For a guy knee-deep in post-production on one of 2012’s most highly anticipated films, Gary Ross exudes an unnatural calm. It’s mid-December and despite the 1,200 visual effects shots that need to be completed in the next month, not only is the hyper-articulate director of “The Hunger Games” willing to show a journalist around his sprawling edit bay in Hollywood, but he’d also probably show off the whole unfinished movie if only the studio would allow.
Clues to Ross’ jovial-yet-serene disposition lay all around. His iPhone boasts a screen-saver picture from the set of the Lionsgate film — leading lady Jennifer Lawrence is wiping her nose on Ross’ sleeve while the two are standing in the middle of a North Carolina forest. Walk down the hall to editor Stephen Mirrione’s office and he quips how Lawrence “makes everyone’s life a lot easier.”
And then you see the footage. It’s a quiet scene between Lawrence and her fellow “tribute” Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson (“The Kids Are All Right”), the night before the annual “Hunger Games” fight-to-the-death begins. The two protagonists contemplate what lies before them as two of the 24 participants in the battle, and a look comes over Lawrence’s face that convincingly telegraphs her character’s understanding of her grim future.
“Every moment is like this,” says Ross, 55, almost jubilant in his adoration for Lawrence, 21, who plays Katniss Everdeen — the 16-year-old centerpiece to “The Hunger Games.” Strong and feisty, Katniss is forced to fight for her life as part of her futuristic country’s perverse entertainment spectacle that pits teenagers against each other. “She is so talented, it’s unbelievable.”
Best known as the director of the Academy Award-nominated period horse-racing drama “Seabiscuit,” Ross went to great lengths to land the job as director of “The Hunger Games,” the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young adult novel. He made his own mini-movie complete with film references and interviews with teenage fans of the book. He also employed a handful of visual artists to mock-up his vision of the futuristic world of Panem, where the story is set.
But Ross says he was willing to give up the assignment if he couldn’t persuade Lawrence to take the role.
“I don’t know how I ever could have done this movie without Jennifer,” he said. “I’m not sure I would have done it without her. She’s that important. More important than any other piece — including me. She’s Katniss Everdeen.”
Ross was introduced to the novel by his then 14-year-old twins and became fascinated by the story’s premise and the evolution of its main character — from stoic survivor to moral linchpin for an oppressed nation. He flew to London to meet with the film’s producer Nina Jacobson and aggressively pursued the job.
“I thought the idea that the way we amuse ourselves could devolve into this hideous spectacle was really fascinating,” Ross said. “Plus it has all the things I love in the movies: technical challenges, size, spectacle, amazing narrative drive. And it has a lot on its mind about where we are and where we may be headed as a culture.”
Ross worked closely with “Hunger Games” author Collins on the final draft of the script and then spent four months in the mountains of North Carolina filming the dystopian action movie from every angle he could. “We were hanging off trees, hiking up mountains, shooting in rivers,” he said.
Beyond Ross’ attention to his young cast, which also includes Liam Hemsworth, who plays Gale, Katniss’ hunting pal and closest friend, the director spent a great deal of time examining what first-person experience looks like on film, studying such movies as “Saving Private Ryan,” and “All the President’s Men.” Ross was intent on not giving audiences more information than what’s been given to Katniss.
“If you look at the opening of ‘Private Ryan,’ you are so in the point of view of those guys and there is a whole world swirling all around them,” Ross said. “You are learning that geography as they are learning it.”
Ross also spent many hours refining his vision for the Capitol. The home of the dogmatic central government that organizes the brutal games and oppresses its countrymen by forcing them to live in impoverished, dangerous conditions, the city and its architecture should be rendered without a trace of joy, Ross said.
“What the Capitol looks like is tremendously important,” he said as he showed off the concept art of the sprawling structure. “The great seats of power tend to be wide and open, not vertical and soaring. Red Square, Tiananmen Square, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin — all massive but with large open spaces that project an image of might. I thought it was important that you felt that this was a civilization that had always been there — not something that we ginned up in CG.”
“The Hunger Games” doesn’t open until March 23, but Ross already has begun working with Collins and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) on the sequel based on Collins’ second novel in the series, “Catching Fire.” He seems simply thrilled to remain in the arena for the foreseeable future.
“Maybe I’m at the point where I just have grown to love my job.”
— Nicole Sperling
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