The Hunger Games best-selling author Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross always figured they’d respect each other well enough. Ross was a passionate fan of her best-selling trilogy; Collins really dug his past films (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville). What they didn’t anticipate was how much they’d instantly trust each other’s vision, to the point where the two were soon meeting for long-past-midnight script writing sessions. In this exclusive conversation with EW, they describe the joy of becoming unexpectedly fierce collaborators throughout every aspect of pre-production — and that includes casting. For all those fans out there who’ve howled with rage and dismay over recent casting announcements, Ross and Collins insist they’ve found the perfect people to bring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) fully to life. They’ve got their actors’ backs, just as they have each other’s. (Note: SPOILER WARNING — major plot details are discussed below!)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Suzanne, did you know going in what kind of a role you wanted to have on the film?
SUZANNE COLLINS: At the beginning, I attached myself as the first screenwriter. I was writing the third book and there was great secrecy about it and no one could know how it ended. But I knew that if the screenplay got off on the wrong foot, that you could end up with something by which you could never reach the events of the third book. And since I couldn’t reveal information to the film team, I wanted to be around to keep an eye on that. After that, I didn’t know.
A lot of writers choose, or are encouraged, to back slowly away as their book journeys to the big screen. When did you realize this was going to be a genuine collaboration with Gary?
SC: It’s much easier to step back and withdraw from this sort of process then to be drawn in. Gary seemed like a really nice guy and he made these great movies, but we didn’t know each other. And then he finally sends me his draft of the screenplay, and I’m like, “Oh my God, he found the emotional arc to the story!” Up to that point, we hadn’t really ever cracked that in the script. So I go out to L.A., but even then it wasn’t until we sat down and started writing together that I was fully on board.
What had been missing in previous drafts?
SC: When I look at the development of the script, there was the draft I did condensing down the book — what could be cut out of it, and then filling out the backstage stories. Because in the film, we have the ability to cut away from Katniss’ head. The one thing I had never been able clearly to see was not “What’s the dramatic question?” Because the dramatic question is fairly forthright: Is she going to live? But it’s the emotional arc that exists between Katniss and Peeta. I saw in Gary’s draft that it was the first time it had been successfully done as an overall arc. Without it you have a film, you have a story, but you risk losing the kind of emotional impact that the film might have. And I thought, “Well, if they want me in, I have to come. I see it working now! Now they’ve got me and they’ll be no getting out. Because I want to be in now.”
Gary, what do you think you were able to bring to the script?
GARY ROSS: Both Suzanne and [screenwriter] Billy Ray had done wonderful work, but I told Billy when I began — and he’s a director as well and a very good one — that I would have to put this into my own voice. And I wanted to get back as close as I could to the essence of the book and the emotional arc. To get inside Katniss’ skin and understand how she grows, largely through her relationship with Peeta. I needed to have fresh clay to do that. And then when the draft was done and I got in the room with Suzanne, it was a very, very spontaneous process. It was like…
SC: It was a little crazy! And I mean that in a good way. I have a pretty big TV background, and I have clocked so many hours in so many writers’ rooms over the years. There’s this certain period of adjustment where you discover if you’re compatible. But what happened with Gary, it was almost instantaneous.
GR: I think we had maybe 15 minutes of discussion, and then we instantly transitioned into writing together seamlessly. You’d pitch a line and I’d pitch the next line and before you knew it, we had a dialogue scene. And then we were both just getting excited from that. These are characters and a world that’s entirely her invention. Sometimes we’ll be working on a scene together and I almost get this giddy feeling because the characters we’re talking about are ones she’s created. I really haven’t had a real writing partner since Anne Spielberg on Big, and I feel like I’ve found that wonderful collaborative electricity again.
How invigorating has this been for you Suzanne after several years of writing alone?
SC: It was great, because having spent years in TV rooms, I was used to collaborative writing, and if you’re with good people it’s really fun. But then with the books, it’s been just me talking to me. And I get a little tedious after a while. [Laughs]
GR: And now it’s really evolved beyond writing, because Suzanne is very adroit and savvy about production. She has a lot of sophistication about the filmmaking process that isn’t just from a writer’s perspective out. So we have discussions about costume design, about set design, we talk about casting.
Each bit of casting news has been met with a real roar from the fans. How are you both handling that? Did you expect such outrage?
SC: Any time you read a book and get attached to the characters, to me it’s always a shock when it goes from page to screen and it’s not exactly what was in my head or what I was imagining it should be. So there’s always that period of adjustment. But I think we feel so solid about our casting choices, and so thrilled that we’ve gotten these three young people in those roles, that nothing can really eclipse it.
GR: I really agree with Suzanne that it’s wonderful that people have such a vivid image of Katniss and Peeta and Gale and they hold it so dearly. But Suzanne and I have the advantage of having seen these guys audition for these roles, and I would never judge any role or any actor until I’ve seen them perform it.
SC: And you know people may get thrown, say, by the color of an actor’s hair or maybe something physical, but I tell you: If Josh had been bright purple and had had six foot wings and gave that audition, I’d have been like “Cast him! We can work around the wings.” He was that good. That role is so key to have a boy that can use language. That’s how Peeta navigates the world, that’s his gift, and Josh was the one who could bring that to life in such a real and natural way.
GR: I remember Suzanne was actually in the room the day Josh came in and read for the first time. After the reading, we looked at each other, we didn’t even have to say anything, because we both were like “Wow, that’s it.” Literally he walked out of the room and we high-fived.
SC: We did. We didn’t even say anything. We just turned to each other and high-fived. And people should know that of course we’re taking the gravest care in casting these characters. It’s not arbitrary. It’s of the utmost importance to us that we get the actors who can best bring these characters alive on the screen. Every one of those kids earned those roles by virtue of the auditions they gave. Those three kids? They were all our first choice.
GR: We’ve seen Liam and we’ve seen Josh Hutcherson be Gale and Peeta, respectively.
SC: And then we also had the luxury of getting to see them perform with Jen. So then you have a whole other level which is the chemistry between the characters. We can tell you it’s there but you’ll have to see it for yourself.
Some readers have expressed real frustration that white actors were cast in the roles of Katniss and Gale, who they felt were clearly described as biracial in the book. Do you understand or share any of that dismay Suzanne?
SC: They were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin. You know, we have hair and makeup. But then there are some characters in the book who are more specifically described.
GR: Thresh and Rue.
SC: They’re African-American.
So will those roles go to black actors?
GR: Thresh and Rue will be African-American. It’s a multi-racial culture and the film will reflect that. But I think Suzanne didn’t see a particular ethnicity to Gale and Katniss when she wrote it, and that’s something we’ve talked about a lot. She was very specific about the qualities that these characters have and who they are as people. Having seen Josh and Liam and Jen perform these roles, that’s really the most important thing. They’re very much the characters to us.
Suzanne, do you know how much time you plan on spending on set this summer?
GR: Plenty! [Laughs] Oh Suzanne, do you want to answer that?
SC: See, he’s revising me now. I expect that I will be bouncing back and forth between set and home for most of the production. I definitely want to be there in the early stages for the performers, if anybody has questions about their characters. Sometimes for the writer, the day on set begins and there’s not a whole lot for you to do other than hang out at the craft services table and eat junk food. But there are definitely sequences that I just have to be there to see them film.
What sequences are you most excited about?
SC: I have to see the fire. I have to see the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. I have to see Rue’s death. There’s a couple of the cave scenes with Peeta and Katniss. Now I’m going to go through it and I’m just going to pick every scene. It’s all just a little too exciting to miss.