Director Jodie Foster premiered her drama The Beaver last month at the Austin film festival SXSW. Mel Gibson stars as a depressed family man who uses a beaver hand puppet to improve his life. Though I thought the whole talking-hand-puppet shtick was silly and just too much for the under-developed emotional plot elements, Foster did a more than competent job directing and co-starring in the film. She took some time to sit down at a round table interview during the festival to discuss the film.
Q: Does the trailer do service to the film? It seems to impress on the lighter, more comedic aspects of the film.
I’m not in the business of making trailers. In all fairness, it’s a difficult movie to describe. I don’t really think that there’s a lot of movies you can compare it to. It has a very unique tone to it; it has an odd tone to it, a quirky tone to it. I think it’s been quite a challenge for them to tell the people what it is. I mean, it does have a lightness to it, it does have a quirkiness to it. It also has a family drama aspect to it. It has larger, philosophical emotional stuff. Maybe it’s just the weight of it that’s different in the trailer.
Q: Would you be comfortable describing it as a whimsical drama?
Sure. I’d be happy if you described it as a drama with whimsy, that would be fine to. I think that it mirrors his state of mind, and his state of mind in the beginning is, as the beaver narrates – as the beaver has sort of taken over his life in some ways already from the beginning. You notice we don’t see the story of his life before his troubles.
We don’t see him at Disneyland with his kids. We don’t see happier times. He is already ensconced in this world where he is asleep and this other character, this survival tone, has taken over. The beaver has taken over at arm’s length. He is somebody who speaks at arm’s length and speaks in the third person, and can only describe Walter’s life. He doesn’t describe it in an emotional way. He describes it in a very objective way.
So, the beginning of the film is informed by who the beaver is in that way, that witty language. He’s the ‘facts man’ kind of thing, and little by little we’re let into his life. We see the more objective sides of his life. We see him more objectively. But little by little, the drama starts taking over as Walter starts having issues with the beaver taking over his life as well. And the of course, it descends.
Q: Was framing shots with the beaver obstructing Mel’s face, which is counter-intuitive to stage, something you wanted to subvert?
Yeah. That was something we did on purpose. Sometimes it would just happen in rehearsals and I’d say, ‘make sure you get it right in front of your face.’ I think especially the scenes that in some ways could have played incredibly sentimental. The scene where the little boy is just saying, ‘why aren’t you coming with us? I don’t want you to leave me,’ and he puts his arms around him and the little boy says, ‘I love you, daddy.’ The beaver says, ‘I love you, too,’ and it completely obscures Mel’s face. In a way, I feel especially comfortable with the scene now that the beaver has obscured his face.
Q: Can you talk about the importance of the beaver’s voice? It almost sounds like it could be Michael Caine’s.
It’s a little different because he has a lot more liveliness and he’s not quite as slow as Michael Caine. But yeah, he’s his survival tool. He’s the thing you use as a coping mechanism, and at some point the coping mechanism is killing you; the survival tool is killing you and you have to get rid of the survival tool so that you can grow and evolve into something else outside of this spiritual crisis.
Q: Your character designs roller coasters in the film. Was that intended to mirror what she’s going through in her family life? The writer said you brought that idea to the film.
Yes, as films do, you start shaping things and making them more precise and making them more specific. As soon as you bring on an actor, there are certain things that they are and certain things that they aren’t, and certain attributes that they bring to the character. I wasn’t as warm to the idea of her being kind of a stay at home mom that didn’t do anything. The few other ideas that we came up with didn’t really inform the character part of the plot, and didn’t inform that growth. So we were really looking for something that told us a lot about her and then told us also, in some ways, where the film was headed that would pay off in the end.
Q: Why does the theme of loneliness attract you?
I feel like this film is very much in keeping with what I do as a director. I make personal movies that are about people who are in significant spiritual crises and how they evolve through those crises. Do they become hopefully more whole? So things that are perceived as a handicap become strengths. That seems to be what I do.
Loneliness is a big feature of all of my movies. I’m sure it’s my way of communicating my life and who I am. The films that I do as an actor are an exploration of a character that I’m not, a character that has nothing to do with me in some ways. That’s who I might have been, had this other thing happened to me. It’s a completely opposite agenda, totally opposite obsession and interest.
Q: You’ve said that getting the tone right was difficult. Was there a specific scene that you felt was the toughest one from the tone standpoint?
Well, there were scenes that we took out that are fantastic, that will find themselves on the DVD, that are crazy odd. One of the scenes that I really feel it was a shame to have to take out, because I really feel it was important for the character. There was a scene with Cherry Jones’ character when [Walter’s] finally realizing that his life is falling apart. He sort of taunts her and says, ‘go ahead, try and take it off.’
And she accepts the challenge and she struggles and tries to take it off. Even though it is played for drama, and even though he is quite gruff and suffering, it’s a really hard to play that scene not comedy. It just came at an awkward time in the movie where I just did not want that kind of comedy, I did not want the audience laughing, and it pulled the film off into the wrong direction. It’s too bad because it’s a great scene. I wish it could have come earlier. I wish I could have figured out a way for it to come earlier, but I couldn’t come up with it.
Q: Would you talk about the idea of using a puppet as a coping mechanism?
Well, this is not an accepted methodology, I can tell you that. [laughing] This is a fable, but not so far off. I mean, children, they use puppets all the time. So for anybody under 10 years old, it’s almost the number one way of treatment for young children is to try and get them to talk about themselves is to separate them out into a secondary character and get them to talk through the character. For adults, I don’t know.
Maybe this will be the new therapy. I think the idea was, if you want to live you do whatever it takes. If it’s a funny red nose, if it’s walking backwards, you do whatever it takes when you want to live. And he, the character in the movie, felt like he had two choices: he had a life sentence and he had a death sentence. Somewhere in between he found this way of bifurcating his personality and being able to use this puppet as a survival tool.
That concludes the interview but we’d like to thank Jodie very much for talking with us.