Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Directors: Gary Ross

I'm starting a new, hopefully weekly, edition here focusing on a look back at an interesting filmmaker right before their latest movie opens.  This weekend, the only thing going on in the movie universe is The Hunger Games, based on the hugely successful novel by Suzanne Collins.  One has to harken back the days of the first Twilight film to see a film so heavily hyped and fussed about; and sadly one has to go back to last November to the fourth Twilight film to find a film that could be described as an event, or one that will likely open to north of $100 million at the box office in its opening week.  Anyhow, numbers matter nothing to me, nor especially does exaggerated media or fan boy hyperbole.  The director (and co-writer) of the dystopian, kind of like Battle Royale epic is Gary Ross, a four time Academy Award nominee (neither of those nods were for direction), who has directed but three films, but has long carved himself out a handsome career as a writer and producer, with a penchant for humor and satire.  And yet in but three features under his belt as master and commander, there's a seeming shape-shifter like capacity to his talent, an interest to challenge and disarm his audience by throwing the rug out under them and coming up with something completely different.

Ross came to fame as the writer of the enormous Tom Hanks film Big-- ever genial, a bit absurd in its fantastic flights of fancy, but a generous crowd pleaser.  The film opened in 1988 and earned Ross an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  Following this big break came Mr. Baseball (1992)- a middling Tom Selleck sports comedy, and a second writing Oscar nod for Dave (1993), the infectious mistaken identity comedy starring Kevin Kline (in one the actors absolute beauts of a performance.)  Already clearly expressed in Ross, the screenwriter, was a sort of throwback to generous, gentle screwball comedies of the past, one with a nod for satire and a smidgen of biting truisms, but inoffensive and witty.

The big break came when Ross took to the directors chair for the first time with Pleasantville (1998), which bonded his gentle screwball rhythms, fondness for yesteryear with a bigger scope and larger ambition than any of his prior works as screenwriter. A faux teenage comedy with a fantastical high concept where two modern teenagers get transported into the black and white world of a 50s sitcom is nutty and in most regards shouldn't work.  That Ross brought a texture and humanity to his characters, alongside an ensemble of indelible performers (Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, J.T. Walsh, Jeff Daniels and a nearly note perfect Joan Allen) showcased a debut worth clamoring about.  That Ross also assembled a beautiful (and what must have been hellish) visual landscape throughout (including the melding of black and white and color photography, arch period costuming, and a story that shifts in tone from comedic to dramatic within scenes themselves) either proved he was a masochist as a filmmaker, or a writer\director force to be reckoned with.  Pleasantville also carved out relationships with ace production design Jeannine Oppewall and costume designer Julianna Makovsky, both of whom would become incremental for future Gary Ross projects.  The film earned three Oscar nominations-- for Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score, and certainly deserved a few more, especially Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress (for Joan Allen's ace performance), and Best Cinematography.  Pleasantville may have appeared sharper had Jim Carrey's The Truman Show, another mindbender situated in the 50s sitcom land, hadn't opened a few months prior.  Still it's a visual beaut, and certainly helped shape the careers of not just Ross, the filmmaker, but also Maguire and Witherspoon (Election, the best performance of her career came about mere months later.)

The first sense of Gary Ross the shape shifter occurred in 2003 with his second film as writer\director-- the stolid and earnest awards bait horse drama Seabiscuit.  Taking an about face to his throwback sense of irony and replacing it with an inspiring based on a true story is a well-worn tactic for filmmakers, but the film was a hit (reaching over $100 million domestically and earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination.)  The earnestness of Seabiscuit is its own undoing as a great group of performers-- including Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and a re-teaming with his Pleasantville star Maguire-- as well as a finely crafted piece of early-20th century Americana are rendered with astute aplomb without the typical Hollywood bombast.  Ross earned another writing Oscar nomination (his first for Adapted Screenplay) as well as a nod as one of the credited producers, but it feels the film long ago become a punchline, despite tremendous success.

With The Hunger Games, we see another sense of Ross shape-shifting-- his first foray into the world of franchise filmmaking, and the riskiest and nerviest choice in his career so far.  On paper the tale of a group of young, starving teenagers killing one another while under the microscope of a Big Brother-like government and showcased as a sick reality show doesn't exactly seem copacetic with the many gifts Ross has offered film in the past two and a half decades.  However, the hype is pre-sold, and Ross needn't worry too much.  The interesting thing on Gary Ross, the director, and may be a plus or minus for any scribe trying to break out into directing, is the willingness to play that game of chance and make each film tonally and abruptly different from the next.  I'm ready to commit that his next film will be a black and white French film with no words...oh wait!

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