Jodie Foster directs herself and Mel Gibson in quirky drama The Beaver. Gibson plays Foster's depressed husband who discovers an imaginary friend in a beaver puppet which transforms his life. Jodie sat down with Buzzine to talk about depression, her friendship with Mel, and motherhood.
Izumi Hasegawa: Was there any decision upfront about which hand Mel was going to use? He's left-handed, isn't he?
Jodie Foster: Nope. He's right handed.
IH: Was that his choice or your choice to have him use the left hand?
JF: That was my choice. He would have loved to have had the puppet on his right hand, but we needed him to do things like open doors or shake hands. We needed him to do a whole bunch of stuff with his right hand, so we needed the puppet to be on his left. Most puppeteers obviously puppet with their dominant hand, so it's hard to do that...
IH: What made you go with Mel Gibson for this character?
JF: He's an amazing actor. I loved working with him. Him and Chow Yun Fat are my two favorite actors I've ever worked with. I think everybody feels that way; it's pretty universal in Hollywood. I knew he had a combination of the lightness and wit that the character needed, that he would also really understand the struggle and want to go to a deeper place, mostly just because I know him and I know how his psyche works. He's somebody who's interested and wants to change.
IH: Did you have to fight with the studio to get him?
JF: This wasn't a studio; it was Summit, an independent. We knew this was not going to be a studio film; we knew this would be an independent movie, so that takes a whole bunch of people off the table. There were other issues with the script that even the independents had trouble with, so that took a whole bunch of distributors away. Summit really loved Mel for the part and was incredibly supportive of him, and also supportive of the script we had; they didn't ask for material changes.
IH: Can you talk about choosing the puppet? I'm sure you saw lots of puppets. The puppet is like its own character; could you talk about how you and Mel worked together to get that voice? Because he has a very strong voice...
JF: Every part of choosing that is what you do in the beginning of a movie. He didn't have a hand in choosing the puppet. We did that before we brought him into the process. We talked about the whole spectrum of what the puppet could be; it could be something that looks like a beaver with the tail like that, and the hair and the fur and the little beady eyes on the side of its head which you can find at the Discovery store -- they look exactly like beavers; or it could be a sock that had two eyes and a mouth. It could be just as abstract as it was concrete, and then there's stuff in the middle. In the midst of that, there were a few things that we knew: we knew we wanted him to have a childlike quality to it; we knew we wanted him to be malleable so you could see the hand underneath and that you always knew there was a man manipulating it; we knew we wanted the audience to be aware it was a prop, that this was not a person or a character... In some ways, it was a prop that was being handled by a man who's suffering. And then, when we chose to change the perspective – in some ways, the beaver's perspective throughout – we could do that with the camera, but we never did that through CGI eyes or hands moving, or anything like that.
IH: And what about the voice?
JF: The voice was all Mel. The accent was written in the script...
IH: In Cockney?
JF: No, English. Just in English -- we didn't say Cockney. We turned it into more blue collar because that felt right as a alter-ego to a rich man who's had everything handed down to him, to have a blue-collar puppet who is a leader, who's somewhat remote from his emotions, who's vital, and who has a kind of testosterone about him. We didn't want him to be warm and fuzzy. I think we wanted him to be menacing in some ways, and to have a real strength of character, and Mel really brought it to the process.
IH: I want to congratulate you on having the courage in this film to use Mel and be a loyal friend and distinguish between acting capability and personal struggles, because we would have missed out on a really great performance if he was not in this role. Another great performance is you, and I was curious, because after Little Man Tate, you said you would never act and direct in the same film again, and yet you have...
JF: I know, that's so dumb. Why'd I do that?
IH: What challenges did that present for you? What is it that prompted you to put yourself in front of the camera again with you behind the camera?
JF: It is challenging. Mel and I talk about that a lot because he said, after Man Without a Face, "I'm never acting and directing again in a movie." And he went and did Braveheart. Braveheart was also a very difficult performance – he had extensions in his hair, full-on makeup, he was in every scene – it was crazy for him to have acted in that film. I think what you find with acting and directing – I don't find it schizophrenic in any way. I find it completely easy to move between the two. There are a couple of liabilities. One is: it's very difficult on your relationship with the other actors, so you have to know the other actors. I knew Mel, he'd acted and directed, he's a completely unneurotic actor. There's no, "How's my hair?" He's just very uncomplicated in how he works, so I knew that wouldn't be a problem. The one bad thing is: you often don't get choices from yourself that you might have gotten from another actor. You get what you anticipated and what you asked for, but you don't get surprises. That's the one thing I miss in the cutting room. I wish I had more surprises.
IH: Your character is a working mom, as are you. Is there a challenge to that? What do you like about being a working mom?
JF: It's hard doing anything well, but it's especially hard doing ten things well. Being a parent is a full-time job, and being an artist is a full-time job, and you just have to be okay with the fact that sometimes you're not going to be very good at either one. But my kids seem to be okay. They're pretty well-adjusted. I didn't work very much when they were young, and I had the luxury to be able to do that. Most people can't. Now that they're older, I think they really look forward to what new adventure I'm going to get myself into. Where is it going to take us as a family, and what am I going to be talking about and obsessing about? Because it's not just a movie about a puppet -- it's also a movie about art, street art, all the stuff that he writes on the post-its. I bring all that home, so they get to live that adventure too.
IH: Do you pick them up from school yourself, like your character?
JF: I take them to school and pick them up, yeah.
IH: Are you on the PTA?
JF: Yeah, we do all that here.
IH: What's the reaction from the other parents when they see you, considering that you're so famous?
JF: This is L.A. I don't know. I think people are pretty inured to it. It's just a job like any other. And everybody has different jobs -- there are dentists, producers, basketball players... Every parent has a different job.
IH: Why a beaver? I'm assuming it could have been other animals, but was it the metaphor of the building, or something else?
JF: I guess that was why. It's a good question for Kyle [Killen]. It could have been a different animal, but I think there's something great about the industrious beaver who creates things and then destroys them. There are also woodland creatures – there was something about working in wood, about creativity, that it brought Walter back into working with his hands and being creative, which is how he lost his vitality in the first place, by losing that creativity. It could have been another animal. Maybe in the sequel...
IH: The underlying theme in this film is the whole issue of depression and how people cope with it. Was it all there in the script, or did you feel a necessity to go out and look into it some more? Because there are some bizarre ways that people cope with it...
JF: It definitely was there in the script, but that's what got enhanced the most as time went on. The two things that changed the most: one was the real focus on not just chronic medical and clinical depression the way Walter has, but also the other end of the spectrum, which is just sadness, and the sadness and heaviness of our lives and what that means, for example, to his son's character. So there was a lot of work on that.
IH: In terms of your own dealing, did you talk to some psychologists?
JF: I have so many people I know who have had different forms of depression, and I've read a lot of books.
IH: Did you ever suffer from depression?
JF: Yes, definitely. It's very important to distinguish between a kind of chemical depression that requires medication. That's the first step; the second step is talk therapy, and the third step is long periods of time. But the first step is really medication. It's why it's important in the beginning of the movie, to see that he's a man who has everything. This isn't a man whose life is nonstop tragedy; this is a guy who has a beautiful house, he has a wonderful family, he has a pool, he has a profession, he has a job -- this isn't depression caused by circumstance. So it's important to make that distinction, because on the spectrum of depression, there are all sorts of other parts of it. But clinical, medical depression is serious business.
IH: Do you think the movie and Mel's performance can help him reconcile with the audience?
JF: Oh, I have no idea. As far as priorities and problems in his life, I would say that's at least third or fourth on the list. He's got other things that he has to handle first. Look, he's an amazingly talented man and a great filmmaker, and he will find a way to tell stories because he's one of the greatest filmmakers we have, I think, as a director. I think I'm more excited to see what he's going to do next as a director. He'll find a way, even if he's holding a boom microphone.
IH: Can you talk about Social Action Network and explain what that is?
JF: We worked a lot with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), and it's almost like a crisis hotline, much like the Trevor Group, which I've worked with a lot, and was around when it was being founded -- grassroots, really. Just being on the phone line and being there for somebody to call and to ask questions. And what they found in terms of treatment is -- the most effective thing, depending on the circumstance, but an incredibly effective thing and an important component is for people to understand that this is not something that no one else has ever lived, and for them to be able to connect and reach out to other people, and to know that they're not alone in this. That is the difference between life or death -- the difference between someone taking a jump off this building or not. I think the film addresses that in an interesting way, that on this large spectrum of depression, medical or clinical depression Walter's feeling, but also the kind of sadness that we live through every day of our lives, and the answer's the same for both, which is: you don't have to be alone.
IH: If you had a memory box and you could put three things in it, what would they be?
JF: Little Man Tate, Home for the Holidays, and The Beaver.
IH: There was a Los Angeles Times article that said you would be playing Head of State of an alien planet in Elysium. Is that an accurate description of that character?
JF: Yes. I hope I'm allowed to say that. I think I'm allowed to say that, right? That's pretty vague because those sci-fi movies are all really hush-hush. I don't even own a screenplay. They won't even give me a screenplay. I've read it, but they won't give me one to physically keep in my home because they're so worried about everybody.
IH: What was it about that project that appealed to you?
JF: Definitely the director, Neill Blomkamp, who did District 9, which I think is as close to a perfect movie as you can get; it's just an extraordinary film. This film has a lot of that in it -- social commentary, using sci-fi to get there. It's great.
IH: What type of mom are you?
JF: I do everything. You do whatever it is you have to do, whether it's cleaning up vomit...
IH: Are you strict?
JF: They're older now; they're almost 13 and 9 1/2, so no. My 12-year-old is almost 5' 7''. What am I going to do?
IH: Do your children have cell phones/iPhones?
JF: No, they don't have an iPhone. They don't particularly want one either, which is interesting. But they love electronics. What are you going to do? It's the 21st century -- they love electronics.
IH: Do you have any restrictions on their TV/movie/Internet time?
JF: All that's kind of boring. Every parent has the stuff. You have the rules that are in your house. I asked my older son the other day about that. I was like, "How do you feel about how you've been parented?" He said, "Look, some parents are stricter, and some parents are easier, but I wouldn't change a thing. I think you're exactly the right amount." I don't know if he'll feel that way in ten years.
IH: Do you think it'll be another 15 years before you do another directing gig?
JF: I hope not. I'd like to work right away, I just have to find something. It's not easy. It's hard getting personal films off the ground. It's hard developing them. If I could start in September, I would love to.
Summit Entertainment's 'The Beaver' is released on May 20, 2011.