In adapting the runaway best-seller "The Hunger Games" for the screen, director Gary Ross found some surprising collaborators: You probably remember the stir caused when someone tweeted that Ross's Oscar-winning pal, Steven Soderbergh, was shooting second-unit footage, and the director now reveals exactly what scenes those were. But Ross also found himself an unexpected writing partner in "Hunger Games" novelist Suzanne Collins and even added two new scenes based on insightful suggestions from actor Donald Sutherland, who plays the fearsome President Snow in the futuristic thriller.
Were you surprised that Steven Soderbergh was worried that he'd ruined the movie because he hadn't heard back from you about the footage he'd shot?
Oh, did he say that?
Yes. He said he didn't hear from you until two weeks after he shot the footage, so he was sweating bullets the whole time.
Oh, I had no idea! I shot him an email saying it was great. He and I are close friends and we've traded similar favors over the years. We go back a long way. I've been on a lot of his sets and he's been on a lot of mine. He was a producer on "Pleasantville." I've helped him on a lot of the "Ocean's" stuff. He came in and shot a day for me. But it was a day that I really needed somebody who I could trust. It was a pretty complex sequence and it was not something I could just turn over to a second-unit director. He did a fantastic job and he's a good buddy of mine.
What sequence was he shooting?
It was some footage in the riot sequences in District 11.
I think some people were surprised to hear you two were such good friends.
If somebody hadn't tweeted that he was on my set, this would have been as obscure as all of those favors in the past.
It seems strange he'd be so nervous about shooting second-unit footage. He's got an Oscar!
Well, I think any time you do a favor for a friend, you want to make sure you're doing what they want in your film.
How did you find the lead actors for "Hunger Games?"
I had a very strong sense when I saw "Winter's Bone" that Jennifer Lawrence was going to be the right person. And then when I met Jen, I was even more convinced. She just sort of blew me away. So it was an easy decision.
What about Donald Sutherland?
Donald I just thought was right for the part. He and Elizabeth Banks both wrote me letters based on the book, where they said, "Listen, I think I'd be great for this part for this reason." I'd worked with Liz before [on "Seabiscuit"]. I was thinking of her already. So that was easy. But with Donald, he wrote such a compelling case for who this man was and what this kind of autocratic power did and the imposition of his kind of authority and what this sort of fascism really was, that not only did I cast him, but I ended up writing two more scenes based on that letter. It was a really amazing story because I'd already cast him, then he wrote me another letter about how he felt the character related to this world. I was shooting it in Asheville in the woods and we were by this beautiful lake. And I wandered down to the edge of the lake as I'm reading his letter on an iPad and thinking, "Wow, this is so intelligent and so sophisticated." It departed from the way he would play his character into what the nature of this power really meant. And there was a clearing by the lake and there was this one white folding chair there and I thought, "Well, that's sort of a sign I should go sit in this chair and think about this." And I did and I came up with these two scenes that are really kind of pivotal in the movie as a result of that email. That's what you want when you make a movie. You want these happy accidents and you want it to be a conversation with the people you're working with. That was kind of a sublime little moment.
How did Suzanne Collins feel about your adding scenes?
I would never give myself carte blanche to make changes. My job is to faithfully adapt something I love and to get at the essence of what I love about it. It's incredibly compelling. It's wonderfully urgent. It's the beautiful evolution of a girl into a leader as she matures under very extraordinary circumstances. So it wasn't so much about having carte blanche, but finding the most deft way to get at the essence of the story. So I wrote a draft of the script and then I sent it to Suzanne. We'd talked about it a bunch and she responded really, really favorably to the script. And then she came out to California so we could talk further and she had wonderful thoughts about it. And we started pitching back and forth and she was bringing a whole new layer in her insight because she had obviously lived with these characters a long time and before we knew it, we were working together. it wasn't like I invited her in to work on the next draft with me, it just evolved. So I said, "Well, this is crazy. You're not giving me notes, why don't we just write the next draft together?" And she said, "Great." So we locked ourselves up in a room and wrote the next draft of the script. Which was great for me, because I hadn't had a writing partner since Anne Spielberg on "Big." And I loved writing with someone again. That was a fun, special, really unique experience.
Did you feel like you had to tone down some of the violence to get that PG-13 rating or did you decide to make the film and then worry about the rating later?
I think that there's a way to be as urgent and as compelling as the book is without being lurid or indulgent with the violence. If you tell the story from Katniss's point of view, which is what the job is, then you're in a perspective where you never become lurid or fetishistic about the violence. It's a horror going on around her, but that can be done in a way that is very precise and select and even sparing at times without sacrificing any of the urgency or the immediacy of it. So no, it's not done for the rating. It's pretty intense. I've had people see the movie and they said it was more intense than they even expected. But it's PG-13. It's not gratuitous in any way. It's just appropriate, I feel.
Are you also going to direct "Catching Fire?"
I'm attached to the next one. I'm looking forward to it. Simon Beaufoy, ["Slumdog Millionaire"] who's a writer I've been a fan of for a long, long time, is doing the script. We had great meetings with him when he was here in LA. And I'm really excited about that. I can't write the "Catching Fire" script right now because I'm finishing ["Hunger Games"], and we're on a schedule where the script has to get written right now. So I'm unbelievably fortunate that someone like Simon is going to be writing the script. That was the person I wanted to do it. One of the great things about this is that you get to work with people that you respect and you love and I think I'm at a point in my career where that's exciting for me. Would it be great to have time to write the script right now? Yeah. But I get to work with Simon Beaufoy. That's a thrill. He's somebody that I respect and I just love his work.