MCN Columnists
Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Interview: Jodie Foster’s Tango With Depression In The Beaver

Jodie Foster’s directed a third feature. The one with Mel Gibson and the beaver hand-puppet? The Beaver is a rich fable about depression and fear and hope, piercing, personal, bruised. (I think it liked it more than a few opening week critics.) While Gibson’s two roles are his best (and most intense) in memory, other issues may get in the way of how the movie’s received. We talked about other subjects. (There are small spoilers below in a general way.) Foster, small, serious, quick to laughter, was dressed trim that day: square black glasses, silk shirt under a gray v-neck sweater, slate-colored Chuck Taylors: blending in. We spoke at Chicago’s Elysian Hotel on March 11, after its SXSW premiere, but before all but its earliest reviews.

PRIDE: Watching your movies, I appreciate the fine, but not fussy details. I wouldn’t call what you do fussy. Let me give you an example. As the film begins and it’s setting a world different from what glancing at some early reviews might suggest, I realized the score was tango, tango-inflected. Wait a minute! The tango is a dance between two men; it’s a knife-fight to the death.

FOSTER: [sizing up the observation] Mm-hm.

PRIDE: It’s Walter and his Black Dog, it’s Walter and the Beaver.

FOSTER: That’s right! Thank you! [laughs] For… There was a lot of fighting about the tango.

PRIDE: That part of the score tapers off…

FOSTER: Well, the introduction is the Beaver. Not Walter. But the Beaver. Looking at this pathetic man’s life with total disdain in some ways [in voice-over]. With a quirky eye that’s remote. That’s playful. He’s toying with a man’s life. And y’know, disrespectful in some ways. “This is a pathetic guy, look how much he sucks.” So once we set that introduction up, then the film’s perspective changes a bit, it becomes, “And this is how it all happened.” And so the Beaver narrates that from then on. As time goes on, the Beaver becomes less of an affable character and we start realizing that this, this survival tool is no longer allowing him to survive intact. It’s, it’s… It’s destroying him. That the voice of the Beaver changes. And Walter underneath starts coming up, and yeah, you feel that in the music as well. I think what I aspire to is, technically—and I have had a lot of great directors—I didn’t go to film school!

[Foster grins.]

PRIDE: I think you went to a good film school.

[She laughs what can only be called the Jodie Foster laugh.]

FOSTER: [grins] A pretty good film school? A lot of great directors to look at. How do I pay attention to the, the technical details of filmmaking, all the languages of filmmaking, y’know, sound, and music and props and all that, but allow the film to live and breathe as an organism and allow the seams to not show. There is a fine dance between that, of making decisions that are bold decisions and yet making sure that they don’t overwhelm the story you’re trying to tell and the emotions you’re trying to do. That’s always a problem for me, because I like incredibly witty films, y’know, I like language a lot. And I can’t, I’m just not, I don’t like sloppy language in movies. I don’t mind seeing it—I just can’t shoot it. And there’s a formality to that.

PRIDE: The lines here are very precise, like the line when the Beaver observes, “It’s as if he’d died and hadn’t had the good sense to take his body with him,” that’s a Sweet Smell of Success level of precision and derision. It’s like, “You’re dead, son, get yourself buried.”

FOSTER: Yeah! And that’s the Beaver talking. The Beaver’s language, that’s his system. Detached. And almost… admiring is the wrong word. It’s like looking at yourself from above and saying, ah, what a strange man.

PRIDE: A lot of niceties are sweetly unforced. Later in the movie, there’s the first shot where a car pulls to the end of the driveway and we see in front of the house, this perfectly beavered pyramid of logs and twigs. It’s there. But it’s not there.

FOSTER: Yeah. You notice it. Or you don’t. In certain films— I think this film does have a style that is more… mmmm. More there. If you’re paying attention. It’s more there than my other movies, it wasn’t appropriate in my other films. This film is a fable. It’s not entirely reality-based, y’know, it’s a fable. So there’s a different style that’s appropriate for it.

PRIDE: The ending is hopeful. Going up. Cut to black on the spoken words, “Walter Black,” the character’s name. I don’t know how many people in a larger audience are thrilled by that sort of thing, but for me—

FOSTER: Well, my first love is books. My love’s words and literature, and film came after that. It’s strange, it’s a funny thing, what moves me is language. And visual, too. I’ve been accused, pointed finger! That I make films that are intellectual. And I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. I think I make films that are intellectual and yet have a “and this is why intellect is not enough” [aspect], this is why intellect is only a percentage of who I am. So each one of my movies, I think, is about that, the intellectual searching for the primitive experience. Certainly [it’s] true of Little Man Tate, a guy who’s torn between, having to choose between his head and his heart and what a difficult spiritual crisis that is. And this film as well. It does have an intellectual feeling to it, a European feeling to it, and that’s why I know it’s not for everybody. It is a specialty movie and I like that! This spiritual crisis is not one that absolutely everybody can relate to.

PRIDE: I stumbled across one review that didn’t get the twinning, the pairings, the twining of the telling. I don’t see how anyone seeing the film could have, as this writer did, wished the teenage son out of this story. “What’s this film about, what’s all this extraneous stuff about the son?

[Foster laughs.]

PRIDE: Everything’s back to that tango: primitive/intellectual, father/son, boy/girl, wife/husband.

FOSTER: I understand it is hard to successfully create two stories that go side-by-side. And it’s really hard going back and forth. Relating them visually: One guy! ‘S got a puppet on his hand! And the other one, who’s only 17, and he’s falling in love. It’s very difficult to figure how to go back and forth between the two and balance them properly. I think they’re beautifully balanced, because each of them is experiencing the same thing, but from an entirely different perspective. And the parallels are delicate. And if you don’t like the delicate parallels, then you should go see another movie that’s not as delicate!

PRIDE: “Delicacy” is a good word for the things that I’m found admirable or exciting. I think you have a perfect little visual correlative, late, when the son is taking down the many Post-its arrayed on his wall of all the similarities to his father that he resents. Three lines.



PRIDE: The family are spokes of the same distress, they’re one unit of pain, they go barefoot around each other at home and yet their pain stays cloaked.

FOSTER: [nods] Stoic. They’re stoic in some ways.

PRIDE: It’s a self-defeating stoicism, it’s not a factor of strength, it’s—

FOSTER: Well, in a strange way— I mean, y’know— Thank you for paying attention to all this, I never assume anybody will ever pay attention to all the details that keep me waking up in the middle of the night, y’know, and thinking, “I-I’ve got a great idea!” And I don’t need them to, y’know. It’s okay for it to be seamless, it’s okay for people to go, I liked it but I don’t know why. I think that’s good—

PRIDE: There’s a challenge—

FOSTER: I’m invested—

PRIDE: Yes, as a creative person you have to be invested for a year-and-a-half or two years… but that challenge you’re playing with, I think, is how is this film accessible to a reasonable -sized audience and what secondary details can it bear, not distract, but make it stronger for—

FOSTER: For other people, right. In my films, there really isn’t anything extraneous. There isn’t any extraneous line or detail, and if there is, it needs to be gone. And that’s why they last an hour and thirty minutes! [laughs] I don’t make two-hour long movies where there’s long things of looking at the buffalo. I don’t do that. That’s just not what I do. I like them. I like that kind of spare and disciplined storytelling. I like short stories. Beginning, middle and an end. Not a bunch of fat in between and having multiple layers of meaning dovetail on top of each other. Yeah. Some people don’t like that! I know that, I know that!

PRIDE: Are there any recent short stories you’ve admired?

FOSTER: I haven’t read any short stories I’ve liked in a really long time. I go back and read Carver all the time. That’s my favorite.

PRIDE: There’s all those moments with the delicacy and sorrow of something like Duane and Holly at the end of “Gazebo,” “Duane,” Holly goes. It’s a tapering off that suggests everything, everything that came before, and everything that is to come.

FOSTER: When we work hard as viewers, or as readers, we come to understand [the characters]. The funny thing is, they don’t understand themselves. They just are on the page. I think that’s true of this movie as well. It’s definitely true of Jennifer Lawrence’s character. What I loved about her, and we changed this a lot, it was not in the script, she’s beautiful, she’s valedictorian, she gets straight A’s, she’s all these things, and yet, she has no fucking clue about herself. She does not know. Anytime you ask her a question, she goes, I dunno. I think that unconsciousness, characters that don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and yet we watch their painful process on the screen.

PRIDE: We can call it process more than a “journey.”

FOSTER: Sometimes it’s about taste and what you know about the world. For example, I spent a lot of time— In movies you spend a lot of time defending to different people. Why did you do that? Why did you change this? Him punching his head in the wall

PRIDE: The first time you see it, it’s a gentle sight-gag, and later, it’s really at a big scale, somehow he’s banged his head enough that he’s made that hole through the shakes on the roof.

FOSTER: It’s not sweet, it’s just irreverent. We hate our parents so much we have to bang our heads against the wall. At the time, in the original script, he banged his head for a specific reason. When he banged his head, it was like right when he wrote in his journal, I’m having an issue… And you know what? [Foster sits up in her chair] When I bang my head against the wall, it’s BECAUSE I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE IT! That’s it! I had to continually explain that it was okay for him to have a primitive emotion and that, trust me, the audience is gonna understand that he has a primitive feeling that he doesn’t entirely understand. It’s so funny to have to spend time explaining that.

– 30 –

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon