It feels like we've been practically stalking director/actress Jodie Foster, whose latest film, the comedic drama, "The Beaver" hits theaters today (May 6) in select cities. We've spoken to the actress in Austin, Texas at SXSW, in L.A. for recent press rounds and heard her speak at various screenings in New York (at the Film Society of Lincoln Center) and Austin. Each time she has illuminated her intentions and reiterated the same sentiment: "The Beaver," which stars current persona non-grata Mel Gibson, has been a tricky film, not only to market -- due to Gibson's infamous personal exploits last year -- but a challenge to get the tone right.
While sometimes marketed as a comedy, that's not quite right. It's also not just a dark drama, though there are several elements of those kinds of dour tenors. The picture is an emotional story about troubled husband and executive (Gibson) who adopts a beaver hand-puppet as his sole means of communicating. Plagued by his own demons, Walter Black was once a successful toy executive and family man who now suffers from depression. No matter what he tries, Walter can't seem to get himself back on track...until a beaver hand puppet enters his life.
Written by Kyle Killen and ranked high on the 2008 Blacklist, the picture also co-stars up and comers Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence as Gibson's equally troubled son and his emotionally damaged friend, respectively. It's essentially a story about a man who has to rediscover his family, himself and try to re-start his life, and it contains both a light touch, a restrained hand and some dark, raw moments. As mentioned we spoke to or heard from Foster several times over the last few months as well as sitting down with Yelchin.
Below are several things we learned in talking to and listening to the filmmakers, including Foster's own question, and one she's not sure she herself can answer: can audiences separate Mel Gibson the actor from Mel Gibson the person and put aside what they know about his unfortunate personal life and turn out for the film?
Jodie Foster says she learned what not to do from a certain actor/director she worked with who you might remember from "Easy Rider," "Blue Velvet," "Speed" and "Hoosiers"
Foster said she didn't have any problem directing Mel Gibson. Not only have the two have been close friends for years but Gibson’s experience as an actor/director presumably helped him understand what it’s like being on both sides of the camera on the same film. She did however mention learning "what not to do" from working with another unnamed actor/director when she spoke at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. A quick scan of her IMDB page reveals only a few candidates but one film stands out as being the most likely. The 1990 action thriller “Catchfire” stars Foster alongside Dennis Hopper who also directed. The original running time on the film was 3 hours while the version released was a brief 90 minutes. Hopper disowned the film before its release and the troubled production is actually credited to pseudonym Alan Smithee but it’s not hard to imagine there being some friction on the set there, or believe this isn't the filmmaker that Foster was referring to.
Foster doesn’t care about the box office.
“The Beaver” is only Foster’s third film as a director and as far out as the concept may seem, it’s clearly a personal film for her. When asked how she felt about Gibson’s personal life affecting ‘Beaver’’s box office, she said she was "happy just to be able to make the film I wanted to make, the way it was in my head," and she honestly didn’t care about how much the film ends up grossing.
Mel Gibson's infamous for being a practical joker on set (many of them recounted in this excellent article). Foster, who met and befriended Gibson on the set of Richard Donner's "Maverick" in 1994 says the main impetus for Gibson's pranks is boredom.
"Sometimes I think his practical jokes are because he's so bored and those movies take so long that you just have to do something to occupy yourself,' she said defending Gibson's antics. "And I know that feeling. He's antsy, he's an antsy guy and sometimes, you know, 'Maverick' was like a 110 day shoot. That's a long shoot. That's six months of your life and do you have to do something to entertain yourself."
Though on paper, "The Beaver" was more comedic with an absurd high-concept premise, Foster always saw it as something rather serious.
"I always saw the drama in it and I always saw it as a drama. I always so touched by the end, by where it was heading, the relationship between the father and the son. That's how I saw it. So I had to work backwards from there. Like, 'how can i build it to this melancholy, kind of bittersweet essay about family?' It can't just be like, 'Beaver puppet, ha ha ha!' and then drop off and become a drama, you have to kind of build it down from there."
And she admits she’s wont to do this and is self-deprecating about her weaknesses as a director.
"Sometime I tell people that I can take an incredibly funny script and I can beat the funny right out of it," she said, only half-joking.
She also had to occasionally reign in Mel Gibson with the funny and had to drop a few scenes that were too comedic for the film's tone (they will be on the DVD though, she assures us).
"Yeah, I had to pull him back," Foster said, because Gibson was so good with comedy. "There was a lot of pulling back, but his original instincts for the character were a little darker than some people had anticipated so I wasn't worried that he was going to go off on some incredibly broad way. There were moments when he didn't want to resist the temptation to go to the comedy because there were amazingly funny situations, it's hard not to go to comedy when [as a character] you're punching yourself, but I was absolutely adamant [in that scene] that it should be played serious."
The Mel Gibson-factor. Can audiences enjoy him as an artist and put his very-public 2010 controversies behind him?
"I don't know what to say to people," she admitted. "I mean, it's a question, can you put aside the private things that you know about him because they've been exploited on the Internet? Can you put that aside when you're watching an artist? I don't know the answer. That's a good question."
Anton Yelchin was more direct defending Gibson and stating that it would be a shame if audiences didn't connect to the film because of the actor's problems.
"I think it's a pity that Mel had to go through all this because I think his performance in the film is so great and I think it really would be a shame if people could not overcome however they feel about his personal life and see his performance for what it really is, just a really, great performance," Yelchin said. "It's so touching and honest. It's such a difficult role and a vulnerable piece of work and I think it's great. An actors job is to act and not live out their personal lives for millions of people, it's just to go to set and give great performances. I think it's a pity. Whatever people think about him, at the end of the day it's not any of our business. When a person's live becomes a performance it's irrelevant to the performance onscreen, some people forget that. That's just how I feel about all this stuff that's around the movie, it's a shame."
Interestingly enough, when asked about the difficulties Summit Entertainment faced in marketing the film because of Mel Gibson's public problems, a publicist jumped in midway through and said, "I feel like we've touched on this subject a lot, so let's move on" and steered the conversation elsewhere before Anton Yelchin could answer.
Foster says "The Beaver" is not a mainstream film; is more akin to an intellectual art film from Europe
"I don't know how to balance art and commerce, I really don't know. A film like this is not a mainstream movie, it's not intended for all mainstream audiences," she said."I do think it has a bit more European feeling to it, the music is European, the guy who shot it is European, there's a formality to it. Even though it's an impassioned film that talks about suffering and all of that it has a very intellectual approach and there's lots of people that don't like that so that's what's nice about making an independent movie, it allows you to talk in a different way. It doesn't have to appeal to every single person in life." -- Additional reporting by Leah Zak, Drew Taylor and Cory Everett.
"The Beaver" in is limited release (20 screens) today May, 6. You can read our review here.