By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 18, 2011 at 9:15AM
Jodie Foster had a problem. After completing production on her third feature film, The Beaver, her old pal Mel Gibson, who she had adored since they first worked together in 1994's Maverick, was in terrible trouble. At the end of reshoots on the film, she watched helplessly as he suffered through a career-destroying tabloid crisis of leaked phone tapes during his break-up battle with model Oksana Grigorieva.
"Through the end, the reshoot part of the film was the acme of his worst struggles," she said during our flip cam interview at SXSW (below). "It was hard for me to put my arms around someone who you care about and watch them go through that. I don't want to have my life or anybody's life that I care about dragged through the Internet. We all have struggles. His are not that unusual; they happen to have been publicized. The man that I know is amazingly talented, amazingly giving, and loyal to friends, and probably the most beloved person on any movie set I've ever met."
Foster hopes that people will be able to judge The Beaver on its own merits. After holding back the release for six months, Summit accepted SXSW's invitation to debut the film, which opens May 6. Foster worked six-day weeks on the Paris shoot of Roman Polanski's Carnage to finish in time to fly to Austin. (She still has to go back for the final days of shooting.) So far so good: the audience at SXSW responded enthusiastically Wednesday night.
The actor-director cast Gibson as depressed toy executive Walter, who relies on a puppet survival tool he has put on his hand called The Beaver, because she knew his dark side. "He brought so much pain to that character," she says. "He laid it all out there, and I will always be grateful for that. Maybe he was able to do that because he trusted me and knew I would never betray his trust. His personal life has nothing to do with what he does on screen, except that he brings the whole host of everything he has lived. His struggles are etched all over his face."
Another actor who brought pain to the film was Jennifer Lawrence, who Foster saw in Winter's Bone. The role of the high school valedictorian who looks perfect but hides a well of anguish was difficult to cast. Foster saw hundreds of girls. "Once I saw Jennifer, I said, 'she's the one' and rewrote the whole part for her." What is her special quality? "She has almost like a lifetime of pain-- that she's lived in another life-- that comes out through her face," Foster says. "Jennifer Lawrence is a fun-loving Kentucky laughing, joking girl. Yet she has this thing that comes out in her face--she just can't help it."
Foster says that making The Beaver, which she landed over many rival directors, has been the biggest struggle of her professional life. "I love this movie," she says. "It has a very odd tone. You have to prepare people that even though it's about a man who talks to a puppet, it is not a comedy. It moves into a dark and very emotional tale. It has a very European spirit, intellectual and emotional."
Foster reluctantly starred herself in the film--something she and Gibson have often commiserated about--as Walter's concerned wife. All in all the film is personal for her; she says the film tells her story too. "This obsessive ruminating quality is what makes for great art," she says. "You have to keep thinking about it over and over, refining what we do as actors. It is a depressive process. It's a spiritual crisis over and over again--that takes you to a more evolved place."
Foster, like James Franco and many other actor-turned-directors, has figured out that you can more freely express yourself as a director than as an actor--especially a mainstream commercial A-list star. Thus she has pursued a kind of split personality in her career, she says: "My films as a director are very different than my career as an actor. I've made some edgy, interesting films, mostly mainstream, a lot of genre films and thrillers. The nice thing about being a director... I can make the films that express me, they're very personal films. I am grateful somebody out there is willing to make them. I'll make them for whatever amount of money they're willing to give me."
One positive thing: The Beaver may have benefited from the extra time spent in the editing room. There's a reason rookie writer Kyle Kellin's script was on the Black List of best unproduced screenplays, says Foster: "It was a difficult, quirky interesting script, the tone was odd, it required a lot of massaging in post, and some reshoots."
The film's aesthetic is spare, controlled, disciplined. Foster says she adopted a European classic formal style for "a very American story." She used wide-screen anamorphic lenses to shoot two people on camera -- the puppet and Gibson: "I hope that my style never overwhelms the story," which "dictates the style of the film and doesn't get in the way of the actors. I know what it takes to make a drama."