Jodie Foster, as an actor-turned-director, has a unique sense of sympathy for those in front of a camera lens.
“You kind of never know who a director is going to be,” Foster said to IndieWire. “I’ve walked onto sets where I thought a director was going to be one way and you get there and the guy’s just the complete opposite and a total nightmare. You never know who you’re going to get in the moment, because it’s a strange job — how somebody is as a leader and how they get into your face as an actor.”
But that may be what makes her such a powerful figure on the set, something from which the anthology series “Black Mirror” benefitted in its fourth season. The critically acclaimed drama, created by writer Charlie Brooker, has moved beyond its British origins since getting picked up by Netflix for a third and fourth season. Part of that has included the slightest increase in behind-the-camera diversity: Out of 19 episodes, Foster is the first woman director.
Foster noted that directing her episode of “Black Mirror” felt like “a really small indie movie that feels intimate and small, where we don’t have this flashy idea of the future.” Without revealing any spoilers, “Arkangel” is a story about a mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) who, like any parent, worries about her daughter’s safety. Because this is an episode of “Black Mirror”), she ends up turning to technology for what appears to be an easy solution…though, of course, there’s no such thing.
While all of her previous television work (“Orange is the New Black,” “House of Cards”) was for other Netflix shows, “Black Mirror” still represented a major difference from her previous episodic work. While some elements of the production are consistent across the series, Foster did her own casting for her episode and hired her own composer and other team members.
That level of directorial control, she said, made sure that “every single one of the episodes is completely different,” she said. “It’s a true anthology and they really have a respect for filmmakers that feels like it comes from the feature world. I’ve grown accustomed to enjoying serving the creator on episodic television and saying, ‘Okay, I know you guys know what you’re looking for. Let me help you, let me help serve you.’ This is a whole different deal.”
The casting, especially when it came to hiring DeWitt for the central role, was also a different experience for both Foster and DeWitt, because of their previous relationship — originally, the pair met through Foster’s wife.
Their status as friends meant that Foster experienced some hesitation about casting her. “I was like, ‘This would be great for Rosemarie!’ and then I was like, “Is that weird? I can’t tell her,'” Foster said.
“It’s always a little weird when you work with friends,” DeWitt noted.
In fact, it was Foster’s first time directing someone she considers a friend… Well, almost. “I guess the only other person I’ve done that with is Mel,” Foster said — a reference to Mel Gibson, who Foster directed in the 2014 film “The Beaver.” “But I had worked with him as an actor first. I knew him well as an actor and I worked with him before.”
Because Foster was worried about the situation being awkward, DeWitt was offered the role through their respective agents, in case (Foster’s words) “she wanted to say no.”
But there was no danger of that from DeWitt, who sat alongside Foster during the interview and laughed as the story behind her casting came up. “It was an immediate and absolute yes, because of Jodie, because I wanted to work with her, I wanted to be directed by her. I wanted to serve her vision of the piece. That was really thrilling.”
In addition, DeWitt was excited by the project “because of what ‘Black Mirror’ is and because they are these standalone pieces. It gives you a freedom tonally, to make something your own. I feel like their originality inspires originality in the other departments, too, because you’re not boxed in by anything.”
There were some challenges, though: Foster described it as “quite a difficult shoot. You don’t anticipate that on a small film, where you know you’re going to do a lot of pages a day, but there were a lot of physical problems or physical constraints that made it a tough shoot, long hours. Part of me felt very guilty that I was dragging [DeWitt] into this.”
However, Foster characterized many of those issues as “pretty dumb things.” “Note to self,” she said with a laugh. “When you’re going to shoot at night with a child, choose a real location where the room is half the size. Stuff like that. We just had some of those things that happened where we couldn’t get through the stuff fast enough and just had very long hours. And working with children is always difficult.”
There were also a lot of long days, which DeWitt didn’t mind much. Instead, her biggest challenge was interacting with the technology at the core of the story, which largely came together in post-production.
“It was like acting with this table,” she said, gesturing to the slab of glass between us.
“There was nothing there,” Foster agreed.
“It was really challenging,” DeWitt said. “But that’s where I could never be like, ‘Jodie…’ because Jodie has done all kinds of genres in her career as an actor. So I couldn’t be like, ‘You don’t know what it’s like. I’m just acting with this screen all day.'”
In fact, the knowledge that she was being directed by someone who knew where she was coming from had a major impact on DeWitt. “There’s a part whenever you want to rebel as an actor, you feel like the director doesn’t know what it’s like, what they’re asking to do. Not that I ever really had that feeling, but I was like, ‘Oh shit. Jodie knows what it’s like to do this, and then thirty times harder,'” she said.
Added DeWitt, “on the flip side of that, I also had never worked with a director who… let’s say we had some stunt work to do in this. We just absolutely would not do one more take than was necessary, because she knew what it was like to be in the actor’s shoes. Even though we had such long hours, I had never been taken such good care of, emotionally. The well-being of the actor was in the director’s brain, and that was amazing.”
Beyond the future tech on display, the focus of “Arkangel” is, like many “Black Mirror” episodes, on people and relationships. “When I first read this script was that it was an opportunity to have a real Bergman experience, a mother-daughter relationship,” Foster said. “So much is unsaid… I have a single mom, single parent family and our relationship is really tight and complicated and beautiful but also could be cruel. All that stuff is so fascinating to me. That’s the great opportunity you have, about making movies is to look at your own life and resolve some of the unresolved thoughts you had about it.”
“Black Mirror” Season 4 premieres Friday, Dec. 29 on Netflix.