Until now, director Gary Ross has mostly been a behind-the-scenes player. His scripts for Big and Dave both earned him Oscar nominations, but the buzz has already begun in earnest on Ross' directorial debut, Pleasantville. The film, which Ross once again wrote, is a subversive fable that traps two contemporary teenagers in an idyllic, black-and-white sitcom. Once sent to the fictional TV town of Pleasantville, the two set about corrupting the local innocents, and the monochromatic neighborhood begins to blossom into bright colors. Despite the film's challenging special effects, which had Ross worried literally right up to the last minute, Pleasantville is more than just eye candy. Ross recently spoke with The Onion about his movie's multiple metaphors, its ambiguous politics, the nature of nostalgia, and his cast, which includes Tobey Maguire, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, Reese Witherspoon, and the late J.T. Walsh.
The Onion: Where did the idea for Pleasantville come from? It's a generic question, but it'll lead to better ones.
Gary Ross: Oh, that's okay. It took place over such a long period of time. I had kind of the Alice In Wonderland or Pirandello idea—you know, two modern kids going through a looking-glass. Which, of course, has got to be a TV. What else would it be? I had this satirical way in. Everyone always evokes this nostalgically as this perfect era. There was no strife; it was a kinder, gentler time. And all these bromides always evoked how America used to be so happy and well-adjusted and mighty and potent, and all those things. I thought that was a lie, so I wanted to satirize that sort of perfection. That was just my first way in, as pure satire: What would happen if we made this perfect era in our memories grotesque? The groaning boredom of breakfast foods on the table, how [in Pleasantville] it's always 72 degrees, it never rains, the firemen just rescue cats out of trees, no one has any sex, there are no toilets in the bathrooms, this kind of stuff. That's a fun thing to do, but it's sort of one-joke. That led me to ask, what if I injected real life into that? What if I took this perfectly balanced world that has this kind of stasis to it, this world of our memory that never existed, and injected real life into it? Then what would happen? That's when the color metaphor occurred to me. As soon as that happened, the whole thing started blowing up.
O: The reason I asked is that both Big and Dave are about innocents venturing into a corrupt world, whereas Pleasantville is about corrupt characters traveling to an innocent world, corrupting it, and then in a sense getting rewarded for it. You know, "It's good that I messed up your perfect world."
GR: I interpret that as progress. [Laughs.]
O: Were you striving to make a more political point?
GR: It's not just that it's political; it's that you need a messy little world to feel alive, I think. I think that either one of those polar extremes is an incomplete life. That kind of innocence is ultimately not satisfying, yet at the same time, it's still pretty seductive and attractive. The first thing I wanted to do… It does kind of a bit of a ballsy thing: It starts with one point of view and then literally switches the point of view as you go. It's very fun nostalgia. There's the music, and the malt shop, and the cars, and things like that, and certainly for people from my generation, it evokes a certain fuzzy nostalgia. I was as susceptible to that as anybody; there's a warm glow you get from that. But a third of the way through, when you suddenly see your first color, you realize what's been missing. You've come to realize, or accept, black-and-white as being "real" by that point, and then suddenly, there's something more real than real, which jars your perception of the situation. I think that in Big and in Dave, yes, they talk about the redemptive nature of innocence, but I feel the world is a little more complex than that now. And that kind of false innocence, or false values—the way nostalgia provides a world that never really existed—is not really an answer or solution for anything, however much some political leaders would like us to believe it is. I mean, this was a direct reaction in some ways to, "I want to build a bridge to the past," or, "I want a kinder, gentler time." As if an answer to the complexities of today's society was a return to the simplicity of that particular time. Which is what I think makes Pleasantville relevant now.
O: I think we may have passed the peak of family-values hysteria, but the movie is in some ways anti-family-values.
GR: It is. Very much.
O: You know, you want sex education; here's a world in which the daughter has to explain sex to her mother. But you leave things pretty open-ended. You don't know if what's happened to the town is good or bad.
GR: Well, I think you know that it's good, just not good in a simple sense. It's complex. But I don't think we're past the family-values hysteria at all. I think a lot of what's going on right now is a kind of family-values hysteria. It's just not as explicitly stated. I think a lot of the stuff with Ken Starr is about values, or what they perceive to be values. I think if Bill Clinton had littered and lied about it, we wouldn't be having quite the same conversations, you know? So I don't think this stuff goes away. A few years ago, it was the NEA, or the Murphy Brown debate where Dan Quayle said the only acceptable nuclear family was one with two parents and two kids. He didn't say they had to be white and living in the suburbs, but that was certainly swirling around the equation somewhere. But, yes, the film is open-ended in the respect that there is no right family. There is no right way to live. You preclude a lot of life by trying to conform to that kind of ideal or stereotype. And it's a natural inclination in a world where it's so complex and so occasionally valueless, morally bankrupt, and chaotic that we want to reach back to something in our past. What's the Orwell line? He who controls the present controls the past; he who controls the past controls the future? Well, that's exactly what the movie is about. We sanitize things in our memory to deal with the present. But I don't ultimately want to tell people how to live.
O: You really seem to shy away from didacticism.
GR: I think issue-oriented statements are always very temporal. They're related to that particular moment of that particular era, and they will fade. Really, each era has its own false nostalgia. We all put a picket fence up around something. For my generation it was the '50s, and for other generations it will be something else. Change is scary for everyone, as is complexity, contradiction, and an uncertain future. But hopefully, what the film says or deals with is that you have to address all those things.
O: There are a lot of movies similar to your films, but to your credit, they're also very different. I'm thinking of Back To The Future, The Wizard Of Oz. Are there ideas you intentionally tried to avoid with Pleasantville?
GR: Although this movie uses conventional Hollywood storytelling techniques, it's different from those in that it's a little subversive in some of the choices it makes. It begins to tell the story as a straight comedy, or as a fantasy, using regular storytelling conventions, and then it turns from that totally. I take characters and leave one of them in a limbo… which more than anything else messes with the audience's expectations about what's going to happen. Not just in content, but also in terms of form. It departs from what it is. With a movie that's conventionally told, like The Wizard Of Oz, which is a fable, you understand or know the resolution in advance to a certain extent. This is a journey, Dorothy will come home, and there will be a restoration. And there is a conventional restoration in Pleasantville; it's just not the restoration you may ultimately expect. A different thing comes out in the middle of the movie which is more tumultuous, more complex. The central character shifts his orientation from wanting to preserve the family values of [Pleasantville], this little perfect bubble, to embracing change. And that ends up being the equilibrium that's established at the end of the film. So it's a shift away from what those expectations are, and the conclusion is at once satisfying and a little jarring, I think. To me, what I wanted to achieve was just what you said: The perfect stasis at the end of the film is that nobody knows what's going to happen, and that life is so complex that all we can do is embrace that complexity and understand that that's also what makes life beautiful. In [Tobey Maguire's courtroom monologue], he says that there are so many things or feelings better than Pleasantville, like silly, or sexy, or brief. In other words, it's the temporal nature of life that makes it special, and that's a jarring concept for someone who wants to hold on to some permanence, safety, or reassurance in nostalgia.
O: Were you ever concerned that people might just concentrate on the Leave It To Beaver aspect of the film and miss that point?
GR: Most people seem to get it. I like films where a day or two later, the complexities are still beginning to reveal themselves. I intentionally told this in a very simple, fable-like way, where the richness and contradiction of the whole thing is in the relationship between the pieces rather than in the pieces themselves. I don't think that's opaque. People seem to understand that, and it's cool.
O: The TV world of Pleasantville is your vision, your generation's vision, but it's not necessarily something the Tobey Maguire character would envision. Do you think that the idealized '50s world is becoming less and less universal as generations pass on? Do you think that oldies radio will always be thought of as oldies radio, or will it replaced with "new" oldies?
GR: I know what you mean about the Tobey Maguire character. You know, some kids are into The Brady Bunch, others are into Star Trek; he's into this. A lot of kids are into Nick At Nite; their demographic is young. I think Tobey's character finds it overtly campy or humorous, as a modern kid. He doesn't overtly wish, you know, "I wish I could live there." It's just dorky and amusing. Just like any Trekkie finds it dorky and amusing that there are Klingons, but would still really love to be on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. On the one hand, his posture is that he just finds it funny. But on the other hand, you see in the final moments as he's juxtaposed with his mother, that there's genuine longing for that kind of life. As to whether oldies radio will always be considered oldies, listen, I think each generation has nostalgia for its youth. I think Pleasantville is my generation's nostalgia for its youth. But will The Brady Bunch be for [twentysomethings] what I Love Lucy or whatever is for us? Maybe. Except I think the 1950s were a little bubble in American history, a delusion. We were coming out of World War II, we were the only people with the bomb, other economies had been decimated, and we were on top. We had limitless natural resources and could pave a road to anywhere. Our cars were big, our land was big. We were in a little blip in which blue-collar workers were guaranteed access to a kind of lifestyle they had never seen under any capitalist system before. Basically, a blue-collar worker enjoyed an abundant, middle-class lifestyle, protected by his union. We thought it would last forever, and it lasted about 15 years, you know? There was Third World competition, we went into a post-industrial economy, and other people built the bomb. We found out we were not this little island. Our wives were not these little servile creatures in a perfectly patriarchal society that we expected them to be. So, yes, I think each generation finds its own, but I think that the '50s were a particular moment of grandiose delusion on the part of America that does stand alone. The future was limitless, everything was possible, everything would always be okay. And there's a disappointment from that, and an adjustment from that, as reality kicks in. What the movie says is that it's okay when reality kicks in; it's not an answer to return to a world that never existed.
O: I think Pleasantville's premise could only work in that era, too. It wouldn't work if you were sucked into an episode of Three's Company.
GR: No, not at all. That's why it's not about TV; it's about why you long for a simpler time in a complex era. The cynicism, or "irony," that people feel today—irony being a cousin of cynicism—is a way of defending against disappointment, your own dreams, hopes, and vulnerabilities. And that's just as empty as longing for simple values that are absolutely false. A valueless culture today is just as empty and meaningless as false values that we might evoke nostalgically. I think it's relevant today, because in a morally bankrupt culture, there is a longing for that kind of return and that sort of backlash. After the Renaissance, puritan repression came after a break for religious freedom. History is full of examples of people who clamp down after they began to enjoy too much freedom. Freedom can lead to instability, anarchy, and confusion. So there can be a moral counter-revolution. I think you see it in the Ken Starr thing, and in the family-values hysteria we talked about before. You see a lot of these things evoked again and again. It was only two years ago that Bob Dole wanted to build a bridge to the past; Ronald Reagan talked about a shining city on a hill; George Bush talked about a kinder, gentler time. They evoke these things for a reason. They think it's a simple answer to a complex world. What the movie says is, no, embracing complexity is the answer to a complex world.
O: That's where the film's ambiguity really works. You never use the movie as a bully pulpit.
GR: Yeah, it's not about ideology. It's just that you can't quantify life to that degree. I know it's scary, but you're only fully alive if you don't try to quantify life. Ultimately, it's a movie about personal repression as it may give rise to social repression, but mainly personal repression. We repress the things we're scared of, but if we just look at and embrace the things we're scared of, it's a much fuller, richer life that's also not as scary. I think that's true in any era, but [basing it on] the '50s was just a really convenient way to make the film. But I think it works today, as well. I mean, what is racism? Racism is a projection of our own fears onto another person. What is sexism? It's our own vulnerability about our potency and masculinity projected as our need to subjugate another person, you know? Fascism, the same thing: People are trying to untidy our state, so I legislate as a way of controlling my environment.
O: A lot of the scenes with J.T. Walsh seemed very evocative of famous fascist imagery. A lot of low angles and banners.
GR: Yeah, up angles really help. [Laughs.] It's pretty much straight Citizen Kane in those rally scenes. There are little bits of film iconography that are evoked again and again to make that point. The scene in the bowling alley is Patton, except instead of a flag, there's the bowling scores. I thought the bowling scores were more American than the flag. To Kill A Mockingbird in the courtroom at the end, that's right out of the movie.
O: The twist with the "colored" people [that those characters who turn from black-and-white to color are subjected to a sort of racism] was pretty clever.
GR: Thanks. Hey, what are metaphors good for? They're good for yanking you out of your reality and getting you to look at something in a different way. So I can show that that kind of racism is an outcome of fear; you can see the cause-and-effect because the fantasy element lets you make it more obvious. And I can put it in a different context so you can see how absurd it is. That's what fantasy lets you do. It opens you up so you can explore the kind of stuff that you couldn't normally do in a straight, natural film.
O: Since film is inherently passive, it can be hard to introduce tricky metaphors.
GR: What you're able to do with imagination you're really not able to do when it's supplied to you. The trick is to put it where they don't see it coming, and then don't hold on to it for too long. [Laughs.] It sounds very brass tacks, but I know what you mean. [A metaphor] had better be relevant; it had better be emotionally powerful, not just intellectually powerful. The problem with allegory is that it tends to be emotionally distant. And what we worked very hard to do was to make sure the emotional connections were there, not just the intellectual connections. Joan Allen's whole arc, which people cite as the most moving aspect of the film, that's allegory. That's what women went through. This is a microcosm of the women's movement. The scene where [William H. Macy] questions her behavior is basically what every guy went through. That was everyone's dad in the '70s, when they didn't know what the fuck the feminist movement was about, only it's compressed. Now, that's all allegory, but hopefully you're engaged with the characters enough so the allegory does not become emotionally distant.
O: The casting was dead-on. Don Knotts was a stroke of genius.
O: Were other actors considered for the Don Knotts part?
GR: There were, but I won't say who they are. I really have to credit my casting director, Ellen Lewis, who's just brilliant. Ellen, besides being Martin Scorsese's casting director and Mike Nichols' casting director—those are the two guys she works with the most—is also a big Don Knotts fan.
O: Who isn't?
GR: Yeah, exactly. So she was all over me about Don, and I warmed to him immediately, because he's a really uncontrollable, unpredictable pixie. He's just so mercurial and hot-tempered that I thought, well, it's kind of like he's God. He was just so nuts and unstable, and that's just what the universe is like.
O: Don Knotts as God.
GR: That's what I would tell people when I described the cast. This is Bill Macy, this is Joan Allen, this is J.T. Walsh, and Don Knotts plays God. [Laughs.]
O: Joan Allen is starting to get typecast as a repressed housewife, but she's really good at it.
GR: Joan was concerned about that. I think one of the things I emphasized with her is that she completely turns from that over the course of the movie. It's really about her liberation. It may be that at the front, but it's not long-suffering. I think that's why she felt comfortable doing it. She's a great actress.
O: And it's great that Fargo really put Macy over, because here's this guy with this innocent face, who can handle the complexities of Mamet.
GR: On the one hand, he's an amazing vessel for the part, because he's got this square jaw; he's this perfect patriarch. There's this cardboard quality, both vocally and physically, that works so perfectly for that Ward Cleaver kind of dad. But he has this phenomenal depth beneath that as an actor. All these parts are about whether they turn it around for the second half of the movie and become real. If it's not emotionally rooted, then it's just allegory. What's interesting and so hard here is that the story is so compressed, because there are many stories going on simultaneously that are interwoven. You get emotional high points where the transitions occur very quickly. The actor has to bring the truth to it. You can't develop it too much, because you just don't have the room. They need to imbue that moment with so much truth. I needed geniuses to get those lines.