Gary Ross - Writer & Director of Seabiscuit
It's never an easy task bringing a best selling book to the screen, but that task is made even harder when the best selling book comes out less than a year before the release of the film. Writer/Director Gary Ross' (whose last film was Pleasantville) rose to the challenge and adapted Laura Hillenbrand's best selling book Seabiscuit: An American Legend into one of this year's best films. Ross' not only captured the essence of the book on screen, he helped breath life into the characters of Seabiscuit by bringing on some amazing actors including Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, William H. Macy and Tobey Maguire. We had an opportunity to talk to Gary Ross just as the Seabiscuit DVD was being released.
Right, I read Laura Hillenbrand's article in American Heritage Magazine, and I bought the rights even before Laura had even written the book. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I'd say that I inherited more from her than she did from me.
Were you were writing the screenplay for Seabiscuit before the book was completed?
No, the book was all done by the time I began working on the actual screenplay.
How difficult was it to take such a rich and detailed book and compress it down to a two and a half hour film?
If I had done the film as the book was written it would have been about a 7-hour movie there is an illuminat amount of detail in the book. The difficult challenge with Seabiscuit, is that everyone knows the historical detail of the story since the book a number one best seller. It's the first time since The Godfather that there has been a number one adult best seller for the book when the movie came out. So the challenge is: how do you preserve the movie that everyone has in their heads and the story that everyone loves so much? Everyone has not just expectations but a personal relationship to the story already. So how do you preserve the essence of that and that at the same time make it personal to you. If it's not personal to me, then no one is going to be moved. If I am not moved, they're not moved. That was really the challenge, that's what made it a adaptation.
Was it the horse racing aspect of Seabiscuit, or the underlying story that drew you to it?
It was really the characters. Seabisuit is about these broken characters coming together, how they helped heal one another. It's about people redeeming each other, getting past their own barriers and isolation to live again, and to re engage in life. That's what I found so amazing about it, was the struggles these three guys had out of despair. As the country was engaging in a similar struggle. That's what really drew me to it. That's what Laura saw as well.
You did a pretty risky thing as a writer. You wrote roles with specific people in mind. Did you have an idea these people were lined up, that they were going to do it ?
Well Macy sort of committed to me as I was writing. I told him what the part was and he said "Great I'll do it!". I asked him if he wanted to read it? And he said, "No I don't!". If there are people who he likes to work with he'll jump in with two feet and trust me. Yes it's risky but I didn't have a second choice.
You had the fortune of working with Toby Maguire before Spiderman. Did you find your working relationship had changed?
I think if anything we're both more experienced, therefore more relaxed. It was less formal, and more pleasant. There is so much trust and we enjoy each other so much. It was just a pleasure working with Toby.
A lot of actors get pressed for putting on weight. I don't think Toby got recognition for taking so much weight off.
Oh he lost about 20 lbs. He got down about six or seven percent body fat. He got really small. It was quite a change.
Did you find that it had an impact on the character? Did you see a different Toby when he dropped 20 pounds?
I think, of course, anything that makes him feel like more of a jockey. He inhabits the role a little bit more, it feels more natural for him. There is no question that it makes a difference. Beyond that it's just physically necessary, so there is no way to really do the movie with out it. He's very dedicated, very impressive.
How do you approach the role of Tom Smith with Chris Cooper, it's such a well drawn and specific kind of character and Cooper is such a specific performer?
I don't think that I did anything to or for Chris. Chris is such an accomplished actor, he bred this. He brought his all to the table. We did discuss it a lot, a lot of conversations about it. It's just the job. The creative process to him, the way he does it is really private compared to a lot of other actors. Part of what I do, is respect him of that privacy. I think that's important, to understand that everyone has their own process. It's about giving them the space to do what it is they need to do.
Speaking about the privacy and process. I noticed that Seabiscuit doesn't have any deleted scenes on the DVD. What's your take on things that don't get in theatrically?
I am fortunate that I have control over what I do. I think it's a bit of a cop out to say okay that wasn't the real movie, this is the real movie. I think there is a huge amount of stuff on the DVD that I am sure you are familiar with, it's very special in terms of supplemental material. I believe you should own your movie, and the DVD is The movie- the same it was in the theaters.
Do you find that working in the age of DVD, that actors will either act differently or do things differently with the thought that there might be a second life for some of this material?
No, I don't think so. It's so difficult and so dynamic everybody's thinking about the movie. I don't think there is much thought or consideration to the DVD version of the movie.
How about for you, did DVD effect you at all while making Seabiscuit?
I don't think so, you make the movie you want to make. The DVD is more of an opportunity to take a look at the film making process. I think it's exciting for everybody. It isn't so much a tool of clarification, your movie should be clear. It's a wonderful opportunity for people to get a glimpse into a lot of things about filmmaking. One of the reasons I was so excited about Steven Soderbergh doing a commentary with me, is because I think it's great for people to hear conversation between filmmakers. They don't get to do that very often. They don't get to see the real behind the scenes, the real evolution of scenes and things like that. I want to illuminate the process. In terms of clarification for the movie, it was much more in terms of just adding supplemental material that would enhance the experience.
Getting back to some of the actors you worked with. You made a choice to bring in two real Jockeys. Gary Stevens, obviously, for a pretty key role. When you set out to cast the film, was there a sense of wanting to bring in real jockeys?
I saw Robert Towne do this in Personal Best and it kind of inspired me. I love what Towne did when he used a real athlete to play Mariel Hemingway's co-star. I thought that it was just such an exciting thing to do. I went a similar way. I met Gary Stevens and he struck me as having all the swagery qualities that George Wolfe had, which I loved. It was very exciting to me to take that leap. Then I brought him in and did some improv and I found out that he could really act.
I thought Stevens was fantastic as Wolfe.
I had no idea he was that good of an actor. He had a very ethemeral and thrilling quality to him. He had the swagger and the confidence of that character.
What were the other surprises for the movie?
The biggest surprise was the invention of Tick Tock McGlaughlin during the writing process, which was a total surprise. I knew I was going to have Walter Winchell character, but that one happened in my fingers and I was very lucky for it. There were a million wonderful surprises, seeing the chemistry amongst the characters. They bring such spontaneity an life and make it real everyday.
Were there DVDs you saw in the interim between Pleasantville and Seabiscuit that helped you craft what the Seabisucit DVD was going to be?
I was inspired by a lot of the stuff Steven Soderbergh had done with Mike Nichols, and also his book with Richard Westner. So I thought that a dialog between filmmakers was a wonderful thing to do. I think that did inspired me a little bit. I thought that using Jeff Bridges photographs, having seen his work inspired me to use them on there.
So what does the future hold for you in terms of writing and directing?
I am working on an original idea right now. Part of it is just detoxing and living again. You're not going to be a good filmmaker if you don't take a minute and become a human being, or you're not going to have anything to make movies about. I think human stories are the most moving stories. You got to be a person again for a little while.
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