After months of accidental publicity due to those infamous Mel Gibson tapes, Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” finally made its way to a public audience with its world premiere at SXSW on Wednesday night. (Read indieWIRE’s review here.) On Thursday morning, Foster sat down with indieWIRE for her first interview of the day. Hiding her self-described “vampire eyes”–the result of a lingering cold–behind a pair of red-tinted shades, Foster talked about her sense of the movie’s reception, the production experience, and how it fits into her larger career trajectory.
When we met last night, you said you would only watch the first ten minutes of the movie with the audience. How did those ten minutes go?
I ended up not watching any of it. Actually, I went to the last ten minutes. I think it went well, but you can never tell. It seemed like they were following along with it, and from what I’ve been told, they got the lightness in the beginning, which sometimes is troublesome. I think sometimes people are confused by the tone, whether it’s a comedy or a drama. Sometimes, that sets people off a little bit. That’s not a problem at all in Europe because everybody understands that sometimes things go in and out of lightness and darkness. But in America, they like to know absolutely dead-on what kind of film it is. There’s one scene, when [Gibson] has a fight with himself, that’s sort of the tell-tale scene. If people are laughing there, you really have a problem.
In a recent profile in The Hollywood Reporter, you said that Mel shot a scene on the day that all those tapes of his arguments with his ex-girlfriend came out. Which scene was that?
It’s the last scene with his son.
Where they embrace?
When you watch that, does the production history come rushing back to you?
No. I mean, the movie is what it is. It’s like a kid that you have. It walks the way it walks, talks the way it talks. That’s the beautiful thing about performance–it allows you to escape yourself and become the character. I think that’s really true of Mel, and I’ve said that to him many times. Having had the honor and pleasure of not just directing him but acting in a scene with him, it’s the most beautiful part of who he is. I’m so proud of that last moment with him. He has three lines of dialogue, and it’s such an incredibly empathetic moment.
In fact, Mel himself has very few lines of dialogue as his character, Walter Black. Most of the dialogue is spoken by the beaver.
Yeah, it’s very little. He probably has ten lines of dialogue in the entire movie.
Did he record a lot of the beaver lines in post-production?
No, there’s no trickery with the puppet at all, no CGI, not anyone talking at a different time. It’s all him right there.
Why do you feel compelled to warn people that it’s not a comedy before they see it?
Because, if they haven’t seen any trailers or commercials, it’s a fresh, raw audience. I feel this does need to be set up a little bit. Because it has that odd tone, it’s hard for people to walk into a movie theater completely fresh and know what they’re looking at, when they’ve been given the information that it’s a guy with a puppet. Then they think it’s a Muppets movie. It definitely helps to have the film set up a bit and have people see the trailers.
As someone who became successful at a very early age, you have always had the opportunity to avoid difficult projects like this. What keeps you from just resigning yourself to action movies?
Well. That’s just the director I am. I make personal films. When you know that you’re going to be on something for two years and it’s going to be the story of your life and you have to wake up at three in the morning and have ideas…it’s an obsession. In order to be obsessed with something, it has to be something that speaks from an incredibly primal place. I had a certain career as an actor that I think was quite personal as well, and had a lot of integrity, but I wasn’t writing my own things or directing my own movies. There was a different set of criteria for that, and I don’t have to fulfill any of it as a director. If I make two movies my entire life, and they’re two movies that–whether they make a lot of money or two people go to see them–they speak of me, then I consider them incredibly successful. I don’t need to be Steven Spielberg. It’s not the kind of movies I make, and that’s just not the order of business.
You were saying earlier how impressed you were working with Roman Polanski on “Carnage,” seeing this 78-year-old filmmaker still going strong.
Yeah. I’ve worked with a lot of older directors since I’ve been working since I was three, so a lot of the people who were forty when I was eight or ten years old are now dead, of course. But I’ve worked with a lot of great directors who have moved on. There’s no other job in movies that requires that sort of stamina, not just physical stamina, but intellectual and emotional stamina. [You have] to love something that deeply for so long, to be that committed to it, [and] to be the one person who has the answer. Even if you have the flu, you can never stop. That requires a certain personality, so directors who are directors anyway, they’re going to have that personality when they’re in their eighties.
And you’re interested in directing with more frequency now, right?
Yeah, I feel like if there was a time to slow down as an actor, it’s now. A time to direct more, that’s now. One thing that disappoints me is that I haven’t directed more. There are a lot of things going on in my life. I have two kids, I have a career as an actress, I ran a company, which really slowed me down. Also, I make personal movies and they’re impossible to get off the ground. I think some of that is going to change because of the new technologies and avenues for distribution. There will be more opportunities for different sizes of movies to be made, because they’re all going to be viewed on the same TV screen at your house. I think it’s an exciting time for smaller movies, really. The way the studio system is going to change will be in the favor of people who are entrepreneurial, who produce, write, direct, act. People who have enough as a brand so that some place like Yahoo or Amazon or iTunes can say, “You take care of everything.” So I think it’s a really exciting time for smaller films. It hasn’t been, up until now.
Do you think that if it costs nothing, you can do anything?
Well, yes. It won’t cost nothing, but let’s just say that the romantic comedy that costs $90 million is going to be viewed on the same screen with the exact same access as the $500,000 movie, and they’re going to be competing for the same people. There’s going to be a real democratizing force. I mean, what do you I know? I don’t really know anything, but I feel that.
So do you watch movies online?
No [laughs]. I don’t, but my kids do. I’m always slow. I’m sure I will. I was one of those avid moviegoers as a kid, and we didn’t have video, so we went to see everything five times. I went to see every foreign film playing in my town. As times went on, I watched a lot less films. I have a different film school now. My film school now is my life experience. Sometimes I feel like it’s more NYU film school than anything else I can bring–this is what I know. I know I haven’t see 200 movies at that independent film festival, but I did live this personal life and I think when you’re doing this, that’s your one trump card.
You generally work with older filmmakers.
Working with all these great directors is the reason I’m still acting. When somebody says, “You’re going to work with Spike Lee, and you can stand over his shoulder and see this set-up and why he did this or that…for me, that’s inspiring. Obviously, I still love the storytelling, but the storytelling with all these amazing voices, that’s the best thing about acting.
Do you pay much attention to the way technology has affecting filmmaking techniques?
Yeah, and other people are aware of it as well. Mel Gibson, whose style is very different from mine and has done very mainstream movies, his fascination now is with all the new technologies. He’s really interested in doing movies for nothing, and he has shot videos for nothing. His last film he shot in Mexico was amazingly cheap and I think it looks great. People like David Fincher–established people are excited about the new stuff as well.
Speaking about working on the cutting edge of entertainment, for years you discussed the possibility of playing Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in a movie about her life. Any chance that might still happen?
I feel like that will never happen. I wish it could, but I think I’m too old at this point. I could never get the script right, and it was a lot of work on my part, many years. Maybe somebody will get the script right some day. It’s a tough one. You gotta get it right or it’s not worth doing.
Now that you’re finishing up “Carnage,” what’s next?
I’m about to start this film “Elysium.” I start in August. It’s directed by Neil Blomkamp, who made “District 9.” Matt Damon is in it. It’s sci-fi–very different from “The Beaver.”