Jodie Foster talks taking a film from the Black List to the Big Screen
Former child star Jodie Foster is an accomplished actress, director and producer. She began acting in commercials at the age of three with her first significant role came in the 1976 film Taxi Driver as the preteen prostitute Iris for which she received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Since then she has won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1989 for playing a rape survivor in The Accused. In 1991, she starred in The Silence of the Lambs as Clarice Starling, a gifted FBI trainee, assisting in a hunt for a serial killer. This performance received international acclaim and her second Academy Award for Best Actress. She received her fourth Academy Award nomination for playing a hermit in Nell (1994). Other popular films include Maverick (1994), Contact (1997), Panic Room (2002), Flightplan (2005), Inside Man (2006), The Brave One (2007), and Nim’s Island (2008).
Plagued by his own demons, Walter Black was once a successful toy executive and family man who now suffers from depression. No matter what he tries, Walter can’t seem to get himself back on track…until a beaver hand puppet enters his life.
This week sees the cinematic release of The Beaver on Friday which reunites her with her Maverick co-star Mel Gibson. Here she talks about getting the film from the black list to the big screen and working with Mel Gibson again.
Congratulations on the finished film. You must feel proud…
Thank you. It’s been a long haul. It’s such a long haul as a director, it’s so many different feelings that go into it and it’s hard to erase all the difficulties of it and how difficult it was to get there and all the drama and all that stuff, but I am really proud of it. I love the film.
Are you happy with the reaction so far?
I think it’s been good. I know it’s a strange movie and it has an odd tone to it and I love that and I embrace that and I felt like that was the point. It’s a very disciplined movie despite the fact that it has an odd storytelling technique. It’s a fable.
Kyle Killen’s script was on Hollywood’s famous Black List of the best unproduced screenplays…
It was Number One on the Black List!
Is that how it came to your attention?
Yeah, my agent said, “You should really read this, another director is attached but you should put your name in the hat if you’re interested.” I said, “Absolutely! I hope they call me if something happens to the other director.” And that’s what happened.
What did you respond to in the script that made you want to explore this strange, fractured family?
Oh, so many things. I think what touched me was the entire dramatic narrative and, for whatever reason, that was not what other people saw when they first read the script. I think a lot of people glossed over that part and thought it was a quirky comedy but that wasn’t how I saw it at all.
Did the Black List draft read more comedically?
It was definitely more aggressively black humour. The highs were higher and the drama was a little more wrung out, it wasn’t as delicate.
Did you work with Kyle to put your own stamp on it?
Yes. The best thing to do is to shape it before you start shooting. But there was a lot of work to do on it in post-production too. I think really getting the tone right was the most challenging part of the film. There are a lot of challenges in trying to tell two separate stories. You have to balance each one and hope that the audience wants to go back to the story involving Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence. But the story of being 18 and falling in love for the first time is never going to have the same power in some ways as the story of a guy that’s having a nervous breakdown and has a puppet on his hand. So there was a lot of balancing with that.
Did you always have Mel Gibson in mind to play Walter Black?
Definitely. I mean when I first came on board, Steve Carell was still attached so he was in my mind. I was thinking, “Hmmm, Steve Carell, what’s that going to be like?” But very quickly it got onto Mel.
Were you itching to get back behind the camera?
Definitely, and I have been for a long time. It’s been hard finding something and it’s been hard getting stuff off the ground. I make personal movies and those are hard to get off the ground, more so now than ever before.
Whereas films such as American Beauty depict suburbia as a place of oppressive conformity that crushes the spirits of its characters, you paint it in a much more flattering light.
I think you’ve seen that a thousand times. This film has a very specific place in time and it’s about a man who has everything he should want, everything he /did/ want at one point in his life, things that made him happy. But I think that’s the difference between really understanding depression and not understanding it. He’s not depressed because he’s rich, he’s not depressed because his house looks like everybody else’s house, he’s depressed because he chemically has something going on in his body that he can’t control.
The film also skewers the notion of people relying on medication and self-help books to solve their pyschological problems. Does that reflect your views?
Like somehow there’s going to be some fortune cookie that’s going to fix you… That’s rife in modern American society and it is a comment on that. The Beaver says the line, “Read the book, eat the pill and see the bleeding expert.” But what you need to do is blow it up, you need to start over, you need to change, make a real transformation, and you have to kill even parts of you that you may like in order to move towards the future. That’s tough love, and that’s the tough love that Walter’s been waiting for. Real love, in some ways.
Did you have different methods for directing Mel Gibson as Walter Black and Mel Gibson as The Beaver?
Well, he is both characters, although the character of Walter has very few lines in the film. I think he has 10 lines of dialogue in the entire movie.
So that was the easy part?
Not really. Playing Walter is difficult. Walter’s a lost man who’s weak and can barely communicate. In terms of him being The Beaver, even though I would see the Beaver in the frame and I see him on screen, I always look at Mel. I don’t look at the puppet when the puppet’s talking, I look at the character behind him and what I see is somebody who is speaking through this character but you can still see the pain behind his face.
Besides directing, you also star as Mel’s wife. Was that always the plan?
I didn’t initially intend to act in the movie. I thought I would just direct and once I brought Mel aboard, I started thinking about who I would get to play his wife. I had to have somebody who grounded the film dramatically because he couldn’t – he’s a crazy guy with a puppet on his hand, he can’t be the audience’s perspective. Her emotional trajectory is accepting him [as The Beaver] because it’s good for her son and then finding it charming because it allows him to live again and it’s good for their marriage and then little by little seeing how it’s causing him to disintegrate and the effect on her children which is the last straw – all of that is exactly what the audience goes through so you had to have somebody who wouldn’t veer off reactively into his comedy. And because I’ve worked with Mel before and I know how easy he is to direct, how it’s just so smooth and he’s not neurotic about it, I knew that it would be an easy process. I knew that I wasn’t going to have a difficult time with my lead actor.
Did you find it difficult to serve yourself in this film as an actress?
I think it’s surprisingly easy to direct and act at the same time. There are things you miss out on, there are sacrifices you make, you don’t get as many choices from yourself as you’d hoped, you don’t get surprises. You get what you planned but you don’t get the surprises that you might get if you were being directed by someone else.
Having two sons of your own, does that help to understand better the emotions in this film?
Sure, I mean I played a mom before I was a mom and I was already fascinated by that relationship between parents and children because I had a parent. So the dynamic of family, I’m always fascinated by that. But having two boys? Yeah, I think it does. It makes me interested in their own development. You know, who’s my son going to be when he’s 17 or 18?
Were you afraid of any scenes, for instance the ones where you and Mel/The Beaver make love?
No, we embraced the absurdity in the movie, especially in the beginning of the film, and you just have to play it for reality and you have to trust that if you play it for reality somehow that will work.
How did you prevent the story from becoming completely ridiculous?
Well, that was my reading of the script. The absurdity of the concept, the simplicity of that concept, the fable quality is so great to underline a delicate, delicate movie. I think you just have to always keep your eye on the drama and make sure that you ask the right questions: Is it honest? Is it true? Is it authentic? And never veer away from those questions, never get into, “Will the audience like this? Will they laugh?” Never go for the joke… I wanted to always keep my hands on the drama.
Does that mean you don’t have the audience in mind when you direct?
No, I think that’s very dangerous. I think you have to be moved yourself. I mean obviously you’re aware, you don’t want to alienate the audience. But the final questions you ask have to be about character.
How deep did you go with your three actors in terms of exploring their troubled characters? Was it like group therapy?
That’s what we do in rehearsals, we talk through the script and ask all those questions then. But every actor works differently so sometimes I would get, you know, a 10-page memo from Anton at four in the morning saying, “Why this and why that and why these clothes and I hate this!” And with Mel, I’d say, “Look, this is what I’m hoping is going to happen in this scene, this is the result that I’m looking for but I don’t really want to rehearse it because I don’t want to burn you out. So let’s not talk about it now and on the day we’ll come up with something.” I know how Mel works and it’s different from Anton so you do have to do things a little bit differently for everybody.
How did you find being behind the camera again? Was it different from the last time you directed, back in 1995 on Home For The Holidays?
It’s just so great. It’s a funny thing to not do something for a while and then do it and go, “Oh, this is what I do.” You forget how much you know. I have a lot of experience, I’ve made a lot of films and it’s rare for a director who came up from being a technician or from being a writer to have made as many movies as I have. Nobody’s ever made 55 movies. So there’s a lot that you bring to the table that you forget about.
Do you feel you have a definable aesthetic as a director?
I like films that are lean, that are meticulously planned and witty, but where you don’t see the seams flashing out at you. The progression of the visuals in this film is quite meticulous and it happens little by little: when do we see the beaver? Is he in an isolated shot? Is he lit? Is he in focus? And how do we achieve that through the lenses and through the framing? And then when Mel starts disappearing and the beaver takes over, how does that psychotic state of mind change how we shoot him? All of those things are phenomenally calculated but hopefully by the time the audience sees them, they’re not paying attention.
Were there any filmmakers you drew inspiration from for this film?
It’s a weird movie. There are a lot of films that live in the same world but then I would look at them and say, “I don’t want that.” The Ice Storm, for example, which I love – but it’s a very chilly film about some very chilly people, whereas our film’s warm. Or American Beauty, which I also love but we’re more restrained in terms of the broadness. We pulled back from melodrama a bit more. Being There, which is such a great movie but then when you go back and watch it and you’re like, “Wow, that was really slow.” It is beautiful – it’s langorous and slow and grown-up, it’s such a grown-up film. But our film has much more pacing. So it’s a lot of those movies but not the bits and pieces that you don’t want.
As an actor, have you consciously stepped away from the screen in recent years or are the roles simply not there for older actresses?
It’s always hard and I’ve been working for 45 years so you naturally slow down a little bit when you get older and you have children and you’ve done a lot of the things so why do you need to do it again? There’s a series of things that are just of no interest to you anymore. The thing that interests me the most now is working with great directors. That I love. I feel like that’s the thing that’s keeping me in there.
Having played so many smart, independent women on screen, do you see Hollywood regressing in terms of creating strong female characters?
I’m not really paying attention to tell you the truth. I can still find five movies a year that I want to see and if I can find a movie every two years that I want to do, that’s amazing as far as I’m concerned. If I can only find one every four years, that’s fine too. Because I’ve worked so much and made so many movies, I don’t have that, “Unless I’m acting I’m nothing” feeling. I have a lot of other things that I’m interested in and I guess I’m just not paying attention to the other stuff.
You’re not concerned that Hollywood movies all seem to be for teenagers now?
Well, hopefully there’s room for everything in movies. There’s always been big mainstream movies distributed by majors and there’s always been independent movies. Hopefully there’s room for everything and my kids, they love those films, they love the CGI movies that we go see in the movie theatres. The advent of all the new technologies, I think, is a really good thing because eventually most of the movies that you’ll see, you’ll see on the same screen in your home, and the ones you’re going to pay $50 to go see are going to be the 3D ones you see with your kids and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think if anything there’s going to be a real revitalisation for smaller movies, for personal films, for films that cost $100,000, because they’re going to be competing with movies that look the same on the same format, they just have actors that cost millions of dollars.
How often do you go to movies with your two sons?
I go a lot. I go with my children, I go with myself.
Do they choose?
What do they choose?
My older one loved Inception. And he totally understood it. I loved the movie but I didn’t understand it.
How old is he?
He’s almost 13 so he’s a different generation. He loved Inception but he loved the Pirates movies too. We’ve seen all the Pirates movies a thousand times and The Matrix and stuff like that.
What about good roles for older actresses – do you think there’s a shortage?
I don’t think so. You look at what Meryl Streep is doing and what people are doing on cable television and the limits are totally changed.
Do your two Oscars for Best Actress still mean as much to you now as they did when you won them?
The things themselves don’t. You probably never look at them again. It’s more the idea of it, being a part of something that was such a huge part of my childhood. Really, they’re a part of my childhood.
So how does Jodie Foster switch off from work?
Amstel Light! That’s my little ritual. I have to say it’s not really an issue of mine. Turning on and off? It’s easy for me to do that. But at the same time, you get obsessed with the movie you’re making and you wake up at 3am thinking about it. It becomes a huge part of your life. That you can’t shy away from.
THE BEAVER IS RELEASED IN CINEMAS ACROSS THE UK FRIDAY 17th JUNE