Written By April | May 2012 : Page 25
Written by MAry McnAMArA The way of peanut butter, twins, The Hunger Games, and Gary Ross. s a revolutionary, Katniss Everdeen is, well . . . revolutionary. The heroine of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy, Katniss embodies the triumph of essential humanity over the high-tech, totalitarian rule of a post-apocalyptic society. In fact, heroes don’t get more essential than Katniss. Neither endowed with a magical heritage nor possessing supernatural friends of any sort, she spends her time before becoming a tribute in the ritual slaughter of the Hunger Games ensuring that her mother and sister do not starve to death. A citizen of District 12, an Appalachian-like community of coal miners, her skillset resembles that of a pioneer. She can set snares, use a bow and ar-row, recognize the difference between a poison berry and an edible one, slake hunger and thirst by chewing pine pulp. Yet by the end of The Hunger Games, this 16-year-old has defied the treacherous, omnipotent government and left it shaking in its high-fashion jackboots. Simultaneously, Katniss managed to overthrow a few rules of the modern-day publishing world. She broke Young Adult fiction’s cycle of ghosts, ghoulies, and long-legged beasties. She replaced teenage angst with grim competence. Most important, she defied the long-held conviction that, while girls can sympathize with both male and female protagonists, boys won’t read books revolving around a heroine. Everyone read The Hunger Games. Everyone, including Gary Ross’ twin son and daughter. They, like millions of kids throughout the country, told their parents what a great book it is. Ross read it and, like virtually everyone caught in the story’s thrall, thought it would make a great movie. Unlike most fans with a similar opinion, however, Ross was in a unique position to be both proactive and fairly specific. A writer-director with alarmingly solid credentials—his first produced screenplay, Big [1988, cowritten with Anne Spielberg] and second, Dave , earned Academy Award and Writers Guild nominations; he scripted and directed and produced both Pleasantville  and Seabiscuit ; adapted Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book The Tale of Despereaux —Ross knew not only that Hunger Games would make a great movie, he knew how it would make a great movie. So he flew to London to meet with Nina Jacobson, APRIL/MA Y 20 12 WG A W Written By Hol lywood Zen and the Art of POrtrAit by tom Keller A Archery • 25
Zen & The Art Of Hollywood Archery
The way of peanut butter, twins, The Hunger Games, and Gary Ross.<br /> <br /> As a revolutionary, Katniss Everdeen is, well . . .Revolutionary.<br /> <br /> The heroine of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy, Katniss embodies the triumph of essential humanity over the high-tech, totalitarian rule of a post-apocalyptic society. In fact, heroes don’t get more essential than Katniss. Neither endowed with a magical heritage nor possessing supernatural friends of any sort, she spends her time before becoming a tribute in the ritual slaughter of the Hunger Games ensuring that her mother and sister do not starve to death. A citizen of District 12, an Appalachian-like community of coal miners, her skillset resembles that of a pioneer. She can set snares, use a bow and arrow, recognize the difference between a poison berry and an edible one, slake hunger and thirst by chewing pine pulp. Yet by the end of The Hunger Games, this 16-year-old has defied the treacherous, omnipotent government and left it shaking in its high-fashion jackboots.<br /> <br /> Simultaneously, Katniss managed to overthrow a few rules of the modern-day publishing world. She broke Young Adult fiction’s cycle of ghosts, ghoulies, and long-legged beasties. She replaced teenage angst with grim competence. Most important, she defied the long-held conviction that, while girls can sympathize with both male and female protagonists, boys won’t read books revolving around a heroine.<br /> <br /> Everyone read The Hunger Games.<br /> <br /> Everyone, including Gary Ross’ twin son and daughter. They, like millions of kids throughout the country, told their parents what a great book it is. Ross read it and, like virtually everyone caught in the story’s thrall, thought it would make a great movie.<br /> <br /> Unlike most fans with a similar opinion, however, Ross was in a unique position to be both proactive and fairly specific. A writer-director with alarmingly solid credentials—his first produced screenplay, Big [1988, cowritten with Anne Spielberg] and second, Dave , earned Academy Award and Writers Guild nominations; he scripted and directed and produced both Pleasantville  and Seabiscuit ; adapted Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book The Tale of Despereaux —Ross knew not only that Hunger Games would make a great movie, he knew how it would make a great movie.<br /> <br /> So he flew to London to meet with Nina Jacobson, Whose company Color Force had wisely bought the rights to the book, and explained why he should be the one to bring it to the screen.<br /> <br /> Because he understood that the real story was not about the fascistic Capitol and its domination of the stripped and suffering once 13-now-12 Districts. It was not about the annual Hunger Games in which a male and female tribute from each District fought to the death as penance for a past uprising, or how the televised nature of the Games darkly mocked a voyeuristic society, or the brutal nature of celebrity and “reality” TV. It wasn’t even about the love triangle of Katniss, her best friend Gale, and her Games partner Peeta.<br /> <br /> Ross understood that The Hunger Games is about a nononsense young woman forced to turn warrior whose truly revolutionary act is that, in a world designed to keep people divided, she learns to trust. More important, to both Jacobson and Collins, he knew how to create a story arc that dramatized that journey.<br /> <br /> “Katniss starts off trusting only herself,” he says now as he said to Jacobson in London. “She is a richly drawn, fully human character. Flesh and blood and very much a girl, and the question becomes: In a brutal society, how vulnerable can you [dare to] be? We watch her as she develops her own moral code. We’re not just commenting on a bleak society, we’re concentrating on a character who refuses to relinquish her humanity. She is simply riveting.”<br /> <br /> Obviously, he got the job.<br /> <br /> Let the Games Begin <br /> <br /> In Ross’ utilitarian postproduction offices on Hollywood Boulevard, a few items stand out. On the wall above the sofa hangs a bow, Katniss’ weapon of choice and a gift from his agent after Ross landed The Hunger Games. On the table beside the sofa is a copy of Vanity Fair, the January issue in which the cast of the film are featured, incongruously atop a massive, biblically bound collection of the plays of William Shakespeare. Various awards and certificates of nominations (including four for Oscars) hang on other walls. Next to the desk there is another table, this one crowded with… <br /> <br /> Jars of peanut butter. Five or six big jars, at least two of them Jif.<br /> <br /> Is he expecting an onslaught of kindergartners?<br /> <br /> “Yeah, the peanut butter,” he says, laughing. “Well, when I started the shoot, I thought I’d use the opportunity to lose a few pounds—when you’re on location you either gain or you lose—which meant doing the low-carb thing. So I eat apples with peanut butter as a snack. A lot.” <br /> <br /> For the record: Chunky, not smooth, with Fuji apples.<br /> <br /> Despite the high sugar content of Jif—“I know, I know, but I just can’t give everything up”—Ross did manage to drop 25 pounds, though mostly due to the strenuous nature of shooting what is essentially an action film in the Smoky Mountains, outside Asheville, North Carolina, during the sultry summer months.<br /> <br /> The schedule was a bit of a jolt—it had been seven years since he’d directed a film, and none of his other movies required the physical rigor of The Hunger Games. But he loved the Smokies and Asheville and since he had his now 16-yearold twins with him working on set, he tried to think of it as something like a summer camp vacation.<br /> <br /> “The biggest surprise to me was how much fun it actually was,” he says. “On a daily basis, it was crazy, but it was fun.” <br /> <br /> If the setting, and genre, of The Hunger Games was something of a departure, the wildly imaginative nature of the story was not. Most of Ross’ films have an element of, if not fantasy, then fable. All are stories that could easily begin with, “What if….”: What if a kid got his wish and turned into a grownup? What if an ordinary guy woke up and discovered he was president? What if somehow you wound up living inside a TV show? Even Seabiscuit has a whiff of fairy tale to it.<br /> <br /> “I am drawn to fabulism, to allegory,” he says. “There’s a size to that emotional canvas that I like very much. It’s not small and nuanced, though those are films I love. I do nonrealistic films, like Frank Capra. This is a dystopian fantasy; it’s very dark and brutal. Fortunately, there is a beautiful, lifeaffirming character in the middle of it. For a writer-director, it’s a perfect combination—you have this rich and wonderful canvas and at the same time these characters who have very intimate relationships.” <br /> <br /> As anyone who has gone from “this would make a great movie” to “okay, here’s me making that great movie” knows, even the most wonderfully vivid, perfectly plotted tale does Not shift easily from one genre to another. Although warmed with the full support of Collins, who, as a former children’s episodic staff writer (Little Bear, Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!) Knows from adaptation and collaboration, Ross was faced with two main issues.<br /> <br /> Well, three, if you count the gargantuan anticipation from the book’s fans. But so confident was Ross that his love for Katniss and the story would be just as strong as anyone’s, he wasn’t worried about disappointing the book’s fans, he says. At least not too much.<br /> <br /> The book is written in the first person, which meant that Ross would have to either employ a fairly extensive voiceover or dramatize the many things Katniss explains to the reader, such as the nature and history of her world, the characteristics of the 12 Districts, the various manipulations of the Gamemakers, and the relationship of the populace to the Games.<br /> <br /> Opening the film is a title card offering a short explanation of the history of the Games. That’s all: Ross decided against a voiceover. As difficult as it might be to write new scenes revealing what Katniss could tell easily in the book, those scenes are precisely what would give the film its cinematic dimension.<br /> <br /> That said, the main narrative had to remain with Katniss. So while there are scenes in the film that she does not witness, her story is told solely through her eyes. “We experience the Games as Katniss experiences them, including Peeta’s actions—we see him only as Katniss sees him,” Ross emphasises.<br /> <br /> The other issue is the undeniable fact that children are killed during the Hunger Games, many horrifically and often at the hands of other children. For example, at the very beginning of every Games, a murderous struggle for weapons and survival resources has become so routine that commentators dismissively reference it as “the bloodbath.” <br /> <br /> Ross points out that the tributes are all between 12 and 18, making their median age 15, but even taking into account the aging up that most casting of young characters entails—“just a fact of filmmaking,” Ross says, “because you need actors who can handle the roles”—there are still very young participants, including a girl named Rue who provides some of the more poignant and disturbing scenes.<br /> <br /> In both writing and directing, Ross had to avoid becoming lurid and gratuitous while respecting the grotesque nature of the action. Above all, he did not want to create an exploitive emotional distance from the violence because that, he says, would make him “as guilty as the Capitol.” <br /> <br /> Fortunately, he had Katniss, a figure strong enough to support not only a revolution and three books, but the film as well. By staying grounded in her character, he says, the film allows viewers to see the horror, but as she experiences it. The camera does not ignore but neither does it dwell; the slaughter is seen long enough to be registered as what it is, and then the action returns to her quest for survival.<br /> <br /> Although Ross says he has not paid a lot of attention to any preemptive concerns from fans, including some mixed reaction to the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, whom most readers imagined as younger and multiracial, he was pleased by the relief many expressed when the film got a PG- 13 rating for violence. “It sounds terrible, but they were glad that the killings were not going to be underplayed. But my Attitude is ‘a little goes a long way’ in this story.” <br /> <br /> As for Lawrence, Ross cannot praise her enough—“She is Katniss!”—and that praise extends to the entire cast. Dismissing the long-held Hollywood conviction that nothing is worse than working with children (and dogs), Ross says, “Many of them are not exactly children,”—Lawrence is 21 and Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, is 19— “and all of them were pros [prior to being cast].” They all understood, he says, that although the story is a fable, and one aimed at young adult audiences, it’s not something to be played as fantasy; if anything, the extreme nature of the tale required that the characters be painfully real, to draw the audience in and make them see how this sort of tragedy could conceivably happen.<br /> <br /> “This book has a lot on its mind,” Ross says. “It’s not fanciful.It’s too serious to not treat seriously. We all took it seriously.I wanted to explore, not exploit.” <br /> <br /> To calculate the tone of more disturbing scenes, Ross studied Saving Private Ryan and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, seeking a naturalism that he thought would keep the action grounded in the characters’ reality.<br /> <br /> “We shot in a raw and urgent way, a lot of handheld stuff,” he says, “so you can feel what Katniss is feeling, not popping high to see the world around her, which she can’t see. You want the audience to be as subjective as she is.”<br /> <br /> The lottery <br /> <br /> The woman who started it all declined to be interviewed for this article, but Suzanne Collins has been very public and profuse about her admiration for Ross and his take on her characters.With her background in children’s television before she became a novelist, Collins instantly accepted the different requirements of a novel and a film, to the point of scripting the initial adaptation.<br /> <br /> When Ross got the greenlight for The Hunger Games, one of his initial gestures was to call Billy Ray, who had been brought in by the studio to rewrite after Collins had turned in her version. Known for his ability to capture both action and intrigue in celebrated films, including State of Play, Breach, Shattered Glass, and Flightplan, Ray had, like Ross, also learned about the book from his daughter. “The second I read it, I knew I had to be part of it,” Ray says. But as a fellow writer-director and a friend, he also knew exactly what Ross was going to say with that initial phone call.<br /> <br /> “Gary is first and foremost a writer,” says Ray. “So of course, he had to put it through his [own] process, and he delivered a movie that the fans of the book will love.” <br /> <br /> Ray, currently working on Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks and a remake of The Thin Man to star Johnny Depp, recalls that he wandered much further afield in his draft, bringing in scenes from the second and third books, for example, and imagining a much greater role for Gale. “I took huge liberties to see how elastic it would be,” Ray says. “With Suzanne’s blessing, of course. Obviously, when you’re dealing with such a phenomenon, you have to evaluate how many chances you take. Gary’s [draft] is a much more faithful rendering.” <br /> <br /> Ross says he did, in fact, return mostly to the book for his version, although he kept at least one scene that was in Ray’s version but not in the book, requiring that he cut a very effective scene in the book (in the spirit of nondisclosure, I will not describe the new scene).<br /> <br /> “We shot both scenes,” Ross says, “but in the editing room I realized that it was an either-or situation, and I thought Billy’s idea was a good one. It showed the impact Katniss was having and offers a nice tie-in for the second movie.” <br /> <br /> He characterizes his work with Collins, who shares screenwriting credit with Ross and Ray, as old-fashioned collaboration.“I sent [Collins] a draft and we were having these long, very specific conversations. So I said, ‘Let’s just do this, let’s just write this together.’” <br /> <br /> Not only did the experience provide a nice change from the often solitary work of screenwriting—“I remembered from collaborating with Anne Spielberg on Big how enjoyable it could be,” Ross says—but Collins’ direct participation also made it easier to impose the changes necessary to translate the book to film.<br /> <br /> “It wasn’t so much her approval that matters,” Ross says, “but she knew the characters, she knew the world, so she knew what would make sense.” <br /> <br /> In some instances, time had to be compressed, and the plodding nature of survival—the lack of water and food— that occupied pages in the book gave way to more vivid instances of the Games. Some characters had to be sacrificed— the maimed Avox got lost, as did two of Katniss’ Games stylists—while other characters were expanded. Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) has a more high-profile role as the film cuts away from the Games themselves to show the Machinations, and politics, behind the proceedings. More significant is the presence of the Machiavellian President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland, a character who is little more than an ominous background figure until the second book, Catching Fire.<br /> <br /> Like Ross, Sutherland had been determined to play a part in The Hunger Games, and early in the casting process wrote to Ross offering himself for the role of Snow. “I was so mad at myself for not thinking of him right away,” Ross says ruefully.Then, after filming had begun in North Carolina, Sutherland sent Ross another missive, this time by email. “It was this incredibly smart and articulate discussion of how pernicious the Games were, about the nature of power and Snow’s views on it, what he stood for, the manipulation of the people by spectacles like the Games. It was just so smart and provocative that I thought this is a relationship I need to use better.”<br /> <br /> So he wrote several very short but powerful scenes in which Snow makes clear both the purpose of the games and the threat that Katniss poses, not only expanding the film’s central metaphor but also, again, setting up the sequel in a subtle and effective way.<br /> <br /> Let the Games Never end <br /> <br /> Still, the film is remarkably, and intentionally, faithful to the text. “I wanted viewers to have the same wonderful experience I did reading the book,” Ross says simply. Whether this view will be shared by critics, who clobbered director Christopher Columbus for a similar fidelity to the first two books in the Harry Potter series, concerns him not at all. “This is very much my film,” he says. “And I don’t see the need to deviate unnecessarily. The movie very much reflects me and a book I love.” <br /> <br /> Neither does he seem very anxious about the fate of the franchise; he is already on board to direct the second film, Catching Fire, although this time Slumdog Millionaire’s Simon Beaufoy is writing the script. As with the Potter films, the studio is hoping to keep the films as close together as possible to avoid the cast aging out of their roles, and as much as Ross had enjoyed scripting Hunger Games, it just wasn’t logistically feasible for him to write the second book’s script while directing the first.<br /> <br /> If early ticket sales are any indication, The Hunger Games will be an enormous blockbuster. But even a big built-in fan base does not guarantee success, for either the second week or the second film. Young Adult adaptations have a mixed record— the first film of the Narnia series did well, the second two did not; the Twilight series soared financially if not critically; the Philip Pullman adaptation bombed; and even the magic of Spielberg couldn’t turn the YA novel and hit play War Horse into something even approaching a hit.<br /> <br /> In fact, all those eager teens and ’tweens with their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts bring just as much pressure as promise to the project—expectations are extremely high, both critically and for the box office.<br /> <br /> Ross just smiles at the thought of all that post-viewing texting. He shrugs off the pressure, as confident now in the Hollywood postproduction office as when he first tackled Jacobson in London. Although he was relieved by the positive response to early trailers, he wasn’t concerned about much except telling the story as he saw it: “No one can put more pressure on me than I put on myself. And I am very happy with the film. I was surprised in that I thought it would be a much more difficult movie to shoot, but when I got out there, it was very clear. Shot by shot, it was very clear. Maybe I’ve just grown to enjoy my job.”<br /> <br /> Even the thing that concerned him most—the potentially jarring contrast between the natural look and feel of the Games and the more stylized feel of the Capitol and its inhabitants— wound up pleasing him. “I was surprised at how little work I had to do to get them in harmony with each other.” <br /> <br /> Final editing was going on mere weeks before the film’s release, amid the utter insanity of promotion, junkets, and press interviews. But even that doesn’t seem to phase Ross, who has experienced it all before—growing up in the business, raised by a screenwriter father (Arthur A. Ross, who Wrote the Writers Guild’s first credits manual), attending the Academy Awards as a 31-year-old Best Original Screenplay nominee. But of course, he’s never experienced it from these phenomenal heights. Few have.<br /> <br /> “I don’t feel the pressure as much as people think,” he insists.Although it is impossible to verify his standing heart rate, there is nothing but confidence in the set of his shoulders and the stillness of his hands. Gary Ross is about to launch the biggest film franchise since Harry Potter and he looks taut, but taut like Katniss’ bow, about to fire the shot that will start a revolution.<br /> <br /> Maybe it’s all that peanut butter.
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