Jodie Foster‘s film The Beaver hits the big screen this weekend with a whole lot of controversy in it and around it. The film raises some important issues about mental health and dealing with depression — Mel Gibson, who gives one hell a performance, is obviously catching some heat because of recent internet exploits. Foster sat down to a rather candid interview to speak about working with the extremely talented Gibson, dealing with internet chatter and also the two stunning performances by Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence…
What about a Beaver script made you have to direct?
Jodie Foster: It was brilliant. It did have an absurd, high concept premise. Something incredibly simple to hold on, to try and discuss something really complex, which I love. I always saw the drama in it and was touched by the ending and the relationship between the father and the son. That’s how I saw it and then I had to work backwards from there. How do I build it to this melancholy, bittersweet essay about family, that can’t just be a funny beaver puppet and then suddenly a serious drama.
The tone was challenging, did Mel, who is a natural at comedy ever want to take it to more humorous places?
JF: Yeah and I pulled him back. His originally instinct for the character was always a littler bit darker than other people had anticipated, so I wasn’t worried he was going to go off into some incredibly broad way. There definitely were moments where he didn’t want to have to resist the temptation because there were amazingly funny situations. Him having to fight and punch himself, it’s hard not to find comedy there. In the screenplay, there was a note [from the screenwriters] saying “this scene must be played as seriously as a heart attack.”
What do you want audiences to know about Mel so that they don’t let all the outside drama get in the way of him as an artist?
JF: I don’t know what to say to people. It’s a question, “can you put the private things that you know about him aside because they’ve been exploited on the internet, so you can watch him as an artist?” I don’t know.
It’s the tricky thing between actor and movie star?
JF: Yeah, well, when you’re a celebrity. And things are different now, it wasn’t always like this. It’s very odd and unnatural phenomenon and it’s not something that Mel is comfortable with, I’m not comfortable with it either. Some people are.
JF: I don’t know who! Some people are.
Those people are crazy! Was it different for you working with Mel as a director to actor as opposed to in the past when you were both actors In Maverick?
JF: He’s incredibly easy, totally not neurotic. He’ll just say “where do you want me to stand?” And I’ll say “I want you to go from here to here.” And he does it. He doesn’t say “my character this or that.” He’s really focused on the things are important and not focused on the things that aren’t. He’s great with the other actors, he’s very specific. And it’s great to have a partner like that!
What is Mel’s process like?
JF: The way that Mel prepares for a part is to talk to people, to talk to me about the feelings in his life and he’s looking for the voice; and then he doesn’t talk anymore he just stops. Then you say role or you say action and stuff happens. because I’m an actor/director I really have no ego about that, I have nothing to do with his performance. I guide him and say “this is what I’m looking for” but honestly that’s what an actor brings to the table and why I’m so grateful for him. There’s really not much you can do to change an actors performance.
Were you intentionally looking for the saddest beaver puppet?
JF: [laughs] We were. We ended up making these because we had very specific eyes, nose and ears, everything was very specific. And we spent a lot of time preparing each puppet.
There are humorous moments…
JF: Absolutely, but most of that is situational. Most of that is, put a puppet in a scene with 75 executes in an office building and there’s going to be some hummer to it, there’s nothing you can do about that. But it’s not played broadly.
Do you notice the film plays differently with different audiences? Does there need to be that one laugh to get everyone to feel like it’s okay to do so?
JF: Yeah, we always like there to be those few chuckles upfront, because it allows people to go “okay, I’m allowed to laugh throughout this, I get that.” Then it’s important for people to understand when it turns and to go with it when it turns. And honestly that’s Meredith’s job. Her job is to continually be the dramatic driving force of the film, that see’s the film in a dramatic way and see’s him in a dramatic way and doesn’t stop for the comedy.
How did you make sure that the darkness and lightness were balanced?
JF: I approach dark with lightness. But sometimes I tell people that I can take a funny script and beat the funny right out of it. I do both.
What was it liking working with Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence?
JF: It was fantastic, so fun to see their passion and how excited they are about it. And they’re very different, they approach things very differently in general. Jennifer is a two take girl. She’s incredibly prepared, and when you give her a note she does exactly that and does all the other notes — it’s like you get these two golden moments with her and super focused. And Anton is so smart and his mind is all over the place, that he was 30 takes and he wants to do them all differently and he writes tons of memos! And he has all these crazy ideas! It’s just fun to see two young people who work in such different ways.
Does he still do a lot of practical jokes on set?
JF: Sometimes I think his practical jokes are just because he’s so bored and those movies take so long that you have to do something to occupy yourself.
What informed the media tour that Mel’s character was seemingly tortured on?
JF: It was all in the script, I didn’t make it up, though it sounds like I made it up!
Is that a weird part of the job?
JF: It’s the weirdest, hardest part of the job! It can be soul-numbing if you’re someone who cares about such things, but it’s necessary. It’s something that I deal with a lot for my movies… This idea of this guy who’s a train wreck, being propped up on a stool and going around the country being exploited, yeah I think that’s something that touches me.
The Beaver comes out May 6th.