Gary Ross talks about collaborating with Suzanne Collins on The Hunger Games, and why, despite the film’s wildly anticipated futuristic action sequences, it’s the story’s emotional center that’s most important.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(March 23, 2012)
The Hunger Games is the movie equivalent of the Gamemaker-controlled Arena at the center of the film, where boys and girls from 12 futuristic North American districts are forced into a televised fight to the death. The film is based on the best-selling young adult trilogy penned by television writer and children’s novelist Suzanne Collins, and it arrives on the crest of a record box office wake left by similar franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight. It seems from afar like an almost perfectly engineered blend of action, coming of age, family, and, of course, young love.
But as millions of readers can attest, the greatest element of its perfect design is how legitimately compelling the emotive core of the story is.
As writer-director Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit) explains, the film has many dynamic facets, but, at its heart, it’s simply a resonant story about a hardscrabble fighter – a tough, guarded teenage girl named Katniss – who learns that finding the courage to trust others could actually make her stronger. The film stars highly touted newcomer Jennifer Lawrence and an ensemble cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz.
The Oscar-nominated Ross was turned on to the books by his twin 16 year-olds a couple years ago and lobbied boldly to win the helming job, shooting his own short film that utilized visual artists’ mock-ups of his vision of the futuristic world of Panem.
His initial draft scored him a hugely important fan in Collins herself. Shortly after Collins read it, she and Ross decided to work on the final version together (Shattered Glass writer Billy Ray is also credited on the screenplay for his work on prior drafts).
Ross spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about everything from his philosophy on outlining, to how, an hour after his first sit down chat with Collins, he had his first co-writer since his first produced script, Big.
Photo: ©2012 Lionsgate
Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.
Suzanne Collins mentioned that your script really nailed the emotional arc, particularly between Katniss and Peeta in a way that had not been captured in any previous drafts. How did you zero in on this emotional center?
I wrote a draft of my own which was very faithful to the book. Subsequent to that, Suzanne read it, liked it a lot, gave me some notes and came out to visit me in California. We started talking to one another even though we weren’t working together on it yet, and that conversation was so electric and spontaneous that within about an hour we were working together.
To me the story was the arc of someone who trusts no one and who ultimately learns to trust. [Katniss] has made herself as invulnerable as possible, kind of steeled herself off from the world, but she’s someone who learns to trust, develops a sense of empathy, and learns to care.
The great irony of the story is that that makes her stronger rather than weaker. That was a very interesting idea to me. I saw the whole mistrust of Peeta as a really interesting aspect of the book. Here was somebody who has such a guileless, open, unending love for her that she mistrusts it. This is also something that’s resonant outside The Hunger Games that’s very interesting.
Obviously an emotional arc is always crucial to drama, but do you think it’s even more crucial with material like this that’s several things at once – an action film, a family drama, a coming-of-age story?
The emotional center of a movie is always the most important thing. I don’t think it’s particular to this story. I do think it makes a story like this so much more resonant, richer and a much fuller experience when it has something strong on it’s mind and has such a strong emotional core.
One of the things that drew me to make this movie, both as a writer and a director was that it was a phenomenal character piece at the same time. Yes, it has this massive canvas of this hideous spectacle being put on by the Capitol, but there’s also such a personal story, and it’s an acting piece.
When you’re able to make a movie on this big a canvas but have that strong and emotional core, you’re lucky.
Do you feel there are any themes here that are apropos of our time?
There are a lot of things. This book has a lot on its mind. The whole idea that entertainment can be used as a means of political control is fascinating. That entertainment has evolved into this hideous spectacle is really interesting. We’ve created our version of the Arena, writ small. Suzanne was able to extrapolate on those things and realize how resonant they are.
There’s also something deeper going on here, which is why it appeals to teenagers so much, [which is] how much can you trust? How vulnerable can you be? Does opening yourself up make you weaker or stronger?
That’s Katniss’ journey. It ultimately leads to self-sacrifice and discovery of her own humanity and her own ethics. She reaches an ethical line that she just will not cross and that makes the piece resonant.
Do you think it’s particularly resonant or needed with this generation of teens?
I don’t know that there’s any moral deficit, I have teens of my own, but the ideas that are being expressed in The Hunger Games about how you preserve your humanity in the face of a brutal society are pretty brilliant and resonant.
Before THG you hadn’t really had a writing partner since Anne Spielberg on Big, is that right?
Annie and I had a wonderful time together on Big. This was a much briefer experience because I wrote the first draft by myself and then Suzanne came in and polished that with me. But just being in a room with someone again and having a great writer to bounce stuff off, to share that give and take, was really a lot of fun. Experiencing other people’s methodologies was wonderful.
So it was refreshing after all these years?
Yeah, I’ve written a lot of solitary screenplays since Big – Dave, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, Despereaux… That was a lot of time to spend alone in a room. To be with someone was wonderful. And, of course with Suzanne, this is her creation. This is her world. She has so much at her fingertips – she’s a compendium of all this knowledge.
Suzanne is also wonderful about not only being able to translate into another medium and not being precious about what’s on the written page, but about finding excitement in the adaptation process. We had a great time together.
To outline or not outline is an oft-debated subject among screenwriters. You consider the outlining process the place where discovery happens, but I’m curious if you’ve ever found yourself discovering stuff later.
Yeah, I discover stuff at every phase of the process. I now consider the shooting and editing of the movie a further extension of the writing. You’re never done writing. You’re never done discovering the movie. You have to be patient enough to let the movie talk to you and to listen to it, to not try to freeze dry whatever your first version was or try to defend it. It’s a living thing, and it’s going to keep changing and talking to you and you have to listen.
Having said that, I believe the first step has to be an outline. You wouldn’t build a house without blueprints. It doesn’t mean that it’s a less creative part of the process. It can be a more creative part of the process and, to my mind, the most creative part of the process is where the bigger decisions are made. By the end of the movie, you’re down to the color timing. You’re affecting it minutely.
At the beginning of a movie there are so many large conceptual ideas in play about how to approach the material. That can be a very exciting time if you don’t get tense and think, Oooh, what’s my outline? What’s my story? Like it’s some kind of dry clinical document. If you let it have life, and you are open to the same sort of discovery that many people assume happens in the screenplay, that can be a wonderful and exciting time.
So, for you, outlining is a creatively explosive time?
Tremendously creative. First of all you’re not bound to a linear structure. You’re not bound to be on any part of the railroad tracks. You can hop all over the landscape. It also hasn’t been formed yet. The decisions are all up in the air so the horizons are broader. There’s more you can do with it than when you’re locked into the writing process, per se. By definition, it’s more creative if you can be open to the possibilities.