Less than a month ago, Gary Ross told us that he intended to direct Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, but when we asked him how he felt about committing several years of his life to one franchise, his answer surprised us: “I didn’t think about that at all,” he confessed. “I hadn’t really imagined my life beyond this movie.” Sometime over the past few weeks, Ross did start mulling over the idea of several more years spent in Panem, and according to his exit statement last night, he then decided he wanted to do other things. Fair enough … but is this a net gain for the franchise, or a notable loss? Let’s handicap the fallout from this announcement and analyze the pros and cons to determine whether the odds are now in Catching Fire’s favor.
First, the pros:
Does this mean less shakycam? Ross certainly brought a novel visual approach to this nascent franchise, eschewing carefully composed shots for a jittery, handheld feel. That said, would anyone be mad if the new Catching Fire director found a tripod? Our commenters were in full revolt against Ross’s shakycam, complaining, “I haven’t left a movie feeling this sick since The Blair Witch Project,” and “That camera literally made me ill … If the second movie is like that, we won’t be going.” Which brings us to our next point …
The next director may be better at shooting action. Ross has a background in scripting populist films like Dave and Pleasantville, and the best moments in The Hunger Games are the ones that come before the titular games begin, when Ross can simply put Jennifer Lawrence in a room opposite someone else and have her effectively sell the movie’s emotional stakes with that resolute stare. Unfortunately, when Katniss is finally forced to play the Games, Ross has no particular flair for shooting them. His protagonist’s usual strategy is to climb the nearest tree to avoid her competitors, but since Ross stubbornly refuses to give us wide shots, he’s got no way to convey even a simple establishing detail like how high up she’s climbed. The other action beats fare no better: The camera is so agitated that we can barely even tell what’s going on, let alone where each character is in relation to one another. If Lionsgate could somehow land a new director who’s talented at conveying space in an action sequence — Robert Zemeckis would be our dream choice, and he’s available — we might actually look forward to the Games, instead of dreading them like Katniss does.
Less fidelity to the source material may be a good thing. Ross worked very closely with Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins on his adaptation, and she’s credited as a co-writer. Though it was good of him to include her, and the film pleased many Hunger Games diehards by being so faithful to the book, we’ve read the screenplay that Billy Ray wrote before Ross came onboard … and it’s notably better. Ray took a few liberties with the source material — his version has a brief prologue set a year before the main story, which lets him begin with action and introduce Katniss in a far more striking way — but he actually manages to nail some plot points that Ross muddled (like the ambiguity of the Katniss-Peeta showmance) by adapting the book in a less literal-minded fashion. Lionsgate was smart to hire Simon Beaufoy to script Catching Fire while Ross was still busy working on the first movie, and let’s hope that the new director benefits from a similarly fresh perspective.
And now, the cons:
They just pissed off the actors. Ross was beloved by series stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, and Elizabeth Banks, and by replacing him just a few weeks after The Hunger Games opened, they’ve destabilized a cast that was previously eager to reteam with Ross. While his visual sense was divisive, Ross did a great job with casting the franchise, and he directed Lawrence to give an already iconic performance. Will the actors be as capable in the hands of a hastily hired replacement, and might they resent the studio for it? (Certainly, we don’t need this crew to start acting as surly on their publicity tours as the cast of the Twilight franchise, which never had a single steward to keep them humble.)
There’s very little time to find a new director. One of the reasons Ross gave for bailing on Catching Fire is that he simply wouldn’t have enough time to prep the movie, since it needs to shoot this fall so that Jennifer Lawrence can begin filming the sequel to X-Men: First Class in January. If Ross was worried about the brief preproduction window for a movie this massive, how much time will his replacement have? The studio will start interviewing directors immediately and should have an announcement soon, but valuable time will have been spent on the search, and it’ll take even longer to get a replacement up to speed. Ross would have likely retained his department heads from the last movie, but will the new director demand a different cinematographer or production designer? If so, it’ll take a while to get all those important ducks in a row, and there’s no time to waste.
Summit needs to worry about its bad reputation. In an era when directors like Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay regularly commit to directing the sequels of their megamovies, it’s cause for alarm that Summit can’t seem to hold onto a helmer. The studio cut Catherine Hardwicke after she originated the Twilight franchise, and now Gary Ross (who was hired by Lionsgate before that studio merged with Summit) is kaput, too. In the short term, replacing Ross may work out — this is a franchise that could definitely use a visual makeover — but in the long term, talented directors will be justly wary about approaching Summit/Lionsgate with a valuable property, lest they find themselves dumped. Let’s hope that when trying to hire the director of Catching Fire, the studio hasn’t alienated some of the most talented candidates for the job.