Director Gary Ross’s films are better known than he is. When I mentioned to my friends that I’d be writing a feature story on him for CT, most of them looked at me with a quizzical expression and then asked, “Who?” Personally, I find Ross’s unknown status rather refreshing: he’s a director without a public persona and an artist who fills theater seats with the stories that he brings to life rather than with his own personal brand name.
Recently, however, Ross has come into the limelight – for directing and contributing to the screenplay for The Hunger Games, which is currently dominating at the box office. It’s clear that Ross understands how to find commercial success without sacrificing creative merit.
Ross started his career as a writer and received his first success with one of my childhood favorites, Big (1988). Directed by Penny Marshall and starring Tom Hanks, Big is about a boy who’s tired of being treated like a child. At a carnival, he comes across a mechanical fortune teller and makes his wish: “I want to be big.” Much to his surprise, the next morning he awakens as an adult, and as such, ventures out to make it on his own. Big was not only a hit with audiences, but with critics as well, garnering numerous award nominations, including an Oscar nod for best screenplay for both Ross and co-writer Anne Spielberg.
After Big Ross’s next major writing project was Dave (1993), which is directed by Ivan Reitman and stars Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. In Dave, after the President of the United States, Bill Mitchell (Kline), falls into a coma, look-a-like Dave Kovic (also played by Kline) is hired to take his place in public. However, much to the chagrin of the administration, Dave makes a much better president because of his ability to connect with people and his sincere, caring nature. Dave also earned critical acclaim, mainstream success, and gave Ross another best screenplay nomination from the Academy.
In addition to Big and Dave, Ross also worked as a writer on the Tom Selleck vehicle, Mr. Baseball, in 1992, and the revamping of Lassie (starring a very young Michelle Williams) in 1994.
After Lassie Ross didn’t emerge again until 1998, when he made his directorial debut with Pleasantville, which he also wrote. Pleasantville is about a pair of 1990s’ teenagers (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) who get sucked into a 1950s’ television show and are forced to try to fit in until they can figure out how to get home. The two start to bring color into the 1950s’ world (literally in the cinematography and figuratively in the screenplay), and the film compares and contrasts past social values to modern ones, creating an astute critique of how we live in America. The Academy recognized Pleasantville with three nominations. The film also won Ross the Golden Satellite Award for best screenplay.
Ross’s next claim to fame was Seabiscuit (2003), which he directed and wrote the screenplay for. Seabiscuit also enjoyed commercial and critical acclaim, with its tale of triumph for the little guy. Based on actual events, the story is about the Great Depression-era racehorse for which the film is titled. Although Seabiscuit is not much to look at, the horse defies the odds, along with his equally down-and-out human caretakers. Seabiscuit is a solid film and like Ross’ other pieces, received many award nominations and earned Ross yet another Oscar nod for best adapted screenplay.
After Seabiscuit, Ross worked as a writer on the much loved animated film The Tale of Despereaux (2008), another inspiring story that focuses on an underdog rising up to save the day.
Looking at Ross’s body of work, you can see recurring themes of hope, humanity, heart, and soul. He is involved in films that, often in a lighthearted manner and with a happy ending, have inspiring messages and prompt us to change for the better. Considering Ross’s earlier films, his direction in The Hunger Games is interesting because he appears to be taking a darker turn.
The Hunger Games focuses on a bleak North American future where children are put into a lottery and are chosen to kill each other off for entertainment. While the story itself may deviate from what we typically see from Ross, similar themes and messages do permeate the material. But instead of telling a story to show how we can change things positively, he brings Suzanne Collins’ world to life to show us what our future could be if we don’t make some serious adjustments to our thinking and values.
The phenomenal box office success that The Hunger Games had on its opening weekend is certainly a testimony to Ross’s skill as a filmmaker. Now, while box office draw is surely not the only judge of a quality film (popular has never meant “good”), the fact that The Hunger Games has already earned more money than The Twilight Saga (2009- ) on its opening weekend tells us that he is pulling in a much wider audience than the young adult fans the movie is primarily marketed to. This is because Ross is an actual filmmaker. He clearly understands the importance of telling a good story that means something, rather than providing audiences with mindless explosions, empty romances, and one dimensional, cookie-cutter characters. As a director and writer, Gary Ross gives me a glimmer of hope for the cinema: people can still make good films while finding a balance between commercialism and creativity.