Before he vaulted into the headlines for his decision to walk away from “Catching Fire,” Gary Ross had been a surprisingly influential figure in the culture of cinema. He’d been nominated for four Oscars. And he was responsible for a number of hits.
Before he was even 35, Ross wrote a classic, Tom Hanks’ “Big.” He did everything but ride the horse in 2003’s “Seabiscuit,” that sports underdog movie that the whole family enjoyed. We’d want to take him to task for writing “Dave,” except it was — could this be true? -- the 16th highest-grossing film of 1993, taking in over $100 million when evaluated in today's dollars.
And of course last month there was “The Hunger Games,” which has turned into a cultural phenomenon most directors only dream of.
But like many talented artists, Ross has a few issues. Idiosyncrasies, let’s call them. He’s particular. And he can be restless. He comes on to projects, then he drops off projects. He gets excited, and the producers who work with him get excited, and then he gets excited about something else.
Yes, that means he has a deep and insatiable curiosity. And few assail his abilities — Ross is, in the opinion of most, one of the more skilled directors working within the commercial movie system. But his curiosity and his restlessness come with a flip side, the side that means you don’t direct a lot of movies.
This is not a secret in Hollywood. Before “Hunger Games,” if you talked to many of the agents who are tasked with knowing what’s going on at the studios, chances are that sooner or later Ross’ name would come up for a project. Sometimes this was followed by a barely perceptible eye roll. The kind that turns “Gary Ross wants to do it” into “We both know Gary Ross is not really going to do it.” Over several months in 2009, entertainment outlets reported on three different high-profile projects he had become involved with in various capacities — a biopic about Lance Armstrong, an adaptation of the classic Matt Helm spy novels and the “Spider-Man” spin-off “Venom.”
As with any development news, some of these projects were firmer than others. But it’s notable that none of these movies ever saw the light of day.
In fact, before this year, no Ross directorial project has seen the light of day since 2003, a long time when you consider that said ’03 movie was not some flop that landed him in director jail but “Seabiscuit,” the highest-grossing drama of the year, which should all but give you license to do what you want, with whose-ever money you want, in the years that follow.
Yet over those years, Ross directed nothing. (He did write several scripts during this time, including those for 2008's "The Tale of Desperaux" and the upcoming "Creature from the Black Lagoon.")
All of this may have been so much Soho House chatter if not for this week’s news that Ross has decided to exit the “Hunger Games” series. There are many reasons why a director walks away from a hit franchise. He wants to do something else. He had a bad experience working with the cast. He hates the smell of money.
In Ross’ case it was, in part, that he wanted to be involved in nearly every aspect of the film, even aspects another director might have delegated.
As my colleagues Nicole Sperling and Ben Fritz report in Thursday’s Times, an August start date meant he would have had four months to ready the film. Four months is not a short amount of time. The Dodgers can fall out of, climb into and fall out of playoff contention again in four months. The U.S. economy can go from bad to decent to really bad in four months. Heck, Mitt Romney can even lock down the Republican nomination in four months.
Ross would have had time to get the movie ready in four months. But he wouldn’t have had time to do his own script rewrite. And Ross wanted to do his own script rewrite.
Actually, he probably would have even had time for that script rewrite if he farmed out some of the more technical pre-production aspects to a trusted deputy or a veteran technical filmmaker. But he apparently didn’t want to farm out some of the more technical pre-production aspects to a trusted deputy or a veteran technical filmmaker.
And so, as he's done plenty of times over his career, he walked away from the director's chair.
After a blockbuster like “The Hunger Games,” Gary Ross will undoubtedly be able to write his own ticket. But after some of the traits he has displayed over the years, it’s not clear how quickly he’ll be picking up the pen.
'Catching Fire:' Can changing directors work?
Photo: Gary Ross at the world premiere of "The Hunger Games." Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press