Gary Ross Interview: The Real History of Free State of Jones

The Hunger Games director talks tackling the Civil War with Matthew McConaughey

Thirteen years after his movie Seabiscuit was nominated for seven Oscars, filmmaker Gary Ross has returned to American history to tell the story of a hero who wasn’t as well known as the world-famous racehorse.

Ross’ new movie Free State of Jones tells the story of Newton “Newt” Knight (as played by Matthew McConaughey), a Mississippi farmer who goes AWOL on the Confederate Army after the death of his nephew, sick of so many good men dying for the sake of rich plantation owners’ rights. Knight hid out in the woods and swamps of Mississippi along with a number of escaped slaves and similarly disgruntled soldiers to form the community of Jones County that would become a thorn in the side of the South that was close to losing the Civil War.

Telling Newt’s story was such a passion project for Ross that he walked away from the billion dollar The Hunger Games franchise he originated to work on getting Free State of Jones made.

Den of Geek spoke with Ross over the phone last week. Besides getting into the extensive research the filmmaker did for Free State of Jones, we also spoke briefly about his upcoming project in development, Ocean’s Eight, a female-driven relaunch of Steven Soderbergh’s franchise.

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Den of Geek: How did you first hear about Newton Knight? I don’t know if you have any sort of background down in the South or Mississippi.

Gary Ross: It was brought to me when I was at Universal by Leonard Hartman, who wrote a treatment and gave it to Universal, seeing if anybody was interested, and they showed it me. It was the bare bones of the Newton Knight story, so that’s when I was first introduced to the story, but there are so many things that are necessary to investigate to know the full scope of who he is and to investigate the depths of him. That began an almost two or three year process of doing nothing but reading and learning and educating myself and studying some of the greatest historians.

Actually, I was very, very fortunate but I did what a lot of filmmakers don’t have the opportunity to do. I stopped to just sort of immerse myself in the topic for a very long period of time. Some people joke that it was like an academic mid-life crisis. I just stopped and was studying. Then I came out the other end with a screenplay. That’s what created or began this process.

With your last movie, The Hunger Games, you had three books by Suzanne Collins that you could read in order to make the movie. This one, you have to do a little more digging. Is there a lot written about him out there?

No, there wasn’t. There are three books—Victoria Bynum, a very good historian, wrote the first book on him which was an academic investigation and there have been other books on him.

History tends to be written by kings, presidents, generals, people like that, and they leave a long written record, but a guy who is just as valuable to history, who leads a rebellion against the confederacy, doesn’t leave quite the written record of other people. You have to do a lot more digging, and also, understanding the complexities of the era, and it’s a period of history that’s been very rewritten and very misunderstood. To get the larger truths and the smaller truths at once isn’t always easy.

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There are two stories in the film because there’s Newt’s story but also the trial of his great grandson Davis Knight over 80 years later. Why did you want to include that?

I thought it was important just for the continuity and continuum. The Davis Knight trial—this is just my opinion—but I feel that was almost a way of trying Newt Knight a century later, because there were many people there who considered him a traitor to the confederacy, and he certainly was a defiant opponent and enemy of the confederacy. I think that was well earned and pretty heroic and gutsy on his part. The trial is also in the story to demonstrate that a lot of these issues weren’t put to bed, and the history still remained very active and alive even a century later.

I don’t know when you started the film but a lot of stuff has happened in terms of movies like 12 Years of Slave winning the Oscar and also Matthew won an Oscar the same year. Was this all after or while you were developing the movie?

No, I started this ten years ago. I had read Solomon Northup in that I taught the subject in high school for a little while and I used Solomon Northup at the talks. When I started this, there had been no 12 Years a Slave, there had been no Lincoln, there’d been no Django Unchained, so I was just embarking on something that probably felt even more obscure at the time than it does now.

But did those movies’ success make it easier to get financing for this project?  Had Matthew already won the Oscar when he was attached to play Newt?

I think it took all those things. I think the fact that demonstratively, people were interested in this time period, and that’s obviously a big deal. I also think the fact that I was coming off Hunger Games didn’t hurt, and it was actually one of the reasons why I didn’t continue with the franchise was that there had been this labor of love that I had and something I was never able to put out of my mind. It’s something that had lingered with me the entire time and was something I was dying to get back to.

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When you do three years of research on something and you go back to school. I was fortunate to have a visiting fellowship at Harvard to study with this wonderful professor, John Stauffer, so this had become a very big part of my life and something I was dying to get back to. Me doing Hunger Games wasn’t enough to get it financed. Even Matthew, coming off his Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club wasn’t enough. We still had to search for the financing for quite a long time, and then finally, STX stepped up in a way that other people had not been willing to, and all those things actually came together and allowed the movie to get financed.

But you know, that stuff is not always an easy road, and that’s understandable. I don’t fault anyone for that, but these aren’t always easy movies to get made, and anybody who has seen the movie knows that it’s told on a pretty grand and epic scale. I mean, it’s a war movie as well as a serious historical drama. That’s not cheap and it’s not like we could just do it for a smaller budget. The scope of the movie demanded more.

What made you think of McConaughey to play Newt and was there something in particular he brought to the role?

There are very few actors of Matthew’s artistry, and look, he’s from the South so he understands that it’s in his marrow, it’s in his blood. It’s somebody he completely connects to, and he’s such an amazingly talented, thorough, experienced, and kind of masterful actor.

Matthew did a lot of research and preparation on his own. We did a lot of collaboration with one another, talking about the character and what the character meant. We investigated it incredibly deeply. It’s a very subtle character. This is a guy who runs so against the norms of his time. This is a guy who is almost hard to make sense of sometimes because there’s so much courage in what Newt Knight did, it almost seems suicidal. It’s one thing to watch this rebellion and that seems gutsy enough, but in reconstruction, even when he had few allies, he was still fighting for the rights of African-Americans against White Supremacists, all the way through reconstruction. That’s kind of a remarkable thing.

Did you have a lot of Civil War reenactors involved in the production?

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No, a couple, but not many. Actually, a lot of people in the Knight company who fought in Newt’s band of rebels came from Jones County itself to be in Newton Knight’s story. He’s not obscure to them, he’s their local lore and they know about him, and so they didn’t really care about me at all. They cared about Matthew a little, but they really cared about the fights, so we had dozens of people that came down from Ellisville, Mississippi to be in the movie, and we were fortunate enough to shoot only a hundred miles away from where this actually took place. A lot of people are forced to go to Louisiana for rebates—we needed to, and we were lucky enough to shoot right next door to where the whole thing happened.

How much time did you get to spend in that area talking to the people of Jones County? Was that very much a part of your research or did that just mean you’d get too many versions of what happened?

Oh, I talked to a lot of descendants. You have to do complete and thorough research on a macro and a micro level. You have to talk to get the fabric of the place. I’ve canoed the Leaf River, I’ve slept on its banks. I’ve rediscovered the grave of Newt that had sort of been overgrown on private party for years but it’s being maintained now. I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of people down in Mississippi, many of whom were descendants of the Knight family, many of whom were even extras in the movie, at the same time as I talked to all the leading Civil War reconstruction historians.

This was a very in-depth process and the local history, being involved in it was no small part of it. There were two wonderful people that provided a huge amount of framework and a knowledge and history to me was a guy named Jim Kelly, who is a doctoral candidate, actually doing a dissertation on Newt, who at the time was the Dean of Jones County Junior College, and the other was a guy named Wyatt Moulds, who is a wonderful, larger than life figure that you can actually see him interviewed in the CBS This Morning piece that we did with him. Both of them are interviewed in the Smithsonian.

Wyatt Moulds is a wonderful man, right out of the fabric of Mississippi and he’s a teacher at Jones County Junior College. So these guys were tremendously helpful to me, not only on the local lore, Wyatt told me basically how he as a farmer planted sweet potatoes and when you harvest them and how you basically cure your meat for the winter, but they also told me a lot of the legacy. Some of these are oral histories passed down and you have to sort through those and consider the sources, sometimes obscure sources.

When you do something like this Newton Knight story, you’re piecing together almost a detective story. It’s not like doing a movie on Eisenhower or Churchill or Lincoln. This was a guy who was tremendously important in the region, very heroic, a larger than life figure and devoted husband, lost to history because there isn’t so much written record. You have to piece a lot of this together to understand the scope and what the nature of the rebellion was.

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Another thing that’s really interesting about the movie is that many of the locations are exteriors, so how was it finding something like the swamp area and having all these actors and crew out there, which I’m sure wasn’t that pleasant?

It’s very hard, but at the same time really exhilarating. The wonderful thing about practical locations is that they inspire you. Few people get inspired walking onto a soundstage, but when you take a boat out into the same swamp in which they hid and they fought and you walk through the duckweed and the mud and there are actual alligators and snakes, you get a real sense of what this was and what it felt like.

We all felt that all the time we were there, so that was tremendously inspiring in that respect. I tend to make movies outside. Between Seabiscuit and Hunger Games and this, I think I like getting in the elements and doing this, although obviously Ocean’s will be a different thing. That’s something I kind of loved about it. It brings you alive and makes you feel a visceral sense of history and a connection to history. I don’t know how they did Cold Mountain in Romania.

There were times where we literally couldn’t get through the mud. We had to make special road beds with wood in order to get the equipment out to the location through the swamp. There were some times where we had to literally go out to a location in boats. We had to be shooting from boats many times in the middle of the swamp—it wasn’t easy. The crew would get hit by chiggers and things like that.

There were things that weren’t easy between alligators and snakes and that sort of stuff, but I will say that the authenticity that it gave you of being in the swamp was remarkable. Those things you can’t fake. When we were shooting at night, we had one owl that would keep swooping back and forth over the monitors, which is kind of incredible, and how live the swamp would become at nightfall and all the sounds would change and those are on the real tracks. That stuff you can’t duplicate, and we were in just an incredibly beautiful part of the world.

Matthew slept out in his trailer on the set and we’d get up in the morning and stare out at these 10,000 acres of swamp and it’s very beautiful, the wildlife and the birds and what it is. If anything, I would say it’s just inspiring.

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I was curious about the soundtrack because I thought there was less music than there would normally be and a lot of ambient sounds.

Actually, no, there’s more music than you think. There’s almost an hour of music in the movie, which is not small. It’s slightly under 50% of the actual movie, but the thing is that a good cue in a movie is something you don’t notice. You’re just watching the movie, you’re engaged, you don’t feel it, so if I’m doing my job right, that music is providing an emotional architecture that is seamless and often invisible.

I had a wonderful composer that I love, Nick Patel—he had just done The Big Short and he came to work for me—so surprisingly, there’s more music than you think, but I just think it’s well-integrated into the story.

The summer release is kind of a gutsy move, because this is not the sort of movie we normally get in the summer, but it works as counter-programming, so I was curious how you felt about that?

I’m a little bit agnostic about that. This has been a passion of mine to tell this history for so long that I’m not that mired in the handicapping of “Oh, it would be a good movie at this time or a good movie at another time.” I don’t expect to make what summer movies make, you know? I made a billion last time or whatever it is, and that’s very good and very satisfying but it’s no more satisfying than telling a story that you love and care about and that you’re deeply connected to and that you think is important.

I really look at this with very different criteria this time, not really obsessing about the opening weekend, the box office or anything. I want to put this document out in the world. I’m also glad that we’re not in the fall. There’s sort of an obsession with trying to win an Oscar that happens in the fall where it overwhelms the content of the movie, and everything becomes about handicapping for awards. This, to me, is more important than that. This, to me, is something that I’ve lived with for a long time, it’s history that I take seriously. It’s a scholarship that I’ve engaged in. I have a longer view of what this is.

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I hope this movie is in the world for a very, very long time as a document, and I have a 10-20 year view of that, 30 year view of that, not any particular season or any particular moment or any particular release date. I’m really glad that it’s in the world. I hope it’s a good date. I guess it’s a good date. I think that releasing a movie around Independence Day* that’s about freedom has a wonderful kind of synergy to it, but I don’t really handicap these things too much. 

Fair enough. You were the guy who directed the movie that set a new record for March openers so you can go the other way. There’s going to be a lot of interest in this in Mississippi and the South, but what would you like other people to get out of it? There are connections to what’s going on in the world today.

It’s for other people to have their own emotional response to the movie. We set the record straight about a lot of things. The last movie that dealt with Reconstruction was Gone with the Wind, and the movie before that was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. They’re both inaccurate and they’re both incredibly problematic.

I just had a wonderful premiere down in Atlanta that was hosted by Andrew Young and his Foundation who is aligned with the Civil Rights Movement, and it was very gratifying for 60-70 years later, whatever it is, to go back into Atlanta and premiere my movie about Reconstruction in the same city where Gone with the Wind premiered. I felt a certain satisfaction finally being able to set a lot of the history straight, and that was very satisfying for me, because that post-war era since then hasn’t really been examined and it needs to be.

I know you’re now developing Ocean’s Eight or Ocean’s Ocho —I’m not sure what name it’s going by…

“Ocho” was just a nickname that we called the computer file that obviously leaked somewhere. (laughs)

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Before now, you’ve generally steered away from franchise but this one has had three other movies and you’re starting over with a new cast, so what was your interest in doing that? I know you know (original director) Steven Soderbergh who did some work on Hunger Games as well.

Steven and I have been close friends and colleagues for decades. As he said in interviews, we have had one long continuous creative conversation for twenty years. This just feels like a very natural extension to both of us. The guy lived in my house once, however many years ago, so we’re close.

This isn’t something where I’m just coming into a franchise. As you correctly noted, he shot a day of Second Unit for me, I’ve written and supervised ADR for him, I’ve gone into the editing room on Ocean’s, he reads every draft of everything I ever do. He was kind enough to do the supplemental recordings back on the Seabiscuit DVD.

We’ve done a lot of things together for a long time, and I’m not doing this because I want to reinvent it. I’m doing this because I’m a fan of it, and I think there’s a fresh take on it, but at the same time, I’m a huge admirer of the franchise Steven created and the tone he created. It was just such a wonderful, beautiful kind of jazzfest that he created in the first one. The first thing I am is an admirer and the second thing I am is a colleague and a collaborator. Steven is a producer on this, and it’s going to be fun to make a movie with my friend.

I imagine Seabiscuit with Universal was more of a studio movie but is this one a similar studio movie or are you two making it by yourself and Warners will just release it?

I don’t know what that means really. It’s a movie. Each movie is different and I don’t really think that who the financing identity is defines the style of the movie. At Warners, they’ve been incredibly collaborative and really great. I’m working with really wonderful, smart people there, so I’m looking forward to that experience.

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Free State of Jones opens nationwide in theaters on Friday, June 24 with previews on Thursday night.