Gary Ross, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, And Wes Bentley Talk 'The Hunger Games'

Thursday, 22 March 2012 08:35 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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Gary Ross, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, And Wes Bentley Talk 'The Hunger Games'

On the eve of its release, The Hunger Games is enjoying the kind of critical reception that most movies can only dream of and is preparing for an opening weekend that distributor Lionsgate and pretty much everyone else in the nation are expecting to be massive.  Anticipation amongst fans of the novel by Suzanne Collins and the moviegoing public at large is at a fever pitch.  The Hunger Games is everywhere at the moment.

Set in the futuristic dystopia of Panem and focusing on an annual twenty-four person death match between young people is televised for entertainment and as a reminder of governmental power, The Hunger Games could have easily become just the kind of slick entertainment that it subtextually criticizes.  Instead, it's a smart, thrilling science fiction film with smartly drawn characters and a subtle, knowing depiction of a world out of whack.

That The Hunger Games turned out as such can be largely attributed to director Gary Ross, and his effective choices are reflected by his unexpected cast, from lead Jennifer Lawrence through supporting players Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, and Wes Bentley.  At the Los Angeles press junket for the film, IAR was lucky enough to sit in on roundtable interviews with Ross, as well as Banks, Kravitz, and Bentley.  All four were eager to discuss the source material, the film's development, outlandish makeup, their leading lady, and preparation for the first sequel, Catching Fire.

At first glance, Ross might seem an on candidate to direct a science fiction event movie with no small amounts of kinetic, brutal action.  Last century, he first became a bona fide big deal as the co-writer of Big and the writer of Dave, before moving into direction with 1998's wonderful Pleasantville, followed up by Seabiscuit in 2003. 

Once he connected with Collins's novels, though, Ross actively pursued the job.  "I heard they were making a movie and my agent said, 'Why don't you read this book?' And my kids read the book and I remember them being engrossed in it," he explained. "I have twins, a boy and a girl. And I mentioned to them you know I think I may make the movie The Hunger Games and I remembered them saying, no that would really work, that would be great. I think I sat down at ten o'clock one night and I started to read and then by one o'clock I shut the book and went on in and then I bought a plane ticket and went to London to go see Nina Jacobson, who's the producer. I think I made up some crap like I was gonna be at Wimbledon anywhere. But basically yeah, I wanted it. And then there was a big derby. But I never hadn't controlled a movie before, that I mean I did all original screenplays of mine or I bought Seabiscuit as a news paper article or as a magazine article. So this is all stuff that had been of my generation. I've never gone into one of these competitive job situations before so I threw myself into that which was fun."

However odd a choice as director he may have seemed, his cast has nothing but praise for their helmer.  Kravitz said, "This thing is, it has this blockbuster quality, but at the same time there's a very artistic quality. When you look at the camera work and the lighting and how [Gary] tells the story and he was referencing a lot of things that were high art. I can't tell you everything about all his inspirations, but I know in our discussions he was thinking about all the things that had nothing to do with a blockbuster type of film, it was all very artistic as you can see when you see it."

"He's really big on subtlety too," Bentley agreed. "Which a lot of times I think the inclination with some directors with bigger movies are to do more, more, more and I think he was really committed to subtlety in every aspect and acting and action and all aspects of the storytelling, which I thought was fantastic."

As for what actually drew him to the film, which he co-wrote with Collins and Billy Ray, the director had no shortage of compelling reasons. He enthusiastically explained, "First of all, anybody who has read the book knows that the minute you open it like rifle through this thing. I mean you're flying and I was completely engaged in the narrative and Katniss and the situation was just wonderfully different and off kilter and engaging and Suzanne just committed to this broad, bold metaphor, this allegory and you know I was taken with it. And I knew instantly how I wanted to do it. I could see the movie when I read the book immediately. It was so cinematic to me I kind of instantly said, 'Okay, this is a first person narrative, that's really intriguing.' I saw a shooting style that was different than anything I'd ever done before that was gonna be necessary to do what Suzanne had done and that was really cool. But I also thought the movie had a lot of its mind. I mean I think that its you know as an allegory it's really pretty brilliant. Suzanne obviously is examining what happens when entertainment devolves in the spectacle and that spectacle is used as an instrumental political control. And of course we're not there yet, but she plausibly asserts how we could be there and that they way you really get people to be complicit and controlled."

"You don't often find a canvas this big, this challenging, or this thrilling," he concluded. "At the same time that you have this kind of an intimate character story. And so that's why I wanted to do it."

One of many elements of the film currently being praised is the lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, a strong-willed teenager from the poor District 12 who becomes a celebrity, a survivor, and, ultimately, the reluctant symbol of revolution.  Lawrence's work has been almost unanimously lauded.  Elizabeth Banks certainly thought the highly of Lawrence, saying, "She carries the film. She's money. I think she's amazing. She's a huge talent and she's so right for the role you know? She's really feisty in real life and she's tom-boyish and silly on one level and she's very serious about what she's doing on another level and that's very Katniss."

"Yeah, you can't repeat that," Kravitz agreed. "She's an amazing actress and she's a very genuine human being. She's such a beautiful person and that comes through as well. Her background is one that's very interesting. She grew up in Kentucky around horses and working hard and taking care of little siblings and she's a hard working girl."

A year ago, the role of Katniss was a coveted one, and the subject of near-constant speculation from fans of the novel. Though many actresses auditioned, Ross apparently had a good feeling about Lawrence, who was Oscar-nominated for her lead performance in 2010's Winter's Bone.  "I had a sense there was a very good chance of this," Ross said about meeting the actress. "I saw Winter's Bone, it was very knocked out. I saw the things she was in, I think I even reached out to her. We had a meeting. I just saw all the qualities that Katniss kind of has, I mean there was...this very kind of confident, courageous, no BS kind of direct solid knows who she is quality to her. All which could describe Katniss. I remember after that meeting, I hadn't had an audition process with anybody, but I remember saying to the guys I work with, you know, 'I'd be really surprised if this wasn't the girl.' I have a very strong feeling that this makes a lot of sense. Then she came in and auditioned for me and it was the scene where she says goodbye to Prim and she just hammered me. I mean I was knocked over by the audition. I was moved by the audition. You don't glimpse that kind of power in your face in an audition very often."

Casting Katniss was only one part of a highly scrutinized process, one that contained a few surprises.  Perhaps the biggest was the selection of Lenny Kravitz to play Cinna, Katniss's Capitol-appointed stylist who becomes her confidante and ally.  Kravitz, an international music star, only previously appeared in Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, but Ross called him directly to offer him the role.  Kravtiz said, "I definitely wasn't disappointed getting that phone call from Gary saying, 'Would you like to be in Hunger Games?' It's what I did when I was younger, when I was a kid. My mom was in theater New York so I grew up doing theater and television and I'm glad it came back."

"Well, I had seen Lenny in Precious," Ross explained. "I felt that Cinna in the books was the kind of guy, he's obviously sympathetic, he's empathic towards Katniss, he cares about her, he's a rebel, he's an iconoclast, he has a lot of style, I'm starting to describe Lenny Kravitz right now. If you were a rock star in that culture, this is kind of what you'd be, right? And the dare was both a flamboyance and a calm, tender sensitivity all at the same time. And I'd seen that in Precious when he played a nurse you know what I mean? So all this started to make a tremendous amount of sense to me. And you know in Seabiscuit I cast Gary Stevens who was a jockey and he did a fantastic job. And I'd also seen Lenny act, and even though he was mainly a musician, I felt that this would really work so I rolled the dice."

While Cinna is a character in the Capitol who represents humanity and decency, the characters played by Elizabeth Banks and Wes Bentley typify the self-absorbed, image-obsessed wealthy Capitol.  Effie Trinket and Seneca Crane are both representatives of the eponymous games, she as a sort of publicity escort for the District 12 Tributes and he as a Gamemaker. 

In many respects, both characters are villains, albeit villains who are completely unaware of the system's cruelty and their complicity in it.  "I loved walking that fine line," Banks said. "Gary and I talked a lot about how you know for me what I love about Effie is the conflict that gets set up with Katniss right away is that everything that these tributes do reflects on Effie. And Effie is very aware, selfishly aware that their actions have consequences for her, not just for themselves. I love that. It's like those stakes are very high for Effie. If Katniss behaves badly, that reflects badly on Effie, that's bad for Effie."

Like everyone else in the Capitol of Panem, both of them sport outrageous costumes and styles that meant spending quite a while in makeup chairs.  For Bentley, it mostly involved Crane's outlandish and elaborate facial hair, as he explained, "I was in two hours. It took two hours. Well on days when I had gone a few days without filming it would grow in a bit so we'd had to shape it and then kind of give it a more uniform color. I have a more like a reddish, Scottish thing on my mustache so just to give it all like a solid black feel so it took about 2 hours."

"I had about two and a half hours every day in the chair and I loved it," Banks said. "We took two, full, long days just sitting in the makeup trailer just playing with the wigs and the makeup. And Gary said I don't know why, but I just see Joel Grey in Cabaret as for her skin so like that was our jumping off point. And then we looked at Marie Antoinette and Kabuki and just pulled from all different genres and references. At one point we thought we had it and we showed Gary who's like no, it's too bright and then we went back to the drawing board. We ended up using the bright look later in the film, but not for Effie's entrance if you will. He toned it down, but I loved it, I loved all of it. I loved disappearing, it was totally transformational as an actress."

Almost the entire second half of The Hunger Games consists of the truly brutal games themselves.  Collins's book never skimps on the horrific details, but commercial realities dictated that Ross deliver a PG-13 movie.  Despite that rating, the depiction of the games is surprisingly visceral and upsetting.  The approach is not gratuitous in any way, yet the impact of the story's violence is never blunted.

"I don't want to push you out of the screen, I want you to lean forward into the screen," Ross explained of the film's violence. "And I felt that disembodying that horror. Have you ever been in an auto accident? You know the way you almost think about it without sound afterwards? You know what I mean? The way you see these images cascade in front of you as almost a weird kind of memory? And that's sort of what I wanted that to be. It's so mad that I wanted an almost disembodied quality through what I thought it would be more harrowing, but I also thought it would be more accurate to the emotional experience. So no, that wasn't done for rating's purposes. You know after going to the MPAA, I may have changed a shot or two. That was it. And we didn't really back off the violence in any way. It's specific where it needs to be, but we also don't need to be indulgent or overly graphic or exploitative because you're in Katniss's point of view."

"So when you're invested in a character's point of view," he continued, "the glimpses that she's getting, the things that she's feeling, the sensory impressions around her, if you're invested in how she's feeling at that moment, or enough to sustain that kind of harrowing tension, you don't need to get lurid. If I get incredibly graphic and indulgent with what this is, and just...I step out of her point of view. I have to stay invested in her point of view so it's a fortunate kind of synergy where being in that character's point of view affords you a certain kind of I wouldn't call it restraint, but it limits the scope of what you're seeing to what she's seeing and so there was no need to indulge the blood bath really."

Lionsgte has made no secret that the intent is to turn the novel trilogy into a four-film series.  Ross is set to return as director on Catching Fire, the first sequel, which has already been scheduled for November of 2013.  Though all the actors playing surviving characters are set to reprise their roles and the screenplay is currently being written by Simon Beaufoy, Ross hasn't been thinking too much about the sequel lately, he said, "I mean only very embryonically. I mean literally I finished this thing, I was working, I was mixing all day doing the digital intermediate all night. So I would start working at nine in the morning and I'd finish at midnight and seven days a week for well over a month. And then, I started to junket a day later. Because this is out of work day, the junket, so back up, so I had a day or two off. So I haven't really begun to engage the process, I'm looking forward to it, but I haven't really thought about it."

Check out roundtable interviews with Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth by clicking right here.

The Hunger Games hits theaters nationwide on Friday, March 23rd.

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