Interview: Director Gary Ross

Gary RossBefore the production of Pleasantville (1998), Gary Ross had written two successful screenplays. The first, Big (1988), directed by Penny Marshall, helped jumpstart Tom Hanks’ film career. The second, Dave (1993), continued Ross’ pattern of writing lighthearted comedies with a humanist, dramatic soul — long before he became the director of the thrilling first installment of The Hunger Games (2012).

I had a chance to talk with Gary at San Francisco’s historic Clift Hotel, where the two of us sat entirely alone in its beautiful Art Deco appointed bar, which is paneled with dark inlaid hardwood and dimly lit with the warm glow of antique lamps. The room, like a time capsule from another age, seemed the perfect place to talk about the time-bending properties of his newest film, and to ask the first-time director about screenwriting, narrative, and the place of story in our culture.

Allen White: I actually just reviewed Big and Dave again last night, just to look at your earlier work — I’d seen Big before and I’d never seen Dave — and I noticed that in these three films one of your strongest themes seems to be “triumph of the everyman.” What is it about this theme that fascinates you?

Gary Ross: “Triumph of the everyman”…I don’t know that Pleasantville is exactly “triumph of the everyman.” I think Pleasantville is sort of “triumph of the everything.” (laughs) I suppose I’m a populist at heart. I mean, I’m drawn to that stuff, I’m drawn to a kind of Capra-esque thing, you know? It’s just a bit of what interest me or fascinates me, you know? I don’t know…I really don’t. I don’t.

AW: Is Capra’s work a big influence?

GR: No. I don’t really like Frank Capra, you know? I mean, I like it, but I find it a little overly romantic. He was an immigrant, and he had those sensibilities, and that contributed to it a lot. I think in the earlier movies like Big and Dave, there’s a whole populist thing that I just kind of feel deeply.  I mean, it’s just part of my orientation, so it’s understandable that it’s going to come out. You know, the individual over the state, or the individual over the system, and I suppose that that’s present in Pleasantville to a certain extent. Although it’s more of a kind of pluralism about life in general in Pleasantville. It’s a little more complicated, I think, than just an individual triumphing over the system.  It’s about deconstructing a system down to the motivations it created on the part of individuals. And opening up who you are so that the society can become more open to a certain extent, you know?

AW: The premises — speaking of coming from that background — the premises of Big and Pleasantville seem to be inspired, at least to me, by the Twilight Zone school of storytelling. So my question is, was Rod Serling’s work of inspiration, and who else has inspired you, and are you a big fan of 50’s TV overall?

GR: No. It is very Twilight Zone-ish. Both Big and Dave are. I can’t say I was a huge Twilight Zone fan. I really was not. I was interested…I mean I liked them. There are a few
that I can remember. But I was not a huge, huge fan. I like where a fantastical premise takes me. It’s such a bizarre thing in modern culture that everybody looks for influences all the time. “What shows did you watch?,” I get a lot.  Or everybody trying to look for antecedents, and…it’s so funny, I mean, there was one generation of filmmakers where there were no antecedents, they just did what they did, and that’s what they did. So, it comes out of me, you know?

AW: (laughs) I guess everyone keeps saying to you, “Did you watch lots of reruns of the Donna Reed Show?”

GR:  Well, that’s reasonable for this one. ‘Cause that’s what it’s about. I really didn’t, I mean, to me this was a way of talking about values, and memories, how we sanitize our memory, how we invoke those values, and the pitfalls of nostalgia — what we use nostalgia for. There’s that Orwell line: “He who controls the present controls the past; he who controls the past controls the future.” And I think it’s true. When you clean up your past and your memory, and alter your existence based on that, it’s a way of dealing with who you are and where you are.  It’s a false reality. So I was interested in memory, per se.

AW: What do you like about being a writer/director versus simply being a writer?

GR: Well, they’re two different jobs. I like to direct, ’cause I like to direct. I like being a director. Love it or not. And you get to create something out of whole cloth — I mean, I have a movie that’s just mine. From its inception to its completion it’s entirely my responsibility. And that feels good. And I’m proud of that. You know, just writing has its disadvantages, too. It has limitations, and I don’t have those limitations any more, so it makes me happy.

AW: That’s a very valid point.

GR: But beyond that, I like the job of directing. And directing is a separate job from writing — it’s not an extension of writing. It’s something different that you have to learn how to do.

AW: Absolutely. Related to that topic, when Penny Marshal and Ivan Reitman were directing your first two scripts, what kind of changes were made to those screenplays, and how much did they work with you to make those changes?

GR: No one changed anything in those movies. I was the only writer — Anne Spielberg and I were the only writers on Big, and then I was the only writer on Dave. So no changes were made without our approval — I mean, the directors had input, obviously. Less so on Big than on Dave. I mean, Ivan…there were things Ivan wanted to do to the script, and we fought about them, and, you know, but we had a great — Ivan and I ended up having a great relationship. And a great time together. And it was a very collaborative process.

AW: Pleasantville has several very strong messages, relating to themes like morality, freedom of speech, racism, suppression of emotion and behavior. Were these ideas inherent from the story’s inception, or were they an outgrowth over writing the drafts?

GR: No. I don’t believe in discovering a screenplay or an intention in drafts — successive drafts.  I believe in outlining. I believe in an investigative process before you outline. And I believe in sort of exploring a lot of the thematic content of the movie early, figuring out your own point of view and what you want to say. And then it becomes solidified. So that the rewriting process really becomes honing and refining the text — not in terms of meaning, but in terms of execution — so that the focus is clearer and clearer. If motivations don’t make sense, if things seem overly protracted, if certain things don’t flow organically from one another, if there seem like contradictions or redundancies — that’s what rewriting is for. I think that the discovery of the piece itself has to occur in the outlining process and before.

AW: So do you tend to write your first drafts really quickly?

GR: No, ’cause I’m just not that quick. But I do tend write them much faster than I outline. In Pleasantville, the outlining process was months, and months, and months. It was, like, I don’t know, seven, eight months, and the writing process was only three.

AW: Did you sell Pleasantville as a pitched idea before you began the outline?

GR: Uh-huh.

AW: You tend to then approach story from structure, or do you have a really solid idea of your main character as you’re beginning to do the structure?

GR: Great question. Meaning, do I let the character inform the outlining process?

AW: What’s your inroad, in other words? Are you coming from structure or from character?

GR: Never, ever, ever, ever, character.

AW: Really?

GR: Yeah. I’ll tell you why. You will chase something that really should be an instrument of you. Never structure either; theme, point of view, my artistic point of view, what I want to say, what I want to express. Characters are your servants. More bad writing occurs in the name of being character-based, because people chase people that don’t exist — as if there’s some character out there that actually exists that can tell them what the story should be. But that’s just an extension of your own imagination. But we delude ourselves into believing that there’s a person out there that somehow exists and if only the character will tell me what to do. The character doesn’t exist — the character’s an instrument of your will, and expressing what you want to express, and can be altered and modified to more clearly express what you want to express. You’ve got to get clear on your own point of view, not your character’s. And what frequently happens is with young writers is they will end up writing very confessionally or autobiographically in the name of one protagonist, who ends up usually being tremendously passive and neutral, as opposed to the other characters in the piece, because it ends up being them, and ultimately voyeuristic and detached from the action, and not a central actor in it because they’re so close to the character that the writer’s voice becomes the protagonist’s voice, and there’s no distance, and there always needs to become distance.

AW: Did this approach to writing grow out of a particular school of writing thought or philosophy, I mean, did you read Lajos Egri, or did you read Syd Field?

GR: Lajos Egri — those are terrible. I think they’re truly terrible. I read Aristotle, and Poetics, which is I think the best primer on screenwriting. Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism is a really good piece of criticism about writing. The problem I have with Egri, and with — they’re not terrible — Syd Field, and all that stuff, is that they become very, very formulaic, and that yes, all those things exist in a screenplay that they’re talking about, but you end up with a whole generation of writers that are trying to work backwards from a paradigm of what should be in the screenplay, when all those things will occur organically if you spring from what you want to say. If I spring from what I want to say, I will end up with characters in opposition to one another that produce an inciting incident, that inciting incident will produce complications, those complications will reveal the core question of the piece, which will create a third act climax, which will demand resolution, which will create the end of your story. All those things will happen organically, if I have a rich enough, fertile enough question that can bloom.

AW: Then you’re still aware of act transitions and beats that inform the structure along the way as well, or does that, like you said, grow organically out of how you start?

GR: Act transitions…yeah. I’ve done structured movies with five acts — Big had five acts. Pleasantville has three. Dave had four. But I don’t worry about it. That happens organically. People who worry about this act structure sort of thing, instead of what they say or do, or what the characters organically want to do, just mess themselves up. It’s so much more important to understand why structure is present, and what it’s for, than it is to work backwards from it. How many of these writers worry why there should be a third act? Why should there be a third act?

AW: That’s a very good point. (laughs)

GR: Or why there is a division between a beginning and a middle. What is a middle? Why is there a middle, and why is that different than a beginning?

AW: And then, according to you; how does that relate to what you’re trying to say?

GR: Exactly. So, to me…Aristotle said that there are two kinds of plots: the Simple and the Complex. The simple is one — now this is an oversimplification, but — the Simple is one in which the core question of the piece is asked at the outset, and answered at the end. The Complex plot being where the conflict of the forces at the outset produce a third thing — which is the core question of the piece — in the middle, and that’s answered at the end. And that’s really what a rich middle is about…and a complex plot. And if you’ve asked a rich enough question it’ll bloom out of the middle of the movie. And that’s what creates the satisfaction. And it requires enough conflict and evolution for the push of the bloom because it’s a complex enough question to demand an answer. That’s why a middle, not what a middle.

AW: (laughs)

GR: Right?

AW: That’s a great point.

GR: Okay. And that question compounds and intensifies until it demands resolution. That’s a third act conflict — climax. That’s why a climax, not what a climax. Right?

AW: It’s a different approach. Yeah.

GR: Now if I just work backwards and I need a third act climax, I need a middle, I need to get out of my first act and into my second act and have a complication, I need conflict — all those elements will be disassociated from one another, not organically springing from one another.

AW: I absolutely — that’s a crystal clear metaphor, I really like that a lot — (the dramatic question) blooming out of the second act. It makes a lot of sense. How did you sell your first screenplay?

GR: I never sold a screenplay, I got hired to write one. I was novelist, and I was not making much money, and then I…got a job writing a screenplay for, like, more money than I was making on the — or a treatment, for more money than I was making on the entire novel. So I did that, and I got a job writing the screenplay, and I never went back to writing books. Then I did a couple of ideas that were other people’s ideas, then I said, well, if I’m just going to be a screenwriter and not a novelist then I should do something I love. And that’s when Big happened. And then I had this idea and I shared it with Anne, and we decided to do it together.

AW: So far, your specialty seems to be dramedy.

GR: (laughs)

AW: Do you have any plans to work in other genres?

GR: Yeah, you know, I always do, and I always end up going back the same sort of voice. Which is weird.

AW: (laughs)

GR: So, I mean, any plans I have for other genres are I think are just reactive to the situation that I’m in, which is about to have a movie open, and I’m very ensconced in that process. I think you need a certain refractory period, you know, you need to calm down, relax.

AW: How did the structure that you use in all three films…essentially you use comedy as an inroad to character and situation —

GR: Exactly.

AW: — and then twist it to drama at the end.

GR: Right.

AW: How did you come upon that structure? Is that just something you —

GR: I’m attracted to that. I don’t know. But that’s very well put. I mean that’s exactly what it is. I don’t know. I mean, I think that one, I don’t write jokes. I don’t try to put comedy on top of a premise. I find premises intrinsically amusing or comedic, and so they take you there, but as the issues evolve or bloom out of the second act, as we talked about, those tend to become more serious or more character-based, or there’s a resonance, or a richness or a depth that begins to occur hopefully. In Big it’s the pull between childhood and adulthood. In Dave it’s between idealism and corruption. In Pleasantville, it’s, my God, as these people begin to become real and the complications that ensue as the result of them having to wrest with that and deal with that. And so, those are less funny. Organically. And I think that I just sort of go where the story takes me in that respect.

AW: That actually relates exactly to this question, which is, as a film has a potential audience of millions of people, do you believe then that filmmakers have some social responsibility to present films that depict human beings struggling to become better people?

GR: Not necessarily struggling to become better people. I think we have an obligation…we don’t even have obligation. I personally like to make movies that have moral thematic social implications that hopefully take people places or reveal things to them that are deeper or richer than they may have anticipated. And that illuminate. And I think we all have obligation to that. I don’t know if it’s struggling to become a better person, because you can make a very rich wonderful movie about someone who doesn’t struggle to become a better person. But I guess implicit in your question is, should we make movies that hopefully will help or allow us to become better people? Yeah, if we can, of course. Yeah, if we can. And we should try to. I try to.

AW: I think that’s evident in your work.

GR: Thank you.

AW: (laughs) That’s why I asked you that question.

GR: Thank you.

AW: What advice do you have for aspiring, young screenwriters, especially as somebody who really didn’t start out as a screenwriter yourself. I mean, people always want to know, “How do I do this? How do I
get into this?”

GR: Don’t worry. You’ll always worry about selling, you’ll always worry about making it. But don’t try to work backwards from the audience, I mean, try to find something that is meaningful to you that you connect with emotionally as the first place. To do this as a calculus will not work, you can only do this organically from the way you feel as a person. That’s the only way it’s ever really going to work, because that’s your voice, and you have to find your voice, and you have to express it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t antecedents or genres or things that one needs to understand, or that are helpful to understand to integrate into the movie business and to have a career. But the first thing to do is to find something that you hook up with passionately, instead of something that you’ve selected calculatedly, because that will just never work.

AW: That’s a very good point. So then, coming from being a writer to being a director, and as you said, they’re two different kind of jobs, was the prospect of directing your first feature intimidating?

GR: Yeah. Yeah. But I prepared for it for a long time, so I felt very ready. I had been on the set of both my movies, and other movies extensively, I’d shot second unit, I’d studied acting, I’d directed plays; I had an orientation that was very ready to be a director.

AW: Did you rehearse scenes a lot with actors?

GR: Yeah. But that’s more for me than it is for them in some ways. That’s more for me to find the intent of the scene, to make notes about performance, to understand what it is I’m going for, so I can — when I get there on the day I don’t have to find it. I’ve been through it once. They won’t lock into those things that much; it’s more an investigative process with the actors so that I as the director can have point of view.

AW: With such a really impressive array of actors, I must say, in Pleasantville, did you then give them any leeway as far as sculpting their performance, and then by extension, dialogue; in other words, did the dialogue change at all during rehearsal?

GR: Oh, yeah, it always does, sure. I mean, not during rehearsal, but…a little bit, but it mainly changed on the set, or when we played with it, and having the freedom to kind of play with it. Not that much. I mean, it’s mainly my words, but I’m not anal about that, I mean if somebody has a better way of saying something, I’ll let ’em say it. Or we’ll mess it up a little. Yeah, you have to be flexible.

AW: I guess to sum it all up, then, this is a really general question, answer it any way you want: What is story for you? What is its purpose in our lives, for you as a creative artist?

GR: Hopefully it’s a way of revealing certain truths, or revealing complexity about how we live, and through experiences we get lost in through identification. I think that the function of a story, of these kinds of storytelling arts, is it allows us to see life revealed to us in a way that is not our own lives, and therefore gives us distance. And it creates an aesthetic distance that can ironically create more involvement, because film itself is a metaphor; it’s not your life, it’s someone else’s life that I identify (with) so viscerally or strongly, in plays or books, that I can experience it, I can walk in their shoes, and I can feel things that I wouldn’t let myself feel because the consequences aren’t as great because it’s fiction. And so I can feel more alive, and more emotionally moved in those moments than I do in the rest of my existence which is A, mundane or B, defended. And we can in art strike at the essence of things that we can’t strike at in daily life; we can see the epic nature of things that we can’t necessarily see in daily life. The irony, I guess, is that in Pleasantville, I tried to make a movie about finding the epic nature of things in daily life. And if people can feel that out of it, then I’ve succeeded. But I think that’s the intention of fiction. It allows you to experience life much more viscerally, and much more fully. Because one, it’s rendered epic through the arrangement of detail, and the compression of time, and all sorts of other things; and two, you feel much more viscerally because the consequences aren’t as great. It’s not you. And that’s why it works.