Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) got input from his twins (as well as their friends later in the process) when he heard the first book of Suzanne Collins' best-selling The Hunger Games trilogy was going to be made into a feature film. Ross said his twins were 14 when they read the books and were, in his words, "completely immersed" in the gritty, post-apocalyptic world Collins had created with The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay.
"When I heard they were going to make a movie about it, I said to them, 'They're making a movie of this thing, The Hunger Games. And they're like, 'Oh yeah, that'll be great. That will make a terrific movie.' And so I read it, and I literally read it in one sitting. I closed the book and decided I wanted to do it. I bought a ticket to London to go see Nina Jacobson, the producer," recalled Ross while at the LA press day for the Lionsgate Films release.
And after having read the books, Ross believes he knows why Collins' books are so popular with both sexes and all age groups. "I think [there are] a lot of reasons. I think that on the one hand, it's a heroine premise that's completely engaging," explained Ross. "But I think the fact that Katniss fights to preserve her own humanity in the face of it and won't play their game and stays human, and stays a human being... We can talk about cinematic techniques all you want but really what this comes down to is a very human story and someone who finds her own ethical center. And in finding that and saying in the beginning she's fighting to survive and by the end she's willing to sacrifice her life rather than violate her own morality and the empathy that she's discovered in herself, that resonates with anybody and that's the reason why I wanted to do the movie."
While reading the books, Ross had no idea who should play Katniss, Peeta, or Gale, roles that ultimately went to Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth, however he did immediately picture one specific actor as one of the colorful supporting characters. "Stanley Tucci for Flickerman I thought of very early. In fact, I would say that a year ago last New Year's I was at a restaurant in New York and he was at the next table. I said, 'Stanley, I think I have a really good part for you.' He was like, 'Great. I'll do it.' [Laughing] We had done Despereaux together so I know him. But, no, there was an audition process for the other parts," said Ross.
Ross may not have immediately had his cast in mind, but he knew exactly what sort of movie he wanted to make from the get-go. Being able to capture Katniss' situation seemed to lend itself naturally to a handheld style of shooting. "I felt that it was very important to stay urgent and in Katniss' point of view and that this had a slightly caught/captured verite quality in order to feel real, and that if I made a glossy, slick, kind of overproduced piece of entertainment that I become the Capitol. I'm basically staging the Hunger Games and I'm not doing a movie about the Hunger Games at that point, and that you had to feel the same. And I thought a lot about what it meant to shoot in a character's point of view and how urgent and raw and immediate that had to be."
"I mean, I felt this thing needed to feel completely real because with this premise if you try to create a slick, glossy piece of entertainment that indulges the premise or tries to goose the premise, you're going to end up really losing the point and the heart of the book. And the point and the heart of the book is Katniss' point of view, and to shoot it in a character's point of view was the first charge here."
Asked if the specific style he chose helped in obtaining a PG-13 rating from the MPAA despite the story's violence, Ross answered, "None of it was based on ratings issues. This was the style I chose to shoot the movie in. I think when I went to the MPAA I probably changed one or two shots. As you know if you're seen the movie, we really don't back off the violence in any way. I mean, the cornucopia melee is pretty intense and obviously pretty graphic."
Ross knew going in that The Hunger Games needed to be PG-13, but said he didn't work backward from the rating. "I made the movie I wanted to make. In the book...what instances of violence are there really in the book? There's the cornucopia melee, there's the tracker jacker sequence, she's chased by fire, she kills one of the tributes who throws a spear at Rue - who kills Rue [played by Amandla Stenberg . She fights with Clove [played by Isabelle Fuhrman] in a knife fight, and there's the mutts sequence and the fight with Cato [played by Alexander Ludwig] at the end. All of those, if you've seen the movie, are done pretty vividly and intensely and I don't think we backed [down]. I don't think there's a more intense version of her fight with Clove that could possibly be had."
"In terms of the cornucopia melee, I feel that that's done as intensely as I would ever want to do it. And when you stay invested in the character's point of view, you don't need to pop wide to graphically display all of the violence - or to indulge the violence in the frame - in order to elicit the intense viewpoint that character is feeling. When you're in Jen's point of view, you peripherally feel the violence in a way that can be very, very intense, because if I pop out of her point of view, I lose the whole movie. I have an indulgent, violent set piece and then I try to return to Katniss' point of view? No, the movie is from Katniss' point of view. And it's important that it be that way. I shot the movie the way that I wanted to shoot the movie, irrespective of rating."
And speaking of the film's heroine, Ross is happy about the fact that unlike most female action characters, Katniss is a strong, fully fleshed-out female who just happens to be able to kick butt. "I was drawn to that. This is a very gender-blind story. Jen is not a damsel in distress nor is she overcompensating and trying to deny being a girl in any respect. She's interested in the things girls are interested in; she's wrestling with these issues with these two boys, and they're very real. But she's also a very self-contained, confident, self-possessed young woman who fights for her own survival and doesn't need to be rescued, and I think that's a wonderful thing to see. And I think that's one of the reasons what Suzanne [Collins] wrote is gender-blind. I think it's one of the reasons boys and girls are drawn to this so equally, and I think that's fantastic, you know? And I think that's important, I really do. I have a son and a daughter and they've both read the book, and they both loved the book equally. That's a pretty common experience. And in Jennifer you have an actress who is so confident, self-possessed, her own person. There is no BS to her. She's fully who she is, completely candid - very candid - and so it was a wonderful synergy of that and really the right casting."
If in fact Lionsgate does make all three of Collins' books into feature films as planned - and with advance ticket sales through the roof there's no reason to expect they won't move forward - then Ross had the honor of establishing not only the cast of the trilogy but also the style and architecture of the key locations. "I love design-based stuff. I dug it in Pleasantville and dug it in Seabiscuit. That was one of the more interesting things about it. I wanted to create a world that was set in the future but had a sense of its own past, and so that lead us into a lot of investigations of what that meant. I realized that the seats of power were all broad, wide, expansive: Tiananmen Square, Red Square. When you want to invoke might, you're not doing solely CG spires that get kind of fanciful. I didn't want you to feel this had been created on a computer; I wanted you to feel this was a place that had always been there which led to the use of concrete as the main building medium, and the solidity and the might of the place," offered Ross. "That was stuff that led us into a period of mid-century architecture known as brutalism, which is actually what it's called now. It established a might and an authority for the Capitol and served as our main reference, and then we kind of riffed from there."
The Challenges of Shooting The Hunger Games
Mother Nature worked against The Hunger Games production at times, as did locations that weren't easily accessible. "There would be a large flow of mud going through base camp and the set and the roads where we were shooting at times, and things like that at times. Every three or four days we'd be buried by sometimes an inch of rain in an hour. Yeah, there was some tough stuff that made the shooting schedule difficult," said Ross.
"There were moments I can remember where I had like literally three units going and I'm directing all of them; I'm fighting the light and I'm wondering what my exposure is. There was one day I remember where it was a crazy fire drill where I was literally a three-ring circus - a couple of days like that - and that's challenging."
Ross had to deal with rainstorms, mudslides, and complex action scenes, but just figuring out how to set up the tracker jacker sequence was one of his biggest challenges of The Hunger Games shoot. "The tracker jacker and things like that was challenging when you're making a shot list. I shot list the whole movie before I begin. I do a cut and continuity of the movie as a path and then derive coverage off of that, so I know every shot in the movie at least in my head before I go in. And then once I go in, it may feel very random because of the verite quality, but it actually isn't. I mean, it's very, very precise in what we're trying to do. And then once I have that, that's a plan that I depart from and I built the coverage around that. But it's pretty well thought out, so the tracker jacker sequence was just difficult to figure out, as was the reaping," explained Ross.
"The shot list was like 120 set-ups or something like that, and you have so many different axis in order to maintain what that narrative is. You have the Careers on the ground, Katniss in a tree, Rue in another tree, the tracker jacker nest up here...all of that stuff has to cut and sustain that tension, and those are a lot of different axis to kind of figure out in order to sustain the narrative. So it wasn't really difficult to shoot, it was a little of planning."
Filming The Hunger Games was a huge challenge, and had more riding on it than any film of his lengthy career, yet Ross credits the movie with being the film he's enjoyed working on the most. "Maybe it's where I am in life, too, but I just loved directing this movie. I had a blast the whole time; I really did. It was very much a labor of love. I personally connected to the material, which is why I wanted to do it," said Ross. "I mean, I was a fan before I was anything else. I read the books and I really loved them, and when I finished them I had a very clear sense of the movie I wanted to make. It was just really clear to me. And I had never really done a movie that I hadn't generated myself. Seabiscuit had been a magazine article, my other stuff had been original screenplays, but I liked this thing so much that I kind of threw my hat in this ring and was very proud that I'm making the movie."
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The Hunger Games opens in theaters on March 23, 2012 and is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens.