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Gary Ross directing "Pleasantville"

Interview: Gary Ross breathes his life into 'Pleasantville'

Web posted on: Monday, October 12, 1998 4:21:06 PM

From CNN Interactive Writer Jamie Allen

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Gary Ross dreams in color.

"I don't understand people who dream in black and white," the writer-director admits. "I just don't get it. My dreams have always been vivid color."

Which probably goes part of the way to explaining Ross' latest artistic vision, "Pleasantville." The anti-nostalgic film, which takes Technicolor and turns it into a metaphor about our own fears and needs, made its U.S. premiere recently at the 5th Annual Austin Film Festival and Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference. The movie -- and Ross -- were given standing ovations by the film-loving crowd, despite problems with the projector that stopped the action mid-sentence in major scenes.

Starring a stellar cast that includes Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, "Pleasantville" spins the fable of two teens (Maguire and Witherspoon) from a dysfunctional '90s family who, with the help of a TV repairman played by Don Knotts, inadvertently cast themselves into a 1950s black-and-white TV show where "pleasant" is the operative word.

Take a tour of "Pleasantville"

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It isn't long before Witherspoon and Maguire are turning "Pleasantville" on its ear, introducing characters to the highs of love and art, the lows of chaos and racism, and all the colors of the rainbow -- literally. As each character experiences what makes them unique, they become "colored."

Among the film's messages directed at Conservative America and beyond: "pleasant" doesn't always equal "good," Ross says.

"You can drain the life and nuances and complexity out of things by homogenizing them to make everything harmoniously dull, flat, conflict-free, strife-free," says Ross, admitting his film has some of the same themes as this summer's Jim Carrey vehicle, "The Truman Show." "In a complex and troubling world, who wouldn't want to simplify? Everybody does. Everybody wants to simplify and put up a picket fence.

"The tougher thing is to give yourself that kick to be alive and to be fully engaged and stay alive," Ross says. "I guess if the movie has a message, it's that it's worth that price, as difficult or strife-ridden as it may be."

Jeff Daniels plays the local diner owner who discovers an interest in art

'Was that wild?'

Wearing a flowered shirt that contrasted his salt-and-pepper hair and goatee, Ross, during a recent interview with CNN, seemed extremely pleased with his film's premiere in Austin.

"Was that wild?" he said of the projector problems and the audience response to the film. "It was such a funny experience."

It was, safe to say, the first time Ross had received feedback on such a personal level from an audience. While he penned the Oscar-nominated screenplays to "Big" and "Dave," "Pleasantville" is his first time helming a film. It is rife with messages mined from his upbringing.

The son of acclaimed screenwriter Arthur Ross ("Creature From the Black Lagoon," "Brubaker"), Gary Ross tells of how his father was blacklisted during the Red Scare that tainted Hollywood in the late 1940s and 1950s. Gary Ross says his dad was a liberal, but far from being a Communist.

Watch the theatrical preview for "Pleasantville"

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"A lot of the perspective I have and a lot of the complexity that's in the movie is due very much to the way he looked at the world, and how the movie embodies so much contradiction is due to him in a lot of ways," Ross says. "I grew up with that memory and understanding that you can appear to be in a very safe, progressive, open environment but still be pretty close to that kind of repression."

One particular subplot in the film, which could be directly compared to his father's experiences, features Jeff Daniels as the local diner owner who discovers his hidden love for art. When he begins to paint in full color, some townspeople start to see red.

"This false One America, One Way ... I think it's destructive," Ross says.

Oddly, growing up in L.A. as the son of a screenwriter made Ross yearn for a "normal life," like the ones he witnessed on TV.

"My '50s were different than other people's '50s," Ross says. "The myth didn't permeate our world, 'Donna Reed' and all that. I longed for that, I wanted to be like other normal families on TV."

Black-and-white characters and objects come into color on screen

'I hope they get it'

Instead of living it, Ross has now created it, picking what might be the most difficult directorial debut in movie history. The movie is filled with the effects that come with changing the color of worlds item by item, but Ross says he couldn't let go of the script that he wrote.

"This is so personal to me," he says. "There's a huge advantage to not knowing what you don't know and so I just dove in so completely in the beginning. I think that made it better, actually. It's a lot purer. I wasn't second-guessing. I think if you start to second-guess in a movie like this, you're in a lot of trouble."

Reversing the controversial process of colorizing black-and-white movies, "Pleasantville" was shot entirely in Technicolor. The color was then digitally removed from the film. Because of this, Ross and his team had to light each scene for both color and black and white, a nearly impossible process.

The $40 million movie features an estimated 1,700 effects to make "Pleasantville" and its characters come alive with color -- one flower, one tongue, one face at a time. By comparison, blockbusters like "Independence Day" use from 300 to 400 digital visual effects.

The filming of "Pleasantville" also required building of an entire town, which Ross wanted running rampant with false nostalgia to set up the need for colorized lives. He directed set designer Jeannine Oppewall ("L.A. Confidential") to create the town of Pleasantville, blank library books and all, from her memory of the late 1950s, rather than from extensive research.

Ross also pays tongue-in-cheek reference to several cinema classics, but only if it's in line with his theme.

"There's obviously a lot of things in this movie that are not mainstream storytelling and there were times when I went, 'Gulp, I hope people get it,'" Ross says.

'I get to dream for a living'

The director praises his actors for making his script come to life. He calls Macy, who plays the buck-earning dad who simply wants a warm dinner when he gets home from work, a "phenomenal talent."

Ross splashes particular praise at Joan Allen, who plays a blank-faced housewife who goes through life-altering change as she quite literally burns up the screen with her self-discovery.

"I've never seen anyone that talented," says Ross. "There's nothing she couldn't do. She has such humility about it. She's genius, and she will rock you."

"Pleasantville" opens nationwide on October 23.

Meantime, Ross is enjoying the build-up, working on a new project while watching this one come to fruition.

"I get to dream for a living. It's kinda cool," he says.

Especially when those dreams are in vivid color.

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