'Ocean's 8' Director Gary Ross Talks Planning the Big Heist, Rihanna, and a Lesson From 'Big'

Gary Ross Pic

We chat with the ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Ocean’s 8’ director about pulling off a big heist (and a whole lot more).

While too many reboots, spinoffs, and prequels ride the coattails of their predecessors a little too much, that’s not the case for Ocean’s 8. Co-writer and director Gary Ross sets his heist story in the stylish world Steven Soderbergh established back in 2001, but he’s more interested in telling a new story than reminding audiences of the past.

Even the cameos in Ocean’s 8 help advance the characters and story instead of going for easy fan service or stirring up nostalgia. Here’s a continuation of a franchise that doesn’t have its head stuck in the past, but remains firmly in the present with its charismatic crew, led by Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock). Ocean’s team is played by a dream team of actors, which Ross recently told us about putting together.

The director behind Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games and the co-writer of Big and Dave has a long history with this particular franchise and the producer of Ocean’s 8, director Steven Soderbergh. Ross recently told us about their relationship, staging the Met Ball Heist, working with Rihanna, and more during a phone interview.

I think some people maybe don’t know you did some work on Soderbergh’s trilogy. What was your exact involvement with those films?

Well, you know, Steven and I have informally collaborated for twenty years. At one point in his life, he was kind of living in my guest room when my kids were one years old. We go back a really long time. We’ve collaborated with one another informally, not just on some of the Ocean’s stuff, but I know people know he shot a day of second year for me on Hunger Games. I’d done similar stuff and off the books writing for him on other movies.

We’ve had this kind of a dialog for a while, but it never moved into a project like this until now. Except that he was a producer on Pleasantville, which was my first movie. So this dinner association has been ongoing for a very, very long time. Back on those movies, we don’t sort of announce it out loud, I don’t really want to get into details too much, because part of the unwritten rule is that we’re helping each other without credit.

But I would see cuts, and talk about script, and mainly in the editing process…if he needed to do re-shooting, there were things that I’d suggest along the way. This is the first time I ever did re-shoots. These movies usually need a second crack, because they’re very logic based and stuff like that. So I helped him with that kind of stuff.

Right. How difficult was it figuring out the logistics of the Met Ball Heist? How complicated was that to write and plan?

Well, you know, you have to kind of make them complicated. I hope we made them complicated enough. It’s like they need to be crafty and intelligent, and that’s obviously about creating both obstacles and solutions. And then it’s about the observation of likeminded details. Anyone who wants to look at the perfect heist movie, they’ll look at Kubrick’s The Killing where the audience understands the minute geography and the detail of that evolving moment that you can see again and again and again, right? So it really is about carefully crafting the pieces so that the audience can effortlessly follow that logic. It has to work in the appropriate ways, but not have to work in inappropriate ways.

You want them to be curious but not confused, and that really is about the specificity of a million little pieces that you shoot to add up and create the tension and allow those things to evolve. Those things always end up being the most copious and time-consuming. When you’re constructing a set piece like that exists over a large terrain, I mean … the most analogous scene was probably the mass race that I shot at Seabiscuit. Where you’re dealing with the emotions of many of the different people in the crowd, you’re dealing with what’s going on in the racetrack.

Similarly here you have a lot of pieces you have Rihanna in the van, Mindy in the kitchen, you have Awkwafina moving into the bathroom, Anne throwing up, and Sandy’s overseeing it all. You have to choreograph all those things and on a shooting day, you may get one or two of those pieces in a day, but they may last four seconds on a screen.

The difficulty really in shooting the scenes is that you’re always having to have a very accelerated sense of time in your head understanding how these pieces are gonna fit together. That really comes down to spending a lot of time shooting what’s planned and the script while you’re shooting, being acquainted with the pace and the tempo of the heist so that it feels invisible and cunning and riveting in an era where cinema has become so stylized. A lot of what you’re trying to do in a heist is make the cinema invisible. You’re trying to bathe the audience in and engaged them in a process where you’re swept up by it, but at the same time, they’re not overwhelmed with the cinema of it. I mean, the irony is that those things take the most time, and the most planning, and the most preparation.

How about in the editing room? Is there any flexibility with a sequence like that one?

Because it’s one of those things where you planned it so carefully, that the editor really had all the things she needed. Juliette showed me a first cut of a heist and I was like “Well, this is great.” I was just excited and fine because she said, “I just had every shot I needed, the minute I wondered if I had something, I had it. A lot of that is just because you thought this out to such minute specificities.” I won’t say that there aren’t editorial challenges and there weren’t a ton of editorial challenges, but the challenge in a sequence like that is much more in the prep and in the shooting than it is editorial usually.

If you have problems editorially in a sequence like this then you have really big problems [Laughs], because you didn’t think it out correctly. This is the kind of thing that really needs to be thought out in advance. Those things come together pretty quickly and not even change that much.

I always like how Soderbergh did the movie version of Vegas, making the city look as glamorous as possible. With the Met Ball, is it an accurate depiction of the event or glamorized? 

Oh, it’s pretty accurate. In order to use it we obviously had to do it in collaboration with Vogue, who stages the Met Gala. So they unveiled me a tremendous amount of assistance, and I unveiled them a tremendous amount of access, so we were in a pretty constant dialogue all the way through, with what we were shooting and what I was planning and what the design was, and a lot of meetings with Anna, presenting what her design was. I wanted both their approval and their input. Hamish Bowles, who is the International Editor of Vogue, was our consultant in the creation of the costume exhibit. Actually, procure a lot of really valuable original dresses for us, Alexander McQueen, Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Valentino, you know, things like this that we shipped over from Europe. These are works of art, and I don’t think we could have been as authentic as we were without their collaboration.

Eaddy Kiernan, who actually is in the movie, she plays the woman running the Met Ball. She hires Sarah Paulson. That really is the woman who runs the Met Ball for Anna and is a close aide of Anna’s. She originally just had one scene, but as we began to expand the detail of what Paulson was doing behind the scenes to kind of make this run, Eaddy’s work expanded. She was a really good actress so she ended up with a sizable part even though it’s what she does in real life [Laughs].

Oceans

In [Ocean’s trilogy producer] Jerry Weintraub’s book, he wrote about how they’d never be able to put together another cast like Ocean’s 11 ever again, but you did it. 

Thank you. Yes, Jerry was very involved in the beginning of this process. He probably said “you’ll never be able to do this again” until he got excited, and then, of course, he wanted this more than anybody. We’re all sorry he’s not around to see it, he woulda loved it.

Some of that was luck. People happened to be available at certain moments where we just got tremendously lucky. I mean, there are no holes in Rihanna’s schedule, so the fact that we were able to work this in to get her in the movie and for her to be able to do it was amazingly fortunate. Cate Blanchett was going off to do a play, so we had a very narrow window, and Mindy had a television show. So the schedule was very much a checkerboard and it was logistically very challenging to get everybody in the same frame and to work that out, but fortunately, we did.

When was the first day you saw the cast altogether?

It was in the loft when everybody came together for the first time, and it was an exciting thing for them too. I will say that staging that scene, I thought about it a tremendous amount, [Spoiler Alert] when Anne Hathaway walks in and confronts them [Spoiler Over]. It was in special honors for their parts, as well. I think it’s probably analogous to when you’re doing rehearsals on a play, and everybody shows up and you realize all your castmates and what this ensemble is. I think the ensemble wasn’t lost on them. It was pretty cool.

How did these eight characters come about? Were any of the characters ever different in early drafts of the script?

The eight was sort of Soderbergh’s idea, actually. Instead of getting into fourteen or fifteen, sixteen and get unwieldy, why don’t we go backward? I will say that I had the luxury of only dealing with eight characters, and Olivia [Milch] and I were able to write to people who were specific, with a little bit more room than Ocean’s Eleven or Twelve had, because we had more real estate to be able to deal with the characters individually.

One of the decisions I really like that you and Olivia made is that there’s no Terry Benedict-like antagonist and you stay focused on the team.

I’m glad to hear you say that. This is about camaraderie, not antagonism. If we had built up an antagonist too much, well, of course, all movies need one, right? A bit of one. I suppose the Claude Becker (Richard Armitage) character is one. But if you make them overly important, you really diminish what they’re trying to do, which is just steal stuff. Almost the stronger point, I think, the more resonant thing, is that these women are stealing jewels ’cause jewels are valuable. Not because they have a deeper, hidden, cloaked motivation that we don’t know about. In that case, it’s particularly important that we unapologetically let them be thieves, and that’s what we tried to do.

I think the audience, too, doesn’t want to see the story cut away too much to characters outside of the group.

I kind of learned this lesson on Big. Anne Spielberg and I were having these conversations early on about when Tom Hanks was chased by cops, and they thought he had kidnapped himself. And there were a lot of debates we had with people who said, “Well, the police are chasing him, so we have to cut away to them, we have to do it upgrade tension.” Anne and I look at each other and just sorta went, “Well, that’s just not the movie we wanna go to.” We wanna see Tom Hanks being a kid in an adult world. I don’t want police on his tail and to cut away from Robert Loggia, who was perfect there. I learned a lesson there. It’s like the first question is: “What’s the movie you want to go to?” And you’re not under an obligation to create antagonism unless you need it, and then that’s a reason.

During filming, was there much time for the group to improvise and try new things on the day? 

Tons of those improvised scenes and everything. I had this idea, ’cause Mindy’s been sort of led a sheltered existence with her mother, in the jewelry shop, when Constance obviously lives on the street, so I had this idea about Constance teaching Mindy how to use Tinder. I mean, Awkwafina’s incredible, she’s a walking improv, and Mindy Kaling is one of the best comedy writers alive. I had no doubt that we would be able to create that moment ourselves, it wasn’t scripted. But, after five minutes of work, it was scripted, and there was a lot of spontaneity like that where we creatively add or invent things with the characters.

Something interesting about the cast, like Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, and Rihanna, is that they have other careers and talents in addition to acting. I’m especially curious about Rihanna, who I’m a big fan of, but what do you think that brings to a performance?

Well, Mindy obviously is a very accomplished actor and Awkwafina is in Crazy Rich Asian and stuff like that. And Rihanna is a great actor. We played a lot. I think what Rihanna appreciated here was that we kind of leaned into the Island roots of her. The minute we sort of found the Bob Marley coat and the dreadlocks, she could be free from a glamorous persona to realize that this is something that she could play that would be fun for her. Kinda comes out of her past, that isn’t her day-to-day existence, and then that became kind of a playful collaboration. We did a bunch of improv just to sort of get her seated into the character before we began, and she loved that. I can’t say enough about her. She’s an amazing presence on the set. She’s an amazing woman. She’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. So unbelievably talented, and just owned the character. It was easy and a pleasure.

My audience was actively cheering for her during the movie. 

Oh, that’s so great. Really? That’s great to hear. I think she’s great in the movie, I think she’s a great actor, I can see that now, and she’s an amazing human being. She really is.

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