In The Hollywood Reporter’s latest episode of The Hollywood Masters, they talked to The Hunger Games director Gary Ross, who talked about Jennifer Lawrence’s first audition with him and casting director Debra Zane, Jennifer’s natural talent, and another reason (besides the time crunch) why he didn’t want to direct Catching Fire.
Below is a section of the transcript pertaining to the above mentioned content and video is available above. The full interview can be read at THR.com.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I very much admire what you did in The Hunger Games, and the big decisions there were so fundamental. I want to show a clip from Hunger Games and then we’ll talk about it.
[CLIP The Hunger Games]
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: So here’s this book that is this unbelievable best seller, Sam Mendes wants to direct it, other well-known directors…
GARY ROSS: Ha!
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Is that funny?
GARY ROSS: Well, no it’s just goes to the whole Hunger Games nature…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How did you get the job? Tell us what you did.
GARY ROSS: I made a short film that expressed my point of view and how I wanted to make the movie. I produced a tremendous amount of concept art, I hired about seven or eight concept artists, I invested a fair amount of money in articulating exactly my vision and what I wanted to do and the way that I saw the movie. Not just to get the job but also so that it would be very clear that if I did get the job, the way I saw the movie and what I wanted to do. And also what I loved about it and what I connected to in the material, which was, people I think thought it was sort of surprising considering my other films, that I was drawn to it. But I saw the movie as someone who was so hardened but in order to ultimately triumph and survive had to discover her own humanity, sense of empathy, softness and compassion. Softness may not be the right word but sense of empathy and compassion. It was through the death of Rue, through this character that she was able to get in touch with those things that ultimately made her stronger and not weaker. And that’s a theme that had been consistent in every movie I’d ever done. That also is the reason that I saw the first book as a very self-contained thing. I know the world sees it as a franchise. Obviously, I don’t because I only made the first one. I do, certainly, but I also was very drawn to this simple fable about someone who grew up a hunter, was hardened in that way. In the midst of this hideous, horrific circumstance, finds her own humanity. And it allows her to triumph. That was a very whole and complete story to me that I was very, very drawn to. Thank God, Jennifer Lawrence existed…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Did you get the book in galley form?
GARY ROSS: No. It was already out. My kids had read it like a year before. It seems like it’s such a massive phenomena now, but when I read The Hunger Games and when I first talked to Nina Jacobson in the studio…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Nina produced the film.
GARY ROSS: Nina produced the film and Alli Shearmur who was the head of production at Lion’s Gate. It only sold like a million copies. I got warned against doing the movie by a lot of people.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why?
GARY ROSS: Kids killing kids. It’s easy now to just see it as this pop culture phenomenon. And Nina would know this better than me but, if not every studio, most studios passed on the book. Because they were really, really terrified of what it was. Unlike the sequels, where it becomes this other revolution and this intrigue, the first book is about 14 year olds murdering each other. It’s a very tonally difficult, sensitive thing to approach. And there are a lot of people who told me I was crazy to do it. But all I ever know in life is whether I connect to something I read. I couldn’t stop reading it. I found a kind of a human story at the heart of this that I was so drawn to, that despite all that I really wanted to do it. In hindsight it seems like an obvious choice.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: They’re enormously difficult decisions. First of all, you have to decide how much violence am I going to show? And the film makes you think about violence without ever basking in violence. Then you have, how much realism do I bring to this futuristic world? Do I romanticize it or not? Then you have the biggest decision of all, which is, who do I cast in this role?
GARY ROSS: Yeah, that’s the big one.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: How do you cast it?
GARY ROSS: Jodie Foster had asked me to do a couple of days of… write some reshoots for her onThe Beaver, and I’d never seen Jennifer before. I remember, you know when you write reshoots or you do that kind of a job for somebody, you’re looking at the film in your computer again and again. I just kept saying, this girl is a revelation. Who is this actress? It’s like being a basketball coach, when Michael Jordan walks in the gym you should be able to recognize that right? I saw Jennifer and my head snapped. I just thought she was an enormous talent. And obviously we’re looking at everyone in that age range at that point. I asked to meet with Jennifer, who at that point had just gotten nominated for Winter’s Bone. I had asked for the meeting, then I saw Winter’s Bone because I was prepping and I hadn’t been able to see it. In between the time I had asked for the meeting and when I met her. We just talked for 45 minutes. But after the meeting I remember turning to…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Where did you meet?
GARY ROSS: At my office, Studio City.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What did you talk about?
GARY ROSS: We talked about the book, we talked about life, we talked about awards season, we talked about where she was from, we talked about her brothers, we talked about life, just everything you talk about.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: More than 45 minutes.
GARY ROSS: Jennifer’s not a hard person to talk to. She’s a very open, accessible, fun human being. I remember after the meeting, turning to Rob, this guy that I worked with, and saying, I will be stunned if this isn’t who we cast. Now, Lionsgate was insisting on an audition process and stuff like that. Which I apologetically took – how often do you have to tell an Oscar nominee they have to audition for your movie, but that was the situation. They were casting a large franchise. Jennifer came in at that point, this was before she was the Jennifer Lawrence that we all know. She was the Jennifer… but you know what I mean. She came in to the audition and the audition just destroyed me. It was when she said goodbye to her little sister, just the emotional power. Jennifer choked me up and I remember making up some crap like, oh there’s a dog outside. I had a tear in my eye and I was trying to mask it or something like that. It was a remarkable audition. It was like the greatest audition that I’d ever seen. We actually ran kind of a long improv at the end. This is a big decision. I was sold at that point, but we did an improv after doing that scene about…
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: “We” meaning the casting director, or…?
GARY ROSS: I think at that first audition it was me, Debbie Zane, the casting director, and maybe like one person more. Then we did an improv at the end that was sort of like a debrief as if the games had just ended. As if I was sort of like interrogating her afterward, just to feel the improv. And she just hung with me and just blew me away. She’s Jennifer Lawrence. She’s a remarkable actress. It was just a wonderful experience to go through.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: She had an accident during shooting and was taken to a hospital wasn’t she?
GARY ROSS: She had an accident where she was taken to a hospital?
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: According to my story…
GARY ROSS: Oh, no, no, no. Prior to shooting.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: She hit a wall?
GARY ROSS: No, that was during training, that was not during shooting. I would have remembered. Yes, it was when she was training during prep, she strained her back and ended up being fine.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: Why did you not do the sequel?
GARY ROSS: A lot of reasons. The biggest reason was… first of all people think this had been premeditated on my part for a long time. It wasn’t. We got to the end of the process on Hunger Games, and I had literally been only focused on that with the intention of doing it and then Jennifer’s schedule on X-Men made it very clear to everybody that we were going to have to start the movie in September. Unlike Francis, I write and direct. That’s just my process. So first I write, and then I direct. And that’s a linear process for me. So, that process for me was an eight month process on the first movie. It was going to have to be a four month process on the second movie, and I didn’t think there was adequate time to write a script and then prep that movie in what normally takes me the same amount of time to write script. Now it’s different when you don’t have to write the script and somebody else can be writing while you can be prepping. But those aren’t simultaneous processes for me and I didn’t feel that I would be doing the movie any service in order to do that. So that was the first, most obvious reason. Go ahead, you were going to ask me something.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: What was the second, less obvious reason?
GARY ROSS: OK, that’s interesting. I don’t think this was conscious to me at the time, but I’ve always wanted to move on and do things that are new and challenging. And I think that in my heart of hearts, besides the fact that it literally was arithmetically impossible to do, I think I wanted to challenge myself and move on to something new. And I got to do the fun part, I got to imagine the world, I got to cast Katniss, I got to cast Peeta, I got to cast Gale, I got to decide what the capital was going to look like, I got to cast Donald Sutherland, I got to cast Woody Harrelson, I got to cast Stanley Tucci, I got to write the script for the first one, which was my favorite of the books. I had a very wonderful satisfying experience. And that honestly had a certain amount of closure for me. And I didn’t want to dive into another experience, which I thought might feel really inadequate for the amount of time I would have had to write a whole screenplay and then print the movie.