Before he was the director of the phenomenally successful The Hunger Games Gary Ross had made a name for himself by writing high profile scripts like Big, Mr. Baseball, and Dave. Ross’ directorial debut, which he also wrote, was Pleasantville. I interviewed Ross at the premiere of that film in Austin in 1998.
Pleasantville, which I consider Ross’ best film, takes place in an alternative universe of black and white. The production was troubled at the time when one of the crew members died while driving home from an extra-hours day. Below is the interview that originally ran in Houston’s Other.
Gary Ross makes his directorial debut with Pleasantville, a sunny story with pop-sci-fi overtones. Best known as the writer of Dave and Big, Ross used his original script for Pleasantville, which follows two teens after they’re sucked into the surreal world of a ’50s sit-com, as a launching pad for his directorial ambitions. Ross also wrote and produced the film. While the story seldom veers into pure darkness, the actual production saw the kind of life and death challenges that can make or break a career.
‘Technique wise, sure, and some of the spectacle, yeah,” Ross said about not considering the script an example of sci-fi. “But it’s more of a fable to me. It’s about characters changing, and how they change.”
When brother and sister, David and Jennifer, fight over who gets to see what on television, they break the remote control. Seconds later, a mysterious TV repairman (played with delightful devilishness by Don Knotts) shows up unannounced and fixes their remote. Only now, when the kids try to use it, they’re sucked into the tube, and into the black-and-white world of David’s favorite rerun – Pleasantville.
With no way back to the comfort of their cable-ready life, the kids adopt to life in Pleasantville, despite an absence of toilets, color, or reality. Sure enough, the color of life starts to bleed through the drab existence of the stock characters.
While the whole movie was digitally altered in almost every reel (the film was shot in color and printed black-and-white), the special effects accounted for less than 10-percent of the film’s $40-million budget. “It’s a random universe, Knotts is a random mercurial god,” states Ross. “There’s no order to this universe.”
It’s easy enough to guess that once color is restored to the world of Pleasantville, everything changes. But the filmmakers faced their own rites of passage during the shoot, first with the accidental death of A-Camera Second Assistant, Brent Lon Hershman, followed by Ross’ mother, who passed away during the third week of shooting.
Hershman’s death was a rallying point for several guilds who wanted a 14-hour day limit. Hershman died while driving home after a typically long, grueling production day.
“We were the only movie in history to limit work to 14 hours. It was a blip, where people paid attention, and then they stopped. I stuck to it for obvious personal reasons,” said Ross. The 14-hour day, also known as Brent’s Rule, has since fallen by the wayside as far as the movie industry is concerned.
Perhaps the best lines in Pleasantville are voiced by J. T. Walsh, who died earlier this year. Walsh has two scenes in particular where Ross shoots him in a manner that mocks/pays tribute to Citizen Kane and To Kill A Mockingbird. Walsh, one of the better character actors of the ’90s, will bring the house down the way he reads off a list of banned colors in the b&w world of Pleasantville.
“I knew his list would end in magenta, because it’s the most pornographic of colors,” laughed Ross. “To me that’s one of the best pieces of satire in the script. That there’s a list of what is restricted.”
For Ross, the irony was that the day his mother died they were shooting a scene which subtextually was “very much about my relationship with my mother. I went to tell Joan Allen what had happened – because you have to tell your actors what’s going on, or they’ll think it was them,” said Ross. He discussed whether she would want to shoot that scene. Allen started crying and Ross started crying. “It was very cathartic, and we both decided to shoot that scene.” It was the make-up scene where Allen has flesh color breaking out on her black and white face, and her son helps her cover it up.
Pleasantville is dedicated to Ross’ mother, Walsh, and Hershman.
— Michael Bergeron