On its way to the big screen, how could The Hunger Games preserve the very human-scale ideas at the center of its would-be blockbuster? Perhaps the most crucial choice Lionsgate made, aside from casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, was to hire Gary Ross to write and direct the film. Ross has been Oscar-nominated three times for screenplays with an almost Capra-esque sense of decency — Dave, Seabiscuit, and Big — and as he told Vulture when we recently sat down with him, it was important to keep the film’s focus on Katniss and her attempts to hold on to her own humanity. That said, Ross did make some bold aesthetic and structural choices, and he discussed his rationales with us (and though nothing is outright spoiled here, if you’d prefer not to have even an inkling of how the film begins and ends, skip the third question and answer).
Let’s talk about the look of this movie. You employed a lot of shaky handheld, and there aren’t a lot of wide shots. How did you come up with that approach?
Well, I mean, I tried to do what the book did.
Because the book is told in the first person?
Yeah, it’s a very urgent first-person narrative. I tried to put you in Katniss’s shoes the way [author] Suzanne Collins put you in Katniss’s shoes. I wanted to take you through the world using this kind of serpentine tunnel vision that Katniss has. I want to destabilize you the way Suzanne has and I want you to experience the world through Katniss’s eyes, and that requires a very subjective cinematic style, to be kind of urgently in her point of view, so that’s why I shot it that way.
That said, the movie also starts and ends with scenes that Katniss isn’t in.
Well, I wanted you to have a hit of the Capitol at the very onset, but I also wanted you to drop into something almost … Instead of giving you an introductory set piece or movie-ish opening, I wanted you to drop right into the reality. I never want you to feel like you’re in a movie, I want you to feel like you’re in the games or you’re in the Capitol or in the scene, and so I wanted to drop in on Caesar Flickerman and Seneca Crane in mid-conversation so boom, you’re in that world and you’re pulled into it. I thought that was tremendously important both in terms of the style of the movie that urgently engages you and at the same time to give you a taste of the Capitol, to give you context, because so much of the front is spent in District 12 and I think this needs to be contextualized. I can’t go into Katniss’s head the way the novel can, I can’t contextualize that the way the book can, so I felt it was very important to get a sense of this other place before we went back to District 12.
The tracking for the movie is projecting a monster opening weekend, but do you pay attention to that? Is it gratifying or terrifying?
Oh, it’s not terrifying.
Well, I suppose it’s not terrifying when your movie is projected to make a bundle.
Yeah, what’s scary about that, right? [Laughs.] But yeah, it’s gratifying. I’m more pleased that we’ve gotten such a good response since the movie’s been screening. I mean, that’s actually more important to me than the tracking and stuff like that; that’s what I care about.
You aren’t necessarily committed to directing all the movies in this series, but when you decided that you wanted to do the first film, did you think ahead about the other ones?
They’ve asked me to do the next one. I’m attached to it, it’s my intention to do it. To be honest, I haven’t really had time to think about the particulars of Catching Fire because, literally, this cake is right out of the oven and then I went right into the press junket, so I want to finish this movie properly and get it done. But no, I intend to do the next one.
But did you ever think to yourself, I may end up spending five to seven years of my life on this series?
Oh, no, no, no. I didn’t think about that at all. I really didn’t. I love the book, I loved the story, I loved the narrative. I loved that it was a nuanced character story, at the same time it had this very big canvas. I got to light the woods on fire and I got to investigate the subtleties of acting with Jennifer Lawrence. I got to stage this tribute parade — I mean, you talk about wide shots, it’s hard to get wider than that. So there’s a huge canvas for a director to sink his teeth into, and at the same time, there’s nuanced acting, which always interests me, and this story has a lot on its mind, politically, thematically, and emotionally. I just dug it and I just wanted to do this movie. I hadn’t really imagined my life beyond this movie, but now I have, obviously.
The Hunger Games is such unlikely blockbuster material, when you really think about it. It’s been compared at times to the Japanese movie Battle Royale, but no U.S. distributor picked up that movie, because they didn’t want to put out something where kids kill other kids. Did you ever see that?
No, I’ve never seen it. I heard about it once I took this job and I intentionally never saw it. Right? Because it would be crazy for me to see it. I wanted to have a pristine experience where I just did this movie absent of other things that were like it, and I thought it was important to kind of keep this a more antiseptic process. So I may see it now.
So how is it that a film with this very bleak subject matter, where kids kill kids, is now projected to be one of the biggest movies of the year? What’s the special ingredient that Hunger Games has?
Well, I think that that’s kind of the same question as “What’s made these books take off?” And I think one of the things that’s made them so popular is that Katniss finds and maintains her own humanity in the face of a culture that wants to take it from her. I really think her character is at the heart of this. She begins this thing as somebody who has to fight for her own survival and by the end of it, she’s willing to die rather than take an innocent life. She finds her own moral center, she finds her own ethical center, and it asks kids, “How human can you be? How do you preserve your humanity in the face of something like this?” So in that respect, she’s a phenomenal hero and she’s willing to defy authority and she’s not going to play their game or be complicit in their game anymore and she draws a line for herself that’s so clear. I think that’s very inspiring and redemptive and I think it resonated with kids that read the book and now adults who are reading the book. Kids are giving it to their parents, you know? It’s that kind of thing.
I have to say, I noticed an interesting parallel to your directorial debut Pleasantville: Again, you’ve got a boy and girl who are transported to this very stylized world where there’s always a lot of food on the plates.
[Laughs.] Yeah, well, one’s utopian, one’s dystopian, but I think maybe I am interested in that stuff a little bit. There are some parallels between the two movies, yeah. There is no perfect society, there are only human beings.