Gary Ross: The Greatest Director You Never Knew Existed – BEFORE ‘The Hunger Games’

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.

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11 Comments

  1. Hi Gary Ross,
    I am in modelling and acting and i have experiences with acting and i would like to audition for catching fire or mockingjay! I loved all of the books and i loveeeed the movie The Hunger Games and would love to be in the next ones! Please e-mail me if you need anyone for parts in the movie Catching fire or Mockingjay. Acting and modelling are my passions and I would be willing to audition for anything that is available. I am 14, dark skinned, i have dark brown long hair, i am 5'2, i have straight white teeth, i am very funny and cute. Thanks.

  2. Whatever is going on here is awesome.

  3. gary this is not fan mail but however i am a big fan of yours i would love to star in catching fire or mocking jay i've been acting since i was four years old and i am currently 13 ive stared in tons of movies and am currently a female model my parents could most likely pay for transportation to the set and would be thrilled if i was casted as one of the next tributes or just an extra i really hope you read this i can do lines or not and "thank you….. for your consideration" please email me for any futher information

  4. My name is Heather and I would totally love it if I could star in Catching Fire or Mockingjay. I could be an extra, or a tribute or Delly, or anybody. I have some acting expeirence and I would work really hard! Just to give you an idea of what character I might play, I have blue eyes, blond hair, am 10 years old[but tall for my age] and can be contacted via email at _______@gmail.com

  5. Mike Mierendorf

    I'm not sure how this started – but Gary Ross most likely has not and will not read this article. Sorry, but this is not the place to contact Gary Ross unfortunately.

  6. hi does anyone know how to contact gary ross because i would love to see whether he would consider auditioning me for an extra in the hunger games cathing fire or mockingjay

  7. Ok, once again. This is not how you contact Gary Ross. Not to mention he isn't even directing the sequels!

  8. Hello,
    Im 16 years old and would love to be in the next or third hunger games, ive read all three books and then some in the course of a weekend, i loved the way you captured things in the movie, im a natural actor and would love to act for the movie please let me know at exploretalent.com/Julian

  9. Visit this Video on Youtube.

    “Can you imagine how EPIC it would be, if for the trailer of Mockingjay they used slow motion clips of the mutts, the silver parachutes, Prim and Snow with just this song playing?”
    -RengokuBA

  10. Gary ross:
    Hi, I am a big fan of yours. I you are a very talented director. I have recently auditioned for a show but didnt get the part. However I would really like the opportunity to audition for catching fire or mocjing jay or any other movie you are planning to direct. Please email me for any movie auditions at ced9199@gmail.com.
    Thank you.
    From ,
    Carlos ( a really big fan)

  11. Madeline Christopherson

    Hello, Mr. Ross my name is Madeline and I live in Maryland, I have watched all of the hunger games that you directed and they are magnificent. I also wanted to ask a favor of your talent if you could, please email me at madelinechristopherson00@gmail.com , so i can tell you. Thank you.
    From,
    Madeline

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