It was less than a decade after he left Penn in 1977, and Gary Ross found himself sitting in the home of his longtime friend Anne Spielberg.
All Ross had meant to do that day was to return a casserole dish to Anne, the sister of acclaimed director Steven Spielberg.
But the two started talking and, after just a few hours, had come up with an outline for the film that would soon launch Ross’ career: “Big.”
Years after the release of “Big,” Ross has carved out a place for himself as one of Hollywood’s leading directors. A four-time Academy Award nominee, Ross has written and directed films like “Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit” and, most recently, “The Hunger Games.”
Looking back, Ross attributes much of that success to his time at Penn.
“Penn was where it all started for me,” said Ross, who was a student on campus for three years before he left to pursue his professional career. “It was where I first fell in love with movies, where I even began considering to one day become a film director, and I’ll never forget that.”
As Ross was filming “The Hunger Games” in North Carolina last year, he paused to take a moment to glance around the set.
Standing in front of him was 1996 College graduate Elizabeth Banks, who played the role of Effie Trinket in the film. Near Banks, he saw 1985 College graduate Allison Shearmur, who was then serving as president of production and development at Lionsgate — the company that put out the movie.
For Ross, working on “The Hunger Games” — one of the top-grossing films of 2012 — was largely a homecoming of sorts.
“I’d say that was the happiest I’ve ever been working on a project, and it was certainly nice to be able to share it with some Penn people,” he said.
Ross first learned of the story behind the movie after reading “The Hunger Games,” a 2008 science fiction novel by Suzanne Collins. His two children had shared the book with him, and he was immediately taken by some of its themes.
Although the screenplay Ross produced for the film was adapted from Collins’ writing, he felt from the beginning like the project was his own.
In particular, he developed a special relationship with the character of Katniss Everdeen, the film’s protagonist.
“I was really able to connect to someone who’d been raised in such a brutal world and had never been able to trust anybody,” he said. “Throughout the story, Katniss discovers her humanity in the face of an inhuman process, and that was a very clear arc and path for me to write.”
While Ross acknowledged that the task of adapting a popular novel for the screen was challenging, he was never shy about making on-the-go changes to the storyline.
He recalled one scene between the characters played by Wes Bentley and Donald Sutherland that was initially slated to appear during the first half of the movie. During the editing process, Ross and his team decided that the film’s narrative would flow better if the scene were cut down slightly and moved to the end of the movie.
“You can’t be locked down in something that’s a preconception of how you initially saw the scene in your head,” he said. “Each step of the process has to have its own freedom and spontaneity, and that’s what I love about it.”
An education on campus
Although he never earned a degree from Penn, Ross began making a name for himself on campus soon after he arrived.
As an undergraduate, Ross was especially active with Penn Players, a student theater group. He worked on and directed various plays, including John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood.”
An English major, Ross remembers spending time in the basement of the fine arts building every weekday evening, watching movies for a course he took on the history of film.
Ross had always been intrigued by a career in writing — he had a column in The Daily Pennsylvanian for a time — but it was during this course that he first became interested in crafting stories for the movie screen.
“It was just a wonderful place to get an education,” Ross said of his Penn experience. “It’s very much a part of the real world — a classic eastern urban experience.”
When Ross left Penn after his junior year in 1977, he said he had every intention of returning a year or two later. One opportunity led to another, however, and he never came back.
“At the time, I was so driven to write that I was sort of chomping at the bit to begin a professional existence,” he said. “In retrospect, I don’t think I realized how much time there is in the world and wish that I’d taken a broader spectrum of courses and finished my experience at Penn. But back then, I had such a singular focus to start writing, and after three years I couldn’t stand to be in school anymore.”
Although Ross lives on the West Coast today and hasn’t had much to do with Penn since the 1970s, he is hoping to reconnect with the University in the future — potentially through a guest lecture on campus.
“I think his story definitely gives us a context to work in,” said College senior Jen Wu, the alumni director of Penn Players. “To have such notable alumni like that is encouraging in letting us know that one day, we might actually make it to that level in the industry.”
Film and beyond
While Ross is best known for his work in film over the years, he has also used his writing skills as an entry point into the world of politics.
Ross helped with speechwriting for the Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton presidency campaigns in the 1980s and 90s. Throughout the Clinton presidency, he would occasionally receive calls from high-ranking staffers like Paul Begala, asking for help on speeches.
Although the majority of Ross’ films have steered clear of politics, he wrote “Dave” in 1993 — a politically themed comedy-drama that starred Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.
From “Dave” through “The Hunger Games,” those who have worked with Ross say his eye for detail comes through on all of his projects.
“Even through working with Gary once, it’s clear that he brings such a huge range and creativity to the table,” Shearmur said. “He’s a fantastic presence on set.”
Today, Ross splits time between his job in film and his role as a father. He has two children currently in high school, and he’s hoping that they’ll both apply to his alma mater as they begin their college search.
“Penn was a very, very pivotal thing for me in my life, and I’d like to be able to share that with them,” he said. “Although I didn’t graduate, I went there for three years and received a great education. I’ll always be grateful for that.”