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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Gary Ross

‘Catching Fire:’ Will it turn out OK without Gary Ross?

April 13, 2012 |  2:45 pm


Gary Ross’ decision to walk away from “Catching Fire” and “The Hunger Games” phenomenon he helped create yields a double-barreled question: What will the franchise look like without him, and what will his career look like without it?

The answers depend, of course, on who Lionsgate hires  to take Ross’ place, and on what the director decides to do with his suddenly wide-open schedule. But there are precedents for director swaps on big-name movies that could prove encouraging or disheartening, depending on your point of view.
Many fans clearly want Ross back. A poll on 24 Frames asking who should direct the new film saw “Bring Ross back, no matter what it takes” collect more votes than all the other responses combined. But these fans would be wise to look at cases where a director left a project midstream.

In a number of instances, a situation where a movie seemed in disarray without its original director worked out for the best.

It looked like “Gone With the Wind” was doomed when original director George Cukor was fired by producer David O. Selznick three weeks into production. Olivia de Havilland and other actors begged Selznick to reinstate him. Instead, the producer brought in Victor Fleming, who at the time was making “The Wizard of Oz.” Things turned out pretty nicely for both films.

“A lot of times what seems like a curse in these director situations can be a blessing," Ron Base, an author of numerous books about Hollywood history, told 24 Frames. "The new director comes in with something to prove."

There are less heartening instances. In the early 1960s, “One-Eyed Jacks” looked as if it could be a world-beater when Stanley Kubrick signed on to direct the Western, based on a script from Sam Peckinpah.

But Kubrick was fired shortly after, and Marlon Brando wound up taking a turn behind the camera. The resulting movie was a mixed bag at best. Brando’s directing career fared even worse — he’d never helm another movie.

Recent Hollywood history suggests that, “Harry Potter” notwithstanding, sequels work best when the same director stays with them. “Jurassic Park” took a pretty big dive when Joe Johnston stepped in for Steven Spielberg.  In contrast, a franchise conceived and helmed by one person over the course of its life tends to turn out pretty well (see under: Peter Jackson and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy).

In some cases, films don't look better or worse under a new director; they just look very different. Here’s a fun thought experiment: How would “Bonnie and Clyde” have turned out had it been helmed by the filmmaker who initially agreed to direct it, Francois Truffaut?

Truffaut made “Farenheit 451” instead, a film that received mixed reviews, though turning down "Bonnie" didn’t hurt his stature as a pioneer of the French New Wave. Under the hand of Arthur Penn, “Bonnie and Clyde” turned out pretty well too.

Today’s Hollywood differs considerably from that of previous eras: As publicly traded companies, studios tend to be more conservative than they've ever been, and their level of involvement is high. A franchise like “The Hunger Games” also builds off a well-known body of work in a way that discourages unexpectedness or wild reinvention.

Fans may be wringing their hands about the Ross departure. But very few directors these days can, on their own, drive a beloved property into the ground -- or, for that matter, come up with a surprise masterpiece.


'Catching Fire' director: Is it an impossible job?

Catching Fire': Is Gary Ross back to his old ways?

‘Catching Fire’ director: Lionsgate eyeing Cronenberg, Cuaron

'Catching Fire' Gary Ross will not direct 'The Hunger Games' sequel

'Hunger Games': Gary Ross on hunting the job and Jennifer Lawrence

 -- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Gary Ross' "The Hunger Games." Credit: Lionsgate

'Catching Fire' director: Lionsgate eyeing Cronenberg, Innaritu, Cuaron

April 12, 2012 | 10:56 am

Now that Lionsgate and director Gary Ross have parted ways, the studio behind "The Hunger Games"  franchise is in a rather unenviable position. Sure, they are likely to land a director for less then what it would have cost to have kept Ross in the chair, but now they must find someone who pleases both the gregarious fans who have turned the movie into such a juggernaut and, perhaps more importantly, appease Suzanne Collins, the author of the three-book series, who was a close collaborator with Ross during his tenure on the project.

The studio has been quickly cobbling together a list of directors who would fit their criteria. According to a source with knowledge of the list who isn't permitted to speak on the record, Lionsgate needs to find a director with enough credits and accolades to appeal to Collins, who is much more interested in quality filmmaking than box-office prowess. This director also needs to have an even keel; no petulant crybabies allowed. The studio wants to get the sequel, "Catching Fire," into production by August, and the task will require someone who can wrangle a large ensemble of actors, juggle the demands of a swift schedule and collaborate on a script with Collins and writer Simon Beaufoy.

The master list is seven or eight names long, all men, and all have some significant credits to their name. Lionsgate is basically hoping to re-create the "Harry Potter" moment when Warner Bros. brought Alfonso Cuaron to direct the third film in the series. (Chris Columbus left after helming the first two.) Cuaron was a creative choice who excited critics, journalists and author J.K. Rowling, who all were interested in what the director of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" would do with the series.

In fact, Cuaron is in the mix for "Catching Fire," along with David Cronenberg and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, among others. All have been working in the industry for decades and trend more toward darker, indie fare than commercial hits.

Cronenberg has frequently been offered big commercial gigs over the years, including "Return of the Jedi," "Top Gun," and "RoboCop," only to turn them down for arty, independently produced work, often in the horror genre. Though Cronenberg's best-known film is still 1986's "The Fly," the Canadian director has been making movies for decades, with his most recent work, the adaptation of Don DeLillo's "Cosmopolis" starring Robert Pattinson, likely to debut in Cannes next month.

For Inarritu, joining "Catching Fire" would mark a reunion with his producer from the Academy Award-nominated film "Babel" Jon Kilik, who is producing the "Hunger Game" series along with Nina Jacobson. While “Catching Fire” deals with the heavy themes of rebellion and children-on-children violence, it is still significantly lighter than Inarritu’s most recent work, “Biutiful,” the Javier Bardem-starrer that  chronicled a dying man’s attempts to make amends.

Cuaron entered the blockbuster genre with "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" in 2004, but  despite great reviews didn't stick with the boy wizard beyond the one film. Rather, he took on ambitious fare within the studio system, including Universal Pictures' "Children of Men." The Mexican director recently finished production on "Gravity" for Warner Bros. The film, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, is about a lone survivor of a space mission trying desperately to return to Earth to reunite with his family.

Any of the three men would be a reassuring choice for fans and Collins. And all three auteurs could have compelling takes on the material. Other names are sure to rise to the surface, but Cronenberg, Inarritu and Cuaron should give fans some reassurance that Lionsgate is doing its best to try to preserve their beloved franchise.

-- Nicole Sperling


'Hunger Games' director Gary Ross bows out of sequel

'Catching Fire': Is Gary Ross back to his old ways?

'Hunger Games': Gary Ross on hunting the job, Jennifer Lawrence

Top photo: David Cronenberg. Credit Chris Young/Associated Press

Lower photo: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Credit: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times

'Catching Fire': Is Gary Ross back to his old ways?

April 12, 2012 |  6:30 am

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?

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Gary Ross at the world premiere of "The Hunger Games." Credit: Matt Sayles / Associated Press

‘Catching Fire’ director: Is it an impossible job? [poll]

April 11, 2012 |  3:32 pm

Director Gary Ross

It won’t be easy finding a new director for “Catching Fire.” The eligible candidate need not only be available on very short notice, but he or she needs to be an accomplished hand who won’t cause too much trouble and kill Lionsgate’s golden goose.

Said director should also be willing to work for a comparatively small sum, since it’s unlikely Lionsgate will back up the Brinks truck for the last-minute gig. (So, basically, that rules out Keith Olbermann.)

Taking on "The Hunger Games” sequel is a dream job in some ways — it’s the rare director that goes into preproduction knowing their movie will be seen by tens of millions of people no matter what they do.

On the other hand, “Catching Fire” is a movie that, well, will be seen by tens of millions of people no matter what they do. That means the new director could wind up with a very high profile failure -- and on a movie that wasn’t even their fault, since they: a) wouldn’t have developed the film b) didn’t have a lot of time to make it. In some ways, it's the cinematic equivalent of football’s placekick holder — you probably won’t get a lot of credit, but you can easily become the goat.

Bloggers have tossed around a number of names for the gig (and we don't count Danny Boyle or Martin Scorsese -- they have, like, other things going on). Among the more realistic possibilities: “Let Me In” helmer Matt Reeves (who’s done genre coming-of-age), “Warrior” and “Miracle” filmmaker Gavin O’Connor (known for pulse-racing but still character-driven action); "Source Code's" Duncan Jones (who collaborated with the people who currently run Lionsgate on another futuristic thriller) and “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik (who already made a gritty story with Jennifer Lawrence).

The Ross wounds are still too fresh for any of the speculation to mean much. But included below are those names, and a few others executives could conceivably look at. Vote in our poll for which one you’d most like to see take the reins. And "None of the above" works, too. Hey, it suited Gary Ross.


'Catching Fire:' Can changing directors work?

"Hunger Games": Gary Ross won't direct "Catching Fire"

"Hunger Games" tops $300 million at box office

"The Hunger Games": Five lessons from its box-office success

Movie review: "The Hunger Games"

"Hunger Games": Jennifer Lawrence reaps praise from critics

Box Office: "Hunger Games" beats record with $155-million opening weekend

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Garry Ross as "The Hunger Games" premiere in Berlin. Credit: Britta Pedersen / EPA

'Catching Fire': Can changing directors work?

April 11, 2012 | 12:23 pm

"The Hunger Games"The decision by Gary Ross and Lionsgate to part ways on "Catching Fire" has caused a stir on the Internet, as fans worry how the new "Hunger Games" film will fare without the original helmer. But for all the rapid breathing, Rossgate actually is just the latest example in a long tradition of studios switching horses on a sequel.

How have previous franchises turned out? Some well; many others, not so well. Here are six instructive comparisons.

"Twilight." Perhaps the most famous of all modern cases, and the one to which "Catching Fire" is now most often being compared. In late 2008, after studio Summit and "Twilight" helmer Catherine Hardwicke haggled over issues large and small, Summit hit the reset button and hired Chris Weitz to direct the second film. The new movie was fabulously successful at the box office, though the reviews were tepid. Adding to the similarities: Lionsgate is now run by the same executives who ran Summit at the time.

"Aliens." Maybe the archetype for how to switch it up. Seven years after Ridley Scott defined the zeitgeist with 1979’s "Alien," James Cameron stepped in and turned out "Aliens," a movie that many felt matched the first film in ambition and creativity. The key difference between that case and this one (apart from the fact that Cameron probably won't be taking on "Catching Fire"): "Aliens" was a labor of love that Cameron developed for years before carefully taking the reins. This instance -- when a director is needed urgently to make a date 19 months away -- is, well, a little different.

"Harry Potter." Another success story. After Chris Columbus helmed the first two movies in the boy-wizard franchise, he cited burnout and decamped for a smaller producing role on the third film. Alfonso Cuaron stepped in, starting a rotation of top-tier directors over the final six films that fans say greatly benefited the franchise.

"Pirates of the Caribbean.'" After Gore Verbinski made it his own with three straight massive hits, Rob Marshall stepped in for No. 4. It didn't work out so well. Though the movie was the second-most successful in global box office, it was by far the lowest grossing domestically ($241 million to the $423 million of the second film) and was generally disliked by fans and critics.

"Saturday Night Fever." One of the many instances of sequel badness. Several years after John Badham gave us the dark, disco-filled classic, no less an auteur than Sylvester Stallone stepped into the franchise to give us more white-suited twinkle-toeing in "Stayin' Alive." The results were disastrous, both creatively and commercially. Don't try to have Sly or any of his modern equivalents direct "Catching Fire."

"Basic Instinct." Another cautionary tale. While Paul Verhoeven redefined sexy in 1992's "Basic instinct," the same can’t be said of  Michael Caton-Jones 2006’s debacle “Basic instinct 2.” Optimists might take heart that while that was thrown together as an easy cash-in, “Catching Fire” is based on an acclaimed book and already has an Oscar-winning screenwriter on board, so it should turn out better. One hopes.


"Hunger Games": Gary Ross won't direct "Catching Fire"

"Hunger Games" tops $300 million at box office

"The Hunger Games": Five lessons from its box-office success

Movie review: "The Hunger Games"

"Hunger Games": Jennifer Lawrence reaps praise from critics

Box Office: "Hunger Games" beats record with $155-million opening weekend

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games." Credit: Lionsgate

'Hunger Games:' Gary Ross won't direct 'Catching Fire'

April 10, 2012 |  7:47 pm


Proving the adage that there’s nothing as complicated in Hollywood as a hit, Gary Ross won’t direct “Catching Fire,” the second installment in Lionsgate's massively popular “The Hunger Games” franchise.

After several weeks of reports that the parties were haggling over money and deal points, both studio and director made statements in an email from Lionsgate that sought to dismiss those reports even as they confirmed that they were parting ways.

Ross led the statement, saying that “Despite recent speculation in the media, and after difficult but sincere consideration, I have decided not to direct 'Catching Fire.'  As a writer and a director, I simply don't have the time I need to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make because of the fixed and tight production schedule."

The second installment of the Jennifer Lawrence-starring franchise based on Suzanne Collins' book series is scheduled to come out in November 2013. That’s about 19 months away — not a luxurious timetable, but hardly a bang-bang one either.

Ross went on to call directing “The Hunger Games” “the happiest experience of my professional life.” Then, addressing the reports, he said, “Contrary to what has been reported, negotiations with Lionsgate have not been problematic. They have also been very understanding of me through this difficult decision.”

Lionsgate followed the Ross statement by saying that it was “very sorry that Gary Ross has chosen not to direct ‘Catching Fire,’" adding that he “did an incredible job on the first film and we are grateful for his work.” It also said, "This will not be the end of our relationship, as we consider Ross to be part of the Lionsgate family and look forward to working with him in the future."

The news will inevitably spark a new round of speculation, calling to mind another famous director-studio separation after a hit: Catherine Hardwicke’s high-profile departure from Summit’s “Twilight Saga.” As in that case, the studio in question was run by Rob Friedman (Summit and Lionsgate were recently combined into one entity), though there are also some differences. Hardwicke’s “Twilight,” for instance, did not earn reviews as strong as Ross’ “The Hunger Games.”

The guessing game can now begin in earnest on which director should take on "Catching Fire," which centers on Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark after they leave the Arena in the titular games. The film already has a shiny pedigree in one respect: Simon Beaufoy, the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe, is penning the new film.


'Hunger Games' tops $300 million at box office

'The Hunger Games:' Five lessons from its box-office success

Movie review: 'The Hunger Games'

'Hunger Games': Jennifer Lawrence reaps praise from critics

Box Office: "Hunger Games" beats record with $155-million opening weekend

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Gary Ross at "The Hunger Games" premiere in Berlin. Credit: Britta Pedersen / European Pressphoto Agency


'Hunger Games' star on 'Colombiana' and life on the set

September 23, 2011 |  2:19 pm

Amandla Stenberg in "Colombiana"
Like a lot of 12-year-old girls, Amandla Stenberg considers herself a big fan of Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" books. But that's where the similarities to average preteen life end.

Stenberg has spent her last few months playing two pivotal athletic film roles --as the reluctant participant in a violent arena game in next year's "Hunger Games" adaptation and as the younger incarnation of Zoe Saldana's avenging heroine in the thriller "Colombiana," which hit theaters in August.

For "Colombiana," in which her character escapes from the thugs who murdered her parents, Stenberg traveled to Mexico, Chicago and New Orleans and acquired some new skills, studying with David Belle, the founder of the climbing-and-jumping-based training known as Parkour.

"We worked on Parkour, running, jumping, climbing ... and he's the creator of Parkour, so I was really honored," Stenberg said. "I [also] had to use my jumping skills to soar through the trees. I did some training for 'Hunger Games,' but not as much as the other characters who really had some big physical demands. I did some running and flips and some tumbling, and that was really fun."

On the North Carolina set of "The Hunger Games," Stenberg said she has bonded with the other members of the ensemble cast led by Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen. She compared the feeling of working there to a sleepover.

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