With two Oscars and an acting career spanning over forty years, one might think that Jodie Foster’s third directorial offering, The Beaver, would be among the summer’s hottest tickets. But for Foster, 48, the much delayed project has been overshadowed by the struggles of its star – Mel Gibson.
Gibson stars as Walter Black, a depressed husband and father who begins to treat his condition with a beaver hand puppet, which he uses as a means to communicate more effectively. Gibson signed onto the film when his career seemed to have a chance of turning around, but soon after filming finished Mel was back to a tabloid fixture due to an alleged series of racist and anti-Semitic comments.
Foster, who co-stars as Black’s neglected wife, said in a round-table interview at Boston’s Four Seasons Hotel that she hopes that people can look past Mel’s personal problems and see the performance for itself.
“I know that it’s not a film for everybody. It’s a very specialized subject matter and it’s treated in a very special way,” she said. Read on as Jodie Foster talks about Gibson, depression, and balancing the roles of director and actor.
Berkeley Beacon: The Beaver has a lot of different elements in it from drama to comedy to absurdity. As a director how do you achieve that delicate balance?
Jodie Foster: Yeah, well it has an odd tone to it and the tone took a long time to get right. It turns into a kind of an exaggerated drama as well. So we had to work a lot on that and reshoot some things, just to try to smooth that trajectory. It does have a weird tone, because the concept is a guy with a puppet on his hand and we’re going to assume that’s comedic. We were very careful. Every choice I think, we leaned towards the dramatic choice. We really tried to keep it a drama. Because if you want to feel those feelings in the end, you really can’t have all those comedic conventions in the beginning.
I think you always have to ask yourself the same question, or at least I do in my films. And that is “Is it true or is it not true?” Is that authentic the way it is, and if you start getting out of that place, then you have to be careful. So the nice thing about Meredith [Foster’s character] is that she’s the audience’s perspective. She’s the one person who starts off in the film being somewhat accepting, because honestly, what is the big deal about putting a puppet on your hand? She embraces that pretty quickly and as time goes on, she starts seeing the impact on him, that maybe it’s not such a good thing, questioning herself and seeing the dangerous, darker side, having to leave him. Then coming back in a naturalistic way in the end of the film, when the film has a completely different tone. The Beaver is no longer narrating and functioning as Walter’s alter ego.
BB: At the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, you prefaced the film by saying ‘It’s not a comedy.’ Why did you feel you had to say that and do you feel as if audiences walking into the film should know that too?
JF: You think the trailer’s a little deceiving? There have been many more deceiving trailers, trust me [laughs]. Yeah, I think the subject matter is deceptive. I think people expect it to be one thing and I think that’s what has been so nice about showing the movie in Europe. There, they don’t have the same connotations and there they are more used to a complex experience – juggling comedy and drama together. They don’t have hard and fast rules like we do. That’s what was so nice about that audience in Austin too. There are a lot of online people there who are interested in Internet and music, because it is a three-part festival. So they weren’t as committed to [pounding fist] first act, second act, third act! ‘Damn it! Why isn’t there this in the first five minutes?’ [laughs] You get that a lot with people who do only film and have to see a hundred and fifteen movies a week. And they are seeing mostly big-budget, mainstream films.
BB: [The title of the film] is so ambiguous to what the film is about. It really runs the gamut.
JF: I think it is fantastic. I think it is fantastic how irreverent it is and the people remember it. It is almost painful for them to say that and I love that! [laughs] When I first started the movie, everybody would say to me, ‘You’re going to change the title right?’ [laughs] We love it; Mel loves it too.
BB: The movie deals a lot with depression. You have been candid about your own depression at times. So given that texture of your personal experience, what were the key elements that you wanted to bring out in telling this story?
JF: Obviously the main character is chemically depressed and that means he requires a lot more than just talk therapy. This is a man who is really suffering from a medical condition and he needs help that is beyond his abilities. He’s a guy who can not stop sleeping and can’t get out of bed, has difficulty speaking. That’s serious. But what we know about everyday life is that it gets heavier and heavier as life goes on. There’s a lot of tragedy mixed in with the comedy of our life that many of us, myself included, go through a spiritual crisis where they feel alone, terribly alone.
I think there is an interesting phenomenon about artists, perhaps a cliché, that we are very often obsessive ruminators. Great writers are people that just don’t type into a typewriter and it comes out fabulous! They think about it and say, ‘Why did this happen? Why did that happen?’ They re-write it and think that it can be better like this or that. They add those details and the process of ruminating is beautiful. It’s also incredibly painful. But it is the one thing that allows you to get through the spiritual crisis and evolve through it. So it’s important to know that depression has a function. I think in a weird way, I feel lucky that I have the ability to find that in myself.
BB: Since Little Man Tate [Foster’s directorial debut], has anything changed for you as a director? Also, is it the same or is it harder to get something made today?
JF: Well, yeah, it’s way harder to get something made today for sure. That’s a given. Especially quirky, smaller movies. People say how the film business changed and it’s changed along with the economic trends, the global economy changed – everything when it comes to making movies. I’m really looking to the impact of the next few years of internet technology and I think it is going to change things in a really positive direction.
BB: Did you always intend to co-star in the film?
JF: No, not at all. In fact, after Little Man Tate, I said that I am never doing this again [laughs]. Mel and I were always making jokes about that, because he did The Man Without A Face and I said to him, ‘Don’t ever do it again, don’t ever do it again.’ He’s like, ‘I know, I know.’ And then he does Braveheart and he’s in every scene with full-on make-up and extensions. So that was like a crazy, crazy thing for him…The reason I did it was because when I brought on Mel, I needed… someone very specific for him. I was concerned about finding someone who could carry the weight of the drama and who would understand not to play into the comedy elements… And I felt as if Mel and I know each other so well, that there is such a real compassion between the two of us that I knew that people would believe that we were married onscreen.
BB: What’s the one lesson you want people to take away from The Beaver as soon as they get out of their seats?
JF: That despite the roller-coaster our lives are [and] the tragedy and comedy that we live inside… you don’t have to be alone. That idea sort of is a revelation for people who live the way Walter does in the film or even the way Jennifer Lawrence’s character is in the movie. Including Riley Thomas Stewart, the young son, who is separated from people – the impact that pain has on people sets them apart. There’s no pill to fix it and you probably won’t be OK just because I give you Tylenol. But you don’t have to be alone and that’s enough to save people’s lives.
The Beaver is currently playing at AMC Loews Boston Common and the Kendall Square Cinema.