It’s likely that you know Jodie Foster best for her Oscar winning performances in “The Accused” (1988) and “Silence of the Lambs” (1991); however you probably aren’t aware that the actress has been slowly carving out a career for herself as a director.
Her latest project and third directorial effort, “The Beaver,” is a drama which also has her starring alongside Mel Gibson. Gibson’s character in the film, Walter Black, is a businessman whose life has been ruled by depression. Just when he thinks his life can’t get any worse, he stumbles onto a beaver hand-puppet. At first he uses it as means of coping with his grief and communicating with his family, but soon it consumes his life, and he finds himself in a struggle to preserve his own identity.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jodie Foster for a roundtable interview, to speak with her about her experience directing “The Beaver,” about her gravitation toward stories of spiritual crisis, and working with actor Mel Gibson.
Q: Jodie, you were not attached to this project from the beginning. How did you end up finding it?
Jodie Foster: That was with Steve Carrell and Jay Roach directing, a team that went on to do “Dinner for Schmucks”, they didn’t really do any development on the screenplay or talk about any changes to the screenplay, so all they had really done was try to figure out the window in which they were going to do this movie together, but they never figured that out. My gut is that they saw it as a much more comedic film. I just assume they would have with that team I’m sure. When I found out about it and read it, I said ‘If anything happens to those two would you please call me?’ (laughing) That’s kind of what happened.
Q: The finished product is not really a comedy at all. Did you have to make significant changes to the screenplay to suit your plan for it?
JF: There were a few changes but I think that was how I saw it. I saw it from the beginning as a drama and I wanted to work backwards from that. How do I achieve a tone that has quirkiness and lightness, in the context a guy puts a puppet on his hand that allows that sort of absurdity and sort of a fatal quality, but is able to evolve into a real drama that talks about depression and a spiritual crisis. In order to do that I had to sort of tailor back the comedy in every single choice whether visual or color, had to serve the drama that this becomes.
Q: In past interviews you’ve mentioned that making personal movies are important to you. What made doing this one so important to you?
JF: I’ve only made three as a director, and all three of them are about people in a spiritual crisis and evolving through that spiritual crisis to become more evolved people. Life or death moments for them, are not about small things. Like in ‘Little Man Tate,’ a 7-year-old boy grappling with, ‘I have a prodigious head and a prodigious heart. Do I have to give up my mother in order to embrace my teacher? Or do I have to give up my entire life and my mind in order to love my mom and be cared for?’ I think those are genuine questions and the resolution of them, balancing the two things together is what allows him to become an adult man.
He’s different from other men of his generation, and I think that will be true of Walter Black as well. He’s a man going through a spiritual crisis that takes him to the brink of death. He feels like he had two choices: life sentence where he’s asleep his whole long life, or a death sentence where he jumps off a building. What he realizes is that ‘I want to live, how can I live?’ Well, you put a puppet on your hand, and he opts for that, and that survival takes him, he survives. But the survival tool will kill you eventually and he has to kill the survival tool in order to evolve into something different. I think it’s a really personal film to me for those reasons. And that he’s able to, I feel like that’s true in my life as well.
Q: It’s easy to see parallels between Walter’s experience in the film and Charlie Sheen’s right now. Do you think that will hurt or help the film? Do see that at all yourself?
JF: I have no idea. It’s not my job. The wonderful thing about making movies is that you have this product to show and you can say this has everything that I love in believe in and I think is true. I think that state of mind is true. It’s a fable, it’s a very truthful path, in that whole speech he does on ‘The Today Show’ where he says, ‘You’re telling me I’m crazy, let me tell you what crazy is…it’s pretending to be happy your whole life and being asleep.’ That’s a spiritual crisis I believe I’ve gone through, and it’s one I think is really rooted in modern life.
Q: Who inspires you as a director?
JF: The two directors I think I’ve learned the most from are the two most opposite directors I’ve worked with. David Fincher on one hand is the greatest technician I’ve ever worked with or will ever work with. He knows more about movies, and my job, everybody’s job. So planned and thought out and meticulously thought. I don’t do it the same way, because he does 110 takes, and I will serve him, but when I do my movies I prepare as meticulously as he does and I only do two takes, and allow things to happen in front of me.
Neil Jordan on the other hand, I believe I’ve learned so much from him because he’s a poet and he’s a stream of consciousness and all that. Even though he does prepare meticulously by immersing himself in the story, and the thoughts and the feelings of the characters, you never know what’s going to happen, because he’ll get in the space and see the people and the faces and start asking himself questions. What if 35 taxis all drove by at the same time? And suddenly someone is scrambling to get taxis. They’re on the phone and they’re calling because it occurred to him in that moment and he allows himself that space. Those are two people who I feel like I’ve learned the most from that are completely opposites.
Q: What is your response to people who are calling this Mel Gibson’s ‘comeback?’
JF: I don’t know, he doesn’t need a comeback. As I’ve said so many times in interviews the only reason you would ever act again in something is because you love it. He’s proven himself a thousand times as a director, and he’s proven himself financially and in other ways. He doesn’t need that identity and it brings him a lot of pain. The only reason he does this is because he loves it, and I think that’s why he did this film. He hadn’t worked for a long time, and he did ‘Edge of Darkness,’ and there was a lot that he saw in that.
Where his real goals are and where I’m excited to see him go is with who he is as a director. I think he’s one of the greatest directors we have for a guy who’s only made four movies, five movies. He’s made extraordinary films, and he wrote them himself. He’s an extraordinary storyteller and that’s what I look forward to the most. I think that’s what he’s looking forward to.