Spring 2016

The Honest Truth

In her 50-year career as an actor, Jodie Foster has learned a few things about leadership. As the director of three features, episodic TV, and the upcoming Money Monster, she doesn’t tell cast and crew what they want to hear—she tells them the truth.

Photographed by Joe Pugliese

Not many filmmakers get the chance to grow up in the movie business. But having been a working actor since the age of 3, Jodie Foster spent much of the next 50 years on all manner of film and television sets, educating herself in the nuts and bolts of directing by watching masters like Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and David Fincher at work. For Foster, that was her film school.

She thinks of her first three small-scale, ensemble-driven movies—Little Man Tate (1991), Home for the Holidays (1995), and The Beaver (2011)—as reflections of different stages of her life. "They’re personal to me, almost like a trilogy, really."

For her latest film, Money Monster, a big-budget thriller about the financial world starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, she has assigned herself a new challenge. "Can you make a genre movie that’s smart, sophisticated, relevant, meaningful, and personal?"

In early March, Foster, who takes pride in turning in her films early and under budget, was still in the Money Monster cutting room, attending to what she called "the dribs and drabs of the last notes from the studio. We were supposed to lock the picture weeks ago," she says. "But now we’re fixing the things we want to fix, then waiting [to hear back]. Then there’ll be that lovely last-minute fighting."

The process has given her a new appreciation for how the Guild protects a director’s creative rights. "It’s really important," says Foster. "It reminds people in this business that the foundation of movies is the director’s vision and that the director’s vision is paramount. I feel like the bigger the movie, the easier it is for people to forget that and try to trounce on [those rights]. And even if you don’t invoke your DGA manual in the editing process, it’s there as a backdrop, and that’s terribly important in order to safeguard the vision and status of the director."

MARGY ROCHLIN: Do you remember the first time you thought, ‘I want to be a director’?

JODIE FOSTER: I was 6 or 7 and doing a television show called The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. I came to work one day and [series star] Bill Bixby was directing. I don’t know why it didn’t compute, but I just didn’t know that actors were allowed to direct. My mind was completely blown. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do someday.’

Q: Did you have any inkling of how a girl might grow up to be a director??

A: There really weren’t any women directors. But I didn’t think becoming a director was possible anyway. My mom told me that you had to be a writer to be a director. Obviously, I’d act as long as I could because that’s what I’d always done. But everyone kept telling me that my acting career would be over by the time I was 18. So I thought I’d become a writer so I could go on and direct.

Q: What was the first thing you directed?

A: I was about 13 and doing Freaky Friday, and the BBC did a documentary on me. They said, ‘Since you say you want to direct, we’re going to give you a crew and you can direct a short.’ So I wrote this little thing. I don’t think there was any sound, no dialogue. Just different hands—then it ends up with an old person and a baby. It was called ‘The Hands of Time,’ and they played it during the documentary. It wasn’t that clever. [Laughs.] But it was really well shot. I had a great crew.

Q: Even as a young teenager, what made sense to you about directing?

A: I’d been on movie sets since I was 3. There were things that were second nature. [I understood] rhythm and why a scene cuts together, things that are natural to you when you’re an actor—like knowing what the intention of the scene is.

Expanding: Foster went from working with a small intimate cast on her first film, Little Man Tate (top), to Home for the Holidays (bottom), which often had 10 people in a scene. (Photos: Photofest)

Q: Your first feature, Little Man Tate, was the story of a child prodigy and his relationship with his mother. Was that something you developed for yourself to direct?

A: No, I was sent [the script] as an actor. I said, ‘I’m remotely interested in being the mother in the movie. But, honestly, what I’d like to do is direct it.’ Then the film went into turnaround. So I said, ‘If I can get this movie set up with me directing and acting in it, would you accept this as my first movie?’ And the producer, Scott Rudin, said, ‘OK.’

Q: You were 27. How did you know you were ready?

A: One of the most important things as a director is to not have an unhealthy ego, but a strong ego, and the ability to say, ‘My opinion matters. The way I see it is the way it should be.’ Part of what you’re given as an actor—and it’s also part of the directing process—is ridiculous confidence. The transition from actor to director is a really smooth one. You and the camera operator are the only people who are ever actually in the scene, who know why a scene works and why it doesn’t.

"I always say that a good director is being a fully realized parent: You respect the person in front of you. You’re the person who gives them structure and tells them what you expect from them."

∼ Jodie Foster

Q: Do you remember day one?

A: [Laughs.] Everything went wrong. We were supposed to be shooting outside and Tate is drawing on the ground [amid] a sea of children. What a bad idea for a first-time director on the first day! A sea of children all outside, playing. It started raining. So we had to go inside and shoot the interior sequences and try to make the day. It was, like, 100 degrees in Cincinnati, there was no air conditioning. I had to change into [wardrobe] in the bathroom. I’d said that I didn’t want to act on the first day of shooting. But I think I was in the first shot.

Q: You’ve said that the best lesson you learned on Little Man Tate was to be less controlling with the actors. Can you explain?

A:The beauty of a first-time director, and I’ve made a lot of movies with them, is that they don’t always understand why they make the choices that they do—it’s instinctive. The bummer is that you get a lot of fear. People do very different things when they’re afraid, like dig in their heels over something tiny that doesn’t need defending.

Acting was something I knew. I knew exactly how I’d do it, what I was looking for. I thought directing was about extracting that from the actor. I didn’t do that so much with the kids—I knew there were areas where I could control them and areas where they’d just bring me what they’d bring me. But every time I see Dianne Wiest, I apologize. I feel so guilty. She was so great, so patient. My heart was in the right place, but I was afraid. And my way of having control was controlling the actors.

Q: What methods might you use today to get a performance out of an actor who, for example, is having trouble with a scene?

A: Now I think I might err in the opposite direction. [Instead of trying to control an actor], what I like to do is prep with them so much that they really know what I’m looking for, where I’m heading. We have lots of conversations ahead of time about the filmmaking and why we’re using the shots we’re using so they can really collaborate with the camera. I like to be so well prepped that when I say, ‘Action,’ things go fast [snaps her fingers several times]. We barely do more than three takes before moving on. There’s a kind of rhythm and spontaneity that you get from that. The actors aren’t able to think too hard, and having to move on to the next thing gives you a kind of energy that you don’t get any other way.

Q: Was it difficult directing yourself in Little Man Tate?

A: No, actually I got the performance that I wanted. What I didn’t get was an unexpected performance.

Q: Meaning?

A: What I love about directing actors is the collaboration: You tell them something, and then they come up with something else you hadn’t anticipated. I’m like a border collie. I sort of shepherd them, keep them in the moment, make it spontaneous enough, and, hopefully, the film captures these incredible things that they’re doing. When you’re [directing] yourself, all you get is what you planned.

Q: Most scenes in Tate involved two or three actors. How did your style of directing change for Home for the Holidays, a comedy-drama about a large family celebrating Thanksgiving?

A: You’ve got 10 actors in every scene practically, and they’re all different types of people. Charles Durning doesn’t work the same as [Robert] Downey [Jr.] or Anne Bancroft. Anne Bancroft had figured out everything before she got there. She figured out when she takes out her handkerchief and when she puts her hand to her ear. And she liked to stick to that. Sometimes it’d feel a bit manufactured, so I’d pull the rug out from under her. I’d be like, ‘No you can’t take your shirt off there.’ And she’d say, ‘When should I do it?’ And I’d say, ‘I’m not going to tell you.’ Then she’d say, ‘You have to have an idea about when you’d like it,’ and I’d be like, ‘Nope, I’m not going to tell you,’ just to make her a little bit unstable.

"Part of what you’re given as an actor—and it’s also part of the directing process—is ridiculous confidence. The transition from actor to director is a really smooth one."

∼ Jodie Foster

Q: Many key roles in your films are filled by young actors—Adam Hann-Byrd in Little Man Tate or Jennifer Lawrence, then 19, in The Beaver. What’s your approach to working with them?

A: With kids, I like being really clear, telling them what I’m hoping for in a language that they understand. I show them respect. I remember as a young actor being annoyed by people trying to manipulate me. Telling me, ‘Your puppy’s dead,’ or ‘Think about your mother’ or trying to get in my head instead of saying, ‘I’d like it faster or slower’ or ‘Can you just look him in the eye? Don’t look down.’ I liked those directions because it meant that the acting was my job. I always say that a good director is being a fully realized parent: You respect the person in front of you. You’re the person who gives them structure and tells them what you expect from them. But you’re also the one who says, ‘I love and appreciate you so much. Just show me stuff. Even if it’s bad. I don’t care. I just want you to be free to find your own way.’ It’s sort of that interesting combination between both sides of being a parent—the freedom and the structure.

Q: Did this style evolve on its own, or did you pick it up from how directors treated you when you were growing up?

A: When I was a kid, of course, you make those mistakes that kids do. You’re unconscious, you don’t think about other actors or you were drunk the night before and you come in and barely know your lines or whatever. [So] I was 22 and in Spain making Siesta, and Mary Lambert, also a good friend of mine and the only female director that I’ve ever worked with, sat me down and said, ‘This isn’t how it rolls. You’re not measuring up today.’ You know, I’m a good student. I’m all into the teacher. It was shocking to me that somebody sat me down like a good mom and said, ‘The way you acted today is not OK. It wasn’t respectful to the other actors or to the crew. It cost us.’

Q: What had you done?

A: Who knows? I’m sure even Mary won’t remember. But to me, it was life-changing. See, when I was growing up my mom was with me on movie sets. There was lots of, ‘Hang up your clothes when you finish your day’s work.’ ‘Write thank-you notes.’ ’Always try the director’s way first, then you can tell him why you think it doesn’t work.’ Just the etiquette of collaboration. Those years were also like a course in ethics and how to become a leader.

Q: So, what kind of leader are you?

A: I think I’m really honest. I’m a good communicator. I respect the actor’s boundaries. By boundaries, I mean I don’t try to get inside their experience and be like, ‘Let’s cry together,’ or ‘Let me tell you about when I was 3.’ I stay outside their process and try to help them the way an editor would.

Q: Your first three films were small domestic dramas. How different was it to direct Money Monster, a big-budget, mainstream thriller?

A: Well, the budget was bigger, but in terms of what we had to get on screen and the ambitions of the movie, I’d say it’s the most underfunded of any movie that I’ve made. If you’re trying to make a movie where there are [television] monitors in every scene, you’re on the streets of New York City with a thousand extras, and you’re going to South Africa, Korea, and Iceland, having 48 days as opposed to having 46 days isn’t really living it up. This felt like a guerrilla war.

Q: How did you plan for that? Is it about staffing the crew with people you’ve worked with in the past?

A: I don’t have that ‘I need to have my family around me; that’s more important than anything.’ If there’s somebody more right for the project, then I choose them. With this film, every single department required [people with] a lot of experience. I [hire] people because they’re amazing technicians, not because they’re my buddies.

Q: You’ve worked with a different cinematographer on each of your films. What do you look for from a DP?

A: The cinematography is such an intangible for many of us. It’s the one job we can’t go, ‘Oh, I know what he’s doing!’ You don’t actually. You can’t break out that light meter or know how the lab is going to go. A DP brings so much of himself to the process. Though [my earlier films] may all seem like personal movies, they were very different genres. I feel like there’s a DP for every movie that I make.

"I don’t try to get inside [an actor’s] experience and be like, ‘Let’s cry together,’ or ‘Let me tell you about when I was 3.’ I stay outside their process and try to help them the way an editor would."

∼ Jodie Foster

Q: What did you want Matthew Libatique to bring to Money Monster?

A: I’d done Inside Man, so I knew him from that. He brought so much to this film that I’ve never done before. It’s a movie that’s got lots of cops, helicopters, bomb squads, all that kind of stuff. I think he brings a’ real masculinity to the movie, a smooth, purposeful, confident approach. That exists within me, too. It’s not like it’s some sort of foreign body. But I was looking for that kind of partnership with somebody who came from that world.

Q: Your 1st AD on Money Monster was the legendary Joe Reidy. Can you talk about working with him?

A:I often refer to him as ‘the love of my life.’ I say, ‘The love of my life, Joe Reidy.’ My whole life I’ve wanted to work with him. [Money Monster] was a really tough one. We didn’t have the money we should have had to do this right. That was by choice: The studio said, ‘The good news is that we’re giving you a whole bunch of freedom. The bad news is you’re not going to have as much money as you need.’ The brain trust is Matty, Dianne Dreyer, the script supervisor, and Joe (and, of course, the production designer, Kevin Thompson). On a daily level when you’re in production, it’s those three people. And there isn’t one aspect of filmmaking that I don’t run by Joe. He’s my 1st AD, he’s the guy I’m making the movie with.

Q: Give an example of a typical conversation.

A: It’s everything from the nature of the crowds, to me saying to him, ‘I know I’m going to be panning left to right and I want a piece of action that happens in that corner because that will create a good cut that goes from this section to that section.’ Or I’ll talk to him about cutting patterns, like, ‘Do you think if there’s nobody on that sidewalk and then when we come back 10 minutes later there’s a whole bunch of people, will it cut together?’ So much of that happens in prep.

Q: How much?

A: We had to make editing decisions ahead of time, before we even shot the movie, about where we’d be editorially at any given moment. So basically the entire movie happened in prep. And me and Joe, we’re the directors of prep. So those prep days are about figuring out everything that’s going to happen every step of the way. Once you get into production, it’s a machine that we’ve created and people both follow and add to that road map. They say things like, ‘Wait. If he has the bomb vest on, then he won’t be able to put on the jacket,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, write that down.’ People bring their vocabulary to it. But basically it’s up to us—actually, it’s up to Joe—to hold all of that in his head. And it’s up to me which parts I can keep in my head and which parts I have to download onto him.

Q: In Money Monster, Clooney plays an investment advisor, Lee Gates, who is taping his TV show when a viewer who lost his life savings based on his tips bursts in and threatens to kill him on air. Julia Roberts is the show’s producer mediating from the control room. What kind of logistical problems did this create?

A: The mind-numbing jigsaw puzzle of this movie had to do with the control room and [what’s being shown on] all the TV monitors. The film happens in real time and there are different places we go to around the world. Each one of those places is experiencing this [hostage crisis] at the same time. There are different people from around the world watching this same event.

But don’t forget that as [the hostage crisis unfolds] on the Money Monster stage, there are four cameras that are [filming] it—a tall jib camera, one that’s for close-ups, one for the profile two-shot, and one that’s a wide shot. Those four [angles] play simultaneously with no cuts [in the control room]. You can’t cheat that. If we’re looking over [Julia’s] shoulder, we’re going to see those camera angles playing simultaneously [on the monitors], and every movement has to match. Maybe on a Spielberg movie, they’d just do everything green screen and be like, ‘We’ll fill in every screen later and we’ll worry about it later.’ If you have all the money in the world, you can defer all those decisions. But we didn’t.

Jigsaw Puzzle:  George Clooney (top) and Julia Roberts (bottom) were together on the set of Money Monster for only two days, creating all sorts of logistical challenges for Foster. (Photos: Atsushi Nishimima/CTMG, Inc.)

Q: So you had to shoot all the scenes with Clooney and the captor first so Roberts would have something to react to in the control room?

A: Yes. Now the thing that the audience will never understand is that these things aren’t happening simultaneously. Julia Roberts was only on the movie for eight days, and she was in the same room with George for only two days. Other than that, she wasn’t anywhere near him. So especially with the control room we had to ask ourselves the question, ‘Where will [the camera] be?’ Will we be on Julia’s face when she hears that line? If she responds to Lee, then she has to be watching the playback and it has to happen exactly in sync.

Q: How have you seen the job of directing change over the past 50 years?

A: In the ’70s, when I came up, there was a different respect for directors and a different amount of money at risk. The industry of filmmaking has really magnified its presence in the creative process. The business of making mainstream movies, the exigencies of releasing on 3,500 screens and testing and going with the ending that [test audiences] voted on, all that stuff is much more profound now than it ever was.

Q: As an actor, you’ve worked with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Spike Lee to Claude Chabrol. Whom have you borrowed from?

A: Everyone. But the two directors that I learned the most from—and I’m not anything like them on set—are David Fincher and Neil Jordan. They’re polar opposites. Fincher is legendary: 110 takes, always prepared, has an opinion about everything, knows every single person’s job better than they could. He’s hands-down the greatest technician I’ve ever met. Everything’s controlled. I work really well in that system. I get it and I get his joy in it. It’s not how I am. But I’ve really learned so much about filmmaking from him.

Neil Jordan, he’s more of stream-of-consciousness. He’s very well prepared about the characters, but he doesn’t really know what he’s going to do until he gets there. He lets the room, the scene, and the feeling kind of tell him—and he comes up with absolutely authentic choices that are so creative and kind of off-the-wall. And that’s what gives his movies this sort of eerie, unconscious feeling. I’m not like that, either. But I’ve learned that sometimes I have to try to not control everything and come up with things instinctually, at the moment. If you trust that you’ve been around a long time, you’ve made a lot of movies, and that you’re inspired, you’ll find inspiration. You don’t have to rely on something you planned at home with your computer.

Q: Do you ever call up other directors and ask technical questions?

A: All the time. I call Jonathan Demme all the time. Like, he just did a movie with TriStar, so I asked him, ‘What do you think of this executive?’ and ‘How did that go?’ But usually I’ll ask advice like, ‘You’ve worked with this editor. What do you think of him?’

Ups and Downs:  Foster is philosophical about The Beaver, which got a limited release because of Mel Gibson’s well-publicized legal problems. (Photos: Summit Entertainment) 

Q: In your career, you’ve had some notable disappointments, ones that were not of your own making. Let’s talk about The Beaver, a film that was done no favors by Mel Gibson’s widely known personal and legal problems.

A: It was really hard. I think you learn over the years that the reward of making movies is making a movie. It exists on a DVD. I can look at it and say, ‘This is the movie I was hoping to make,’ and that’s 10 points for me. I couldn’t be happier about that. I felt supported by [the distributor] Summit, by the producers. But the movie got a short, uninspired release. It was the best [Summit] could do under the circumstances. I think the worth of the movie doesn’t depend on how many people got to see it. I’ve made enough movies that no one got to see or barely came out. That’s fine. But it was sad for everyone—and it was sad for Mel, too.

Q: Who gets the opportunity to direct is a growing topic in the industry. What would you like to add to this conversation?

A: Everybody is talking about diversity, diversity, diversity. It’s the frozen yogurt of words these days—it’s everywhere. It’s an interesting time for me, [having learned] to be a director from all these guys, who are really father figures in some ways. I really was a prodigal daughter and it’s hard for me sometimes—I never want to come out and condemn the movie business, because it’s been so supportive of me.

Q: Still, research has shown that more diversity on a set makes for a better atmosphere.

A: I made movies in the old days where there were no women. I remember being surrounded by a bunch of guys in a small town like Kanab, Utah, or wherever, and the culture was different. There were lots of guys running around and looking at the girls in town. It was crass. It didn’t feel like real life. I think those men were in pain a little bit. They left their kids and wives at home to be away at boys’ camp. When women started coming into the picture, when a set became more diverse, it felt like it got healthier. People didn’t feel so lonely, desperate, so cut off.

Q: Are you satisfied with how the conversation is going overall?

A: I do think the polemic of diversity right now is being handled with a lead pipe. It’s talked about in a way that’s not complex— and it’s a very complex issue. It’s not black and white. It’s not a conspiracy to keep women down. It’s a psychology of risk aversion. Women are question marks to the studios The indie world is changing, television is changing, but if you talk about mainstream Hollywood, they’re still looking at a question mark. [So] it’s not some kind of war. It’s people trying to figure out, imperfectly, how to change a culture that has been one way for a really long time.

In terms of this movie, though, Sony was on our ass about diversity from day one. They were like, ‘Look: We want you to make your own movie. We just also want to tell you that there are other options, ones that we’re really open to, and here’s all the people we love.’ And those lists, they were the most diverse lists I’ve ever seen.

"In the ’70s, when I came up, there was a different respect for directors and a different amount of money at risk. The industry of filmmaking has really magnified its presence in the creative process."

∼ Jodie Foster

Q: Do you think your way of working is different from a man’s?

A: It’s been very interesting, especially on this movie, really seeing that my leadership style is often confusing to people.

Q: In what way?

A: I think that people expect to be lied to. I think they’re not put off, but destabilized, by honesty. I think that’s definitely true in the world of mainstream studio movies. I think there’s a lot of power struggle and I think they’re used to people manipulating to get what they want. And I just don’t. I’m not going to go, ‘I’m just going to tell her this, but the truth is I’m going to do this.’ It’s never going to be my way.

But also, most people, including me— again, I’ve only worked with one woman director—have never worked with a woman in such a super-strong leadership position, [one in charge of] the vision of the film from beginning to end. I think that people know how to deal with bullies. And they know how to deal with people who are emotional, cry, or aren’t secure in their thoughts. But they don’t know how to deal with people who don’t do those things. And I’m not one or the other. I am 100 percent not a bully ever and 100 percent not somebody who falls to the ground and says my tummy hurts.

Q: What do you do when you ask a crew member to do something and they don’t do it?

A: I don’t know. I’ve never had that experience.

Q: Everyone always does exactly what you ask?

A: Yes. But very often there will be a scenario where [someone] comes back and it’s not what I asked for. In that case I’ll say, ‘Let me ask you a question: Did you have trouble with what I asked you for?’ And maybe they might say, ’You know, with digital cameras, when you put mirrors on the other side, they kick highlights,’ and then I say, ‘I didn’t know that. I’m going to live with the highlights.’ What I’m trying to say is that you’re working with 175 people that are all coming together to try to serve one vision— hopefully yours. And when I encounter communication problems, I usually get in there and communicate. I go, ‘What’s going on? I don’t understand.’ And very often you find out that it’s not what it seems. You’re going to encounter all sorts of dysfunctional personality stuff and it’s your job not to defend, but to connect.

Keeping Her Cool:  Foster, with Taylor Schilling, contributed to setting the tone for Orange Is the New Black. (Photo: Jessica Miglio/Netflix)

Q: Lately you’ve directed episodes of Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. Did you enjoy the episodic experience?

A: I have to say that that’s where narrative is now. We all know that, right? The schism that’s being created between mainstream movies, big event release movies, the franchises and all that, is making for some amazing stuff to happen on television. Opportunities that you’d never have in features anymore. It makes television an exciting place to be. [Orange Is the New Black] has that sensibility that I love and appreciate— that dramedy sensibility—and to be able to come in early on and at least help a little bit to establish a tone, that was exciting to me. I’d like to be involved with new shows of my own. I have a couple of things I’ve been working on. I love collaborating with a creator. And I love working with somebody to help them get their vision. I’d love to be an exec producer. I like the collaboration. Some people from features have a hard time collaborating with a creator. But I was an actor for I don’t know how many years, and I know how to work with a director. I know how to say, ‘Let me help you get what you’re looking for. I have the language. You’ve told me what your tone is and what you’re hoping for. Let me show you how I can help you get there.’

Q: Looking back on your career, do you wish more of your time had been spent directing?

A: Part of me is ashamed that I didn’t direct more. How come I’ve only directed four movies? I had the opportunities. But I had a big career as an actor and I also raised my two sons. There was never a doctor’s appointment that I didn’t go to or a pair of shoes that someone else bought them. I’m really glad I went to every school play. And I’d never take any of that back.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

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