Interview: Legendary Jodie Foster Discusses Life With ‘The Beaver’

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CHICAGO – The Oscar-winning actress and director Jodie Foster is primed for a major 2011 with the release of her controversial “The Beaver” this week and a starring role in Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” later this year. She recently sat down with us to talk about her excellent new film, the one that inspired her in the first place, if she watches her old films, and much more.

“The Beaver” stars Mel Gibson as a dangerously depressed man who, after a failed suicide attempt, begins to converse with a puppet of a beaver on his hand. The beaver doesn’t just say the things that his owner wishes he could, he pushes him out of his mental stasis. Jodie Foster not only directs but co-stars, as do Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”) and Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bone”). Watch for a full review of this daring film here when it opens tomorrow, May 6th, 2011.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment

Note: Unlike many of the interviews that Ms. Foster did when she was in town, we didn’t specifically address the Mel/Voicemail controversy. I only mention it because I wouldn’t want you to think that either of us intentionally avoided the topic. Honestly, I didn’t feel the need to go there as I was more interested in Jodie’s experience than what happened after the film was shot (although her answer to the last question certainly seems to refer to it). The point is that if the conversation had gone there, I don’t think she would have avoided it at all. We just didn’t have time to get to it. When you get 20 minutes with a legend, you’re not going to get to everything.

As I was walking in to the hotel room, I noticed the poster behind Ms. Foster… I like that poster.

JODIE FOSTER: You do? You don’t?

FOSTER: It’s grown on me. There have been MANY incarnations of this. It’s a hard movie to sell. It’s a hard movie to get across.

FOSTER: The trailer’s hard too and I don’t exactly feel like it’s successful. I think it says the movie is something that it isn’t. A comedy?

FOSTER: I think they try to say that it’s not going to hurt you in anyway. They made it as unthreatening as possible. I don’t think it skews SO far drama or SO far comedy and makes the film feel much more normal and generic.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment When you’ve got something that’s hard to sell and hard to pitch and you’re out promoting, are you more nervous? AND are you more nervous having not just acted in it but directed it as well?

FOSTER: Strangely, it’s just the opposite. I think there’s an incredible pleasure and completion to saying, “I have this thing that I love and I got to do it the way I wanted to do it.” I made the movie. And it’s exactly what I hoped. It defends itself. For some reason, I can’t put my self-worth out there for how much is sold. However, as an actor, I do get caught up in that because I’m not in control. There’s a lot of “Wish they did this…,” “Wish they did that…,” “If they had done this…” And you don’t have the satisfaction of saying “This is me.” It’s harder in a way.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment Have you seen it with an audience?

FOSTER: Never with one I didn’t know. I’ve seen it completed. I’ve heard half of it, listening to the audience. Does anything play differently than you thought? It’s the kind of movie where it might hard to predict the response to certain elements.

FOSTER: Yeah. In a weird way, I don’t think being unprepared is the right audience. You need to be prepared. Anyone who comes in thinking it’s just about a guy and a puppet is going to be really disappointed. It’s not a comedy. It’s not laugh out loud. The conceit sets you up for that and it’s not like that. I think your involvement makes that clear.

FOSTER: More dramatic. Yeah. And they know that with you and Mel, it’s not just going to be “a guy and a puppet.” And Jennifer Lawrence is involved. Your involvement makes it clear that something more is going on. Especially with your decisions lately with films like “The Brave One”…

FOSTER: …that nobody likes. (Laughs.) …that skew differently than what one might expect.

FOSTER: Yeah. Definitely. I think the success of the film hinges on two things and one is the casting of the lead role. Why did you think Mel would fit the part and what did he bring to the role that even you might not have expected?

FOSTER: I knew he could do the light part. He could do that without being broad or cutesy. I knew he could do that from professional experience. What I know because I know him and care about him is that I know what a deep thinker and feeler he is. He understands struggle. I think that if he was up to the challenge of allowing him to see that side of him and complexity that it would be the most beautiful side of him. I knew that if he was up to that that I could push him in the right direction because he trusted that I wasn’t going to make him look bad.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment There has to be trust. And that comes from knowing him personally?

FOSTER: Yeah. It’s the deeper parts. The part that is tricky. That kind of commitment — I knew he had that in him. I don’t think I could have gotten that from anyone else. There’s a tone balance in the film that is incredibly difficult to pull off.

FOSTER: And, as it is, makes people uncomfortable. It should. How do you avoid the farce or the cliche? How do you stay true to the material when it could have gone so broad?

FOSTER: You make decisions all along the way. You keep focused. Every decision — every visual, every shot, every lens, how do you treat the characters, music…I honestly think that you have to start from the end. This is where I’m headed. This is how I want to be moved. Have the entire film really be about the reconciliation of father and son. And then you work backwards. You can’t start off with a crazy, nasty broad comedy and then expect people to be moved. It’s not fair. It’s cheating. The harder thing was balancing the two stories and going back and forth between the two and WANTING to go back to Anton’s story and having that work. That was tough.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment You said this morning on WGN that you’re interested in family in your directorial works — “Little Man Tate,” “Home For the Holidays,” and now this one. I’m interested in the follow-up — WHY is family so interesting to you?

FOSTER: Good question. I’m fascinated by the tapestry and the way we all touch each other. Obviously, I must be fascinated with my own family. And other people’s. And the way we connect. My films are also about spiritual crisis. The point of having a spiritual crisis and the point of crisis is going through this cruel thing and coming out better, not worse. My characters often move toward being more well-adjusted, to evolve. I think that’s the goal for me. All of the years you spend on your material — “Why would he do this? Why would he do that?” It causes you to understand yourself and the people around you and to forgive yourself and them in a lot of ways.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment Do you watch your old films? When they pop up on TV or, for example, when something like “Taxi Driver” gets the recent Blu-ray restoration? That stuff doesn’t interest you?

FOSTER: It’s great. But it’s the past. Usually, at that time I had to see it many times. Now I don’t see my movies much any more. Especially ones I don’t like — I never see more than twice any more. As a director, you get so burned out that you never want to see it again. You know what? I saw “Contact” the other day because my kids had never seen a grown-up film of mine. They had seen “Bugs Malone” and “Nim’s Island.” I showed them “Contact” and I hadn’t seen it in fifteen years. I was amazed that my son was into it. All of these years of them asking me questions like “Do you believe in God?” After seeing the movie, they had real questions. I thought, “This is a fanatastic tool.” All of these movies feature things in which I believe. I’ve thought A LOT about this stuff. And it’s an amazing opportunity to talk to them about what’s on my mind in a lot of ways and I hadn’t thought of that. I’m reading a book called “The Film That Changed My Life” and I’m curious what’s yours?

FOSTER: “The Deer Hunter” changed my life. The Russian Roulette scene, the structure of it — I remember saying “I will never be the same as I was before I saw this. I’m going to spend the rest of my life examining why that is.” Have you done that?

FOSTER: I’ve taken it apart. I work with the film when I work with film schools. I think people get caught up in [at film schools] “Someday I’m going to have a crane and this amazing shot in my head…” And you look at the power of “The Deer Hunter” and, technically, what happens and why is it moving? They made these specific decisions and those decisions impacted on what’s on the screen and why you are moved. The idea of the seams not showing and yet being felt. The technical choices impact on the audience in a big way. Of my movies, “The Beaver” is the most technically proficient. It has a much more self-conscious hand. And yet there’s a seamlessness to it as well. It has a style that’s appropriate to the filmmaking but that doesn’t jump down the viewers throat.

The Beaver
The Beaver
Photo credit: Summit Entertainment I’m already getting the wrap-up sign but can we talk a bit about Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” [which she had just wrapped and will open this Fall with Kate Winslet]?

FOSTER: It’s from a play — “God of Carnage.” It’s been performed in every country and re-translated based on people in that country. It’s about two couples. All shot in real-time. Takes place in an affluent Brooklyn apartment. One of the couple’s kids has hit the other couple’s kid with a stick and knocked two teeth out. And these people come to negotiate how to handle that and it devolves into these very sophisticated people turning into a very primitive state and show their worst sides. How’s Roman different as a director?

FOSTER: Every director is different. He has his way. It’s his party. His way. He has a very, very definitive style about how he likes it done. He decides everything. He decided every lens. Every prop. Everything. It’s all him. Last question — An actor once told me that every movie was a learning experience? What did we learn on “The Beaver”?

FOSTER: (Thinks.) I don’t have any regrets. I’m so proud of the final product. It was the hardest professional moment of my life. It was hard getting to this point. It had a really precarious path. There was a lot of going back and forth. There were reshoots. I think that the thing that I learned is that your instincts are always right and…bring that up at the beginning and not at the end. (Laughs.) If you have one question mark, it needs to be resolved before you start shooting.

“The Beaver” stars Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence. It was directed by Jodie Foster. It opens in Chicago on May 6th, 2011. content director Brian Tallerico

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