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Jodie Foster Hands it to “The Beaver”

Jodie Foster Hands it to “The Beaver” (photo)

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The movie Jodie Foster described to me as the “biggest challenge” of her professional career started with another movie, 1994’s “Maverick.” That’s where she met, co-starred and became friends with Mel Gibson. Funny to think that such a lighthearted film about con men and women in the Old West could ultimately lead to such a dark film like “The Beaver,” which is about similarly deceptive characters who build defense mechanisms to hide who they really are.

One of those characters is Walter Black, played by Gibson. For reasons that are never fully made clear, Walter is suffering from a major case of depression. To help him cope with the world, Walter begins speaking through a ratty beaver puppet he finds one night in a liquor store dumpster. Letting The Beaver make his decisions reaps immediate dividends for Walter’s professional and private lives. But once The Beaver gets control of Walter, he doesn’t want to give it up, as Walter’s wife Meredith, played by Foster herself, soon realizes.

Even before the allegations of abuse and the release of angry phone calls between Gibson and his girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, “The Beaver” wasn’t a project with a lot of easy fixes. For several years, its screenplay by Kyle Killen was considered the best unproduced — and maybe unproduceable — script in Hollywood. The film is funny at times, but it’s also a very honest look at a family in crisis and the legacies of pain and mental illness that fathers pass down to their sons, from Walter’s suicidal father to him to his own son Porter (Anton Yelchin), who worries that he’s too much like his crazy dad. “It was hard getting the tone right,” Foster told me. “And hard to love something that’s emerging but isn’t quite there yet, and no one else gets it.”

Then Gibson’s problems went public, and Foster faced more challenges. After several delays, “The Beaver” finally opens this Friday. The end result is a personal film with a truly impressive performance from Gibson. Given its uncommercial subject matter and unconventional approach, you might even call it the work of a maverick director.

Here’s my conversation with Foster about directing a puppet, what she considers most overlooked movie of her career, and why she chose to use clips from “Kung Fu” — a show she appeared on as a kid — in “The Beaver.”

How long has it been since you finished the film?

It’s usually a year between the time you finish and when you release. It’s just kind of the way it works. Between post, getting the music together, maybe going to a festival, waiting for the right time to come out, it’s usually a year. It was going to be a little less than a year from when we finished to our first release date. And from our first release date to the one now is about seven months.

In that time, did you go back in and change anything about the film? Or was there any outside pressure to change anything?

We did do reshoots, but that was before any change of date. After that, no, no changes at all. I mean, yeah, there were changes because that’s what you do. But there wasn’t any…

“You have to go back and change this!”

No, nothing like that.

Do you like directing yourself?

I’d rather not. I’d rather just direct. It’s much more pleasant and it’s a lot more joyful. You’re able to enjoy the process of directing a lot more, instead of coming in at five in the morning, two hours before you need to be on set so you can go into makeup and hair. You’re always being dragged out from behind the camera to do other things. It’s much nicer not to have to do both.

How about directing actors who are also directors themselves, like Mel?

That’s the easiest. They are the easiest people in the world to direct because they understand filmmaking. They know where you’re headed and how to serve you. And because they make their own movies they don’t feel the frustration of not creating their own voice. So they really get that it’s the director’s movie and they’re there to serve you.

You’ve worked with so many amazing directors. When you’re directing, do you ever think “I’m gonna do this the way Spike Lee did it,” or “I’m gonna make sure I don’t play this the way so-and-so would have done it?”

I never start out by saying I want to make a movie that looks like this. What I do use are movie references, as a quick way to let people know what I’m talking about. “You know in that movie where this happened?” or “You know that shot that they used in ‘Philadelphia’ where they do this and that at the same time?” It’s just a language to help people know what you’re looking for in a film. Because I’m an actor and I didn’t come up as a director of photography or an editor, my first question is an actor’s question: is it true or not true? That’s always going to be the first thing that I ask.

I was really interested in the way you visually approached the scenes with the Beaver. Where we see him in the frame, where he is in space compared to Mel, whether he or Mel is in focus when he’s talking. What was your strategy for shooting him?

We made a big bold choice up front to use anamorphic lenses. That gives you the wide frame and also that beautiful depth of field that allows you keep one person at the edge of the frame out of focus and one person at the center of the frame is in focus, which you can’t do with regular lenses. There is a real formality to that, a real prosaic quality to it. It’s very European, which I love. But it also allowed us to help the audience focus on who we’re trying to get them to focus on.

It’s got to be tough too, because you want to give Mel the freedom to do what he wants with the puppet, but where the Beaver is onscreen in relation to Mel tells us so much about their relationship. At first they appear mostly side-by-side as equals. Later in the film as The Beaver begins to exert more control over Walter, particularly in the big dinner scene between him and Meredith, the Beaver actually appears in front of Mel’s face, completely obscuring him.

Yeah. I let most of that happen organically. But when I noticed it and it was working, I was like “Do that again!” And Mel, you mentioned that one moment in the dinner scene where he starts his speech and his face is obscured, and then by the end of the speech his face appears. And, yeah… that’s why you work with an actor/director. He did that himself. And it was great. And he knew exactly where the camera was going to land and he knew when the cut was going to happen.

At the end of the film, one of the characters talks about the fact that for some people pain might just be in their DNA. I know someone else wrote this script, and that it’s just a character speaking in a movie, but I wonder if that’s something you personally believe.


That’s Porter’s big question in the film. What if pain is just in our DNA? What if tragedy is our birthright? And then his next question is: what if, in the spur of the moment, shit just happens? What if things are predestined and there’s nothing you can do? I thought those were really interesting questions. We do know that depression has a real genetic predisposition and follows families. You have a very high chance of experiencing severe depression if someone in your family has had severe depression.

I saw the film for the second time last night. And one thing I noticed this time was not one but two appearances by the TV show “Kung Fu.”

[laughs] Yeah.

Was that in the script? Because I know you were actually on “Kung Fu.”

I was on “Kung Fu.”



I was watching a clip of it last night on YouTube. You were playing the mandolin.

Yeah. In the original script, it was an episode of “Growing Pains.” And it was some episode where Kirk Cameron says “Oh Dad, I love you!” or something. And we looked at the episode but it just wasn’t good visually, it didn’t really tell us anything we wanted and, I don’t know, the mood was wrong. And so I said, “Okay, what ’70s television show can we find? There’s got to be one that has a father and son component to it.” And we went through every show from that time period. And then I said, “What about ‘Kung Fu?'” I was on the show and I remembered the whole thing with the bald guy and this and that. We knew we wanted it to play twice, once for the father and once for the son, to try to show that idea that they are experiencing the same thing.

Speaking of changing things, I read in the press notes that when you cast Jennifer Lawrence as Porter’s love interest that you rewrote the character. But you didn’t specify what exactly changed.

In the finished movie she is a valedictorian, a cheerleader, and she’s beautiful. Three things already that are fantastic and she’s very lucky to have. But in the original script she was also amazingly insightful, understood everything about herself, was fully versed in psychobabble, and did a lot of confessing about her true motivations about why she felt the things that she felt. And I realized that there was something unreal about that character and in a way almost annoying, because she was so self-knowledgeable that I just didn’t buy it for an eighteen-year-old. I felt like it was much more interesting to see the smartest girl you ever met who’s just completely dumb about herself and has no self-knowledge whatsoever, which is not unusual at eighteen.

Her issues had to feed into the larger issues in the movie and this idea of grief and shame and how when you go through a crisis, spiritual or otherwise, you have two options: you can face it head-on or you can pretend it didn’t happen and go play volleyball. The person who faces it head-on has all the possibilities of evolving through it, and the person who runs and plays volleyball never will. They’ll just come and revisit it, over and over.

How do you respond to the people who see the movie and want to read Mel’s private life onto the film?

Well, it’s human nature.

I mean on the one hand, the script was written years ago, you shot it before all of that became public. On the other hand, there are some really obvious parallels.

He’s a man who really understands struggle from a very deep, painful place. It’s why he was interested in the movie in the first place and it’s why he brings such a raw and incredibly soulful performance. You don’t find that performance if you don’t understand that experience. So yeah, I understand it. And I think that it does give you an answer to the very trivializing and superficial reading of Mel Gibson that people who don’t know him have. This film in some ways is a much deeper look at a complex man.

So I don’t know. Does any of what’s happened, having private conversations splashed all over YouTube help the film? No! [laughs] Not in any way! It doesn’t help anyone. However, I do think that there’s something on the audience’s side to really learn about Mel that they can’t know any other way than seeing this film. And on his side there’s something very cathartic about inhabiting a character who struggles with something unsurvivable and emerges.

Last question. Besides your appearance on “Kung Fu,” is there a film or a project from your career that you think deserves a second consideration?

I feel like one movie I made that I really believed in that for whatever reason people didn’t respond to was “The Brave One.” I think that is an extraordinary movie. I feel like it took me to such a different place in my life and I never would have gotten there any other way. But, y’know, it’s not for everybody.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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