The director of ‘Pleasantville’ and ‘Ocean’s 8’ shares advice on finding your voice and courage as an artist.
Gary Ross will probably forever be known as the screenwriter who wrote Big, a movie that helped boost Tom Hanks’s career in the ’80s, earned both of them their first Oscar nominations, and has since become a comedy classic. That said, Ross isn’t one to stay within the bounds of what he knows will be a hit. He’s unafraid to try different kinds of works in a variety of genres.
Ross has written and directed films based on historical events, including Seabiscuit and Free State of Jones, and he has adapted material, most notably “The Hunger Games” and “The Tale of Despereaux.” And while each of these has attained their own levels of success, with Seabiscuit even receiving a Best Picture nod, Ross appears to be at his best when working with original ideas, such as in the cases of Pleasantville and his script for Dave. His most recent film, Ocean’s 8, seems to be a cultivation of these experiences, bringing together his own unique vision for a story spawned from an existing franchise.
As a seasoned writer and director who has found longevity in the business, Ross has given some advice over the years to future and fledgling filmmakers. We’ve gathered some of his best tips for success below.
Express Your Voice
There is a necessary business side to filmmaking, but at the end of the day, it’s also an art form that requires you to dig deep within yourself to find a story. In an interview with Unclean Arts, Ross advised young screenwriters to focus on this aspect of filmmaking rather than spend their time predicting the numbers:
“Don’t worry. You’ll always worry about selling, you’ll always worry about making it. But don’t try to work backwards from the audience. I mean, try to find something that is meaningful to you that you connect with emotionally as the first place. To do this as a calculus will not work, you can only do this organically from the way you feel as a person. That’s the only way it’s ever really going to work, because that’s your voice, and you have to find your voice, and you have to express it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t antecedents or genres or things that one needs to understand, or that are helpful to understand to integrate into the movie business and to have a career. But the first thing to do is to find something that you hook up with passionately, instead of something that you’ve selected calculatedly, because that will just never work.”
Be One With the Audience
Discussing his experience adapting “The Hunger Games” in an interview with Games Radar in 2012, Ross stressed the importance of thinking of yourself as both a filmmaker and an audience member of the material you are creating:
“In terms of pressure, I don’t know. I felt an excitement and opportunity to dive into something that I love. Anytime you write or direct anything, you are also the audience or the reader. You want to give them the same thrill you had when you first read the book.”
In an episode of the Austin Film Festival’s On Story in 2016, Ross discussed the significance of understanding the type of courage involved in filmmaking before taking on a project:
“Each part of the process needs to have its own spontaneity and life, but particularly bravery. It’s a medium that is completely about bravery, almost whistling in a graveyard in a sense. You need to be able to just sort of not cling to the previous step. It doesn’t mean bravery in terms of your bosses or the public or reviewers or anything like that, it means personal bravery to not be freaked, look at the thing, and be inventive and calm and open enough to be inventive and have a little bit of a chuckle that you just jumped out of the plane. Because if you don’t do that, you can’t do the job.”
Watch the whole episode below.
Build a Partnership with Your Actors
Ross studied method acting with the legendary Stella Adler, so he appreciates what it takes to be in front of the camera as well as behind it. He understands the importance of working with actors as equals, something that he values as a director. He told /Film in 2016 why this is beneficial to any filmmaker:
“I’m grateful for every day that I’m on a movie set. The way that I can discuss a scene with actors and the way I can investigate a scene in a way that you don’t necessarily push to play a result, but investigate process that has integrity, makes the actor a partner and pursue the various different meanings and the little corners of the tributaries or all the nuances that go into a performance. That’s what acting is about. It’s not just finding something that feels real. It’s finding the real truth. And there are many real truths. And there’s a lot of different options that you investigate in a partnership with the actor.”
Use Actual Locations
With today’s technology, recreating settings digitally is easier than ever. But is it better? In an interview with Den of Geek in 2016, promoting his Civil War drama Free State of Jones, Ross expressed how using actual locations — more than even just physical sets in a studio — can further your connection to a story:
“The wonderful thing about practical locations is that they inspire you. Few people get inspired walking onto a soundstage, but when you take a boat out into the same swamp in which they hid and they fought and you walk through the duckweed and the mud and there are actual alligators and snakes, you get a real sense of what this was and what it felt like.”
Keep Your Characters Malleable
Characters that you bring to life will naturally resemble you in some manner. But you need to find some distance between yourself and your characters so that they become their own beings. In an interview with the American Film Institute in 2009, Ross suggested:
“One of the most important things to recognize or understand is, Scott Frank and I have a raging debate about this, but it’s important to understand that what you are trying to say, the author’s point of view, become clear to you what you’re trying to express, and then the characters become malleable to you in your own hand. And you also gain more distance on them and it becomes easier to fictionalize them and when it becomes easier to fictionalize them, it stops them from being so confessional, and then you don’t have that protagonist who’s like you, watching everything happening around him, and even though he’s the lead is the most passive character…”
Watch Ross share more writing advice below.
What We Learned
It’s clear that much of what shapes Ross’s insight on filmmaking is the fact that he often writes and directs his own films and has experience in areas such as acting and producing, too. Being able to see the story from different parts of the process seems to be an essential part of the job.
Understanding each of the steps to bringing a story to life will provide you with the confidence needed to be creative and make changes throughout that are actually effective and stay true to the story. Every filmmaker hopefully starts out as a fan of the work they’re creating, and keeping sight of that love for the story being told is essential at continuing your passion for making something that audiences can enjoy too.