Jodie Foster again delves into crisis of spirit with 'Beaver'
Twenty years have passed since Jodie Foster directed her first feature film, but she still finds herself wrestling with the same theme from her 1991 debut, "Little Man Tate." How do people respond when faced with a spiritual crisis?
"I feel like I've had a series of them in my life, and they are what have propelled me forward and have allowed me to hopefully evolve to become a more well-adjusted person … to continually have to say, `I want to live. How do I live? Because I'm dying,' " Foster said while in Austin in March for the world premiere of her latest, "The Beaver."
"Tate" told the story of a 7-year-old boy going through his own spiritual crisis. Stigmatized with the label of "child genius," Fred Tate battled the idea that he must choose between his head and his heart. Eventually, the prodigy (and audience) realizes the fallacy of the dualistic approach and finds a more nuanced understanding of himself and his place in the world.
"`The Beaver' in some ways is an extension of that," Foster said. "A man who struggles with the belief that he must choose between a life sentence and a death sentence. And he doesn't want either one. He doesn't want to be asleep for the rest of his life, and he doesn't want to throw himself off a building."
Fittingly (ironically?), in "The Beaver," the chin-deep-in-crisis Mel Gibson plays the conflicted character in question, Walter Black. Foster, a staunch supporter of Gibson during his domestic problems that pushed the movie's opening date, says she was blessed to get the performance she received from Gibson.
Black, a married father of two, has hit the bottom of a two-year-long depression that has left him essentially mute, isolated from his family and unable to face the truth of his own existence. After a failed suicide attempt, Walter experiences a breakthrough that results in his communicating with everyone around him via a hand-puppet beaver.
The first couple of acts of the movie feature a near-manic Black giddily acclimating his family and employees to his new furry proxy. The film plays to big laughs early, but as the movie progresses, it becomes evident that Black's struggle is much more tragic than comic. Foster realized early on that balancing the dual tones of the movie would be a challenge, both for her and the audience.
"I felt like it was a very difficult task," Foster said of the tonal shifts. "It does require the audience to do some jumping. You have to be OK about jumping from a light-hearted film to a very, very, very dramatic movie, and to be OK that those two things exist in the same film and to be OK about the fact that the film is as highly intellectual as it is emotional. … I know how the first two acts play. It's the third act that's really the tricky one."
Her prolific career on screen dates back to the 1960s, so you could be forgiven for thinking Foster has a long history of directing, as well. The actress, who spent much of the first decade of her career on television before a role in "Taxi Driver" catapulted her to greater fame, just seems like the serious type of artist who would have eventually found a home behind the camera. But "The Beaver" marks only the third time Foster has helmed a feature film.
"I never stopped wanting to direct," Foster said of a directorial hiatus that stretched 15 years. "It's hard getting movies off the ground. I had a lot of obstacles: I had two kids; I had a company that I ran and a big career as an actress. Somehow I kept getting pulled away to do other things, and I didn't find anything that really, really spoke of me in an incredibly personal way."
The script by Austinite Kyle Killen sparked Foster's ongoing intellectual curiosity about the ways in which we come to understand and improve ourselves. "The Beaver" presents a series of lonely characters, none more so than Gibson's Black, but suggests that sometimes the best path through a spiritual crisis is one best not walked alone.
"In some ways," Foster said, "connection is what saves us all."