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Becoming Jodie Foster

Becoming Jodie Foster

Articles - Cover Story

Clockwise from upper left: Foxes (1979); The Accused,
(1988); Carny (1980); Home for the Holidays, (1995); The Little
Girl Who Lives Down the Lane
, (1980); The Silence of the Lambs,
(1991); Candleshoe, (1977).

I met with Jodie
Foster at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch during the final days
of summer. The weather was cool and foggy in the City by the
Bay, but winding upthrough the rugged brown hills and deep valleys
of northern Marin County, it became more like my mood–hot and
bright. I was anxious to meet Jodie. She’s someone I felt I’d
grown up with; a film artist whose story, perhaps more than any
other’s, is woven into the cultural fabric of our time . She
was in northern California supervising the sound mix of her second
directoral effort, Home for the Holidays, and delighting in the
company of her new boxer puppy, Lucy. Over a lunch of salmon
and spinach salad we had the following discussion.

Tom Allen (TA): From the few segments I saw
in the sound mix, the movie looks great. No sophomore jinx for
you.

Jodie Foster (JF): The script was so there
for Home for the Holidays. It was written by W.D. Richter, who
is also a director you might know from Buckaroo Banzai. We called
up Holly Hunter to make sure she was aware that it was coming.
She read a first draft and said, "Okay, where do I sign?" It’s
just been charmed, I mean everything’s been charmed.

TA: Some see you as carrying the mantle for
serious films with female characters of substance. Do you feel
a responsibility to fill the void, given the obvious dearth of
good film roles for women?

JF: Well I think you should feel responsible
for it as a human being. I think in some ways the most joy that
you get out of the artistic process is believing that somehow you’re
getting better by doing it and that hopefully other people are
getting better by watching it. I don’t sit there and think, well,
will the audience learn something, or how can I proselytize. I
think you have to believe that every gesture is sincere, and that
finally that will translate into something real.

TA: It’s quality versus schlock, and there’s
so much schlock It’s exciting that you now have the ability and
opportunity to put up quality films in the coming years–

JF: –Well it’s a luxury, too, the position
I’m in, especially for women directors. It’s not lost on me that
I had to come up a different way. I didn’t come up being a director.
It’s probably the last truly disappointing place for women in the
film business now–directing. Things are changing everywhere else,
but it’s a sad fact that really nowhere at all are (women) being
given the opportunity.

TA: I think you’re considered to be one of
the more academic filmmakers working today in terms of background.
I’m wondering what importance you place on academia in one’s development
as an actor or a director.

JF: Well for me it’s just the place that I
spent the seminal years between 17 and 21. I could have spent them
in the Peace Corps, or I could have spent them, you know, doing
physical labor somewhere, meeting interesting people and somehow
finding my voice there. I don’t think one way is better than the
other. It’s just finding out what you care about. I don’t think
books themselves or any of those tests or the degree has anything
to do with that. It’s more about being in a situation with people
that challenge you, seeing things you might not have seen, learning
how to become independent of other voices and to feel what you
feel.

Home cooking: Anne Bancroft, Robert
Downey, Jr., Charles Durning, and Cynthia Stevenson.

TA: So it could have been any type of experience
in those formative years?

JF: Yeah. I tend to be very literary, to see
the world like a book report. I tend to order my thoughts that
way. Certainly the confidence-building of what a good education
can be, of what good debate can be, of what learning how to read
does, allows you to access the things that you need creatively
a little bit better. But I think more than anything else my experiences
as a person, and in some ways as an actor, have been the biggest
influence on my work. I don’t know how a director walks onto a
movie set never having been on one before, and simply says this
should happen this way and that should go there and this should
go here. I guess really what it takes is a personality that has
an incredibly strong ego. Because there is absolutely no way that
you can know. I was just very lucky to have been on movie sets
my entire life .

TA: I understand. I’m not necessarily a believer
myself in schooling as opposed to education because the intelligent
person gets education no matter what paths he walks down, and the
imbecile doesn’t get an education even in school.

JF: Yeah, that’s true. Boy, is that true.
In the end, I think the funny thing about my movies is that, for
all of my bilingual high schooling and Ivy League education, I
make movies–intelligent movies–that are anti-intellectual. All
of my intellectual processes have never brought me anything. They
can help me describe things, but they’re not experience. And experience
is vastly, magically, totally and completely more interesting and
more provocative. But structure is very important, a language of
that kind of left brain stuff is really important, and I think
that’s what’s valuable about having come through such a traditional,
structured, classic education.

TA: One of my favorite things to do is to
go back and reread a novel after many years or see a movie again
and laugh to myself at how much I missed the first time around.
And I’m wondering whether you do a similar thing, particularly
with your own films, like
Taxi Driver. I mean, here you
were playing Iris, you had your psychological screening and were
deemed fit
to handle the material. But certainly you had only the vaguest
idea, for example, of what Sport’s character was all about.

Producers’ pow-wow: Jodi with Peggy
Rajski on the Home for the Holidays set.

JF: Well, you know, shockingly, I don’t
think that’s true of me. Actually not at all. I had been an actor
for 10 years already. I mean my mom took me to see Mean Streets and
it was my favorite movie and I wanted to see it 20 times. I think
I’ve always been as aware of the emotional/psychological half of
the movies as the technique side. I’ve always been aware of the process
and I’ve always watched movies that way. It’s like listening to music
if you’re a musician. You listen to the parts. When you’re aware
and attuned to that, you do tend to listen that way, and I’ve always
seen movies that way. So, sure, at the time of making it I don’t
think any of us realized what a classic the film would become and
how important it was. But I think we knew we were doing something
really special. That was a turning point for me because it finally
clicked and I realized that it was a real art form and not just something
you did after school. I think I was really quite immature about a
lot of things, and I continue to be quite immature about a lot of
things (laughs). But about movies, and picking them apart, and saying
what works and why, and all of that–I think I’ve always been attuned
to that.

TA: You were given the whole script, not just
your little part?

JF: I started looking at the big picture relatively
early on, I think because of my mom. We spent a lot of time, because
I was the baby. She would take me to German films or French films
and then we’d talk about them later over Italian food. She’d say,
‘I liked this part’ and ‘what did you think about that?’ It seemed
that was our topic of conversation. That and politics. The other
kids in the same age bracket were wilder. I was more careful and
quiet. I was just much more amenable to that kind of stuff.

TA: What do you think about the relationship
of experience to acting?

With Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver (1976) .

JF: Well it depends what you mean by experience.
You have to have a basic understanding of–or at least a desire to
explore–the subjective experiences of other people. And you either
like that or you don’t. If you don’t, you shouldn’t become an actor.
You should go do something else, because it’s something the actor
should be doing 100% of the day. But I think direct experience, like
putting stones in your mouth so you’ll know what it feels like, is
just stupid. I think it’s a crutch. I don’t make movies unless I
have some sort of personal agenda with what the film’s about. Otherwise,
it won’t be very good. I won’t care. So in order for you to care
about something, I think you have to have some burning questions.
Usually for me as an actor it’s not about the life I’ve led, it’s
about the life I didn’t live; that I may not have been brave enough
to live. In some ways I can experience that through the film. Directing
is a totally different ball of wax. The movies I direct are literally,
completely personal, totally me. They’re my sense of humor, my voice,
what I believe, what I’ve lived. They’re about expressing my side,
not wondering who I might have been.

TA: You described Silence of the Lambs in
a
Rolling Stone interview as having a progressive, politically
correct subtext…

JF: I said that? I used those words?

TA: They put quotes around them.

JF: Uh-oh.

TA: And you’ve said you don’t do a film unless
you have an agenda with it. Is that a major consideration for you
in choosing a film? That it’s politically correct?

JF: I wouldn’t use that expression. I must
have meant that the film was progressive, using the hero as somebody
who wants to save people, who has that traditional hero/quest thing,
only it’s a woman.

TA: Christopher Vogler, a man I’m working
with, wrote an outstanding book about mythic structure in storytelling
and screenwriting. He’s reintroducing the whole concept of mythical
structure, which I know you’re interested in.

JF: You may not find much of the mythical
element applied to women in classic literature, but you definitely
don’t find it in cinema. There have been so few instances I can
think of where a classic hero myth is applied to a woman. So for
this reason I thought the point of view of the film, the way it
talked about violence, was really correct.

TA: Is that what drew you to the project?

JF: Well I certainly didn’t want to make a
movie about a serial killer. Much the opposite. I wanted to make
a movie that talked about random violence. Silence allows you with
a non-judmental look to see the reasons why people turn to violence
and torture, why they need to control and overpower their environment.
Although at the same time, Silence is not violent. There is, I
guess, one scene with a flayed body, but that’s it. There isn’t
a bit of violence in the entire movie. I love the film. It’s as
close to a perfect movie as I’ve seen in a long time.

TA: I liked the contradictions. Hannibal Lecter
as perfect gentleman!

JF: I just kind of loved this idea of somebody
who is sent on the Oedipal mission having to resolve the question
of her own shame. I think it’s very beautiful that this woman is
in some ways completely ashamed of being common and not being strong
enough–kind of not measuring up. Yet her quest in life is to save
these completely mediocre, marginalized women. Saving them and
in some ways respecting them in ways that she hadn’t before. I
think it’s such a strong film. I know Rolling Stone as a journal
took a very critical view. I think it was the one bad review.

TA: How literally can one read an actor’s
political or religious beliefs based on the roles they take?

JF: First of all, you’re not the director,
so the only thing you can really be responsible for is your own
character. It’s not your picture, and you have to embrace that
as an actor or you’re really screwed. You have to serve the vision
of the director. If you don’t like his vision then you shouldn’t
be making the movie. So as an actor, it’s not my responsibility
what the movie’s about, but that’s why I’m so picky. It’s just
too big a thing to be on a movie for a year, have it shown everywhere
in the world, have it show up on HBO and Showtime and everything
else just to make a decision like, "Oh yeah, it’s kind of
cute. Yeah, sure, whatever, I’ll do it." It’s just too big
a thing. That’s why in some ways Maverick was such a Godsend for
me. I got hired a week before because another actress left, and
it was just like a dream come true. The script was great, the actors
were fantastic, and I just wound up learning so much from them.
Comedy has such a different objective. The only question you need
to ask yourself is, does it have a spark? You don’t have to worry
about things like does it make sense, or will it cut together.
Technique in comedy is just pointless; structure is pointless.
Structure kills comedy, actually. Any sort of linear thinking really
kills comedy; it has to be circular or it’s just not funny.

TA: Do you think any intelligent, energetic
person can direct a movie?

JF: Intelligent, energetic. I don’t know that
those would be the two adjectives that I would use.

TA: Personable, interactive, you tell me.
Because it’s a great mystery to a lot of our readers, just who
gets to direct.

JF: It’s like a first novel. I mean I think
everybody has a first novel in them, although not everybody will
approach it. It could be a J.D. Salinger novel or it could be a
(Gabriel) Garcia Marquez novel, I mean, there are a lot of different
approaches. Everybody can be a director. You find that whatever
issues you have in your own life you bring to the set as a leader.
Whatever you’re afraid of, or that you can’t do or that you’re
intractable about, you will bring to the set. So it really helps
to know what your problems are before you come to the movie set.
And certain personalities are more suited to being a leader of
a group of people. You have to be sensitive and interested and
fascinated and allow people to fly. Otherwise you break their spirit
and then they won’t go for anything. So it’s like good management.
A good parent wants to protect her children and make sure they’re
on the right path, but still kind of allow them to fly out.

TA: Can you comment on the sorts of qualities
you think are important in achieving success in the business?

JF: There are a lot of different ways of succeeding
in the business. You certainly don’t ever have to open up your
own company. That is not necessary. It just happens to be something
that was more appropriate to me and to my personality, especially
as a director. Because I have to be ready to think and ready to
make choices at all times. I don’t know that there’s just one way
of doing any of it. I’m simply not happy just acting. I have to
feel like I’m a complete part of the creative process. My choices
are for pleasure and happiness, so the only advice I give is if
something doesn’t feel right to you, and you’re doing it, why are
you doing it?

TA: In reading your past interviews, I noticed
that you appreciate what being happy and upbeat can do for your
own performance in making a movie.

JF: Yeah, it makes you more open. It makes
you feel safe.

TA: How can independent filmmakers go about
creating that kind of atmosphere?

JF: Once again, everybody has their own way.
I will not start shooting or even think about shooting until I
have a blueprint, a screenplay, that I feel comfortable with. Everything
comes out of that. With studio movies there are sometimes 60 pages
missing and you start shooting in two weeks! So five writers are
brought in, you don’t have a crew or locations, it’s a mess. So
no one can do more than their job; they can only maybe squeeze
their job in. Filmmaking should be fun, and the only way to assure
that is that everything you can possibly prepare is prepared. Then
you have time for the stuff that you can’t prepare. If it’s a bad
weather day, or you lose a location, or you realize after rehearsal
that the scene doesn’t work, you’re not completely thrown. So many
studio movies these days are made for release dates. A spec script
gets bought and in a week they have a release date. It’s a summer
film and we just need two stars. So they go through their list
of 10 approved people, and if one person says yes, it’s a green
light. So now you have a summer movie. You don’t have a script
but you have a release date. It’s just insane. I won’t–I refuse
to make movies that way.

TA: Which do you find most personally hallenging:
acting or directing?

JF: They challenge me in totally different
ways. I would say acting is more challenging because I don’t have
an actor’s personality. I’m not one of those people who sing and
dance, and I’m not like a bucket of tears kind of person. Acting
takes a kind of energy out of you that no one can really understand.
No matter what your problems are as a director, at least you have
some sort of intellectual preparation for handling it. But as an
actor, when he yells "action," you either do it or you
don’t, and there’s nothing you can do to make it good if it’s not.
So it’s the anxiety that’s harder.

TA: Right, because the director has things
to do–a certain number of tasks to accomplish–whereas with the
actor it’s much more nebulous.

JF: Performance is really hard. It’s a skill-less
skill. If you could at least say I’ve got my toolbox, I’ve got
my screwdriver, I have my stuff on–but in performance you have
no tools whatsoever. For me, even though I enjoy it because it
challenges me in ways that I need to be challenged, it’s just not
a natural fit with my personality. I’m just not that exterior.
I think what it does is make my acting style very different from
most people. I have a wheel-spinning style as opposed to a more
visceral style.

TA: There’s a lot of violence in the films
that you’re in. A lot of man-on-woman violence. Rape as a theme,
as subtext. When
Nell walks into that bar, I feel like I’m
being transported to
The Accused again.

JF: That’s good. You had the right reaction.
I think it’s real important to go and see the reality of our vulnerability
and our precariousness on screen. You know, if it was Charlie–Cliff
Robertson–walking into that bar, you wouldn’t have thought anything.
The truth is that a good percentage of women’s history is about
being victimized, and we shouldn’t forget that. It’s not like you
sweep it under the rug and say it never happened. If I was a black
actor, what if I said I’d only play doctors and lawyers? I mean,
that’s ridiculous. There’s a whole history of minority psychology,
of racial psychology that’s a part of black culture. Are you just
gonna erase that and act like it’s not true? While you’re erasing
that you’re erasing your grandparents’ lives, everything that formed
your consciousness. So we could have made Nell never come into
the real world and portrayed her as Bambi, but the truth is you
can’t live like that in the real world.

TA: I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that
you’re a Wim Wenders fan. (JF laughs, nods). Why is it that not
everyone in America knows who Wenders is? What does that say about
the American audience?

JF: I think that as world markets become more
global, the countries that have the most money and master one thing
will be able to monopolize whatever that is. Federal Express is
really good and it’s global, so what are the chances that there’ll
be a Pakistani Fed Ex? It’s not gonna happen! Because English-language
movies have performed, and have perfected performance globally,
they’ll only dominate further.

TA: So it’s not a reflection of the American
audience’s sensibility, but rather market factors, that keeps them
from appreciating someone like Wenders?

JF: We have our own version of independent
films. We have our own series of art movies that don’t do well.
So my idea about independents and keeping the independent film
business alive is by tailoring budgets and being responsible. And
you should be able to make The American Friend or Drugstore
Cowboy
.
There’s no downside, really, if you can make them appropriate to
their budget levels. You have to be able to be conservative.

TA: So do you consider yourself to be an independent
filmmaker?

JF: Yeah I do, despite the fact that both
of our films are distributed by major studios, and chances are
a lot of our movies will be distributed by the majors. It’s the
act of making a film that you want to keep independent. I’m not
sure people really want to become independent producers. You know?
Nobody really wants to go through that! They’d love to have a studio
distribute the movies as long as they didn’t hear from the studio,
and as long as the studio had no script approval or cast approval
or budget approval. So I think the idea is to make crossover films
that can have a wider distribution and benefit from what major
distributors can give you: more theaters, more P & A, better
opening weekends, all that stuff. I’m talking about material that
lives in the independent world in its inception, but that can cross
over into more of a mainstream audience.

TA: Would you like to say anything else
about
Home for the Holidays or independent film?

JF: I really love this film. It’s about Thanksgiving,
and it’s just been one of the most provocative experiences of my
life. And to make it the way we made it–entirely without any meddling–was
a joy. People leave you alone when you deliver them things that
they want.

TA: So all is well with that famous contract
you signed with Polygram? What number film is this?

JF: All that was about was a business plan
that allows for them to put a sum of money in escrow so that I
never have to ask for it. So it’s just sitting there waiting for
me to spend it. But the plan was way too ambitious. We just wanted
to make sure money was put aside. So I’m perfectly happy–perfectly
happy–having made the two movies we’ve made in three years, and
I can’t imagine having done more because chances are one of them
would have been bad.

TA: I can’t wait to see it. I’ve written a
lot about the state of motion pictures and feel a responsibility,
discussing moviemaking for the whole world.

JF: Well there’s just too much product. If
there’s one complaint I have about the studio end of the industry
is that there’s so much pressure now to put out so many movies.
They just want to get release dates. It’s disrespectful to the
art form, I think. And it is hard to make a good movie. It’s not
just hard, it’s nearly impossible–a feat that you bleed for and
that you die for. And that’s the way movies should be made. You
may still say "I didn’t communicate what I wanted to communicate," or "my
movie’s just not that great. I wish it was, but it’s not." But
at least you die trying." MM

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