auditions, I’m really trying to pay attention to them and their performance and give them their due and work with them. But half of me is kind of flipped out because I’m hearing my own words for the first time and I hope they don’t suck. So there’s tension in that as well. And I think that it’s not always about the acting, it can be a variety of other things. I once shot a scene in Seabiscuit. I just beat the crap out of this and I wasn’t playing. This may be a good example. I was shooting this thing and its just two overs, it was Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper at a campfire. It just wasn’t playing, it wasn’t playing and it was just sitting there. Finally I got out of the set up and I shot them in profile and everything worked. I was eavesdropping by being in a long lens profile. And suddenly, instead of being in the stagey paradigm of two overs, I was observing from the outside two characters at a campfire and it got completely real. And it was really kind of a revelation to me because it got better than it should have with the same performance. I was like, well, yeah, obviously that should make a difference. It made more of a difference than I could have even imagined.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Who do you turn to for advice?
GARY ROSS: A lot of people. Probably my closest relationship as a peer is Steven Soderbergh, he’s the close friend of mine. And a lot of peers as a writer, I have oodles of friends. My friend Danny Strong who wrote Recount and The Butler. My friend Scott Frank, Paul Attanasio, I have a lot of friends…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you inhabit a writer’s circle?
GARY ROSS: I used to more so, but I do know a fair amount of writers, we all know each other. It’s shockingly collegial. It tends to be tremendously supportive. Soderbergh and I have exchanged professional favors for one another for a very, very long time. He shot at Dave’s second unit for me on Hunger Games. I’ve written a lot of stuff for him and helped him in the editing room, and even recorded ADR for him when he couldn’t be there with the actor. So we do stuff like that for one another. But he’s probably, as a director, he’s probably the closest person I have as someone I turn to.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You wrote two screenplays before you wrote the one that put you on the map. Was your father giving you advice then when you were living at home, penniless?
GARY ROSS: What a great question. No.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Not quite penniless, because I think, actually Gary, you were talking about this, you went on a game show.
GARY ROSS: I won $50,000 on Tic-Tac-Dough to keep my screenplay career alive. [LAUGHTER]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That was a lot back then.
GARY ROSS: It was. Adjusted for inflation, it’s probably over $100,000. I know, I was very nervous. I went and I auditioned. Remember these Want Ads in the newspaper, in the Classifieds? I saw a thing asking for contestants, and I went down and I applied. I had a great story to tell. I was a broke, unemployed writer. I didn’t have a television and they were shutting off my phone. So of course they wanted me. And I won, I won some money on a game show, so that kept me afloat for a while. But I was, I was living in my parents’ house for a while.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did your father give you any memorable advice? [LAUGHTER]
GARY ROSS: Some, but that was…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: They laugh because I always ask these questions. You can’t call me Dr. Freud.
GARY ROSS: No, that’s fair. It’s all fair. Some. It’s a two-edged sword. I think that’s loaded because you’re trying to become your own person at the same time you want to get what you can from the mentorship. So I think when you’re that close to the person who is mentoring you, there as much a desire to break free as there is to listen to their guidance. So it’s complicated. I learned a tremendous amount from him. My dad had a great saying: you want to know what it is about movies, this is interesting. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s really good. He said, there’s only two kinds of movies: there’s Cinderella and Jack the Giant Killer in Hollywood movies. It’s really interesting: there’s someone who suddenly gets to go to the ball and there’s another person who fells the giant, as kind of a weird little Joseph Campbell paradigm, I thought it was sort of interesting. But he had little aphorisms like that that he would share freely.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you show him Big?
GARY ROSS: Yeah, absolutely, he came to the premiere. Absolutely.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did he like it?
GARY ROSS: Oh, you mean did I show him the screenplay? Yes, I did.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And you smile answering that.
GARY ROSS: Yeah, you’re so good at your job, Stephen.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: People always say that when they don’t want to answer something. You’re so good at avoiding the question.
GARY ROSS: By the way, bull’s-eye. I did. And I knew that when I showed it to him, he would be both proud and it would also be difficult.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Because?
GARY ROSS: I think because, for him — I don’t think this is true for me as a parent–but I think for him, it was hard for him to see all those capacities in me. I think on some level he felt threatened by them, if I’m going to answer honestly…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at what’s become this iconic scene from Big.
[CLIP FROM THE PIANO-PLAYING SCENE INBIG]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s such a lovely scene, isn’t it?
GARY ROSS: It’s nice to see it again.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I watched that many, many times, and it’s just as charming each time. And they make it look so spontaneous. I’m thinking, hold on, they must have rehearsed this for days.
GARY ROSS: Well it’s funny. There’s a bunch of funny stories. First I need to say that I wrote that movie with a partner, with Anne Spielberg, Steven Spielberg’s sister, or he’s her brother, depending on how you look at that. Annie was the one who spotted the piano in FAO Schwartz and was the one who said to me, we’ve got to use this piano. And I remember being really busy and figuring out some structural pointone day. She was like, Gary this piano, Gary this piano. I remember turning around and being like, Anne, will you stop with the piano already? We’re trying to figure out this scene. She was like, no really. Then I had a look at the piano and we didn’t really know how to use it. Then one day, we realized that, as a duet, it was going to be remarkable that these two people had actually taken piano lessons. Because everybody knows how to play “Heart and Soul” and everybody had that… There’s a lot of things that make that scene work, I think. One of them is the plausibility of it, that’s the biggest thing. That what you’re delighting in isn’t just watching this. You’re delighting in the plausibility of two people who have taken, just the requisite amount of piano lessons, actually being able to do it. This thing could have happened. That’s one thing. The other thing that I think is delightful is the communication between the two of them. It’s a plot point in the movie that he gets the boss’s favor, they communicate, he gets promoted because of it. He gains the eye of the boss. So, it’s that union that happens between them that then catapults the movie forward. So it’s actually something structural within the piece too, and something thematic. Because, unwittingly, by being this spontaneous child, it’s also pulling Tom Hanks out of a world of being a child into a world of being an adult. So there’s a price to be paid in that and it’s actually the fulcrum in center of the movie. There’s a lot of things that make it work. As you and I were saying before, sometimes, the plot is the least important. I think the thing that makes it work, and I’m not sure that this would exist today in the movies, is just patience. We sit in that scene for two minutes. We live in a culture that has a lot less patience than that. I think the fact that the scene can spool out for that long, it’s two verses of “Heart and Soul,” it’s two verses of “Chopsticks”. We just sit in it and enjoy it and allow it to build. That not cutting, not driving pace, not being relentless about pushing the movie forward and letting you just sit in it is what makes this scene kind of magical and work.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And you don’t think you can do that today?
GARY ROSS: I wonder. I wonder. I think that there’s an anxiety of just driving the movie forward as if shorter is always better. And I think that being able to sit in a scene like that, it’s what you go to the movies for.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: The pace of cutting has changed.
GARY ROSS: Very much so.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you feel, when you’re editing now, that you have to cut faster?
GARY ROSS: I don’t think you have to cut faster, no. I think you can. But there used to be a rule of thumb that was really interesting. That in order for an audience to assimilate a cut, it had to be the length of your arm. In other words, the length of film, this long, which I guess is what, two feet. So it’s 18frames a foot, so that’s 36 frames. So, a second and a half essentially, right? That was the smallest cut that an audience could assimilate. Now we know there are two-frame, three-frame cuts. That’s just commonplace.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: We were talking briefly about William Friedkin, who was a guest. His book talks about The French Connection. And how the established studio editors were loath to cut as fast as he wanted. How those one or two frame cuts…
GARY ROSS: Because it seemed so audacious or more than people could tolerate.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: On the other hand, I always admire those directors who could use long shot and not cuts.
GARY ROSS: Me too, completely. When you see older movies, it’s so interesting that they’ll allow the acting to play for a page, for a page and a half, without chopping it up and popping in a coverage. And when you pop into a close up, it’s almost like what a musical entrance is now: it’s to punctuate something, it isn’t just, that’s the way we’re covering the scene.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Who are the filmmakers who most influenced you? [Frank] Capra?
GARY ROSS: I don’t know if he’s influenced me. I’ve certainly been compared to him a fair amount. I don’t think I’m as naïve as Capra, I hope not. Especially in the beginning of my career, I was compared to Capra a lot, I think because of the fable-istic quality of the movies. Certainly, Dave has a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington kind of ethos. Obviously, I don’t think Pleasantville had anything like, It’s a Wonderful Life…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Who would the filmmakers be who really…
GARY ROSS: …oh whoM I love? It would be hubris on my part to say they’ve influenced me because you don’t want to claim to be appear in any way… But who are my favorite filmmakers? Stanley Kubrick is probably my favorite filmmaker, because I think he mastered every single (genre) … he made the best comedy, he made the best horror film, he made the best war movie, he made two of the best war movies. Three of the best war movies.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You haven’t sat through the whole of The Shining.
GARY ROSS: I did finally.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Shame on you, come on! [LAUGHTER]
GARY ROSS: No, I did. I was telling Stephen before that, because I’m a writer, I would get all the way up to ‘all work and no play make Jack a dull boy’ and I would have to turn it off because I was just flipped out scared. But he mastered every single genre. It’s remarkable the amount of different tones, how consistent the work is and how unified it is, and at the same time, like I said, it’s a horror movie, it’s a war movie, it’s a comedy, it’s a couple of comedies. One of the best noir movies ever made is The Killing. It’s remarkable. There’s just no one else like it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: When you made Big, did you have a model?
GARY ROSS: Yes, not a model at all. But there was definitely… the thing we talked about the most was Hal Ashby’s Being There.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Have you all seen Being There?
GARY ROSS: The misinterpretation of his innocence was something we were cognizant of in how the guilelessness of Tom Hanks could read like the most brilliant corporate maneuver in the world. We were slightly aware of that. And I think that there was also a classicism in the storytelling that we were aspiring to, which could be any variety of movies.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Define classicism.
GARY ROSS: Well that there’s a structural integrity to the arc, that there’s almost inevitability to the flow of the story. It’s the journey of a prodigal son who returns home. That could go all the way back to Ulysses, if you want. It is that prodigal’s journey; that he leaves, he acquires wisdom, he grows, he returns. So, there’s a classicism in that idea. Now, it’s within a kid in New York, a comedy, a toy company and all that. But I think that what makes it emotional or resonant is the prodigal’s return. That’s something you kind of feel in your bones. We certainly didn’t invent it, we borrowed it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You could almost say that those films had a bigger influence on the next clip that I want to look at, in Dave. There are a lot of similarities between Being There and Capra in Dave. So let’s take a look at a scene from Dave.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s gripping. You had trouble writing Dave. Why?
GARY ROSS: It was so hard. As easy as Big was. First of all, Anne and I outlined the whole plot of big in an hour and half. And it never changed. It was ‘cause it was like this, once it occurred to you, it was this little fable, you just sort of picked it up in the woods and took it home. It wasn’t like it had to be conjured in any way. It was just sort of whole. I came up with the idea at lunch. Anne lived down the block from me. I borrowed a chafing dish from her, she’s my friend. And I returned this thing, and I said, you know I had this idea earlier in the day. She said, what? I said, this kid makes a wish, da da da. Then we started pitching, ‘cause we love pitching ideas. We started spit-balling this thing in a group. She went, this is great, I’ve got to get a tape recorder. She went to get the tape-recorder, she turned it on. In real time, we came up with literally the whole movie and it never changed. That recording is on the DVD now. So you can hear us, literally coming up with, oh yeah what if he joins a toy company, that kind of thing. It was so simple, and it was so easy that it was almost the wrong lesson to learn, it seemed so effortless. And Dave, which is not the greatest premise for a movie, or a very difficult one, it could be awful, that a guy who looks like the president, and he’s a look-alike stepping in for the president… it could just be terrible if it doesn’t feel real or having a reason, or an emotional underpinning or all of that. It could just be dreadful. I was very conscious of the fact that this always had to feel real. Normally in a movie there’s one buy and it’s a suspension of disbelief. So in Big, for example, once he becomes Tom Hanks, everything else is kind of inevitable. He’s stuck in this grownup’s body and you don’t have to constantly revive or shore up the premise, but in Dave you’re constantly having to make it real in every single moment because everybody knows what politics really is because they see it everyday on the news. And so, if it’s not real, the BS detector is going to go off immediately. So that was part of the problem. The other part that was difficult for me is that I was following up Big. It’s kind of sophomore jinx a little bit. I was really young when we did Big. We got nominated for an Oscar, it made all this money, everybody really liked it. And I just felt enormous pressure, and then Anne and I, although great friends, had decided to write on our own. So there was that pressure as well.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why?
GARY ROSS: Why did we decide to write on our own? I don’t think we ever really wanted to form a permanent team. We just had this… like I said I just walked down the road with a chaffing dish, next thing you know I had a partner. It’s not like I decided to be. And Annie is still a great friend of mine. But it wasn’t like we set out to form a partnership. So, I was feeling some of that pressure, but also it was just a very, very difficult thing to make real and to work. I wrote a bad draft of it. I was on—by the way, for all you screenwriters out there, if you see the page count growing and growing and growing and growing, most of the time there’s something wrong. I was on page 170 and climbing. Then I went to the dentist’s office. I was under the influence of nitrous oxide
GARY ROSS: It’s true. And I had this drug-addled vision under the influence of this dental anesthesia that I had really screwed up the movie. All my defenses were reassuring me consciously during the day. Then, once I was on nitrous oxide I was like, oh God this sucks. And I realized that I screwed up the movie. Unfortunately when the nitrous oxide wore off, and the dental work was complete, I didn’t feel any better. The insight remained with me, that this was really bad. So I gave — what all Jewish boys do — I gave the movie to my mother. I said, have a look at this and tell me what you think. She said to me, you know, you really screwed this up. This is awful. She was very blunt. Very nice lady, but she was very blunt with me. I went yeah, but why do you think? She went, ‘cause you’re avoiding a political point of view. She said, you’re trying to make this politically neutral. She said to me, I remember these Capra films, Gary. They were about something. She wasn’t given to that, but she was that day. I went, oh, that’s really interesting. Then I made a slight adjustment at the outset of the movie where I turned him into a guy who ran a temp agency. He got people jobs. That he actually had a kind of an empathy or a passion or a connection to the common man, where this was his vocation anyway. He just happened to get people jobs on a much more microcosmic level than one can as president of the United States. That slight change was all the difference in re-writing the screenplay. I remember at the time, they were bugging me to turn the script in, there was a director who was interested. I just knew that if I turned the script in and I wasn’t happy with it, and they didn’t like it, I’d never forgive myself. But if I turned the script in and I was finally happy with it and if they didn’t like it then that was okay because at least I had satisfied myself. So I remember saying to my wife, do you mind if we take out a loan on the house because I need to re-write the script? Yeah. So we got a second mortgage, and I threw the first draft away and I wrote it again from scratch. That draft worked in part because I’d made that change, that his character believed in something, it committed to the stuff in the center of the movie that he was able to commit to. It gave the movie a hinge in the middle. The middle is kind of everything. So that made a big difference and that became the movie…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I was amazed: Gary was telling me the other day that it was hard to write something, he just couldn’t get it to work. So he gave the money back to the studio. They weren’t happy.
GARY ROSS: They weren’t. They were mad at me.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Was your wife?
GARY ROSS: She was fine about it. No, they were really mad at me. It was so funny. I won’t say what the studio was, but I was writing this thing, and it was between Dave and Pleasantville. It was a political thing. There was good stuff in it — it wasn’t terrible. But, as a whole thing it didn’t really work. I wasn’t really clear on the protagonist, I wasn’t totally clear on what it meant, I was pushing. I could feel myself pushing, the point of view was a little confused. And I went to the studio and I said, I’m going to give you your money back, because this didn’t work. They got so pissed off that I thought I would not give them the movie, and I was like, you don’t understand, I’m giving you the money back. How could you be upset at that? They were just more like, they thought I was going to work for someone… Then I said I was going to go write this movie that ended up being Pleasantville for another studio and they got enraged. You know, there was nothing I could do.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Before we get there, it’s interesting that with your president fantasies that you write a movie about a guy who becomes president.
GARY ROSS: Yeah, right? Wish fulfillment.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I think you were actually brought in to advise one president.
GARY ROSS: Oh, many.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Well, let’s talk about Bill Clinton.
GARY ROSS: Oh, that thing I told you.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you all remember — how can you remember, you weren’t born? — have you read that Bill Clinton got in trouble because he had a $400 haircut?
GARY ROSS: On Air Force One.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Right. Does anybody know about this? No one knows about this. Back then, $400 was real money.
GARY ROSS: I’m about to get a whole lot of people mad at me–most likely my friend, Dee Dee Meyers, who worked for Bill Clinton at the time. I occasionally contributed lines and stuff like that for the President: jokes, lines, things like that, gridiron dinners, nothing substantive. But I got a call one day from the White House, saying the president is about to have a press conference in the Rose Garden. No doubt the $400 haircut will come up. Can you think of any lines that might help? I thought this whole thing was stupid, who cares. A $400 haircut? We spend a lot of money on the president, so like, okay, he’s getting a haircut. They said, do you have anything when he’s asked about the haircut, what should he say? I said, he should say, I’m just glad they didn’t find out about the manicure.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How long did it take you to come up with that?
GARY ROSS: It was pretty instant.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Wow, that’s good. That’s very good.
GARY ROSS: But I had also just written Dave, so I was kind of in that presidential humor mode. I don’t know if I would have come up with it as quickly now. And he used it and it was successful.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: He used it and it was successful and then what?
GARY ROSS: Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I believe he used it a second time in the press conference, although my memory is a little sketchy and I’m not sure it was as successful.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And the third time?
GARY ROSS: We’ll have to go to the film.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You won’t be invited back to the White House when Hillary [Clinton] is in office.
GARY ROSS: You know, it’s amazing how forgiving politicians tend to be.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You leave that and you go to what’s really kind of another fable.
GARY ROSS: Yes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at a clip from Pleasantville.
GARY ROSS: This is my favorite movie I’ve ever done.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Is it really?
GARY ROSS: By a lot, it’s not even close.
GARY ROSS: I’m so glad you picked that scene. There’s an amazing story about that scene actually, that I didn’t tell you. But I’ll tell you now.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Tell me.
GARY ROSS: Well, first of all, I can’t do any better than that, either as a writer or director. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve done, because to me, there’s so much going on in such a simple way that is so complicated and yet is so simple, in its most irreducible parts. But I also have an emotional connection to it. I’ll try not to get emotional telling this story. The day we shot that scene my mother died. And the scene was—this is going to be Barbara Walters watching me getting all choked up—the scene was very much about my relationship with my mother. And how I had helped her when she went back to school to study and to have kind of a new life because she was a fifties housewife and she wanted more than that. So, when I was a kid, like 13, 14, I would help her with her homework. ‘Cause she– it’s very, very hard for anyone to go back to school and she was in her fifties at that point and was intimidated and frightened. What do junior high school kids do? They do homework all the time. So I was able to help her and she became a speech pathologist. So there was a lot of science she had to learn and things like that so I helped her. She had cancer and she died the morning that we shot that scene. I remember, I couldn’t decide whether to shoot or not. The scene is also complicated because Tobey [Maguire]’s kind of helping her, but is he really helping her? He’s helping her cover-up who she is and my mother had covered-up who she was for so long. So there was so many layers in it that were complicated for me. But my way of honoring my mother’s truth and what her metamorphosis was and in many ways Joan Allen’s arc in the movie and coming out and being who she was in her pure self was very much inspired, I think, by my relationship with my mother. My mother had been sick for a while and everybody knew that this might happen. So Bob Degus,who was the production executive, and later the producer, had arranged that, if my mother died, we could take an insurance day or several insurance days, so that we could stop working, which was very kind of him. So she died about three in the morning. You know, when people die, I don’t know how many of you have had the experience, you almost don’t want to stop working sometimes. You just want to keep going. You’re just in kind of a bit of denial. So I went to the set. The first thing I did was go in and tell Tobey because I didn’t want the actors—the actors can see something different on your face and you don’t want them to think it’s them. So I said, listen, I just need you to know my mother died and if you see something in me, that’s what it is. And I went and I told Joan. I said, you know my mother died this morning. We don’t have to shoot, we can take an insurance day. And I told her the whole story. This is very much about my relationship with her, etc. and I can’t decide whether we should shoot or not. And Joan grabbed my hand, and said, come on, we’re going to go do this for your mother. And pulled me into the soundstage. It was a remarkable thing. It really was. That’s what show people do. They use their craft to deal with a moment like that. It isn’t like, we should stop. It like, no we’re going to go do this, we’re going to do this for your mother. We shot the scene, when the scene was over, then we wrapped and we took like a four- or five-day break.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s a shame she didn’t see the film.
GARY ROSS: I know.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: But she got to see you direct.
GARY ROSS: She did. She did. She was very sick toward the end and I sent some clip footage up to her house and things like that. But it’s very much my favorite movie that I’ve made, the most personal to me. It’s hard to get personal work made now. Things always need underlying antecedent. They need to be a piece of IP. Mike De Luca, to his credit, who is now fortunately the president of production at Sony again, who is just the most amazing executive, loved it, backed it, and Mary Parent just threw in completely and [they] were so supportive of me to make what was a pretty complicated art film. And it had a year and a half post. We invented the DI by accident during the movie because we were the first people to ever have a fully digital negative it’s all done on Macintoshes in my office that we rented. We were the digital effects guys.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What surprised you about shifting from writing to directing and the practice of directing? I think a lot of people imagine, you see films and you think, well this is how I’d do it. And then you actually come to do it, it’s actually very different.
GARY ROSS: Well, and I do a version of this still but I storyboarded the whole movie before I shot it. In part because I wanted, not because I clung to every storyboard, but because I wanted to have thought through the shooting style of the movie before I ever shot the movie. I wanted a kind of a dry run in a sense. So that’s part of it. I think that the biggest thing when you write and you direct, is that you don’t go for the voice in your head. You need to burn the writer down to direct well. You need to not go for the way you heard the scene. There’s a surprise in there. The actors bring something to the party. And so it’s harder when you’re the director and the writer to depart from what the original intentions of the script were in order to find the happy surprise or to breathe life into the movie and allow it to flourish in the way that it needs to because each phase of the process needs to have its own spontaneity. I need to be able to bring that spontaneity to it and not cling to the previous step. Same thing is true in the editing room. Yeah, I know I shot it that way, but what if we cut it this way? Right? Well, I know I wrote it that way, but what if we shoot it this way? An actor comes up with a brilliant ad lib. Well they need to feel spontaneous and creative enough to be able to invent. So its each step of the process needs that. And the hardest thing when you write is not to cling to that, to your punctuation.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Is it harder with a big budget film, to allow that spontaneity?
GARY ROSS: No. The biggest budget film I ever had was Seabiscuit. Which, believe it or not, was more expensive than Hunger Games, by a fair amount. You got to have the kind of guts to make it your own anyway. You can’t really worry about the budget while you’re shooting. You need to be brave and take the chances you take, embrace the things you embrace and feel the movie and if you’ve written it, you at least have that advantage also, of knowing what its intentions were. And there needs to almost be a kind of whistling in the graveyard attitude, where you can’t really do your job right. If you’re paralyzed by anxiety or fear, feel the weight of the budget, or the release, or how the movie’s going to do, you can’t direct. You need to inhabit it, be in the moment, be brave, be brave for the cast, be brave for the crew and embrace it. And if you don’t do those things, the insecurity and the fear is going to creep through the movie and then everybody’s going to become scared. On Pleasantville, I felt it so deeply. And Pleasantville was not a cheap movie, by any means. It was a period movie, we built a tremendous amount of sets, we built almost a back lot in Malibu Creek State Park. I think, thirty, forty buildings or something like that. Because there were no set extensions then. Now it would just be digital set extensions. Then it was like, we actually built this stuff. Our post was a year and a half.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Let’s actually take a look at Seabiscuit. It was a vast endeavor. Here is rightat the end of Seabiscuit.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s very romantic. Are you?
GARY ROSS: Sometimes. I think about certain things. I think there’s a difference between being idealistic and being naïve. I think that certainly at the beginning of my career, everything was an examination of the tension between idealism and naiveté. I think Big is an examination of the tension between experience and innocence, and does innocence or idealism make you stronger in Dave? Or does pragmatism and cynicism make you stronger? Pleasantville is certainly the ultimate—it’s fun to be at a Catholic university because I get to talk about Pleasantville because it’s just the book of Genesis. That’s all I did. It’s essentially the Garden of Eden. And its about whether experience or wisdom or knowledge creates shame or does it create understanding. I’m sure there are enough theologians here who could examine that probably better than I can.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Are you still idealistic?
GARY ROSS: Yeah, I am because I don’t want to live the other way. It doesn’t mean that I’m naïve and I think that idealism will triumph, it just means that the compromises you make with yourself to stave off disappointment, that cynicism is just a defense against a broken heart. So I refuse to be cynical because I’m not that worried about my heart breaking. I’d rather feel the broken heart than to feel the cynicism. I’d rather allow my heart to break than to break it every day myself. Cynicism or the kind of, even clinging to a certain kind of cynical edge, for lack of a better way to put it, that just defends you against that sort of pain or that depth of feeling. I’ll tell you why Jennifer is so great. Jennifer is great, not because she’s real. Jennifer is great because she’s huge. Jennifer Lawrence is a brilliant actress because she can open the doors to this blast furnace and let you glimpse an emotional size that you can’t get to yourself. Because she’s undefended, because she’s brave, because she’s courageous. Not just because she’s real. So naturalism, cynicism, it only gets you so far. Stella used to tell us this all the time. The actor is there to let us glimpse what we can’t experience out of the smallness of our own lives. That’s why Jennifer is great. So I really believe in going for it. I don’t believe in defending against it. But even if it’s the vogue, or even if it leaves you exposed, or even if it leaves you more vulnerable, I’m not interested in being that kind of an artist, you know? And I think that’s true about all these things.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Naturalism and cynicism are two totally different things.
GARY ROSS: No question. I’m a fan of naturalism. Absolutely.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Although the style of Seabiscuit is not naturalistic in the sense that it’s a heightened reality. The score is a traditional big score.
GARY ROSS: Yeah, it’s referential to a certain kind of movie of that era, on purpose. Yeah, it is. It’s a rags to riches, 1930s fantasy. I tried to shoot it in kind of a 1930s way. I adhered to or respected the conventions of what that period were in telling the story that way.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What was the most difficult decision you had to make on Seabiscuit?
GARY ROSS: On Seabiscuit? It’s hard to remember. There are a million. I’ll tell you the difficulty in the movie and also the joy in the movie was shooting the horses. I don’t mean shooting the horses—I mean filming them. [LAUGHTER]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How many horses played Seabiscuit?
GARY ROSS: Like six or seven. I had one that just couldn’t win the match race. I had this horse that just kept losing. It was awful. I was in Keeneland. First of all, everything you see on that screen there, those are all real people in real period costume. This doesn’t happen anymore. There’s some digital crowd in the background, but very little. Everybody by the rail, thousands and thousands of people, they’re all really there. And we would turn huge betting halls in Santa Anita into wardrobe areas. We rented every piece of 1930s wardrobe in America, practically. It’s true. We had a circus caravan that traveled around. It was an enormous company. We owned like thirty or forty horses. This is funny. We were short some money, we were a little bit over budget. And I personally had to purchase five horses. Which I did, I had kind of a running tab. Jimmy Horowitz, who now works in an important person at Universal, kept a running tab, he a business affairs executive, of how many horses I owned. At the end of it, they didn’t make me pay for them. They were like, when the movie did really well, they forgave it. But it was kind of funny. It was like, fine, I’ll buy two more horses. ‘Cause like I had to get my shooting days. It was really quite a road show and an enormous operation. We shot in Keenelandin Kentucky, Saratoga, L.A. It was quite something. But staging the horse races and doing so and figuring the choreography was very difficult. We had a race meeting every day at five o’clock for months. I plotted every move on the track with the camera car, and the shot, and the moment that it occurred in the race and the position of every horse. We passed those out like football playbooks to every single jockey. Everybody memorized them. In order to be safe, every morning we would play with My Pretty Ponies and on a big taped out track and we would go through what each shot and each set up was going to be. Then it looked like Monty Python because just before we did the shot, it’s one thing to imagine it in your head when you’re moving these things around, but it’s another thing to actually understand what the spatial relationship is. Like, how far away do you think we are from that camera? You might say 20 feet, I might say 10 or 15. We have a different sense of that. So unless you understand the spatial relationships, it’s very dangerous, so we would get on the track. Everybody would pretend to be on horseback. And we would walk the shot through. It was like Monty Python. And then we would shoot. But we did that for hundreds of shots over forty days. The day that we finally had our last safety meeting and we were done shooting the horses, I mean I had an amazing sigh of relief, because we shot 40 Sundays in a row and really difficult, occasionally dangerous stuff.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you find shooting exhausting?
GARY ROSS: Exhilarating. Yes, of course, I don’t think there’s a director who doesn’t. There’s a great line, and it’s been attributed to several different directors so I can’t say who said it. They say that the most difficult part of directing is getting out of the car in the morning because it’s like, you’re kind of private property until that door opens. And then you’re public property all day long. There’s a physical bearing you need to have, there’s a plan you have to execute, you need to mobilize people, you need to be aware of so much. You need to drive this train all day long, and that’s a little bit… People follow you to the bathroom asking you questions. And that’s a big part of the job and that can be exhausting, but it’s exhilarating. It’s the greatest job in the world. I rarely don’t love it.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What’s fascinating is you can make lots of mistakes in details, but the big things you have to get right.
GARY ROSS: Absolutely.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I very much admire what you did in The Hunger Games, and the big decisions there were so fundamental. I want to show a clip from Hunger Games and then we’ll talk about it.
[CLIP The Hunger Games]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So here’s this book that is this unbelievable best seller, Sam Mendes wants to direct it, other well-known directors…
GARY ROSS: Ha!
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Is that funny?
GARY ROSS: Well, no it’s just goes to the whole Hunger Games nature…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How did you get the job? Tell us what you did.
GARY ROSS: I made a short film that expressed my point of view and how I wanted to make the movie. I produced a tremendous amount of concept art, I hired about seven or eight concept artists, I invested a fair amount of money in articulating exactly my vision and what I wanted to do and the way that I saw the movie. Not just to get the job but also so that it would be very clear that if I did get the job, the way I saw the movie and what I wanted to do. And also what I loved about it and what I connected to in the material, which was, people I think thought it was sort of surprising considering my other films, that I was drawn to it. But I saw the movie as someone who was so hardened but in order to ultimately triumph and survive had to discover her own humanity, sense of empathy, softness and compassion. Softness may not be the right word but sense of empathy and compassion. It was through the death of Rue, through this character that she was able to get in touch with those things that ultimately made her stronger and not weaker. And that’s a theme that had been consistent in every movie I’d ever done. That also is the reason that I saw the first book as a very self-contained thing. I know the world sees it as a franchise. Obviously, I don’t because I only made the first one. I do, certainly, but I also was very drawn to this simple fable about someone who grew up a hunter, was hardened in that way. In the midst of this hideous, horrific circumstance, finds her own humanity. And it allows her to triumph. That was a very whole and complete story to me that I was very, very drawn to. Thank God, Jennifer Lawrence existed…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you get the book in galley form?
GARY ROSS: No. It was already out. My kids had read it like a year before. It seems like it’s such a massive phenomena now, but when I read The Hunger Games and when I first talked to Nina Jacobson in the studio…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Nina produced the film.
GARY ROSS: Nina produced the film and Alli Shearmur who was the head of production at Lion’s Gate. It only sold like a million copies. I got warned against doing the movie by a lot of people.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why?
GARY ROSS: Kids killing kids. It’s easy now to just see it as this pop culture phenomenon. And Nina would know this better than me but, if not every studio, most studios passed on the book. Because they were really, really terrified of what it was. Unlike the sequels, where it becomes this other revolution and this intrigue, the first book is about 14 year olds murdering each other. It’s a very tonally difficult, sensitive thing to approach. And there are a lot of people who told me I was crazy to do it. But all I ever know in life is whether I connect to something I read. I couldn’t stop reading it. I found a kind of a human story at the heart of this that I was so drawn to, that despite all that I really wanted to do it. In hindsight it seems like an obvious choice.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: They’re enormously difficult decisions. First of all, you have to decide how much violence am I going to show? And the film makes you think about violence without ever basking in violence. Then you have, how much realism do I bring to this futuristic world? Do I romanticize it or not? Then you have the biggest decision of all, which is, who do I cast in this role?
GARY ROSS: Yeah, that’s the big one.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How do you cast it?
GARY ROSS: Jodie Foster had asked me to do a couple of days of… write some reshoots for her on The Beaver, and I’d never seen Jennifer before. I remember, you know when you write reshoots or you do that kind of a job for somebody, you’re looking at the film in your computer again and again. I just kept saying, this girl is a revelation. Who is this actress? It’s like being a basketball coach, when Michael Jordan walks in the gym you should be able to recognize that right? I saw Jennifer and my head snapped. I just thought she was an enormous talent. And obviously we’re looking at everyone in that age range at that point. I asked to meet with Jennifer, who at that point had just gotten nominated for Winter’s Bone. I had asked for the meeting, then I saw Winter’s Bone because I was prepping and I hadn’t been able to see it. In between the time I had asked for the meeting and when I met her. We just talked for 45 minutes. But after the meeting I remember turning to…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Where did you meet?
GARY ROSS: At my office, Studio City.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What did you talk about?
GARY ROSS: We talked about the book, we talked about life, we talked about awards season, we talked about where she was from, we talked about her brothers, we talked about life, just everything you talk about.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: More than 45 minutes.
GARY ROSS: Jennifer’s not a hard person to talk to. She’s a very open, accessible, fun human being. I remember after the meeting, turning to Rob, this guy that I worked with, and saying, I will be stunned if this isn’t who we cast. Now, Lionsgate was insisting on an audition process and stuff like that. Which I apologetically took – how often do you have to tell an Oscar nominee they have to audition for your movie, but that was the situation. They were casting a large franchise. Jennifer came in at that point, this was before she was the Jennifer Lawrence that we all know. She was the Jennifer… but you know what I mean. She came in to the audition and the audition just destroyed me. It was when she said goodbye to her little sister, just the emotional power. Jennifer choked me up and I remember making up some crap like, oh there’s a dog outside. I had a tear in my eye and I was trying to mask it or something like that. It was a remarkable audition. It was like the greatest audition that I’d ever seen. We actually ran kind of a long improv at the end. This is a big decision. I was sold at that point, but we did an improv after doing that scene about…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: “We” meaning the casting director, or…?
GARY ROSS: I think at that first audition it was me, Debbie Zane, the casting director, and maybe like one person more. Then we did an improv at the end that was sort of like a debrief as if the games had just ended. As if I was sort of like interrogating her afterward, just to feel the improv. And she just hung with me and just blew me away. She’s Jennifer Lawrence. She’s a remarkable actress. It was just a wonderful experience to go through.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: She had an accident during shooting and was taken to a hospital wasn’t she?
GARY ROSS: She had an accident where she was taken to a hospital?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: According to my story…
GARY ROSS: Oh, no, no, no. Prior to shooting.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: She hit a wall?
GARY ROSS: No, that was during training, that was not during shooting. I would have remembered. Yes, it was when she was training during prep, she strained her back and ended up being fine.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why did you not do the sequel?
GARY ROSS: A lot of reasons. The biggest reason was… first of all people think this had been premeditated on my part for a long time. It wasn’t. We got to the end of the process on Hunger Games, and I had literally been only focused on that with the intention of doing it and then Jennifer’s schedule on X-Men made it very clear to everybody that we were going to have to start the movie in September. Unlike Francis, I write and direct. That’s just my process. So first I write, and then I direct. And that’s a linear process for me. So, that process for me was an eight month process on the first movie. It was going to have to be a four month process on the second movie, and I didn’t think there was adequate time to write a script and then prep that movie in what normally takes me the same amount of time to write script. Now it’s different when you don’t have to write the script and somebody else can be writing while you can be prepping. But those aren’t simultaneous processes for me and I didn’t feel that I would be doing the movie any service in order to do that. So that was the first, most obvious reason. Go ahead, you were going to ask me something.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What was the second, less obvious reason?
GARY ROSS: OK, that’s interesting. I don’t think this was conscious to me at the time, but I’ve always wanted to move on and do things that are new and challenging. And I think that in my heart of hearts, besides the fact that it literally was arithmetically impossible to do, I think I wanted to challenge myself and move on to something new. And I got to do the fun part, I got to imagine the world, I got to cast Katniss, I got to cast Peeta, I got to cast Gale, I got to decide what the capital was going to look like, I got to cast Donald Sutherland, I got to cast Woody Harrelson, I got to cast Stanley Tucci, I got to write the script for the first one, which was my favorite of the books. I had a very wonderful satisfying experience. And that honestly had a certain amount of closure for me. And I didn’t want to dive into another experience, which I thought might feel really inadequate for the amount of time I would have had to write a whole screenplay and then print the movie.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So there’s talk that you might be doing East of Eden with Jennifer? How did that come about and where does that stand?
GARY ROSS: I gave East of Eden… I had read it. My kids had actually read it as their summer reading at high school. And I read it along with them, because I’d never read the book, I’d only seen the movie. And I loved the novel. Then I gave it to Justine Ciarrocchi who is Jennifer’s best friend. Justine read it and thought oh my god, this is the greatest novel—Justine is wildly into literature and is very, very literate and is a good friend of my kids as well as mine. Then she gave it to Jennifer and then Jennifer read it and said oh my god, this is incredible. I love this novel. I’d love to play Cathy Ames. Then I heard that so then I called Brian Grazer who had been a producer on various incarnations of East of Eden, and said I would love to do this and I think Jennifer would love to play Cathy Ames. So we set it up. The rights had just become available again and we set it up at Universal.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So where does it stand now?
GARY ROSS: It’s one of the things that is sort of on my plate, I’m interested in doing. I’m not certain if it’s the next movie. Part of that is my schedule. Part of that is Jennifer’s schedule as well. But it’s definitely something that we intend to do.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: And how are you going to do it that’s different from the Kazan film?
GARY ROSS: Well, the Kazan film, which is brilliant, only deals with about the last third of the novel. It deals with Caland Aron Trask when they’re already almost adults. The novel begins much earlier, just after the Civil War. Deals with a generation earlier. It’s really remarkable.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So this may be quite an epic film?
GARY ROSS: It may be two films. We may break it in half, into one generation and the next. And that’s what we’re talking about now.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You know. Or you’ve talked to Jennifer about doing it as two films?
GARY ROSS: I don’t want to go into any more particulars than that right now.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Don’t be silly, Gary. Let’s get into the particulars! [LAUGHTER]
GARY ROSS: But I am, we are thinking about…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s just between us.
GARY ROSS: I understand, well listen if it’s just between us… No I am thinking about doing it as two films, we’ll see.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Good. Questions?
[STUDENT – ANGELINA VOLLUCCI]: When you were directing The Hunger Games, did you feel that you had more freedom to make creative decisions because there was no precedent? Or did you feel pressure to conform to what the fans would expect because it’s such a popular series?
GARY ROSS: Although I respected the fans tremendously, and do, I don’t think you can direct that way. In fact there was a huge outcry when we cast Jennifer because everybody thought that Katniss should be 15 years old and things like that. So you know, and we wouldn’t have had Jennifer Lawrence in that role. And thank god, we do. So, I think that the only way to every direct anything is to trust your gut and your own sense of the material.
STUDENT – SEAN CARROL]: For Catching Fire, what are your thoughts on Catching Fire and if you would have directed Catching Fire would it have looked any different from what we got?
GARY ROSS: Sean, I respect that question, enormously. You look like a fine young man.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s such an impossible thing to ask somebody.
GARY ROSS: That’s just a question I’m not going to answer. It wouldn’t be appropriate. They’ve gone on to do wonderful things. These are all my friends. It’s not only my cast but my crew as well. I take a tremendous amount of pride in the franchise and I’m really happy for them. But I’m the last person in the world that should be commenting on Catching Fire.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: By the way, we knew that question was going to come up. This is a very prepared answer. Now tell us the truth.
GARY ROSS: Well, not really. You know, Stephen, that was entirely spontaneous.
STUDENT – RHIANNA REDKIN: Fromthe director stand point and somebody who has studied acting, what do you look for when you are casting?
GARY ROSS: What do I look for when I’m casting? It’s very particular to the part, obviously. I’m looking for the truth first of all. I’m not looking for a perfect cold reading. Because often that’s a trick, right? I’m looking for someone who can adapt. I almost never run an audition where I don’t do something two or three times. And that doesn’t matter who the actor is. Because I want to see how the actor handles an adjustment. You might come in and read for me, and you’re so nervous on the first time through, that we don’t know how good you are yet. So I always work with every actor to try to see how malleable they are, how much they can adjust, how much they can own a choice, can they take the part in a variety of different directions, how truthful would or committed are they to a choice?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Have you ever felt, you don’t have to name names, obviously, but oh my goodness I cast the wrong person?
GARY ROSS: Yes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Then how do you handle that situation?
GARY ROSS: I’ve had doubts on one part in particular where the first few days were difficult. I have also had to replace some people and I’m not going to say who they were out of respect for the actor, but that’s happened. I don’t ever see that as the actor’s fault. That’s 100 percent my fault, and I feel terrible for having—they could be a fine actor. It’s only happened a couple of times. But I feel terrible for having put that person through that process when I should have known that they weren’t necessarily the right person for the part.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you then tell them? How did you?
GARY ROSS: Oh yeah. I will say, just what I said to you. This is not your fault, this is my fault. You’re a fine actor. This on film isn’t what we need in the movie at this moment. I’ve let you down and I apologize.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Do you have to be ruthless to be a great director?
GARY ROSS: No.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Pregnant pause. I don’t agree with you.
GARY ROSS: I think more than being ruthless, and of course there is no room for sentiment…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Isn’t that the definition of being ruthlessness? There’s no room for sentiment?
GARY ROSS: Yeah, but it’s more important to be generous and nurturing and loving and kind and supportive. Sydney Pollack gave me the best advice about being a director. He said you’re always the host, you’re never the guest. They’re the guest at your party. It’s on you, it’s not on them. And I if I turn to you and I say, damn it, give me this, or why can’t you do that? I’ll get 60 percent out of a crew member. If I can inspire them and motivate them and own the things that are right and wrong, I’ll get 110 percent out of a crewmember. And that’s my job. My job is to lift them up, not to order them around.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: There are directors that take a different strategy, John Ford being one of them. Loathed by people who worked with him, and yet, one of the unquestionably great American directors.
GARY ROSS: Yeah. I’m not saying that it’s not effective for him. I think that it wouldn’t suit my personality. I would rather try to lift people up.
STUDENT – CHRISTIAN SAUTTER: I’d like to say, personally, thank you. I’m very excited to have you here – I grew up on your films.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: That’s a two-edged compliment…
GARY ROSS: No, I’ve made peace with my hair color a long time ago. Don’t worry about it, it’s fine.
STUDENT – CHRISTIAN SAUTTER: I’ve noticed on your IMDB that you usually have a four-to-five-year gap, film to film, and I was wondering about your writing process. Do you usually have a slate of projects that you’re simultaneously working on and then a winner emerges? Or do you have one passionate baby that you nurture?
GARY ROSS: That’s a great question. I just read this interview with Michael Lewis who has Flash Boys out this week.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: He wrote Moneyball.
GARY ROSS: He wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side. It was very interesting what he said. He said, I always have three or four piles of things and I’m never sure what’s going to evolve into a book. And often the conclusion that I draw immediately after a movie is over is, unless something else bubbles up or emerges, I also have a rich, full life that isn’t just making movies. I haven’t made as many movies as some people. But I like every movie that I’ve made. And I’m proud of them. I hang the posters on my wall happily. So, sometimes you need to let the world in and you need to experience the breath of life in order to have things to make movies about and you need to kind of pause and wonder. And I think that’s tremendously important. There’s some movies that haven’t gotten made that I’ve written. Even in my position, sometimes things don’t come together immediately. So you think you’re going to make one thing, you end up making another. And that’s part of it. But it tends to be my rhythm. It’s been my rhythm since 1988.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I actually wanted to ask you another question about writing. You started to discuss this which is, I know you’re enormously influenced by Aristotle and the Poetics.
GARY ROSS: Yeah.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: One of the things that surprised me is that, Aristotle, I’m sure you know, said there are two crucial elements: plot and character. Of the two, plot is the more important. Agree or disagree?
GARY ROSS: Well, agree with a caveat, which is I don’t know that they’re really distinguishable from one another. I think that what he’s saying there is that the structural integrity of the piece is paramount. To me that’s the same as saying, your point of view, the author’s voice, character as an instrument of the author’s voice, which in Aristotle’s view contributed to plot, is really what’s the most important thing. That it’s the structural integrity of the piece itself. Aristotle also said that in the perfectly constructed story, just hearing the beats of the story should move you as much as seeing the finished play. That was sort of like the harmonic kind of golden ratio. That was the perfect structure. So I don’t know that they’re distinguishable from one another. But I know that something can’t… I shouldn’t say I know. I think that characters need to be in service of the author. The author can’t necessarily chase the character. That’s what I feel. I think you need to own your own point of view. Which is separate sometimes from your character’s point of view. And often what happens with screenwriters early in their career… how many of you guys have ever had a character that feels very kind of confessional? That it’s like you? And how often do you have an easier time motivating all the other characters except that one? I see all these nodding heads. He or she tends to be passive and the other characters tend to be more active. That character tends to be reactive to the things around them. That’s just because you’re… it’s not in service of your point of view. It’s an expression of who you are in the piece.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Point of view is so crucial in writing.
GARY ROSS: Yes.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: You talk about something else, too, and I want to you explain it, just briefly before we go to the last questions. About what Aristotle said about simple and complex plots.
GARY ROSS: Oh, that’s great. So, Aristotle said that there were two kinds of plots: there were simple and complex. In the simple plot, the question asked at the outset is a question answered at the end. Can they break into the back and rob the gold? Yes they can, you find out at the end. But he also said that there’s more satisfying kind of plot in which the paradigm established at the outset, a conflict that’s organic in the piece, blooms into an unforeseen question in the center. And that’s the thing that ultimately demands an answer. And that’s fundamentally richer and more satisfying. That moment was manifested in the clip that you showed in Big that suddenly, out of his own youth and joyfulness, he was being pulled with a step into the adult world and out of the child’s world. And a dilemma was brewing for him, which was the intrinsic dilemma of all adolescence. So it’s a deeper and more interesting question than, will I get home or not? The question at the outset of Big is how can I find a machine to turn back into a kid? The question in the middle of Big is how do I live time in its normal rhythm and flow? How do I reconcile these two forces pulling me in opposite direction? What makes a real grown up? What makes a real kid? Why do grownups act like kids? Why do kids feel compelled to act like grownups? There are a lot of questions that bloom in the middle of the movie. And I think that’s what he was really talking about.
STUDENT – CHELSEA: Seabiscuit was one of my favorite films. I am from Lexington… I’m curious to know since the film was very authentic to what the horse industry is like, were you aware of the past of racing and how it really was, or did you have to do your research?
GARY ROSS: Oh yeah. Well it’s weird. Every time I do a movie I’m always pretty enthralled with that world. But I will say that after making Seabiscuit I haven’t been back to the track. I used to go to the track all the time before making the movie. I was a huge fan. In fact, it was a bit of a bidding war for that book. It was a bit of a competition for the book and the way I got it was, I got on the phone with Laura Hillenbrand, who is wonderful. I don’t know if you all read her next book, Unbroken, Angelina Jolie is directing. But Laura is an amazing writer and a great person. We started talking a little bit, here’s why I think your thing would make a great movie. But a lot of directors and producers were having this conversation with her, trying to woo her to get the rights. Then we started talking about a Secretariat’s Belmont (Stakes). It’s like the greatest single athletic feat of any species — human, equine, whatever. He wins by half a racetrack. It’s so overwhelming that you feel that you’re looking at a natural phenomenon of some kind. Like seeing a tsunami. Laura and I bonded so much over this conversation, she went oh, you’re perfect. You should do it. So that’s how I ended up getting the rights.
STUDENT – CHELSEA BO: What were the advantages and disadvantages having family in the industry and breaking in yourself?
GARY ROSS: Well, like I said before, I think that a lot of the advantages were that this was familiar to me. It wasn’t really alien. It didn’t seem like… I’m sure a lot of you guys come from very different backgrounds. How many people’s parent’s think they’re crazy for wanting to go into the film business? How many have had to have that argument with your parents? So, I didn’t have to have that. So that was an advantage to me. I think some of the disadvantages were that I may have… those are the advantages. Stephen is looking at me right now. I’m not even going to look at you.
GARY ROSS: I know what’s happening right now. He’s giving me that probative journalistic stare, that’s going to get me to tell you. But I will tell you. I think that I saw so much frustration, on my father’s part, and so much pain in being a screenwriter and the difficulty that I think it may have jaundiced me a little bit. It definitely had an effect on me. I didn’t go in with an open naïveté that some people go in with. And I’m not sure if I don’t miss a little bit of that. I think I went in, not with cynicism, but with my eyes wide open. I didn’t like, hop off the Greyhound Bus going, oh my God, I’m in Hollywood. And there’s advantages and disadvantages to that. It may be why I’m yearning for idealism.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Thank you, everybody. How many of you are actually in your last semester now? Oh wow, so this is such a great note. Steve Ujlaki, who is the dean of the film school, said so many people are going to leave and remember these Hollywood Masters Q&A’s as they go into life. And I really hope you do. I don’t think you can learn from a better person than Gary Ross. So on behalf of everybody, especially me, thank you.
GARY ROSS: Oh, thank you, it’s a pleasure. Thank you everybody. It was wonderful.
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