Filmmaker Gary Ross closes out Loyola Marymount University’s Hollywood Masters series

By Michael Aushenker

Filmmaker Gary Ross (right), who launched "The Hunger Games" franchise, speaks with Stephen Galloway of The Hollywood Reporter on April 9 at Loyola Marymount University Photo courtesy of Loyola Marymount University

Filmmaker Gary Ross (right), who launched “The Hunger Games” franchise, speaks with Stephen Galloway of The Hollywood Reporter on April 9 at Loyola Marymount University Photo courtesy of Loyola Marymount University

For the final installment of its spring Hollywood Masters series of talks with top industry talent, the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television welcomed filmmaker Gary Ross to the school’s Mayer Theater on April 9.

Best known for writing and directing the horseracing biopic “Seabiscuit,” “Pleasantville” and the first installment of the movie franchise based on Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” novels, Ross spoke about his dedication to visual storytelling in a conversation moderated by Stephen Galloway, executive features editor of The Hollywood Reporter.

At ease in a navy blue blazer, jeans and brown leather boots, Ross began the evening by retracing his introduction to the movie business as the son of “Brubaker,” “Okinawa” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon” screenwriter Arthur A. Ross.

“I saw so much frustration, so much pain in my father being a screenwriter,” Ross said. “It definitely had an effect on me. I didn’t go in with a naiveté — not with cynicism, but with my eyes wide open.”

Nonetheless, the younger Ross entered the business as a writer, co-writing the Tom Hanks vehicle “Big” and the White House comedy “Dave” until making his 1998 directorial debut with “Pleasantville” and eventually becoming a producer with 2008’s animated “Tale of Despereaux.”

Galloway and Ross tussled a bit over whether 2003’s “Seabiscuit” represented a naturalistic or stylized directorial aesthetic. Ross, who relied little on special effects for his racehorse story, considered it naturalistic, with a fidelity to the Depression-era setting

“Everything you see on that screen, those are real people in period costumes. There are some digital people in the background, but everyone is basically there,” Ross said. “I adhered to the conventions to what that period was in telling the story.”

Shot at Santa Anita Racetrack as well as in Louisville, Ky., and Saratoga, N.Y., “Seabiscuit” took about seven horses to stand in for the movie’s eponymous character and intense planning of the race sequences, including 5 a.m. “race meetings.”

“It was really quite a road show. … We would play with My Little Ponys and set up each shot [to figure out] spatial relationships. We would get on the racetrack, and we would pretend we were horses. It looked like Monty Python,” he said.

“The difficulty in the movie was shooting the horses,” Ross said, adding with a mischievous grin, “I don’t mean shooting the horses, but filming them.”

At one point, production was “a little over budget, so I personally had to purchase four or five horses. When the movie did well, they forgave it [and reimbursed him],” he said.

Fast forward nine years, and Ross was also investing personal resources into “The Hunger Games,” creating his own short film as part of his bid for the high-profile gig.

“I invested a fair amount of money to articulate the way I saw the movie,” Ross said, adding that many in the business had tried to talk him out of getting involved with the franchise.

When Galloway asked why, Ross responded bluntly: “Kids killing kids.”

Unlike its sequels, “the first book is about 14-year-olds killing each other,” he said. “I couldn’t stop reading it.”

Ross, who cast “Hunger Games” breakout star Jennifer Lawrence, said he first met her while working on rewrites of Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver.”

“I’d never met Jennifer before,” he said. “This girl, this revelation. Who is this actress? Who is this actress? When I saw Jennifer, my head snapped.”

After an initial meeting at Ross’ Studio City office, Lawrence auditioned for the role.

“This is before she was the Jennifer Lawrence we all know,” he said. “It was a remarkable audition. It was the greatest audition I had ever seen.”

Galloway asked Ross why he did not stick with the franchise past the original movie. Ross boiled it down to Lawrence’s “X-Men” movie schedule and his own artistic process as a writer/director.

“I’ve always wanted to move on and do things that were new and challenging in my heart of hearts,” he said. Having set up the “Hunger Games” series’ world was “a very wonderful, satisfying experience. That had a sense of closure to me,” he said.

Ross and Lawrence hope to remake Elia Kazan’s classic James Dean film “East of Eden,” with Lawrence playing Cathy Ames. Because Kazan’s version only captured the John Steinbeck novel’s latter half, Ross revealed the project “may be two films.”

In a Q+A that followed the discussion, LMU freshman screenwriting major Angela Vollucci asked Ross how much attention he paid to the “Hunger Games”’ fandom online.

“I respected the fans and still do, but I don’t think I can direct that way,” Ross responded. “The only way to ever direct anything is to trust your gut and your material.”

Another student from Kentucky revealed that she owns a horse that is a direct descendent of Secretariat.

“I also have a full life that just isn’t about making movies,” Ross said, alluding to his wife and two kids. “I haven’t made as many movies as others, but I’m proud of every movie.”

The inaugural Hollywood Masters series earlier this year included appearances by Oscar-winning “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron; “American Hustle” director David O. Russell; former chairman of Paramount Pictures Sherry Lansing; Lansing’s husband, “The Exorcist” director William Friedkin; “Boyz n the Hood” writer-director John Singleton; Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn; and comedy writer-producer-director Judd Apatow. The program returns this fall.

To sum up his own artistic philosophy, Ross summoned a quote attributed to various directors: “The most difficult part of directing is getting out of that car in the morning,” he said.

“You need to drive this train all day long, but it’s exhilarating,” he said. “It’s the greatest job in the world.”